When we look at the people that populate a RPG world, we often think of them as part of the cultural context our characters are a part of. Aspects of tradition, community standards, practices and policies that make society work. Such behavior is how we usually judge new people we meet and if they are known to us or if they are an “other.” But the real world, especially for travelers, explorers, and adventures, often brings groups of people together who don’t share the same default states, and conflict, although unintentional, occurs on a regular basis. The Outsider is one of these others, and their approach to the players may put them off at first, because understanding cultural boundaries and pushing past them isn’t something a player may initially be willing to do.
The NPC Outsider has a great potential within a game setting. They offer a chance to break the mental shortcuts players will use with NPCs. Whether it’s the treatment of diplomatic customs, respect for religious or political iconography, or just normal manners, the chance to experience the world through another viewpoint is the heart of role-playing, and the Outsider reinforces that dialogue. Barriers such as language, upbringing, and class standing provide means for cultural impact on a game while presenting a Gamemasters the chance to expand the depth of the reality they’ve helped introduce to players.
Outsiders exist in all RPG genres as every world should feature a complex set of cultures and communities. Breathing life into these allies comes in the form of changing the norms players may be used to and twisting them on their head. In Fantasy, this may be the Druid who has come to aid your party, but their creed is one of respecting the natural order of life and so healing spells are not part of their preparations. In Science Fiction, aliens and artificial life forms may appear human but possess different biologies or forms of interaction. In contemporary fiction, the choices are myriad as the number of cultures part of our real world. The key is to not treat them as stereotypes but instead fleshed out individuals.
Remember though, cultural missteps are a two-way street. While an outsider may not fit in or understand the culture of the players, it is easy for the players to act incorrectly within the Outsider’s world view. Offense, breach of social contract, or damage to honor can turn an outsider against a party, especially if the party has been failing to be considerate of both cultural touch stones.
When unrelenting evil comes pouring over the land, the light of the angel made flesh can push them back. The party is saved as the Johnson and his goons come storming in, taking out the go-gangers. The General listens and the nuclear option is diverted, so better special forces may move in on the alien invaders. Great power sometimes finds itself an ally instead of an enemy to protagonists, but such power sometimes offers a heaven bound level of vision and small details can be lost. Overconfidence and sure, the Omni-Potent Fallacy uses their abilities like clubs to solve problems, and in many ways creates waves that break open more rifts.
This NPC is a wild card. Pointed the right way and they assume they can solve the world’s problems in an instant, but without regard to cost and loss. Their assumption on being right can put them at odds to players who haven’t earned their trust, and keeping them calm, happy, and loyal is a juggling act. Such power isn’t something a player wants to content with, whether it comes from a great Wizard, a dragon, a CEO, powerful AI, or even a god. Once they’ve assumed the players are enemies, it’ll be hard to convince them otherwise without equal force.
The Omni-Potent Fallacy exists in most genres, often in the role as a figurative or literal Deus Ex Machina. Gods and Demons in Fantasy realms attempting to understand mortal risks and solving issues with lightning. CEOs and Spy Masters trying to keep their finger on the pulse of an ever deepening world. Military leaders sure of their place on a battlefield. The NPC need not have physical unlimited powers but merely the ability to command such power even through chains of minions.
The worst position a player can find themselves is on the other side of the Omni-Potent Fallacy finding out their wrong after they’ve acted. After they’ve killed loved ones, destroyed cities, ended the lives of innocents and guilty alike. These acts can send the figure spiraling in several hostile directions. They may become self-reflective and depressed, turning inward and losing their great power. They may lash out and blame others for being fooled. Or Worse, they can assume the loss and misdirected actions as proof of their conviction and dive deeper into dangerous beliefs. At this point, the players can try to guide them back to the true path and solve the problems their misdirection has caused, or seek to destroy the omni-potent figure and dismantle them before they can do further harm.
Ok there’s the standard idea for starting a quest. An old man says that the wicked necromancer is kidnapping the locals to use in his experiments. Your contact in cyberpunk tells you that Gideon, who runs the local pawn shop, sells info on his clients to the corps. Local preacher says that there’s a powerful manitou that lurks in the abandoned mine shaft. These ways of giving quests are straightforward. There’s a problem and your players can go to resolve it, usually with a final result in mind. But how about a quest with no “final result.” Just a vague question that sits in the back of players minds.
Enter the “Interesting Mcguffin.” This kind of item can usually be introduced underhanded, almost as an afterthought. For instance, your posse from Deadlands just killed a Harrowed gunslinger. You’re rifling through his pockets to see if you can get any identification of who he was or how he became harrowed. In the breast pocket of his shirt you find a bullet, jet black. There’s no makers mark on it. And your huckster gets a bad feeling when he’s holding it. So what is the bullet, why was it made, what was its purpose, and how did this Harrowed get a hold of it? That’s your Interesting Mcguffin.
You need to make the Mcguffin puzzling enough so that between the “linear missions” your players want to spend time unravel the mysteries of the Mcguffin. It can be anything depending on your setting. A broken piece of an ancient tablet with weird writing on it. An encrypted piece of data that sticks behind in your datalock. A flower that never wilts but changes colour for some reason. You as the GM know all about it and what it does, but your players don’t.
There’s an upside and a downside to these kind of items. Downside is that some players just chuck it in with the rest of the loot and forget about it. Or they may, inadvertently, find a way to get all mysteries resolved with no issues. Don’t worry if that happens. Just run with it and don’t try to force things with your players. The trick as a GM is not to be “invested.” Just make sure that you remember what your players did with it, even if they forgot. Like when your players are stopped by security and ordered to turn our their pockets. Now they have to think on their feet and explain the “interesting Mcguffin” to their captors.
The up side? It gets your characters thinking. Not just Out of character, but in character as well. Your science type may want to analyze it. The greedy thief may want to try and pawn it (with sometimes funny results). The Lawman may want to get it back to its owner. Your mystic may want to unravel its deep secrets.
Nice thing about this kind of item is that it can eventually turn into a quest in and of itself. They may abandon their current quest to figure it out.
Just be prepared to think on your feet. The Mcguffin’s inherent flexibility can have the characters approach it out of left field sometimes.
Character building options are very important to a game. While some GM’s are able to run a game with any character build, most can not. So having a character options sheet or list can help the players to focus in on the feel that the GM is aiming for in their campaign. Some player may feel that this is heavy handed on the part of the GM but it helps to make characters that fit into the theme better.
Here are the points to consider when getting ready to have players start character generation.
- Background: Character backgrounds are important not only because they give GM’s hooks to build stories from, and in some systems they give actual mechanical advantages to the character. Also the world has enough orphans in gaming.
- Race/Class: These can be the place that most problems spring from. Everyone wants to be a unique magical snowflake. Sometimes it helps to set the mood by removing so many options.
- Skills: In most games this is not a place that much tinkering really needs to go. Some gentle direction can go far. So if you are doing an exploration campaign and none of the characters have those type of skills play it up. having them get lost at the drop of a hat or they have no way to get food in this place and are always hungry.
- Gear: Here again is a place that can use very little. But if you don’t like guns in your fantasy let the players know that. So they don’t come to the game session with a wild west gunslinger idea.
- Character Linkage: Character linkage is how characters know each other. Characters should have a substantial link to at least half the party. Even if the character doesn’t know it outright.
Character Build Best Practices
- Relevant: Make the information relevant to building characters only.
- Clear: The layout should be neat and easy to read.
- Concise: Make it short sweet and to the point in all regards. It doesn’t need to be a poetic edda.
- Updated: Update it regularly. Nothing is as annoying as building a character and finding out there there new options that the GM has added.
- Printed copies: Most people rely on email nowadays to stay up to date about things. Most people will not take the time to read anything long, they will skim it once and forget it. Make sure you have printed copies for each player with their copy of the campaign primer.
Inspiration for this article from Creighton Broadhurst.