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LARP Advice: How to Be a Great NPC

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This post is directed toward players in LARPs that have NPCs who are not full-time members of Staff. That includes both folks who are volunteering for the whole event and never play a PC, and folks who are doing just a few hours' shift backstage. There's probably a lot of regional variation in terminology here as communities develop their own jargon, and as newer games decide that changing their predecessors' jargon is the hill they're going to die on. Just to make sure we're all on the same page here, I'll brave the shoals of tedium and explain a bit more.


Terminology

In many LARPs in the US (I seriously know nothing about life backstage at a European boffer LARP), there's a strong demand for warm bodies to play many of the roles that are going in front of the players. This includes both low-interaction combat roles, or "crunchies," and high-interaction talky roles.
Digression: Combat roles need to be prepared for some amount of conversation, and talky roles can always wind up in a fight, so it's not an absolute distinction, and blurring the line is a good thing. The combat/conversation balance is not what I'm here to talk about today.
The aforementioned warm bodies can come from three basic sources. There's the game's Staff, which includes the Plot Committee and anyone else who is deeply involved in staging the game. Many campaigns have a distinction between the Plot Committee, which is chiefly responsible for writing, and the Campaign Committee, which is chiefly responsible for prop construction, backstage logistics, and other tasks that result from implementing the Plot Committee's vision. Collectively, all of these people are the Staff. (Also, I am not taking anything away from the people who contribute huge amounts of time and energy away from events, but play PCs at events. But, well, for the purposes of this post, they're players.)

Secondly, there are people who show up to play NPC roles for the whole event. For this conversation, we'll call them full-timers. If the game has a volunteer currency, such as Buttons, Goblin Stamps, Brownie Points, or any number of other names, these people receive some of it. (Staffers receive that volunteer currency as well, but after a relatively short time they typically have more than they could ever spend, so it's not a significant motivator for them.)

Thirdly, if Staff and full-timers aren't enough to handle every encounter that needs to go out, games draw on the players. Players may be required to schedule a span of time, maybe three hours or so, that they will drop what they're doing in-game and come play NPC roles. To avoid calling it "required volunteering," Dust to Dust has taken to calling it "game staff augmentation time." The more universally-used term, though, is monstering time, which applies even if the player's time is spent playing a talky role. There are other ways to contribute to the game than NPCing, but the game would be hard up if everyone did something else to help out.
Digression: If your game doesn't use players for NPC roles, ever, that's great for you. It's really cool when games have that option. Most games don't, though, so don't be an asshole about it. We also do not wish to hear about how your streets are paved in gold and no one is ever sad.

Okay, Enough With The Terminology, Get to the Advice

Rule Zero: Exemplify good sportsmanship. All other rules are an outgrowth of this one. What that means for NPCing is, first and foremost, show up to NPC with a good attitude. If you walk into the backstage areas in a foul temper or bitching about any game - the one you're attending or other games you're involved with - you are bringing everyone else down. The essence of sportsmanship is valuing other people's fun as much as your own, and if you have griping that you need to do, find the right time and right place. While you are NPCing is definitely not it.

The First Rule: As an NPC, you are not here to win. If you do win, that's fine - the PCs are going to lose sometimes. But if you are emotionally invested in winning a battle or other conflict, that's a bad problem. It's hard to enjoy losing 100% of your fights (as will happen for some whole events - that's emergent gameplay for you), but try to think as an entertainer: when the PCs have a good fight or a challenging scene or a belly laugh, that's your victory. You've made the game better for other people, and that is a cool feeling. If you're a player doing NPC time, just think about how other players have been doing the same for you, or will be.

I totally understand how hard this is. It's a roleplaying game, and you're called to embody and identify with the character you're playing - even if it's a monster that is there to provide an action interlude. Of course you feel competitive, because you're fighting as if you're trying to win. Nothing ruins the satisfaction of victory more than feeling like the fight was thrown in the PCs' favor, so don't make it obvious that you're holding back (unless that is what's appropriate to the character you are portraying).

The Second Rule: Do not gloat out-of-character, or reveal any Plot secret confided in you for a role. Did you win a fight or force the PCs to flee? Good for you, but gloating about it is not going to enrich their emotional experience of the scene, and now that they're away from the game, they can't go back and fix it or get revenge. (Gloating in-character can be correct in some cases. Out-of-character is always wrong.) Did the PCs miss some vital clue? What good is telling them about it now going to do? They were frustrated at the time, and now they're frustrated again. Life sure is easy when you have all the answers, isn't it?

I understand how it is - you did something exciting, and you want to talk about your experience of the game. But NPCs have all the power - no true attachment to their characters when they die, so they don't risk as much; foreknowledge of the answers to mysteries, so they aren't truly challenged; any badassery they possess, they did not have to earn. Anytime someone with power in a situation speaks to those without, they need to speak carefully. If you NPCed a scene and the PCs won, it's cool to cheer for them afterward - like when you're at Outback on Sunday afternoon.
I assume all games have an Outback on Sunday afternoon. How could you possibly enjoy a game without hyper-authentic Australian food?
If they lost, the right way to participate in conversation is to show some sympathy. It's tough to take a bad beat and move on in a game - some would say it's the game losing some of its escapism and becoming too much like life. So, you know, be cool about it, don't rub it in.

I'm not saying you can't tell war stories. If a subset of LARPers couldn't tell stories about cool stuff that they did at a game, they probably wouldn't stay in the hobby for long. The way you tell stories around a group of NPCs and Plot members needs to be different from the stories you tell when people who were PCs in that story are listening. Prepare yourself mentally for a certain amount of PC gloating in return - the game wants PCs to forget that whenever they win, it's because Plot could have used bigger numbers and more deadly attacks, but didn't.

The Third Rule: Trust PCs to know their stats. If they're surviving your hits and you really don't think they should be, talk to a marshal about it - don't take it up with the player. This is because neither you nor the player involved have the needed objectivity. The marshal's job is to be an objective arbiter who can talk to the PC in question at an unobtrusive time. In just about any long-term game, though, PCs can earn Kewl Powerz or magic items that are outside the scope of the game's base rules.

Sometimes PCs do fail to register hits; possibly they even do so knowingly. This makes the game worse for everyone, most of all the NPC, whose already-marginal sense of agency is further reduced. Even in these cases, enforcement isn't the NPC's job - that's for marshals and Staff members. (If you are a Staff member having this problem with a PC, get someone else to handle it, again for reasons of objectivity.)

The Fourth Rule: Deliver useful debriefings to Plot, ideally both in person and in writing afterward. This is where continuity comes from, especially if you were playing a talky role without a staffer in the scene. Obviously, Third Stormtrooper From The Left doesn't exactly need a written debriefing in most cases - at the very least, Plot can get an aggregate sense of how things went based on other NPCs in the encounter and whether any PCs had to have resurrection spells cast on them.

I really hope that further rules, like "trust your briefing, because someone wrote it that way for a reason, even if you don't know the reason" and "follow the rules of the game, they're there to protect everyone's fun" don't need to be explored in detail. Ultimately, they're all part of Rule Zero.

More Like Guidelines

The rules above are for everyone. What follows is more conditional, and is based on some assumptions about your goals as a volunteer. If you're reading this in search of advice (as opposed to reading this looking for ways to improve on it, which I also welcome), then you're probably interested in contributing more to your game of choice, and/or being asked to play juicier roles.

If you're a staffer or a full-timer, the first best thing you can do to help the game is to really work on learning the rules. There are a lot of rules that don't come up often, so only players with a strong expectation of interacting with them actually learn them. Essentially, you're expanding the roles you can be cast in by tackling the learning curve sometime before you're about to go in play. This is true even if you only expect to play combat roles. For a Rule of 3 example, learning the ins and outs of warrior orders (DtD) or Combat Disciplines (Eclipse) opens the door to more high-profile roles. Also, Plot will appreciate it.

The next best thing you can do, and for the same reason, is to spend some time soaking up the campaign's lore. This is a lot more important if you're focused on talky roles; while it's generally good even if you've asked Plot to cast you only in combat roles (as some full-timers and players do), it's a lot lower priority. Having context for players' responses to you in encounters, especially when the conversation goes outside the bounds of your briefing, lends depth and credibility to the character - it's another little element that improves the game for everyone around you. (For reasons of vanity, Plot also likes it when full-timers show investment in the setting and story.)

In LARPs that draw on players when casting some of their talky NPC roles, getting cast as recurring and/or important NPCs becomes a subtle striation between players. In my experience, it's not something that the gaming community talks about often or openly, but from time to time people mention a little disappointment that they are not asked to play recurring or high-profile NPCs. Everyone recognizes, I think, that there are a lot of considerations that go into NPC casting, but:

On the other hand, if you're involved in damn near every storyline, Plot can't cast you in any role without spoiling your fun as a PC. A minor confession: I'm one of those people who did feel a little angst over never getting asked to play talky NPCs, in several campaigns. (So I started my own game.) (No, that's not the real reason.) If your PC's schtick is the same as the set of things you're known for doing well (for example, being super stealthy), it's even more difficult, because they'd be putting you in the scenes you most want to experience as a player.

Sometimes it really is too overwhelming to write the entire briefing necessary for a role, so Plot takes the easy way out and casts a staffer. Most frequently, Plot just needs as much certainty as possible that the person cast in a role will be at the events when they need that one character. I'm getting a little off-track here; the point is that Best Practices for NPC casting are complicated, and when they don't cast you, it isn't personal. If Plot has spare time to create NPC roles in response to your interest in playing them, that's great and all, but odds are, it's a low priority amid all of the other event-prep insanity.

If you're a full-timer, one of the best things you can do is to consistently let them know if you're volunteering for the next event. The majority of casting decisions are done before Friday night of an event - if they're surprised (but happy, of course) to see you, they definitely haven't written anything with you in mind.

Okay, my last bit of advice is awkward to deliver, and you've got to judge for yourself whether it might include you. High-profile combat roles (field battle bosses) and talky roles (the monarch, the archmage, whatever) are the kinds of roles where Plot wants someone with presence, confidence, and magnetism. If they don't know you well, Plot probably can't tell how awesome you would be in that role.

I want to stress that the converse is not inherently true. If you lack presence, Plot probably won't cast you in whatever role; however, not getting cast in whatever role does not necessarily indicate a judgment that you lack presence. As I mentioned before, there are lots of considerations that go into casting; it is mostly not about you.

I'm not an actual self-help writer, and I don't know One Weird Trick To Improve Your Charisma Score. What I do know is that if you show that you're engaging with the game's content and putting real energy into the roles that you do get cast, it makes a difference.

Kainenchen suggested that I include a brief explanation of why being a full-time NPC is fun, since from a certain perspective it lacks both the agency of a PC and the creative control of Plot.
  1. Let your villain side out for a spin without risking a character you've developed for months or years.
  2. Ham it up to your heart's content. Actually, this should have been Rule Five.
  3. You don't have to attend Plot meetings or shoulder any of the writing burden.
  4. If your character dies, no sweat! Plot will get you a new one at their earliest convenience. You'll get to try out all of the different combat styles and power sets in the game as a combat NPC. Talky NPCs have, if anything, even more variety.
  5. It's the least expensive way to be involved in the hobby. You don't pay event fees, and you don't need to buy costuming, weapons, armor... seriously, if you show up to an event with nothing but bedding, toiletries, and a few changes of basic black clothing (the universal foundation garment for NPCs), you're golden. Some amount of food will usually be provided to you. This varies somewhat from community to community, but probably not a whole lot - it's in the game's interests to avoid barriers to entry here.
  6. The camaraderie of the whole backstage team is fantastic. Staging an event is hard work, but when it's done, you have a lot to feel good about, and players appreciate full-timers immensely. (Trust me, PCs love it when there are enough full-timers that Plot doesn't need players for warm bodies.) There will usually be a solid round of applause for you on Sunday morning, if your game of choice has something like Closing Ceremonies.
I'm sure plenty of people have their own reasons for enjoying full-time NPCing, and I would be happy to have them add those reasons in the comments.

I hope something I've offered here helps to make your time spent NPCing all the more rewarding (or reminds you to show your appreciation for the NPCs, while you're PCing).

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