In role playing games, the primary agents of change are the player characters. Whilst the world around them may be populated by people and places with their own agendas, our focus is with our characters. We see the world and experience the story through their eyes. The plot moves, driven by the PCs or the antagonist’s response to the PCs. This of course makes a lot of sense when you’re talking about highly capable heroes, people with the power and resources to shape the world around them.
But what if you’re not? What if the heroes aren’t that good, what if there’s little to separate them from the hapless folk who facelessly populate the setting? What if, in the common parlance, they’re low level? There are many many homebrewed and published adventures for low level characters but they will all have something in common. The question of why hasn’t somebody else solved this problem already. A clever way around this is the sneak attack, where the problem arises in the hero’s faces. It thus hasn’t previously existed for somebody else to solve.
In many other cases, heroes encounter persistent problems that the powers-that-be haven’t solved. This can be a problem to me as it can be a breaker of immersion. If you’re talking about some barely populated hamlet of farmers, well it makes sense they’ve not seen off the ogres. But a fully fledged city not having the resources to remove local bandits? This requires additional reasoning. Which is perhaps why so many settings feature internal conflict amongst existing powers. If the city’s energy is entirely spent on a feud between crime lords or oligarchs competing for control, then it has no time or resources to solve the problems of people who don’t matter. These are all much better narratives than the NPCs just being a bit useless.
The alternative can actually be far worse for a campaign. To illustrate this, I shall use an example from my own experience. A friend of mine has a problem with the powers-that-be being useless, in particular police and military forces. In a science fiction game he ran using BESM (3rd edition) he outfitted the world with a highly competent space navy. Too competent. Our rag tag group of losers, hired to investigate a sentient plague (think the Flood from Halo, but with more body horror (IT’S WALKING ON ITS RIBS!)), quickly discovered that the best way to solve problems was to call in the navy. It got to the point where we were simply asking the captain of the heavy destroyer tasked to us for the crew solve most of the problems. Need a sample analysed – send it to the lab tech. Need a pirate ship boarded – send in the marines.
Our characters were still at the forefront of a lot of the action though. Freed from having to branch out to cover all skills we became exceptional soldiers, which served us well on the final push. And any game that ends on a mad race through a giant military base try to escape before a nuclear bomb goes off has value.
The gamemaster walks a fine line with NPCs characters. Make them too weak and the players will tire of solving all their problems. Make them too strong and the players start to question why they’re even needed. Competent NPCs do have their uses though. With the alien queen dead, it’s very useful for the Men in Black mop up the outer nests, so that the heroes can get on with next adventure.
Or just go to a bar. Killing alien queens is thirsty work.
Image Credit – Asking Directions by SfPhotocraft (All Rights Reserved)