We played another round of the cold war game on Monday. It was a slightly compressed session, but it ended up going pretty well. It also ended up cementing my understanding of what had been the stumbling block for me with espionage, and it reinforced some baseline realities of how I look at games, things that it’s important for me to remember.
I’m a pretty good GM, but I’m at my best when I have a fairly rich tableau populated with well-motivated NPCs who feel as alive as possible to the players. This is difficult to establish instantly - it requires introducing the NPCs, letting the players develop opinions and relationships, then allowing the NPCs to “settle in” to the setting in sch a way that they feel like a natural part of it. Once this has been accomplished with enough NPCs (what I think of as critical mass), then the game will round a corner for me where things get both easier and better.
With this critical mass of NPCs, I can worry far less about plots and sessions and approach things far more improvisationally. By keeping the NPCs in mind and in play, their interests and actions (and their intersection with PCs interests and actions) combined with a decent sense of the dramatic can very easily maintain a near-constant stream of interesting, meaningful play. Meaningful is kind of a key word here, as the meaning in question hinges upon the “reality” of the setting - for the NPCs (who in many ways really _are_ the setting) dynamics to be a driving force, then players need to be invested in them for this to work.
This means that this approach works much better for certain games than others. Specifically, games that abstract the process, or lay bare the NPCs as constructs, tend to be a mismatch for this approach. They can still be great games, but I definitely approach them differently. But mechanics are only part of the equation - setting and tone can both have a huge impact on how well this model works and how quickly critical mass is achieved.
Without realizing it, this was exactly problem I’d been encountering with my Cold War game, the problem that was creating a vague sense of frustration that I couldn’t pin down. The problem is that because I was trying to enforce the “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side” theme of the game, I tended to use NPCs very shallowly rather than allow them to form relationships. At this point in the game I have perhaps six or eight NPCs established that i can work with, and that’s pretty anemic. And tellingly, the past two sessions (both of which have been fantastic) were basically a result of me cheating and putting five of them in play and letting the ball roll.
A great point of contrast for this is the Amber DRPG, which more or less starts play at or near critical mass. It’s setting is really a list of about 20+ characters with strong and weak ties to the PCs who are an excellent mix of familiar (from the books and other games) and mysterious (since the loose framework leaves the question of GM interpretation of character specifics on the table) which allow for dynamic play to begin very quickly. This is, in many ways, one of the reasons Amber remains such a potent touchpoint for me.
What’s more interesting is that this distinction, between my cold war game and Amber, has nothing to do with mechanics. I could very easily run either game in the other system (quite seriously) and the problems and benefits would remain Identical.
This is not to say mechanics can’t help with this. Aspects and similar mechanics can help provide pointers to NPCs to help build to critical mass faster. Heck, one of my favorite things about Leverage is that is quickly builds a similar dynamic for a given job - it’s not as deep as a full NPC mesh, but it’s usable in a lot of the same ways. But for me, the thing I need to remember is my own advice: everything in the game has faces. Bring those faces to life, and the game takes care of itself.