Use ’em or Lose ’em: Getting Your Players to Use In-Game Allies 

. 07.06.2016 . 0 Comments
Flash Fiction

The chamber was dark and far colder than the rooms below had been, this one continuously being chilled by the buffeting winds that rattled the boarded up windows of the old cathedral and carried up to the lofty tower the freezing vaporous breath of the churning gray-green waters below.  The four living occupants exchanged grim expressions over the body of the fifth.  What had the hooded figure been up to?  He must have known escape would be impossible from this lofty space, with its single point of egress in the floor.  But blades had been unsheathed before words, and the four had surmounted the ladder in their zealous pursuit and put an end to their quarry with hardly a syllable uttered.  Deduction was their only recourse now, their only lead having been reduced to a handful of personal effects and a corpse. They hastily scrutinized the scene in the waning electrical light of their pocket lamps.  Did any of them recognize that odd geometric tatoo on the body’s left palm? No.  Could any one of them read the foreign scribblings in the old pocketbook he was clutching when he died?  No.  Only one of the triangular vials found sewn within the lining of the dead man’s clothing remained intact enough for inspection, but it’s purpose and dark glaucous contents persisted as a mystery to them all.  A communal shiver danced with prickling feet across the room, born less from the gale without and more from the two words within that they all refused to be the first to say.  Without outside help all their efforts had produced a dead end.

Do you remember that one guy?

One of the things that I have struggled with as a GM over the years is how to get your players to utilize the relationships that they make in game both for their own benefit and to open doors for future richer character development.  It seems that a viscous combination of poor retention of past game events coupled with the slightly higher effort required to get in touch with past characters makes the idea of reaching out to NPC allies a very rare occurrence in my games.  I can conceive of this problem also occurring in instances where you are playing with PCs that are used to one-off games, and may have the expectation that the solution to any given challenge can be found in the material given to them that session and as a consequence have blinders on to other social strings that they may pull in their favor.  We as GMs can’t rationally fit into each session shout outs to all of our other great NPCs that we have designed, nor should we direct out players towards one path over another, which leaves us with a load of great potential allies that sit on the shelves collecting dust.

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So as a solution to this in my most recent campaign I started treating allies that my players make in a much more rigid equipment like way.  As allies and friends are made in-game I determine which PC(s) acts as their handler or point of contact and have my players keep a list of these names.  In addition, next to the names I tell them a set of skills this person possesses with a rating for each.  For example:

Merriam Lodge
     – Animal Handler [insert system specific skill rating]
     – Local Historian [insert system specific skill rating]

Geo “Red” Redcarver
     – Weapons Dealer [insert system specific skill rating]
     – Black Market Contacts [insert system specific skill rating]

There may not be a specific skill that corresponds to the things that the NPC ally can offer, so I have been just using a generic point scale just to let the player know how influential or skillful their contact is in that particular field.

This change has had a couple of added benefits that I didn’t really consider when I first started.  Firstly it allows characters that are really 1 dimensional like your classic BDF to bring more to the table than just their muscles and secondly it forces even characters with no social skills at all to try and have a positive interaction once and a while.  If you really wanted to be ambitious with this you might even try incorporating a limit on the number of allies a particular character can have, and have that number be based on a social statistic.  Thus rewarding the social character with a greater pool of friends to call in favors from.

Anyway, I found this to be helpful in my games.  Sometimes it is far easier for players to think about table top games as a set of rules rather than a set of interactions, and so while this is not a huge change it does help bridge those two mindsets and find a happier middle ground.

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Have you had a problem getting use out of great NPCs due to a lack of voluntary PC interaction?  Do you have any thoughts on how to improve this rule?  Let me know in the comments below, or tweet to me @Tanz444.


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Category: Game Mastering

About the Author ()

Tanz is an enthusiastic GM, Blogger, and avid table top gamer with over 15 years of experience. His first brush with tabletop gaming was with Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Ed. Over the years he has transitioned from player to GM, and has run many types of game systems favoring games that bend toward horror and with a supernatural twist in contemporary settings. His DM style is one that leans heavily towards adventure path style play, preferring to give players options rather than unrestricted 'sandbox' style play or narration on rails. He regularly engages with the tabletop gaming community on twitter @Tanz444, his articles can be seen on various digital venues, and loves to GM at conventions whenever possible.

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