Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food!
My last Call of Cthulhu campaign Flames Engulf was a place for Keeper and Players alike to try new things. I encouraged my players to try new things and challenge themselves with challenging characters and I challenged myself to finally practice what I preach and run a very different game.
One of the first things I realized after writing my many and many game notes (Found in my Friday Game Notes articles.) was that I had hundreds of NPCs to play. That was stupid of me. To make matters worse I had encouraged most of my players to make large families or groups of dependents so I had plenty of cannon fodder for my horror game.
My first step was to find as many characters I could combine, crushing them into pulpy mashes of two or more characters. Still I had too many NPCs for me to play. So I outsourced.
Letting Players play NPCs
Really when it came to the game it was easy. I would give each player a stable of NPCs to play. I already knew most of the Investigators were fairly independent of each other so this would make it more fun for whoever didn’t have an Investigator in any particular scene. But I had to make sure the player playing the NPC knew enough about them to play them. Call of Cthulhu is an investigative game after all so giving them too much could have spoiled the game (or so I thought.)
What I did was create simple “character cards” a slip of paper, three to an 8.5×11. Each was split into two sections, the top had the NPCs name and a short description and the bottom half had a stat block and a section for locations where the NPC would normally be found. I ended up never using the locations at all since the Players didn’t find them useful.
The stat black was simplified from Call of Cthulhu’s normal characteristics and skills. Instead I gave every NPC: Brains, Brawn, and Power, as well as an HP amount, Sanity if applicable, and sometimes magic points or damage bonus if I felt it was needed. I didn’t bother adding combat skills or weapon damage until I knew an NPC would be fighting.
Such simple stats worked out great, it made for really easy rolling. Whatever skills they might have could just be rolled into those stats and the Players could get a good idea of whether their NPC was the brains or the brawn. It also meant I could occasionally hide certain stats from the players so they wouldn’t know certain details about their own NPCs. Many of them had fake Sanity scores for one.
Finally to let the players know what the NPC was up to in each separate session I would write notes on the slips in pencil in between sessions. During a session the notes would often inform the players what they had to do, what information or clues they could drop, or how they should lie to the Investigators.
How it Worked in Practice
It actually worked out really well with some small drawbacks. First of all it did free me from the burden of having to run huge quantities of NPCs and trying to bring them to life. Instead I could hand NPCs to players I knew fit their disposition. The Player who often plays crazy Investigators could play many of the insane NPCs. The joker of our group could play the comedic characters. Our player who is good at emotional characters did a wonderful job playing as family members of other PCs.
Where it Worked the Best
The best moments with Player controlled NPCs where the characters who the Players got the most control of and engaged with the most. Since Flames was set during the war I introduced a random “draft” roll and some of the NPCs disappeared to fight overseas. By the luck of the roll Justine Vogel, the daughter of Ben Vogel, one of the Investigators, became Police Commissioner. The player playing Justine brought life to Justine as the new Commissioner struggled to prove her worth in the Police Force while dealing with the insanity encroaching on her father and the rest of her family.
A trip to the brothel the “Stiff Lawyer” became unforgettable when the police charged in to search for the Investigator and mobster Malcolm Warrel and his partner in crime Liam. Liam, obviously missing his arm, was nabbed as the “One Armed Bandit” involved in a bank heist. But Malcolm managed to keep his head down and hadn’t been spotted. Liam, a little drunk was getting dragged out the door when he turns and calls to his friend in a friendly slurred voice, “Bye Malcolm!” The ensuing chase was nearly the end of poor Malcolm and to this day Liam hasn’t been sprung from jail.
It also facilitated broader personal stories for the Investigators who could split up the party without fear that all the other players would be growing bored around them. By having NPCs to play all the players were engaged with the game the whole time.
Where it Failed
By now it should be obvious that I had too many characters. Even with cutting back and combining characters there were too many, each Player was expected to keep track of at least five NPCs and up to eleven at times. Many became rarely used or would have one or two scenes before they never showed up again.
Of course with so many characters many of them just weren’t that interesting. Some of the Players came to me with ideas to make their NPCs more interesting and I hardly ever said no. However other NPCs languished, one ended up in a coma because the Player didn’t want to play her. One Player had mostly passive information giver NPCs and didn’t get to play them very often.
I also kept too much control of the NPCs. While some of the players had good fun being the agents of my twisted plans for the torment of the Investigators other NPCs would end up in weird unnatural positions where my concept for them didn’t mesh with what the Player thought was going on. Cohen, a mad and undead wizard had “Attack a PC when they are alone” on their sheet for three sessions without him doing a thing because the player never saw a moment where he felt comfortable attacking while I would have had the wizard attack at any time. The best incidents were where I gave the Players free reign to decide the actions of their NPCs or had a very clear goal to work towards as that NPC.
The investigative side of the NPCs withered a bit too. Only a few Players were very good at making the information or clues interesting. A couple Players would just read out my bullet list I wrote for them making those NPCs and those scenes incredibly dull.
It was fantastic to see many of the NPCs come to life in ways I never expected or could have done myself. But next time I use this technique I will make some modifications.
First of all I would choose less NPCs for the Players to handle limiting them to the main instigators of the game. Big-bads, Investigator family members, and central characters make the best Player run NPCs, the more colorful the better.
Second I would take a hand off approach to the NPCs. While I would set up the characters at the beginning of the game and give them a list of goals I wouldn’t dictate their actions in any given scene.
Finally I would keep a lot of the information dump, quest giving, and background characters to myself. If the NPC doesn’t have a whole lot of agency in the story they won’t be interesting for the Players to play.
Try it for yourself!