This will likely be the last post for this year, and hopefully the new year will be much more active with my musings! Thank you all for reading, commenting over on Google+, and all such things.
Today I'd like to talk about an issue that I have come across once or twice in my earlier career as a Game-Master and have been trying my best to avoid ever-since. Sometimes it's an isolated incident that can be plowed through and hopefully forgotten. Other times, it's a situation that lingers and seems to get worse and worse as time goes on. I'll try to explain the issue below and see if I can brainstorm some ideas to avoid or lessen this problem.
I speak, of course, of NPC overload.
The first four years of gaming that I experienced through High School was dominated by Star Wars games. Our group started with the Revised Core Rulebook, and eventually migrated to Saga after realizing how much better it handled the universe. Edition isn't important, however, especially in regards to this topic. I bring up Star Wars because there was one major element that groups that contained one Jedi or more had to encounter at some point.
Jedi Council meetings.
I mean, you can't just have some semi-important Jedi running around without having to report to a Council eventually, and how many times can you say that most of the delegates are gone? Therefore, the players have to approach the Council and discuss their mission or ask for something, and you as the GM have to play all of them. Needless to say, it can be daunting, even if you have a cheat sheet with the names of various council members and maybe one or two adjectives to describe their personality.
No matter how good your Yoda voice is, you start to sound like you have really severe schizophrenia, and it can be boggling for both you and your players. Let's not even get into what happens when parts of the council start to disagree and you wind up having an argument with yourself while your players stare at you funny.
Unfortunately, this isn't limited to just meetings of a body of delegates. This can happen any time there is more than one important NPC in a scene that requires interaction. Try running the Masters of Evil and suddenly you have to speak for a bunch of villains at once. Or maybe there's an NPC in the party, and they have an important connection to a villain, and you find yourself talking to yourself again while the players sit back and watch.
I call this NPC overload, which can either mean one of two things.
1: You have the party interacting with a large group of different NPCs, or NPCs are interacting with each other for an extended period of time.
2: The actions of NPCs in interactions are so detailed and complicated that it leaves the players out of important events.
Obviously, a good GM should avoid #2 at all costs and try to involved the player's as much as possible, even when two NPCs are spatting or having an argument. Players should always be the focus of events, and if the other characters are getting in the way of that, things need to be rearranged. If you're just going to have a bunch of your characters doing important things, why not write a book instead of running a game?
However, #1 can be an issue for even seasoned GM's at one point or another. What can we do to mitigate this problem, or make it more accessible/enjoyable for all involved?
Here are some suggestions:
1: In a meeting/summit/council type situation where all of the members are pretty much in agreement, simply divide up answers between council members/voices. Maybe the first one on the list answers the first question, or two and three make a point together in response to something a player said. It takes getting used to at first, but this generally helps these difficult events flow, at the very least.
2: If two NPCs are arguing, involve the players between every back and forth. Give them a chance to interject what they think, end the argument, or support one side or another. If you feel like you've been talking to yourself for too long, you probably have been.
3: Limit your active NPCs per scene. Any more than two can get complicated, and three's a crowd. Make sure your players are the center of every scene, even when dealing with very important characters like the main villain or the ruler of the land.
3.5: Don't send a group when one can do the job. (For non-combat, anyway.)
For myself, this issue has mostly been resolved, either by avoidance or using some of the strategies above to make it tolerable. However, since I haven't talked at length with too many game-masters about this side of the hobby, I'm not sure if this is just me, or a further epidemic! Let me know if this comes up in your games, and how you handle it!
Hope you enjoyed this little article on NPC overload. If not, here's a funny picture.