Sunday, June 30, 2013

NPCs and Three Things

One of the things I like in the Trail of Cthulhu books is an NPC approach they use called "three things" - give the referee three different colorful elements about the NPC to help characterization at the table.  I'm reading through the draft Eternal Lies (sidebar:  the Eternal Lies campaign is excellent) and I'm glad to see the authors used the "three things" approach for the NPCs.  Too often, game books present NPC's through material that isn't immediately gameable, or ever gameable, like background, or history.  ZZzzzzz - nothing puts me to sleep faster than, "Let me tell you about my character."

Here's a three-things-style example - the old coot's "three things" include: a bulbous nose (red and veined from alcoholism); he squints and picks at the gap where he's missing a few side teeth; he usually starts his sentences with "The way I reckon it..."

The coot description could still have the same background and motivation you'd see in a typical NPC write-up if it's necessary to give him history notes; "three things" is emphasis on observable things that actually matter during roleplaying.

But you have to put your energy into what's actually important for your game.  In a dungeon crawling game, NPC's aren't that important and are just another flavor of monster (with the same amount of screen time - they're around long enough for a good death scene).  But if you're going to spend time writing about the history and mental state of the NPC (lord help me) you might as well spend some time on a few observable descriptions and mannerisms.  Those are the kinds of things that are actually going to make the NPC memorable.