The Dangers of the Game Shepherd NPC

One of the things we’ve learned pretty quickly about introducing a player or group to a world they’ve never played in before is that they might not really know what the place is like. Not everyone reads the setting info cover to cover, after all. This is usually where we bring in the Game Shepherd NPC—and that is where the difficulties begin.

The first problem with the game shepherd is the careful balance she has to maintain between the extremes of being the load and looking like a DMPC. Most people, once the concept of DMPC has been explained to them, tend to err on the side of less powerful, recognizing that the point of these sorts of characters is not to overshadow the PCs themselves, and certainly not to be a walking ego trip to the GM. On the other hand, it’s easy to overcompensate and make them too weak—and while there are ways to make a group like a character who endangers them through her incompetence, it makes for a titanic handicap if you want the character to be liked.

The second is knowing when to exposit and when to shut up, particularly when the situation requires thinking through a problem. Granted, an overly silent NPC can easily come across as somewhat stupid—which would only be more aggravating if the players themselves are completely stuck. On the other hand, answering the question before it’s asked, expositing without call to do so, and expounding on the obvious just don’t go over well. Noting the obvious is particularly obnoxious; if the character isn’t aware that the people she’s talking to already figured out what’s going on, she looks stupid and oblivious, and if she is, she looks condescending. Neither is a good trait for someone the group’s supposed to want to work with.

What about autonomy? Since the game shepherd is going to be guiding the PCs right the way through, she’s going to need to have good reason to stand by them—but on the other hand, if you’re not careful, she might look like she has no existence whatsoever aside from explaining things to the PCs and carefully nudging them in the right direction when necessary.

Then there’s personality. While you’ll want to make sure it’s not the kind of personality that will cause the PCs to kick the game shepherd out of the group through sheer annoyance, there should probably be one—a good game shepherd is one the characters would want to associate with anyway, and who wants to associate with someone who has no personality? Having personality also means you can get distinct, evolving social dynamics between PCs and NPC, which makes the NPC more interesting and as a result more worth keeping around on her own merits.

Game shepherds aren’t impossible to run; if I can pull it off on my first real GMing attempt, it can’t be that hard, right? But knowing what the pitfalls are makes it a lot easier to know how to avoid them.

7 comments

  1. Lugh says:

    It’s definitely a tricky balance. There are a couple options I have used.

    In a modern or sci-fi game, the game shepherd stays at home base (or in the ship). The party calls in when they have a question. The shepherd otherwise mostly interacts with them during downtime.

    The game shepherd is a demon or fae spirit trapped in an item. It is very knowledgeable and bound to tell the truth. It is also hateful (though preferably in dry, sardonic way, voiced by Tim Curry). It won’t volunteer information, though it may volunteer color commentary. (Bob from the Dresden Files is a pretty good model.)

    The game shepherd is a member of the clueless rich. She also acts as the party’s patron, covering expenses and whatnot. She is useless in a fight, and largely useless at any physical activity. In a novel, you would see grudging respect and affection growing over the course of the story. This kind of relationship is very tricky to pull off in an RPG, though.

    Finally, the game shepherd is actually a PC. This is especially good for the scholarly type. When an info drop is needed, speak it through the PC’s mouth.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Good ideas.

    I tend to avoid the third one, though; if they’re completely useless in a fight, that means someone has to protect them, and that might push them into Load territory, particularly if they have enemies. I think it works better if the character is useful in a way other than being able to throw money at things.

    Re tricky to pull of: In an RPG, the key is to make sure the character has qualities that the PCs are likely to respect eventually. One of my GMs at one point stuck a group I was playing in with a character who…. well, her first appearance painted her as having a view on other people that hit one of my PC’s berserk buttons, she more often than not came across as terminally clueless (in a game where half the cast were professional spymasters), she was one of those rare NPCs who actually managed to win an NPC/PC/PC love triangle (guess who lost?), her competence was boosted massively in an amount of time that felt like it devalued the initial builds and backstories of the actual PCs, *breathes* …but because she tried, because she recognized her flaws and respected the skills (and potential for teaching) of her counterparts, and because of a mess of other character traits, by the time we hit arc 2, she was one of my favorite NPCs. In my groups, intelligence, wit, snark, and a little bit of underdog flavor do the job. Your campaign may vary.

    And game-shepherd PCs–I may need to come back to that. I’ve done a few variants, and some had… interesting results.

  3. Lugh says:

    IMHO, one of the best ways to balance \useless in a fight\ and \burden on the party\ is to employ a bit of script immunity. The basic action of the useless PC is to hide and cower until the fighting stops. So long as that is the only action of the PC, she won’t get targeted by the bad guys. Area-effect weapons might still be an issue, and any enemies that are specifically targeting the NPC for story reasons. But, it largely becomes a wash in combat, because the NPC is effectively ignored by both sides.

  4. Ravyn says:

    That makes sense, though I found that my players were likelier to come to respect ones who could take care of themselves and/or could be worked into nifty tag-team actions against their opponents. (I encouraged this; it meant I didn’t have to think about them quite so much.) I think I favored characters like–well, like one of my current PCs, actually, difficult to injure but practically incapable of ending a fight or doing much beyond softening the opponent up a little. Total defense builds are a pain in the neck for PCs, but for NPCs? Every now and then they come in handy.


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