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Thursday, 12 March 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: The Cast of Thousands

(I haven't made much of a big deal about it, but the Pundit's blog is actually 10 years old this year.  So in honor of that I'll be posting much older "classic blog entries" in celebration of the anniversary)

The Cast of Thousands

(hey, it worked in the classic movies, only in an RPG you can go talk to any of these guys)

Yesterday I talked about the multiverse, one of the two features of my DMing style that I think makes my games stand out. The other is what I call the Cast of Thousands. But before I go into that, I should add that of course, there are a lot of other features that make for a good game: careful plotting, interesting adventure premises, a good balance of humour and serious issues, familiarity with the system, a sense of risk, and most importantly putting the PCs in the spotlight as the main characters, all the time. The PCs, not the story, not the setting, not the NPCs.

But those are all things that are fairly common in any good DM. The multiverse and the cast of thousands are things that I've very rarely seen in most games, even well-run games. I'm sure there are others out there who have used them both, and I theorize that they too would be considered exceptional DMs, in part due to the correct use of these two techniques.

On to the cast of thousands, then. This is again something I clued into using from my Star Wars campaign; although, like the multiverse concept, the cast of thousands is something I owe more to Amber than anything else. Amber essentially uses both of these principles as part of the very mechanic of the game.

The cast of thousands is the concept of having LOTS AND LOTS of npcs, and having them all fully-flushed out individuals with priorities and changing plot developments of their own, happening in the background usually, and in the foreground when they interact with the PCs.

Usually, in too many games I've seen, there are one or two NPCs that reach the level of two- or three-dimensional characters. Usually these are the pet NPCs of the DM. And the rest of the personalities that the players might run into act a lot like the "npcs" in a computer rpg: they only exist in as much as they interact with the characters.

In extreme cases, they are like the storekeepers and tavern-owners of the older, crappier computer games: you leave the store, and they cease to exist. You come back into the store, and they are exactly as they were before. When the PCs aren't in the store, you could only imagine the storekeeper standing idly, waiting to recite his set lines when the PCs come back in.

When the pcs go to a city/planet/farm/etc. for the second time, its pretty much unchanged since they left, unless something absolutely pressing to the adventure has caused a change. Most NPCs won't even have a name, much less an individual personality.

Even those "named" NPCs will have a fixed personality, fixed motives and behvaiours, that will only change inasmuch as the PCs interact with them. At worst, they will be stereotypes; at best, they will be "two-dimensional", complex but purely reactive personalities that don't change and grow the way the PCs change and grow.

The concept of the "cast of thousands" is to make every NPC a living, breathing personality. They have their own motives, they are out there doing things even when they aren't with the PCs, and sometimes the PCs will end up noticing the things these NPCs are up to. Other times they won't, but they'll always know that whatsisname is out there doing stuff.

My Star Wars game came alive when I decided to create about fifty fully-fleshed out NPCs and had them all living and going through problems, having their own motivations and personal battles, so that the things the PCs did, the PCs own motivations and personal battles, criss-crossed in and out of the lives of these NPCs.

I've applied the same technique to my following campaigns. In my Historical Rome campaign, this became particularly interesting as the NPCs were a mix of real figures from history and fictional personalities. The PCs ran into Vespasian as a young legionaire fighting in Britain for the emperor Claudius. Later on, they went on running into him at irregular intervals, all through his career right up till the moment he decides to make his move for the Imperial throne in 69ad, more than twenty years from when they first met him.

In my Port Blacksand campaign, I've used every NPC in the Port Blacksand book plus a couple of dozen of my own creation. These characters each have a story, and they are all in the setting doing things. The PCs have only met about half of these characters so far, but in some cases the activities of the characters they haven't even met yet have directly affected the PC's lives. When they do run into these guys, they might already know of them by reputation. Others they've met in one context early on in the campaign may be very different when they run into them later on.

My Traveller campaign features the PCs as a humble crew of a Far Trader, just trying to get by, but getting slowly more and more caught up in an oncoming civil war, while also running into a mystery surrounding alien intervention with humanity and humanity's ultimate destiny. The PCs have only seen one Senator in person, and then only very briefly, and they've never met the President of the galactic republic or any of the big players on the political scene (the Caliph, the Pope, the presidents of the various corporations, or the heads of any of the opposition political parties), but all of these big players have been doing things, behind the scenes, that have had a big impact on the game. There are also various lesser npcs; a Navy Colonel who's helped the PCs in the past, and tried to kill a couple of them too; a pair of neo-communist revolutionaries, a semi-retired Tong boss, and the unsinkable TAS reporter whose blog-like newsfeed reports have made him the bane of the military's existence. All of these NPCs are out there doing things, all the time, that affect the campaign.

Likewise, the things the PCs do affect all of them. And this interaction between realistic NPCs and the realistic PCs creates a sense of simulation that gives the campaign far more life than could be possible otherwise.

Why don't more DMs do this? Aside from the fact that many may not have thought of this, the fact is it takes massive amounts of work. Creating a one-dimensional world is difficult enough, keeping track of the pcs actions and how they affect the world is one thing; but creating a three-dimensional world where you have to always keep in mind the present whereabouts and priorities of dozens of NPCs is far more difficult.

In the end, though, it's worth it.


(Originally posted June 29th 2005)

Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Rhodesian + Image Latakia

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