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Suddenly Human

By Steve Darlington

In which the author asks why the NPC always gets the shaft

"Before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes. Then, when you criticise them, you'll be a mile away, and you'll have their shoes."

There are a great many RPG articles out there which talk about killing the PCs: why, when and how to do it so as to produce the best story for the characters and the best game for the players. Strangely, there are very few articles which address these issues for the matter of killing NPCs.

No, that's not entirely true. There are actually plenty of articles on this. They look at when and how and why the GM should let NPCs bite the big one, be they fodder or major campaign villains. And again, the idea is to answer these questions to produce the best story for the characters and the best game for the players.

But there's a very big difference between the two outlooks generally offered in these articles. GMs are told never to kill characters lightly. They're warned that players put a lot of emotional involvement in the design and play of their characters and as a result, killing them should be a major event in the game, and treated as such. On the other hand, GMs are warned not to get too attached to their NPCs, even though they probably also spent a long time creating them. It's important to make sure they go down when they should. Sure, the villains' death should be a major part of the game, but as for the rest, they should pile up as and when it is needed, without complaint or fudging.

I've never once seen an article suggest that the death of an NPC is something which should also not be taken lightly.

OK, sure, most of the time, there's some logic to this. The characters are the protagonists, after all. They do things to people more than they have things done to them. In most cases, if the villain has as much screen time as the PCs in an RPG, the players are going to complain that the GM is showboating. So since the characters are the dramatic focus, the death scene of an NPC can never really be as dramatically important as the death of the characters.

The problem with this, however, is that it leads to a slippery slope. Once you start saying that their deaths aren't dramatically important, then these NPCs tend to get killed very easily, because there is no use wasting time on them. The more dull the villain, the easier they go down. The easier they go down, the less the players care about killing them. And the less the players care, the less dramatically important any more such fights will be. And so it spirals down and down until players will just go around killing everything without even noticing what they're hacking to pieces except when it happens to put up more of a fight. Suddenly, dragons aren't interesting villains because they are powerful, intelligent, enigmatic creatures, but because they have 200 hit points. They may in fact be intelligent and enigmatic, but that's only because, with 200 hit points, they demand more attention. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.

Worst of all, this careless attitude tends to spill over into places where it doesn't belong. If you can go to the dungeon and not give a damn dramatically about killing anything in there except if it happens to fight back, then that logic starts to apply outside the dungeon. Goblins can be killed without dramatic impact because they have low hitpoints, innocent little girl who just happens to be in our way ALSO has low hitpoints... even a dedicated non-gamist roleplayer can't help but make the link.

Of course, many gamers don't succumb to this, and there are plenty of RPGs where casual slaughter is part and parcel with the setting, so the attitude of casual death makes sense. But if you are playing in a world anything like our own, where any death is an event which is very real, very scary and has grave consequences - and thus is very dramatic - it's a bloody good idea to make sure death is a lot more interesting. It's very much in your interest to go out of your way to give death those consequences and thus that drama. To make the players care about it. If you don't, your game will inevitably end up just like those where the body count is trivial.

So how do you do this? How do you make death ring true? The key, as I see it, is to stop dividing the world into NPCs and PCs, particularly in terms of death. Players should take the same attitude to GM characters as the GM does to theirs: NPCs should never be killed except when it is really important for the story, and this should never be done lightly. In short, every enemy they face should be considered to be a PC, or at least a potential PC.

Sound crazy? Let me give you an example from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (warning, spoilers here). Any fan of Buffy knows that the ultimate moment in the entire show was the climax of series two - the final showdown between Buffy and the now-evil Angel. What made this battle ten times more interesting than any other series' climaxes in the show's history was that here, Buffy wasn't fighting the Master, or the Mayor, she was fighting her boyfriend, a character we knew and loved, someone on her side - a PC, not an NPC. True, while evil he wasn't his old self, but it felt the same: he was an NPC that felt like a PC, and that made all the difference.

And when he finally died back in PC form, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

That's an extreme example, obviously. You can't go around turning your PCs into villainous NPCs in every single game. But the principle here applies to everything. A good villain is one which we know and love, or at least respect or admire. For a story to be interesting, the audience has to have some reason to want the bad guy to stick around, otherwise the hero's victory seems hollow. Often, this reason is simply because we enjoy hating him, but the best villains of all are the ones with feelings we can sympathise with or recognise, who have depth and character like the heroes, characters who have had a lot of time and emotion invested in them. Just like PCs.

Treating your major villains like PCs is a great idea, but it doesn't stop there. If you're trying to keep things real, and make death scary, then every character should at least come close to feeling like a PC. Otherwise, their life and death will just be scenery. Which is fine if that's what you need, but if you want dramatic deaths, they must be dramatic characters, not just in how they are written, but how they are played and thought of by the entire group.

Now, all you GMs out there are going "well, der" right now. But I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to the players. If you're any sort of good player, you probably know that, in most cases, you don't screw with your other players' characters. There is a layer of respect, because they are something your friend is using to enjoy the game, and if you interfere with that, you interfere with your friend's enjoyment. So, in general, you don't steal from their character or abuse them or trick them, you never attack them or leave them to die or suffer, and you never, ever kill them. Unless you agree beforehand that such things are dramatically appropriate.

So here's my point - why not apply the same logic to the GM's characters?

Obviously this doesn't stand up when the GM is clearly lining up orcs like lambs to the slaughter. But in realistic campaigns, or for any character who's role is in any way more important than being casually slaughtered, why not apply the same standard? It's a character, it's a person in the story. Why does it deserve any less respect because the GM is controlling it?

This is particularly important when it comes to friends and allies. We all know how often the NPC is sent to scout round the corner rather than a PC. If you want to be moved by his death, you can't do that. If you use him as the canary, nobody will be in the least bit surprised when he dies. Treat your allies like PCs, and suddenly you'll find yourself caring about them. And here's the thing - caring about things is what makes for good characters and good stories. You'll be automatically giving the GM more power to weave better stories for you, about you, and your NPC friends. Now, if he does die (or is robbed, tortured or any other way hurt), you'll feel almost as equally shocked and sympathetic as when your friend loses her character (or has them suffer). And that emotional connection is what makes a good game.

Strangely enough, the same rules apply to villains as well. If you attach the same importance to a villain as you do your fellow party members, you'll see him as a much more dramatically important figure, which will again give your GM more power to impress you with the story because you'll find it more interesting. And again, just as you feel affronted when one of your friends loses a character, you'll feel almost as equally moved when that villain goes down. Your feeling of triumph will be tinged with sadness and horror, and that's a good thing.

It's not an easy habit to break, but it can be done. Just think of the GM as a player, not as a GM, so when he presents a character, think to yourself that he's a player presenting his favourite character, that has survived countless campaigns. Don't do anything to any NPC that you wouldn't do to your fellow PCs (or ideally, to another human being). Repeat this to yourself in your head if need be, or write it down or whatever, as long as you keep in the front of your mind that this NPC is really just someone else's PC. Once you get used to it, of course, it will come naturally and won't seemed forced; characters will just naturally be more important to you.

The GM can help, of course. If you treat your characters like PCs, investing time and emotion into their design and valuing their life, your players will hopefully pick up on it. The more you run adventures which show the humanity of the other characters, including the villains, the more they'll see those other dimensions. Cut-scenes and background info are another good way to give these insights.

A more drastic move is to make the players see themselves as NPCs on occasion. Run a game where they play some Stormtroopers chasing down some Rebel scum. For extra effect, play this just after they were playing at being the Rebels; or follow up a game of Orcworld with one of D&D, or vice versa. A group who've just had a great time pretending to be strong, noble Orcs are going to think twice when next they go into dungeon, swords drawn. Is this ridding the world of evil, or just another ethnic cleansing? Or, if the D&D game came first, the orcs will know for sure they have something to fear from these fascists executioners when they see the humans coming down into their lair.

Especially cruel GMs could mix and match within campaigns. Imagine a player's face when he takes a look at the evil creature he's just slain, only to realise it is his own character in another game! You could even, if you planned it well and kept them in the dark cleverly, run players through the same adventure twice, first as the heroes, and then as the "villains", so that their own actions are now working against them, although this would break a continuous storyline. Finally, there's plenty of fun to be had with possessions or mind swaps - while the PC's minds are inhabiting these other entities' bodies (because of the magic curse/biological mishap), they're being chased by themselves, or their best friends, who don't know it's them. Again, a clever GM could keep things in the dark until it's far too late: by the time they realise who's chasing them, they've killed their entire unit.

You can also use such intertwinings to provide background elements to your campaign - if the character is an orphan, roleplay out a game where the PCs are hunting down his parents - or flesh out NPCs to be more like PCs. Remember the X-Files episode where we got to see inside the life and history of the Cigarette Smoking Man? Not only did this show us what it was like to be on the other side and thus bring home the humanity of Mulder's enemies, and not only did it explain more about Mulder's background and the world around him, it also gave us a better understanding of, and even sympathy for, this chief villain, and thus made him a far more interesting character. Go, and do likewise, in your RPGs.

However, there is one problem with this. As soon as you start using these ideas to turn NPCs into PCs, the players will have a question to ask themselves: if everyone out there is to be treated like a PC, how can we just go around killing them? We could very well be killing our own characters, or someone else's character, or someone just like them. We'd be killing someone real. We'd be killing a person.

In many - in fact, most - games out there, such thoughts would almost certainly destroy the game, because they just don't fit the adventure milieu. But I'm of the opinion that there are too many such games, and too damn few games where life is precious, death brings consequences and those questions above can and should be always at the forefront of every player's mind. We just don't play them enough, because we think we can't. But the only reason we can't is that we simply don't think the right way.

We all know RPGs can emulate far more than combat adventures, but as long as we keep thinking that NPC bad guys can be killed with impunity, while PCs cannot, they'll always end up in this mould, no matter how nice and story-oriented our mechanics and settings are. Once this paradigm is set, once NPCs are seen as "lower lifeforms", casual slaughter, on some level, is inevitable. Of course, I'm not saying this is a bad mould to be in, just that there are other moulds to try, and we should never limit ourselves.

RPGs should be able to encompass a whole range of stories. So challenge your assumptions. Try new things. In your next game, whether GM or player, try seeing the world as filled entirely with PCs, and see where this takes you. It may work for you, it may not, but at least you'll have gone somewhere new. And isn't that what RPGs are all about?

Steve Darlington is the editor of this fanzine.

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