Creating and Playing the Opposition (NPCs)
One of your most important jobs as a GM is creating the NPCs who will oppose the PCs and try to keep them from their goals during your scenarios. The real story comes from what the PCs do when worthy adversaries stand between them and their objectives—how far they’re willing to go, what price they’re willing to pay, and how they change as a result of the experience.
As a GM, you want to shoot for a balancing act with the opposing NPCs—you want the players to experience tension and uncertainty, but you don’t want their defeat to be a foregone conclusion. You want them to work for it, but you don’t want them to lose hope.
Take Only What You Need to Survive
First of all, keep in mind that you’re never obligated to give any NPC a full sheet like the ones the PCs have. Most of the time, you’re not going to need to know that much information, because the NPCs aren’t going to be the center of attention like the PCs are. It’s better to focus on writing down exactly what you need for that NPC’s encounter with the PCs, and then fill in the blanks on the fly (just like PCs can) if that NPC ends up becoming more important in the campaign.
The NPC Types
NPCs come in three different flavors: nameless NPCs, supporting NPCs, and main NPCs.
The majority of the NPCs in your campaign world are nameless—people who are so insignificant to the story that the PCs interactions with them don’t even require them to learn a name. The random shopkeeper they pass on the street, the archivist at the library, the third patron from the left at the bar, the guards at the gate. Their role in the story is temporary and fleeting—the PCs will probably encounter them once and never see them again. In fact, most of the time, you’ll create them simply out of reflex when you describe an environment. “The plaza is beautiful at midday, and full of shoppers milling about. There’s a town crier with an extremely shrill, high-pitched voice barking out the local news.”
On their own, nameless NPCs usually aren’t meant to provide much of a challenge to the PCs. You use them like you use a low-difficulty skill roll, mainly as an opportunity to showcase the PCs’ competence. In conflicts, they serve as a distraction or a delay, forcing the PCs to work a little harder to get what they want. Action-adventure stories often feature master villains with an army of mooks. These are the mooks.
For a nameless NPC, all you really need is two or three skills based on their role in the scene. Your average security guard might have Fight and Shoot, while your average clerk might only have Lore. They never get more than one or two aspects, because they just aren’t important enough. They only have one or two stress boxes, if any, to absorb both physical and mental hits. In other words, they’re no match for a typical PC.
Nameless NPCs come in three varieties: Average, Fair, and Good.
- Competence: Rank-and-file order-takers, local conscripts, and the like. When in doubt, a nameless NPC is Average.
- Purpose: Mostly there to make the PCs look more awesome.
- Aspects: One or two.
- Skills: One or two Average (+1).
- Stress: No stress boxes—a one shift hit is enough to take them out.
- Competence: Trained professionals, like soldiers and elite guards, or others whose role in the scene speaks to their experience, such as a sharp-tongued courtier or talented thief.
- Purpose: Drain a few of the players’ resources (one or two fate points, stress boxes, possibly a mild consequence).
- Aspects: One or two.
- Skills: One Fair (+2), and one or two Average (+1).
- Stress: One stress box—a two shift hit is enough to take them out.
- Competence: Tough opposition, especially in numbers.
- Purpose: Drain the players’ resources—as Fair, but more so. Provide a decent stumbling block (in numbers) on the way to a more significant encounter.
- Aspects: One or two.
- Skills: One Good (+3), one Fair (+2), and one or two Average (+1).
- Stress: Two stress boxes—a three shift hit is enough to take them out.
Whenever possible, identical nameless NPCs like to form groups, or mobs. Not only does this better ensure their survival, it reduces the workload on the GM. For all intents and purposes, you can treat a mob as a single unit—instead of rolling dice individually for each of three thugs, just roll once for the whole mob.
See the Teamwork section in the previous chapter to see how mobs can concentrate their efforts to be more effective.
Hits and Overflow
When a mob takes a hit, shifts in excess of what’s needed to take out one NPC are applied to the next NPCs in the mob, one at a time. In this way, it’s entirely possible for a PC to take out a mob of four or five nameless NPCs (or more!) in a single exchange.
When a mob takes enough stress to reduce it to a single NPC, try to have that orphaned NPC join up with another mob in the scene, if it makes sense. (If it doesn’t, just have them flee. Nameless NPCs are good at that.)
Landon and Cynere are set upon by a half-dozen ill-informed street-gang toughs just for walking down the wrong alleyway.
These thugs are nameless NPCs with Notice and Fight skills of Average (+1).
Normally Cynere’s Good (+3) Notice would allow her to act first, but Amanda reasons that the thugs’ ability to surround the PCs gives them the drop. In a big group of six, their Average (+1) Notice is increased by +5 to a Fantastic (+6).
As they make their assault, Amanda splits them into two mobs of three: one for Landon and one for Cynere. Both attack with Good (+3) ratings (Average Fight skill with +2 for the helpers), but neither mob hits.
Cynere goes next. Lily says, “In a flash, Cynere’s sword is in hand and slicing through these punks!” She gets a Great (+4) result with her Fight. Amanda’s first thug mob defends with a Good (+3) (+0 on the dice, Average skill, with +2 for the helpers), so Cynere deals one shift to the mob—enough to take one of them out. There are still two in the mob, though, so they only get +1 for the helper when they attack next.
On Lenny’s turn, Landon deals two shifts to the mob he’s facing, enough to take out two thugs and reducing it from a mob of three to a single nameless NPC.
Nameless NPCs as Obstacles:
An even easier way to handle nameless NPCs is simply to treat them as obstacles: Give a difficulty for the PC to overcome whatever threat the NPC presents, and just do it in one roll. You don’t even have to write anything down, just set a difficulty according to the guidelines in this chapter and Actions and Outcomes, and assume that the PC gets past on a successful roll.
If the situation is more complicated than that, make it a challenge instead. This trick is useful when you want a group of nameless NPCs more as a feature of the scene than as individuals.
Zird wants to convince a group of mages that continuing their research into the Dark Void will doom them all, and possibly the world. Amanda doesn’t want to deal with him needing to convince each mage individually, so she makes a challenge out of them.
The steps of the challenge are: establish your bona fides (Lore), turn them against each other (Deceive), and cow them into submission by preaching doom and gloom (Provoke). She chooses a passive opposition of Great (+4) for the challenge.
NPC First, Name Later
Nameless NPCs don’t have to remain nameless. If the players decide to get to know that barkeep or town crier or security chief or whatever, go ahead and make a real person out of them—but that doesn’t mean that you need to make them any more mechanically complex. If you want to, of course, go ahead and promote them to a supporting NPC. But otherwise, simply giving that courtier a name and a motivation doesn’t mean he can’t go down in one punch.
Aspects: I Don’t Want No Trouble in My Place
Skills: Average (+1) Contacts
￼￼Trained Thug (Fair)
Aspects: The Ways of the Streets, Violent Criminal
Skills: Fair (+2) Fight, Average (+1) Athletics and Physique
Collegia Arcana Court Mage (Good)
Aspects: Haughty Demeanor, Devoted to the Arcane Arts
Skills: Good (+3) Lore, Fair (+2) Deceive, Average (+1) Will and Empathy￼
Supporting NPCs have proper names and are a little more detailed than nameless NPCs, playing a supporting role in your scenarios (hence the name). They often display some kind of strong distinguishing trait that sets them apart from the crowd, because of their relationship to a PC or NPC, a particular competence or unique ability, or simply the fact that they tend to appear in the game a great deal. Many action-adventure stories feature a “lieutenant” character who is the right-hand man of the lead villain; that’s a supporting NPC in game terms. The faces that you assign to the locations you make during game creation are supporting NPCs, as are any characters who are named in one of the PCs’ aspects.
Supporting NPCs are a great source of interpersonal drama, because they’re usually the people that the PCs have a relationship with, such as friends, sidekicks, family, contacts, and noteworthy opponents. While they may never be central to resolving the main dilemma of a scenario, they’re a significant part of the journey, either because they provide aid, present a problem, or figure into a subplot.
Supporting NPCs are made much like nameless NPCs, except they get to have a few more of the standard character elements. These include a high concept, a trouble, one or more additional aspects, one stunt, and the standard two stress tracks with two boxes each. They should have a handful of skills (say four or five). If they have a skill that entitles them to bonus stress boxes, award those as well. They have one mild consequence and, if you want them to be especially tough, one moderate consequence.
Skills for a supporting NPC should follow a column distribution. Because you’re only going to define four or five skills, just treat it as one column. If your NPC has a skill at Great, fill in one skill at each positive step below it—so one Good, one Fair, and one Average skill.
- Skill Levels: A supporting NPC’s top skill can exceed your best PC’s by one or two levels, but only if their role in the game is to provide serious opposition—supporting NPCs who are allied with the PCs should be their rough peers in skill level. (Another action-adventure trope is to make the “lieutenant” character better than the main villain at combat, contrasting brawn to the villain’s brain.)
- Concessions: Supporting NPCs should not fight to the bitter end, given the option. Instead, have them concede conflicts often, especially early in a story, and especially if the concession is something like “They get away.” Conceding like this serves a few purposes. For one, it foreshadows a future, more significant encounter with the NPC. Because conceding comes with a reward of one or more fate points, it also makes them more of a threat the next time they show up. What’s more, it’s virtually guaranteed to pay off for the players in a satisfying way the next time the NPC makes an appearance. “So, Landon, we meet again! But this time it shall not go so easily for you.”
Finally, it implicitly demonstrates to the players that, when things are desperate, conceding a conflict is a viable course of action. A PC concession here and there can raise the stakes and introduce new complications organically, both of which make for a more dramatic, engaging story.
Old Finn, Landon’s mentor
Aspects: Retired Vinfeld Militia Captain, Too Old For This Shit, Landon’s Mentor
Skills: Great (+4) Shoot, Good (+3) Fight, Fair (+2) Will, Average (+1) Athletics
Stunts: Battlefield Expert. Can use Fight to create advantages in large-scale tactical situations.
Teran the Swift, Thief Extraordinaire
Aspects: Cutpurse and Scoundrel, I Just Can’t Help Myself
Skills: Superb (+5) Burglary, Great (+4) Stealth, Good (+3) Lore, Fair (+2) Fight, Average (+1) Physique [Note: 3 physical stress boxes]
Stunts: Inside Man. +2 to Stealth in an indoor, urban environment.
Og the Strong
Aspects: Og Smash!, Og Not Terribly Bright
Skills: Fantastic (+6) Fight, Superb (+5) Physique [Note: 4 physical stress boxes, 1 extra mild consequence for physical conflicts], Great (+4) Athletics
Main NPCs are the closest you’re ever going to get to playing a PC yourself. They have full character sheets just like a PC does, with five aspects, a full distribution of skills, and a selection of stunts. They are the most significant characters in your PCs’ lives, because they represent pivotal forces of opposition or allies of crucial importance. Because they have a full spread of aspects, they also offer the most nuanced options for interaction, and they have the most options to invoke and be compelled. Your primary “bad guys” in a scenario or arc should always be main NPCs, as should any NPCs who are the most vital pieces of your stories.
Because they have all the same things on their sheet as PCs do, main NPCs will require a lot more of your time and attention than other characters. How you create one really depends on how much time you have—if you want, you can go through the whole character creation process and work out their whole backstory through phases, leaving only those slots for “guest starring” open.
Of course, if you want, you can also upgrade one of your current supporting NPCs to a main using this method. This is great for when a supporting NPC has suddenly or gradually become—usually because of the players—a major fixture in the story, despite your original plans for them.
You could also do things more on the fly if you need to, creating a partial sheet of the aspects you know for sure, those skills you definitely need them to have, and any stunts you want. Then fill in the rest as you go. This is almost like making a supporting NPC, except you can add to the sheet during play.
Main NPCs will fight to the bitter end if need be, making the PCs work for every step.
Regarding skill levels, your main NPCs will come in one of two flavors—exact peers of the PCs who grow withthem as the campaign progresses, or superiors to the PCs who remain static while the PCs grow to sufficient strength to oppose them. If it’s the former, just give them the exact same skill distribution the PCs currently have. If it’s the latter, give them enough skills to go at least two higher than whatever the current skill cap is for the game.
So, if the PCs are currently capped at Great (+4), your main NPC badass should be able to afford a couple of Fantastic (+6) columns or a pyramid that peaks at Fantastic.
Likewise, a particularly significant NPC might have more than five aspects to highlight their importance to the story.
Barathar, Smuggler Queen of the Sindral Reach
- Smuggler Queen of the Sindral Reach
- A Mostly Loyal Crew
- Remorse is For the Weak
- “Zird, Why Won’t You Die?”
- My Ship, The Death Dealer
- A Harem of Thugs
- I’ve Got the Law in My Pocket
- Fantastic (+6) Deceive and Fight
- Superb (+5) Shoot and Burglary
- Great (+4) Resources and Will
- Good (+3) Contacts and Notice
- Fair (+2) Crafts and Stealth
- Average (+1) Lore and Physique
Stress: 3 physical boxes, 4 mental boxes
- Takes One to Know One. Use Deceive instead of Empathy to create an advantage in social situations.
- Feint Master. +2 to use Deceive to create an advantage in a physical conflict.
- Riposte. If you succeed with style on a Fight defense, you can choose to inflict a 2-shift hit rather than take a boost.
Playing The Opposition
Here are some tips for using the opposition characters you create in play.
Remember, you want a balancing act between obliterating the PCs and letting them walk all over your opposition (unless it’s a mook horde, in which case that’s pretty much what they’re there for). It’s important to keep in mind not just the skill levels of the NPCs in your scenes, but their number and importance.
Right-sizing the opposition is more of an art than a science, but here are some strategies to help.
- Don’t outnumber the PCs unless your NPCs have comparatively lower skills.
- If they’re going to team up against one big opponent, make sure that opponent has a peak skill two levels higher than whatever the best PC can bring in that conflict.
- Limit yourself to one main NPC per scene, unless it’s a big climactic conflict at the end of an arc. Remember, supporting NPCs can have skills as high as you want.
- Most of the opposition the PCs encounter in a session should be nameless NPCs, with one or two supporting NPCs and main NPCs along the way.
- Nameless and supporting NPCs means shorter conflicts because they give up or lose sooner; main NPCs mean longer conflicts.
Creating Advantages for NPCs
It’s easy to fall into the default mode of using the opposition as a direct means to get in the PCs’ way, drawing them into a series of conflict scenes until someone is defeated.
However, keep in mind that the NPCs can create advantages just like the PCs can. Feel free to use opposition characters to create scenes that aren’t necessarily about stopping the PCs from achieving a goal, but scouting out information about them and stacking up free invocations. Let your bad guys and the PCs have tea together and then bring out the Empathy rolls. Or instead of having that fight scene take place in the dark alley, let your NPCs show up, gauge the PCs’ abilities, and then flee.
Likewise, keep in mind that your NPCs have a home turf advantage in conflicts if the PCs go to them in order to resolve something. So, when you’re setting up situation aspects, you can pre-load the NPC with some free invocations if it’s reasonable that they’ve had time to place those aspects. Use this trick in good faith, though—two or three such aspects is probably pushing the limit.
Change Venues of Conflict
Your opposition will be way more interesting if they try to get at the PCs in multiple venues of conflict, rather than just going for the most direct route. Remember that there are a lot of ways to get at someone, and that mental conflict is just as valid as physical conflict as a means of doing so. If the opposition has a vastly different skill set than one or more of your PCs, leverage their strengths and choose a conflict strategy that gives them the best advantage.
For example, someone going after Landon probably doesn’t want to confront him physically, because Fight and Athletics are his highest skills. He’s not as well equipped to see through a clever deception, however, or handle a magical assault on his mind. Zird, on the other hand, is best threatened by the biggest, nastiest bruiser possible, someone who can strike at him before he has a chance to bring his magic to bear.