Friday, December 2, 2011

Playing the Adversary

"Some days I hate NPCs. But I also love NPCs."


So says Lowell Francis in this recent post on the always-outstanding Age of Ravens blog (and if you're not reading that blog, why the hell not?); I couldn't agree more with the sentiment. NPCs are my Achilles Heel when it comes to running games. They're nigh essential to most any good game, but they present an endless source of headaches (many of which are elucidated in Mr. Francis's post, so I won't repeat them here).

For me, the biggest challenge is making my NPCs unique personas with individualized motivations and keeping them from fading too much into the background. I can usually manage to pull this off with, at best, one NPC per campaign it seems (players in my "Beware the Odd Angles" Cthulhu campaign will well remember the dangerous ingenue Daphne Bell, for example), but I'd like to have my whole cast of NPCs come alive and I really hate it when an NPC who should ostensibly be traveling with the group fades so completely into the background that the players have to remind me they're there.

To that end, I've been thinking about a nearly-forgotten (it seems) section in the old GURPS 3rd Edition Basic Set. On page 180, under the heading "Playing the Adversary", we read:
When the GM plays an NPC who is an enemy of the player characters, he should try to limit his knowledge to those things that the NPCs would really be aware of. The GM knows all about the party's strengths and weaknesses - but the enemies don't. One good way to solve this problem is to have another person play the adversary characters.  
The GM should tell the Adversary as much as possible about the characters he is to play. But the Adversary should know no more than is "realistic" about the overall situation. In particular, he should know very little about the PCs and their abilities - especially at the beginning of an adventure! For total realism, you might even want two Adversary players - one for the knowledgeable enemies who are familiar with the party, and one for stupid cannon fodder. 
The Adversary is like an "assistant GM." His job is to roleplay the foes as well as possible.
The Basic Set was literally the second gaming book I ever bought and read, and I remember that section well. It kind of blew my mind, the idea of this para-GM helping to run the game and constituting a separate brain behind the screen. As I was still very new to gaming, I wasn't sure just how "normal" this Adversary idea was. In the two decades since, however, I've only seen a similar idea expressed in one other place, and that was simply in notes detailing a "deluxe" Cthulhu convention scenario (No Man's Land) that utilized sound effects, mood lighting, and kabuki-esque assistants dressed in black. The Basic Set presented the idea of the Adversary as if it were a perfectly normal aspect of the RPG gaming experience, but I have yet to see that reflected either in real life or in other rulebooks.

Yet the simple idea expressed in the Basic Set has merit, I think. It would certainly take much of the burden of running games off my shoulders. I'd be very interested to hear from any readers who have tried employing an Adversary-style co-GM to play the NPCs or villains of their campaigns. Does anyone do it as a matter of course or is it strictly for deluxe scenarios like No Man's Land?
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