The Red Shirt Problem

Why The GM Is Forced To Bribe Players

A typical RPG plot involves the party arriving in town and being approached by NPC A because NPC B has been kidnapped by NPC C. The typical response by players to this is “What’s In It For Us?” At times this may be character driven, e.g. the character is a hard-hearted mercenary, but a lot of the time it is driven by genuine player indifference caused by the GM’s bad story-telling. To compensate the GM offers mechanical / game driven rewards to the players, usually some way of making the characters more powerful (i.e. treasure). It is an approach to gaming which leads to murder-hobo characters wandering the world and killing things.

Invest, Invest, Invest

There is a reason that the red shirts in Star Trek have become iconic as faceless plot-devices. There only purpose is to illustrate how dangerous something is or deliver a key message (and then die). The red-shirts are never established as characters – they have no names or distinguishing features other than hair colour and height. Once they appear on screen we learn nothing about their personality or backstory which are the fundamental hooks needed to make one human care about another. So when a red-shirt is in peril, no one cares. In all real sense the red-shirts have no stories. [If you are interested in stories, especially the role minor characters / NPCs, read John Scalzi’s Redshirts – a great book in its own right but the three codas on stories and bit parts are brilliant.]

Too many NPCs are red-shirts and why should the players care about red-shirts?

The better way is to make the players invest neurons in the NPC. Give the NPCs ‘screen time’ and stimulate the player’s emotions while doing so to get the most out of this time. See Making Players Care for more details but in short – invest the time to make either NPC A or B or C important to the players before the adventure starts.

Harder But Better

GMs use red-shirt style NPCs because it is an easy. Just think of a name and a vague description and the GM has all they need to keep the adventure moving. The only downside is that the NPC needs to give the characters a pile gold / credits / magic / experience points to make the players care.

Instead, the GM needs to think ahead and introduce the NPCs weeks beforehand. Then the GM has to structure the adventures to give the NPCs screen time so that they become meaningful to the players. Only after this will the players / characters have a motivation to help NPC A / rescue NPC B / kill NPC C which doesn’t involved bribing the players.

This take work, it takes planning, it takes effort but if you want the stories in your tabletop RPG to be better, you need to put the work in.

Photo Credit: Roxanne Ready