Saturday, 9 March 2013

Drama Tools: NPC Motivations

To follow up on my Mamet-centric entry the other day, I wanted to quickly share a tool that my clever wife has devised as a GMing aid.

In addition to history, Megan studied theatre in university, so she was familiar with Mr. Mamet's techniques in the venue they were intended for. When she first took on "the big chair" and made the jump from player to GM last summer, she brought some of that theatre experience to the table.

Rather than develop an elaborate plot for her Primetime Adventures (PTA) game, which probably wouldn't have worked in a largely player-driven game anyway, Megan instead focused her efforts on knowing what her NPCs wanted -- if they were called into a scene, what did they want from the PCs? What would they push for, and where would they apply pressure? This plays directly into Mamet's principles of goals and urgency, and creates an opportunity to generate fallout from player choices. This is the most important tool a GM interested in dramatic play can have in her toolbox -- it's all about what the players choose.

Megan developed a list of NPCs and their motivations (which, I think, she altered as the game progressed and their immediate motivations and desires changed) as a tool that she could use to play out any scene that happened to develop. This has the advantage of a) creating an open, flexible structure for the game that is focused on, and responds to, player actions; and b) not wasting valuable energy building material for the game that the players might not ever get to see. Even in a game with a strong social contract, where the players and GM spend some effort in developing things as a group, you can never entirely know what path the players will focus on (sometimes with dogged, unrelenting determination that leaves no room for other things) during game play.

It does mean that the GM is placed in a position of being largely reactive in play, riffing off the "lead" that the players establish, but if you have the nerve for it, that can work rather well.

As Megan ably proved.

1 comment:

  1. Just to add: each NPC motivation had to have the capacity to make the PCs lives more difficult. I think that's implied, but worth mentioning. It doesn't work if they have a great motivation but it won't really have any impact on the PCs.

    I was pulling from the book written by some of Mamet's students on essential actions, which has a checklist.

    An essential action must be:

    physically capable of being done
    fun to do
    have its test in the other person
    not be an errand
    not presuppose any physical or emotional state
    not be manipulative
    have a "cap"
    be in line with the intention of the playwright (or in this case, the GM)

    I don't know that I succeeded with all those items all the time, but they were my guiding principles.

    (see A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder et al., p.11)