Saturday, April 5, 2014

Player Smackdown NPCs

I knew I had this somewhere - I bleeped out the emails (they're dead anyway), but I always liked this concept for describing NPCs in a game setting. I didn't fix my 14-year old typos and spelling errors and weird grammar, though.

If you're wondering, the characters I mention are from The Forgotten Realms, the Marvel Super Heroes RPG (and some from the comics - Doctor Doom, for one), the Vlad Taltos books, and my own campaign (which may have been under discussion, I don't remember). This was part of a discussion with Montejon Smith on the old SJG newsgroups.

I still think it is true, at its core.


Subject: Player Smackdown NPCs
From: (Peter Dell'Orto)
Date: 2 Oct 2000 17:51:52 GMT
Newsgroups: sjgames.roleplaying

On Sun, 1 Oct 2000 12:55:24 -0700, "Montejon Smith, KE"
> Peter Dell'Orto wrote ...
> > Many games/game worlds, the Forgotten Realms especially, have "Player
> > Smackdown" NPCs - the guys who can kill you dead no matter how many HP
> > have or how tough you are or wether you have that +5 sword or not.
> >
> > Hey, my PCs are not the most powerful people in the world - some
> and
> > some non-villians qualify - but there isn't anyone in the world there
> to
> > keep them in line.
> Yeah. I like that term.
> It's a symptom of the older, adversarial mindset of GM-ing.

I agree. Note my second thought - any NPC more powerful than the PCs does not
automatically qualify - even unbeatable ones. It depends what they are used
for. In the Forgotten Realms, 1st edition, they clearly stated that Elminster
and Khelben Blackstaff Arunsun and I think Myrune Wands should be kept at
least 10 levels about the highest level PCs. They introduced the Grey Squad
(or Squad Grey?) in City System to smack down PCs or threats that PCs couldn't
handle*. Mario is not a GM Smackdown NPC - he's a legendary figure but he
doesn't show up as a Deus Ex Machina to solve problems for Vlad or to keep
Vlad in line. Doom? No, he gets defeated every time he does something - he
makes himself Omniscient and Omnipotent and gets defeated. Even Galactus
loses, Eternity and the rest of the Marvel Gods get smacked around by Thanatos
before he loses due to his own flaws (revealed by his conflict with the
heroes). Actually, I'd argue that most GM Smackdown NPCs are usually Good

I don't think books have too many GM Smackdown NPCs - some do, though, but
I'll refrain from bringing up the ones I think had them - nor do comics. But
games do have GM Smackdown NPCs. In 1st edition MSH, they had an adventure
where Thor would fly by and untie the PCs, Smash the Robot and Point Out the
Flaw, Buy the PCs Lunch, whatever was needed if things were not going right.
Thor is not a GM Smackdown NPC in the comics - he's a character. But once you
turn him into a tool for a GM to make the plot work if the PCs can't hack it,
or to keep the PCs from straying from the GM's vision of the game, he becomes
a GM Smackdown NPC. If you are playing a game in Draegara and Vlad shows up to
save the PCs or beats up the PCs if they do something the GM doesn't like,
he's become a GM Smackdown NPC.

For game examples, FR's Blackstaff is one, but my hideously powerful Joachim
Xavian wasn't - he was there as a Patron, occasional Starter of Quests, and if
need be he could be used as an Enemy or Ally once they game progressed closer
to his level of power. I needed a powerful wizard for my various plots and
campaign vision, and I even used him as a lifesaving encounter for the PCs
once, but his main role was to provide the PCs with the reasons and
capabilities to adventure. Even using the Forgotten Realms, I didn't have the
adversarial mindset that said "The PCs can't majorly change the world, and
there will also need to be an NPC to stop them from robbing Innkeepers and
acting like bullies." It's the mindset more than the characters, but some
characters are plainly put in by that mindset.

D&D of all stripes, with its level based system and its built-in rules for
landholding, seemed to be ideal for this - ever starting adventurer knows that
a fighter needed to be 9th level to rule a domain, or needed to be level 36 to
be on the Council of Wizards of Glantri, etc. - so you tended to get a lot of
NPCs more powerful than the heroes. You even needed to be trained by a
higher-level character to go up levels, so you'd always need to have some
screamingly effective wizards and clerics and whatnot lying around. 3rd
edition may have fixed this, but I think that it probably still has a lot of
residual "At 9th level you can build a castle" rules that easily get reversed
by a GM into "Anyone with a castle is 9th level, so don't screw around or the
townsfolk will whup your ass! Now save them from that lizard man attack before
they have to do it themselves!" I'm sure other people can come up with other
examples of games that do similar things.

Basically, it's the mindset of the GM, but games often come pre-packaged with
NPCs or suggestions for same for keeping the PCs in line if they act in ways
the GM (or game designer) doesn't want. Some even come with NPCs packaged
clearly as the Real Movers and Shakers, which is probably a wholly different
but equally problematic mindset from adversarial GMing. I don't have a good
name for that syndrome, though.

* no, Mr. GM, don't suddenly introduce a flaw into the villian's plan because
the game has gone horribly wrong for the PCs or because you've miscalculated
and overwhelmed them, have some NPCs come kick ass. Then explain why they
waited until the PCs failed...

Peter V. Dell'Orto -
Home of Krommnotes I, II, and III
"Ferocious mad-killer sorcerers do not whine because nobody likes
them." - Glen Cook, "Soldiers Live"


Notes: That's an oldie but a goodie, explaining how NPCs keep you on the rails (or from messing up the sandbox) in a setting. It's still true, and it's worth asking with any NPC in any setting if the point is to keep the PCs down, or are they there to enable a fun game?

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