Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The "Zero NPC Moment"

This post is partially based off something that was posted on the NCN boards, and something that I had discussed with Mickey when podcasting.

I know a lot of people think the best plot is intense with combat, intense with roleplay, and probably has some interesting modules to go with it. And don't get me wrong, plot like that can be great. But really, the best plot lines can be identified as those who hit the "Zero NPC moment." That is, the moment when your plot is entertaining the PCs without requiring any NPCs. Zero.

The ZNM is the point in time where your plot drives itself while you don't have anyone in town. PCs are actually talking to each other, comparing notes, coming up with conclusions, planning tactics to come, or writing documents of some kind for political/diplomatic encounter to come. In all of those instances, you get the singularity point where the PCs are perpetually IG, with a focus, while you can give your NPCs a breather or focus on players who might be involved in something else.

Now, the post at NCN focused on how the plot shuts down on purpose so that players can, nay, MUST entertain themselves for an hour by roleplaying (but there are some NPCs that come in, so it's not completely shut down). This is a mistake, and I'll tell you why.

I am a huge proponent of "Everyone plays the game for a different reason, and that's ok". As I've said before, the guy who likes to roleplay super hardcore is doing it has a right to play that way, just as much as the guy who is really only there to hit things with sticks. Forcing players to roleplay is just as bad as forcing people to fight while precluding roleplay.

So what does this have to do with the ZNM? If your plot has reached that level, players will step outside their bounds organically. Stick jocks will start to roleplay, and roleplayers will tense up with anticipation of fighting. Players will stay in game, roleplaying with each other, and their discussions will focus around the plots that you have written. They'll be working on a solution. They'll be mending fences to have everyone on the same page. Some personal RP will organically happen, in the form of "Hey, I didn't know you were into those things, so am I. Let's chill." Most of all, they will be enthralled and entertained for some period of time without any help from NPCs.

I will discuss in a future post with some tricks on how to reach the legendary ZNM.

Note: The entire plotline cannot be a ZNM. Obviously, it needs more. But PCs having a ZNM is a strong indicator that you are doing it right.


  1. Obviously, I agree with this. I'd go so far as to say that one of the main goals of any plot I run is to hit the ZNM, as you put it. I write and execute in ways meant to get PCs to want and need to interact with each other when I'm not around. To give them something *meaningful* to roleplay about that creates emotion and focus and deepens immersion. PCs bond or fracture when presented with something worth being emotional or passionate about far more quickly and interestingly then if left to their own devices to randomly chitchat about the weather.

    Anyway, I'm basically just repeating what you wrote at this point, but wanted to chime in with how important I think writing to create the ZNM is. It's a force multiplier for your efforts to entertain.

  2. I'd be interested to see tips about how to reach this moment. I agree that these moments make the good plotlines really good, but in all my years of trying to create good plot, I don't feel that I've had much control over when something reaches a ZNM. When I try to make something where the players can plot, plan, and scheme, they just seem confused and stop trying to investigate. Whereas when I think something is obvious, players start planning and scheming up a storm (often coming up with super interesting ideas I steal in the process :) ) My guess is I'm trying too hard to force the intrigue, so if there is a way to do this reliably, I'm all ears :)

  3. Latest blog post to the contrary, I'm not a big writing sort of guy (hence the podcast), so I'll try and sum up what I think the main way to generate this effect is. In short, you want PCs in a position to make *meaningful* decisions in which more than one option is potentially valid. Often this is a moral choice, but it can also be a strategic or tactical one. Regardless of what it is, it needs to affect the outcome of the plotline in a way that PCs perceive as significant.

    So, many many many plotlines in NERO are one version or another of the following:

    Bad thing happens. PCs investigate bad thing. PCs eventually figure out bad thing (possibly through multiple sources). PCs discover way to defeat bad thing. PCs do 5 step process to defeat bad thing. Bad thing is killed.

    Seriously, that's the formula for 90% of NERO. Now, it's not inherently bad, but it usually lacks actual choices. You'll note that at no point in that formula do PCs really decide anything. They might decide how to investigate, but that's not a meaningful choice, that's just resource allocation. Deciding to kill the bad thing is also usually not a meaningful choice, either because it's out of self-preservation or because it's a heroic fantasy genre so heroes kill villains. And so often villains are overly ridiculous conglomerations of monster types who have little about them that is interesting except for their stats so who cares if they die? It's not a meaningful decision to go after the undead fey rift monster who kidnaps people and tortures them. Of course you're going to, why else pay to play?

    Anyway, the point is, if all choices are basically pre-selected, then the only meaningful discussion that can happen is putting together the clues to solve the mystery part of the plotline. And that's good, you can get a *lot* of mileage out of how you present information, but your goal is not just the intellectual exercise of a game of Clue, you want a visceral emotional experience as well to really get people fired up. And for that you need people to affect things with hard decisions made after three hours of discussion.

  4. I think the key word here is agency. PCs are usually only involved in the "how" of an issue, and their decisions only affect details of the how (if they get to make decisions at all).

    Like Mickey said, you can still have neat and interesting plot this way, but to have truly engaging and compelling plot it's good to have the PCs able to make meaningful decisions about the whats, whys, and hows. It's also important to keep this goal in mind for targeted, smaller-scale plot, not just the main storyline. It's especially useful for helping followers to get out of their comfort zones and become leaders, even if it's only of their particular niche in the plot.

  5. I think you might be looking at this the wrong way. To me, ZNM is a symptom of a good game, rather than a goal. If you do well and the PC's are into it, and a few other variables are right, then ZNM can happen, as can other positive effects.

    It's nice when it happens, but it's not something you can necessarily regulate. Or should seek to. It's part of the journey, not the end of it.

    Still, I could be wrong. I look forward to hearing your tips and tricks on this!

  6. I look at it kind of like this; the overall goal is not ZNM. The overall goal is to tell a compelling and engaging story. However, the things necessary to reliably create ZNM are the same things that almost inevitably lead to an engaging and compelling story so ZNM is basically a tangible proxy goal for your real overall goal. Aim for zero NPC moments, create the circumstances necessary for them to happen in a good way, and you almost are required to craft a fantastic plotline.

  7. "Writing good plot" is totally subjective and has no real means of measurement. The ZNM, while a symptom of running a good game, is a discrete event that exists.

    Companies don't make goals like "be a good company." They make goals where success can be measured, like "have 10% growth of revenue." Another term that could be used in place of 'goal' is 'metric'.

    That's why plot teams should be striving for an indicator that they're running a good game. And ZNM is one of those indicators.

  8. On he ncn forums the discussion was not about "shutting down plot" it was about the reduction or stopping of attacks and mods. A very distinct difference.
    Plot never "shuts down" and as I think you are saying it achieves a life of its own that can be sustained through times of limited action.
    But just as running plot is a learned ability PC's sometimes need to be instructed in the art of continuing the story on their own.
    Some of the best games I have played have been accompanied by player's complaining about down time. It was not the fault of the plot, but rather the fault of previous teams over the years that taught players NERO was a combat game and if there wasn't a fight every 15 minutes it was a bad game. This is a reality with many NERO players and they need more than a zero npc moment , they need to be toldabout and taught another NERO. You can run all the awesome plot you want but if your players think not fighting means "too much downtime" it will not overcome it without further dialog on the subject. The zero npc moment becomes as relivent as Utopia without it.

  9. I don't disagree with you about the fact that constant aggression is not necessarily the best strategy. However, your post specifically said that the PCs need to learn to carry the story on by themselves. And some of the responses to that were in the form of people telling others how to play the game correctly - of which there is no true answer.

    Truth is, many PCs do roleplay during the unscheduled downtime that exists. They tell stories, they catch up with one another, or they make new friends, all IG. In my experience, people stop roleplaying and start being out-of-game once they've exhausted their personal supply of RP and don't have any externally created RP available. Everyone's stock of personal roleplay is different, and some people need more external stimulation than others in order to stay in game. Nothing can be done about this.

    The solution isn't to force downtime. It's to stop sending NPCs into the supposed "safe" areas where this personal roleplay exists (which is just as important and worthy of it's own post). You can keep having wandering monsters out there, but not have them attack the tavern. If players feel like they need to run out the door and kill every goblin that shows up in a half mile radius, then that means they want to kill things instead of whatever they were doing. Players are perfectly capable of sitting back and continuing their RP given the option, if that's what they prefer to do.