Cinemechanix Design Journal 14: NPCs

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 15 April 2016 Written by Steve

One of the things I'm trying to do with the Cinemechanix rules is to get rid of the things that just don't matter. A lot of RPG conventions are strategy gaming holdovers that really don't add anything to a storytelling game, and in fact often just get in the way. When working on rules, I've been asking myself how the reality of those rules would manifest in fiction. Basically, what would the author write or the director show to let you know that this is something important? If I can't think of anything, the rule probably isn't important for storytelling. Some rules are still needed to make the game framework function, but for the most part rules that wouldn't merit at least a throwaway line of dialog or description can be cut. 

Here's an example that I've probably mentioned before: In most games, different weapons do different damage. In Cinemechanix, they don't. That's because in most fiction, the weapon is less important than the person wielding it. A hero with a broken beer bottle beats an extra with shotgun every time. The only exception are what I call Hero Props. Those are weapons (or other equipment) that have their own subplots or origin stories or theme music, and they give the character using them a bonus. If there's not a narrative (or sometimes literal) beam of light shining down on the thing, it's just a prop and choosing to use it is a matter of style, not function. 

So basically, I'm trying to cut out the stuff that's unimportant. My original assumption for NPCs was that they would work just like QAGS and most other games: they would be described using the same stats as PCs. When I actually started writing NPCs, it was obvious that using PC stats meant wasting time and electrons on a whole lot of stuff that just doesn't matter. I should have realized that earlier; if you look at some of the NPCs in QAGS supplements, you'll find some with Words (often Weaknesses) that are never going to get used in the game but are there because they're part of the character format. PCs need detailed stats because they're all beautiful gritty loner dual-scimitar-wielding drow explosives expert snowflakes, but NPCs are supporting cast, so we don't need to know as much about them. A random ninja isn't going to tell the PCs about his struggles with alcoholism or show off his computer hacking skills, he's going to do (as Leslie Jones put it in a recent SNL sketch) ninja stuff. And even when it comes to ninja stuff, we don't really care if he's better at some ninja stuff than other ninja stuff. In fiction, NPC ninjas are either good at ninja stuff or bad at ninja stuff. The author's not going to waste ink letting us know that this particular ninja was the best in his class at stealth but had to retake the throwing star final. Because nobody cares. 

So, instead of going through the motions of figuring out Fatal Flaws and Trademarks and other things that just aren't important, I decided that NPCs just get the stats they actually need. They all have a Role, Hero Factor, and Stamina (though since standard characters have a Stamina of Hero Factor x 5, you could easily leave it out, especially for friendly NPCs who probably won't end up in combat). Named NPCs (especially recurring characters) will probably need WWPHITM?. Anything else you need falls under "Traits," which is a list of noteworthy information or things that need special rules. 

In addition to all the other things it's used for, Hero Factor tells the GM how many dice the NPC rolls when doing Role-related things. On the off chance the NPC needs to roll for something unrelated to his Role, the NPC only gets the default die. 

Here's a sample generic Crossroads Demon using the abbreviated stats: 

Crossroads Demon
Role:Crossroads Demon
Hero Factor:4
Stamina: 20
Traits:

  • Wish Granting: The limits of this ability are left to the GM, and may vary from one crossroads demon to the next.
  • Damage Resistance: Crossroads Demons soak double their Hero Factor when they take damage.
  • Fast Healing: Demons recover double Stamina during a Recovery Round and recover from Wounds at twice the rate of humans.
  • Disguise: A crossroads demon can take on the physical appearance of anyone he’s made a deal with. If someone knows the person well, they are permitted a Contested Roll against the demon to notice something amiss.
  • Limited Possession: A Crossroads demon can possess a willing human. This will allow him to travel more than 5 miles from his crossroads.
  • Travel Restrictions: Crossroads Demons can only come to earth when on official business unless they bury a mojo bag (which can potentially be used against them) at their crossroads. Additionally, they must stay within 5 miles of the crossroads they were summoned to (or buried their mojo bag at).
  • More or Less Immortal: If a crossroads demon’s earthly body dies, it returns to Hell immediately, loses its connection to its mojo bag(s), and cannot be summoned for 11 years. It can, however, return to earth to see to existing deals. 

And if your random crossroads demon hangs around to become a recurring villain, you can always turn him into a regular character: 

Doc Graves
Role: Boisterous Crossroads Demon
Backstory: Long-time Nashville native
Fatal Flaw: Sadistic: Graves takes great glee in watching people suffer, and sometimes gets carried away when he’s tormenting people.
Hooks: Always Wears A Stetson, Doesn’t Need An Appointment, Makes Very Polite Threats
Tag Line: “Sold American!”
WWPHITM? Don Johnson
Trademarks: Deal-Making (3 Dice), Gambling (2 Dice), Torture (1 Die)
Drawbacks: None
Hero Factor: 6
Acclaim: 6
Stamina: 30
Special Effects: Doc Graves has all of the standard crossroads demon abilities.
Trivia: Not a doctor.

Converting an NPC over into a full-blown character changes a few rolls: if we assume that Deal-Making, Gambling, and Torture are all "Crossroads Demon Stuff," Doc Graves gains a die in deal-making, loses 1 in torture, and rolls the same 4 as a generic crossroads demon for gambling (Base Die + Concept Bonus Die + 2 Trademark Dice). For other crossroads demon stuff, he only gets 2 dice (Base Die + Concept Bonus Die), so he's a little worse at those than a generic demon. With the "roll a dice pool, pick the best" system these variations aren't going to create a noticeable pattern change in the demon's abilities, so they fall firmly into the "things that don't matter" category. Besides, if your players are bored enough that they're noticing subtle variations in a minor bad guy's rolls, your game has bigger problems. 

 

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Cinemechanix Design Journal 14: NPCs.
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