I laid out seven cards I’d selected from Paizo’s GameMastery deck, Urban NPCs, in a row at the middle of the table, where both of my regular players could see them.
Without any preview or overview, I tasked my players with answering the questions below. (I actually even changed the order of the questions at the last minute as I rethought the questions I was hoping would arise during the process.) We shifted the cards around the table to indicate different answers and create a quick sort of infographic describing the NPCs’ relationships with the PCs—allies were pushed above the baseline, enemies below it, dead characters were flipped over, etc.
This is part of my Dragon Age RPG (#DARPG) playtest campaign, where I try out not only new AGE System mechanics for the Dragon Age world but experiment with different techniques and styles of play. I do this all the time, in almost everything I run. From week to week I might riff on questions of pacing, timing, narrative authority, unreliable narration, and all sorts of other tricks, to give individual adventures distinctive feelings. For this particular Dragon Age campaign, we’ve been keeping separate character sheets for the characters at three different levels (3rd, 5th, and 7th now) and flashing back and forth between levels to tell nested and interwoven stories. (I’ll write more about that next.)
Because we’ve been playing the characters across multiple levels simultaneously, these relationships work a little differently than they might in another campaign. Thus we can introduce a character at an earlier point of the story knowing—all of us together—that he or she will end up feeling a certain way about the PCs later on in the story. That adds a dramatic bit of foreshadowing as well as a bit of narrative structure to climb on like a jungle gym.
We can even hop over the actual incidents that changed the characters’ relationships, since there’s little suspense there, and decide what happened in the intervening levels through alluding dialogue (“I can’t forgive you for leaving me on that island.”) or out-of-character exposition (“Remember, now that you’re not romantically involved anymore, he probably doesn’t want to see you.”). If we do choose to play out the actual scenes where relationships dissolve, solidify, or otherwise change, we may do it without engaging the dice because there won’t be questions of success or failure in involved—we’ll be dramatizing a process for which we already know the result. That can be a fun play space, too, including plenty of opportunities to riff on the facts and introduce meaningful surprises while respecting what’s come before (for us, the players) and what we know is to come (for the characters).
Here are the tasks in the order we did them:
- Two of these characters are enemies or rivals by 7th level. No matter how you feel about them, they are opposed to you now. Pick them now.
- Two of these characters are allies or cohorts. No matter how your dynamic starts, they are friends or allies now. Pick them now.
- One of these characters is alive at 5th level but dead by the time you’re 7th level. Pick that character now.
- One of these characters has a romantic dynamic with one of you—it might be mutual, it might be a love triangle, it might a one-sided infatuation. Pick that character now.
- You are indebted to one of these characters. You might owe money, service, or your life or freedom. Pick that character now.
- One of these characters has information or an object you want. Pick that character now.
In actual practice, I deviated from this a bit. Since we had a couple of characters get multiple answers, I assigned the sixth answer to one of the remaining, unselected characters, just to diversify.
Once that was done, I revealed a final wrinkle:
- Two of these characters are turncoats. They may not be what they appear for long. They may turn against you or switch to your side.
Which two characters? I predetermined that before I dealt out the seven cards and started the players’ selection process. The turncoats may not live long enough for their embedded loyalties to be revealed, they may be driven into corners or welcomed into the fold through actual play before they can change their stripes—the players still have the power to act on those characters, in other words—but the two characters I preselected have built-in goals and loyalties that go into the mix along with the players’ choices. The rest of the NPCs I put on the table get characterized now, between sessions, to fit the decisions the players made about them.
We then worked together to stat up one of those two cohorts as a companion warrior (a tank, in this case) to help the PCs in forthcoming battles.
Notice that, to start, the players have very little information to go on. They’re choosing their enemies and allies based on the most superficial features. Still, they had enough information to go on to make some surprising and provocative decisions. Both of the PCs are Dragon Age elves (one’s a city elf, one’s Dalish), with subplots about fighting for elf rights in a human-dominated world, yet they chose the only elf in the lineup to be an enemy. It surprised and enticed me as much as it did them, I think. As they moved the cards around on the table, though, interesting combinations of answers emerged and they naturally made choices that they wanted to play out or deal with the fallout from later. They didn’t shy away from drama. They created rich situations that they wanted to know more about and also wanted to play with.
The NPCs are toys, like building blocks, which the players used to build a playground.
In case you’re curious, my players ended up pairing off some of the choices in really compelling ways. They are indebted to a dead dwarf and have a romantic entanglement with one of their enemies. So we have two sources of inspiration and action awaiting us: we can dramatize the circumstances by which predetermined facts come about and we can play to find out how these circumstances get more complicated (or maybe even resolved).
I can’t wait to see what happens next.