I’m a little late mentioning it, but fellow Blogger Courtney of Hack & Slash recently released a book titled “On the Non-Player Character – Solving the Social Trap,” available both in print and pdf form. I’m going to try to convince you to buy it, because I think it’s more than worth the money it costs. However, in the interests of full disclosure, Courtney is both a friend of mine, and someone I admire as a game designer of superior skill. I don’t expect you to take me at my word that you should buy this book. So in order to convince you, I want to show you something.
This is a photograph of the game shelf above my desk. I keep these books within arms reach of the place where I do 90% of my work. It’s a bit of a mixed bag up there. A few of these books are up there because I want to get around to reading them soon. Most of them, though, are books which I’ve read, liked, and continue to use. But I don’t really need any of them. My game mastering skills are in my head, and my campaigns are in my notes. These books are helpful, but if you took them away from me, I don’t think my players would really notice a degradation in the quality of my games.
This photograph, aside from exposing what a cluttered junk heap my home is, shows the game shelves in my back room. There’s some miscellaneous fiction in there, but you can see binders containing notes and printed blog posts, various sourcebooks, more D&D 3.x material than I think I could even lift all at once, and several large boxes of Dungeon and Dragon magazines stacked on the floor. These are books I’ve gone through and used in the past. Some of them are not great, but there’s some real gems in there! Books which have inspired me, articles which have given me house rules to work from. These books hold a lot of meaning for me, and I still return to them from time to time to search for new ideas. But again, if you took them away my games probably wouldn’t suffer.
This last picture is of all the books which humble me. The books which never caused me to think “I could have written that better.” Which isn’t a disparagement on those books I did think I could write better. We all have that arrogant little voice inside of us which thinks we’re better than successful people. It’s that little arrogance which emboldens us to try to be successful ourselves. But these books are are so good they make me question whether I’ll ever produce anything good enough to sit next to them on a shelf.
“On the Non-Player Character” is divided roughly between methods for interacting with NPCs, and methods for creating NPCs.
The NPC interaction system is, as I described it to a friend, “such a huge leap forward that I feel as though every other crude attempt I’ve seen at NPC interaction doesn’t even count anymore. Skill checks for Diplomacy/Intimidate/Bluff/Sense Motive seem archaic by comparison.” Described simply, Courtney created a short list of <20 possible interactions with an NPC, which nearly any interaction can fit into. When the players say or do something to an NPC, the GM merely needs to determine which category of interaction it best fits into, make some simple rolls, and produce an impartial, interesting result. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s what I would call the core mechanic.)
The NPC creation system, while nowhere near as revolutionary, is none the less a big step forward from anything I’ve encountered before. It focuses on being a tool for the GM’s own imagination, rather than being a tool for creating something mechanical and then relying on the GM’s imagination to give it life. I don’t know about other GMs, but I consider myself quite good at improvisation, and my imagination has limits to the number of unique characters I can come up with on my own!
I feel as though there’s no way to read my fawning praise of this book without believing it is hyperbole. But I mean what I say. And while it’s almost a certainty that some blogger or obscure game supplement has produced a really great system for handling NPCs–one which is better than any I’d heard of before I read this book–I honestly don’t think anything quite this good exists anywhere else. Because if it did, by rights, it would be on every GM’s must-own list. As this book should be.
If I were to offer one criticism of this book, it would be one which Courtney has pointed out himself. His writing is not always the most clear, because he tends to pack information very densely. I had to read page 24 no less than three times before I understood what it was about. And once I understood it, I realized I probably would have used 3-4 pages to explain the same concept. Personally I prefer my way of doing things, but stylistic differences are really just a nitpick on a nearly perfect game tool.
Page 24 has some really cool ideas on it, actually. You should check it out when you buy the book.