Whether I’m playing an rpg, watching a movie, or reading a novel, one of my questions about the fictional world I encounter is, “Is it really full of people?” A small group of protagonists may be the ones in the spotlight, but I want to be able to believe they move through a world of people who are the protagonists of their own stories, passing through the PCs’ lives as they take care of their own urgent business.
As a GM, it can be hard to live up to my own expectations, particularly in the Powered by the Apocalypse systems I love. PbtA games encourage me to be responsive to the plot as it unfolds, rather than preparing a sheaf of NPCs with fully-fleshed-out backstories. I want to make our game’s NPCs vivid and distinct, without having to know them completely, I want to be able to make a single, key choice quickly, and then be ready to discover more.
One of the best tools I’ve found for this kind of quick NPC detailing is in Magpie Games’s Masks, a game of teen superheroes. Creating an antagonist means detailing their conditions, which specify how long they can stay in a fight, and what kinds of reactions they’ll have to being opposed (e.g. a villain with Angry in play might break the environment, while one with Hopeless might lash out by revealing a secret that shakes a PC’s faith in a mentor). But what’s most important is choosing their Drive.
The Drive tells you what the antagonist is trying to do, and it works best when there’s a little about why. So, “Steal the fabulous Baseball Diamond” isn’t as helpful a drive as “Cultivate a nemesis worthy of my brilliance by stealing the fabulous Baseball Diamond.” The Drive helps suggest what the NPC is doing when they’re off screen—they’re not just in stasis waiting for the plot to shine on them again!
Because Masks is a game of teen superheroes deciding who they want to grow up to be, I often think of my antagonists’ drives as serving one more purpose: the villain’s drive poses a question to the teens about who they are or will become.
I’d be most likely to match my diamond thief against a Brain, wondering if she can really be part of a team when she thinks so differently from her friends; or maybe a Protégé who is getting close to a playbook change and the question of whether that means they’ve outgrown their Mentor; or even a Joined, who may feel sympathy for a villain who is seeking the security that the Joined feels in his partnership. The villain’s Drive allows each PC to consider their own desires for respect and belonging.
When Alexi Sargeant and I began expanding our game Back Again from the Broken Land (originally published in Codex: Home) into a new edition for Zinequest, I wanted to find a similarly strong way to develop NPCs. Back Again from the Broken Land is a game about small adventures walking home from a big war. The Doomslord has been defeated, and your fellowship played a small but crucial role in the victory. As you travel home, you have to name and reckon with the Burdens you carry.
Burdens are the only way of tracking anything like health in the game. You are small people in a big world—when you come across serious peril, your choices are Run, Hide, or Make a Desperate Stand. Hit points are for a very different sort of adventurer, one who could go toe-to-toe with the Doomslord’s Hunters. If you fight them, for the most part, you will simply die.
Instead, your job is to stay quiet and to try to make it home whole. You begin with unnamed Burdens, and you continue giving names to your Burdens as you tell stories of your Journey and of the Home you are returning to. You have to know what you are shadowed by in order to set down the Burden that weighs on you. If you make it home, the number of named and unnamed Burdens you carry will determine what is waiting for you.
I wanted a parallel system for NPCs, something that would suit our Principle of “Explore the tolls of war and the costs of victory.” In our expanded zine, we now have a section for the GM on detailing NPCs by naming their “Wounds.”
Back Again from the Broken Land interprets NPC pretty generously—as befits a land marked by magic. Our system of Wounds is meant to cover anyone from an innkeeper to a town to a river. You might run into a young man with the Wound, “struggling to fill his mother's place for younger siblings” or the dirt of a battlefield with the Wound, “the earth misses the mud that was mixed with battle's blood and cannot meld back into the whole.”
Like a Drive, a Wound is meant to flesh out an NPC by giving them something that they’re actively struggling with. An NPC’s appearance may be brief, or their Wound may lead the fellowship to delay their journey home, using the Gaze into the Distance move to ask, “How could I make peace here?”
Littleness is a major theme of Back Again from the Broken Land, and Wounds are part of how we hope to make the bigness of the world believable. It also colors the advice I give to GMs and players about responding to the Wounds of the people they meet:
- "The PCs will not and cannot heal every Wound they encounter. They are small people and strangers in these lands. It may be enough to bear witness or lay an additional stone on a cairn. The unresolved Wound may become a named Burden. But sometimes, they can put something right, and there is a glimpse of hope. The companions can help begin a mending, but all Wounds will take sustained care to fully heal."
Cloven Pine Games' Back Again from the Broken Land is on Kickstarter through Feb 14th.