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The Juror NPC

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On March 13, 2012 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

Stop! Hammertime...In many legal systems (particularly Anglo-American ones), a jury’s job is to answer questions of fact, while a judge’s job is to answer questions of law. This distinction is important, especially when a case is vague, convoluted, or has conflicting testimony and evidence. The lawyers build their cases (and tear down each other’s), and the jury uses the evidence to determine the facts of the case.

(If you’ve had some experience with the legal system, you already know this. Oh, and my apologies for your lost innocence.)

Many of us GMs love mysteries, especially the Big Reveal when the party finds out they’ve been barking up the wrong tree. But sometimes, as the party unravels the latest whodunit, they fixate on one or two pieces of evidence, or try to bend the facts to fit them to a predetermined conclusion. Even overwhelming evidence to the contrary will not dissuade them from their convictions.

This is potentially a Bad Thing. Because either the dots are too confused to connect, or the group is just incapable of connecting them, the whole awesome-until-this-point storyline is about to collapse.

One option at this point is to evolve, and let the chips fall where they may. If you as the GM can handle the fallout, and the party is going to survive their failure to connect the dots, then this may be your best option. Roll with it; failure can be fun.

But what if the party’s failure means The End Of The World As We Know It, or something equally disastrous, all because the GM underestimated the party’s ability to solve a mystery? (Or because someone didn’t take good notes.)

Enter the Juror NPC

The Juror is someone the party trusts, who can help them determine questions of fact, usually by asking questions about the evidence (and the sources thereof). For instance: “Didn’t y’all just find out that the Ambassador of Upper Calumny has been lying the entire time?” or “Do you have proof that Finn McCool was the thief, or just a suspicion?”. Sometimes the party needs an objective (and trusted) view of their evidence to help them discern the facts behind it.

Use a light touch with your Juror NPC. Don’t point out the group’s mistakes, but ask the questions until they see them.

The Juror NPC approach has a few risks:

  • Overuse. When you use a Juror, you are stealing some of the players’ thunder. If you repeatedly need to use one, it’s probably time to simplify your mysteries and limit your red herrings.
  • Trust, or the lack thereof. If all of your NPCs eventually turn on the party, the group will suspect the Juror as well. 
  • Becoming a GMNPC. Don’t let the Juror overshadow the characters. He or she should be an advisor. Professors and bartenders make good Jurors, because they are not in competition with the party.

Have you ever used an NPC to help the party piece together the puzzle, or connect the dots, or complete a metaphor? Got any other advice to offer? Think it’s too much like railroading? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

(Image courtesy of Stock.XCHNG.)

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Juror NPC"

#1 Comment By Tsenn On March 13, 2012 @ 5:41 am

That’s some good thinking there. I can already see ways to apply it to Shadowrun and Rogue Trader. Buying a bunch of gear for a job, but you think they’ve overlooked something vital? Give a contact a customer service moment, and make a suggestion. RT is even easier – an NPC seneschal or eager young bridge officer are just two possibilities.

#2 Comment By Riklurt On March 13, 2012 @ 7:11 am

I do this all the time! Usually, my game group almost always contains some permanent NPC fixture – a hireling, a henchman, or a friend, something of the sort – who can gently nudge players in the right direction by merely asking them questions and bouncing ideas.

The trick, I find, is to let the NPC be reasonably smart but not terribly ambitious. It can be hard to find the balance between “overshadows the players” and “useless baggage”, but once you find it, such a permanent NPC can be very useful to have around. As a few examples, I’ve used:

*A retired warrior who’s now an alcoholic. Powerful and wise enough to help out in a pinch, but unreliable enough that the PCs can’t trust that he’ll be there when they need him – and even when he is, his age makes him an inferior fighter to them.
*A spy with only basic combat training but excellent memory. She didn’t have access to any more information than the PCs did, but she conveniently remembered obscure clues that the players had forgotten.
*A noblewoman who was native to the land where the story took place, but without any sort of combat abilities. Unlike the PCs, though, she knew the culture – which allowed her to be a bit of a walking encyclopedia on local lore.

In my opinion, it rarely feels like railroading. Primarily because the NPC very often only answers questions that the GM might answer anyway, like “Did we see any footprints at the camp? I don’t remember.” – but with an NPC, you can stay in character when you ask it.

#3 Comment By TheCartographer On March 13, 2012 @ 7:14 am

I’ve just used this technique myself, though I didn’t have any language to categorize it. I have been running a game set in a modern-day version of “Arkham Horror” (a board game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work), using the World of Darkness ruleset. Being a horror-inspired game, there is a lot of mystery, and I’ve found myself needing to help push the characters slightly in one direction or another. It worked out well, in the manner described above, because one of the characters is a practicing Catholic and ever other session or so goes to speak with his priest. I was able to use the priest for a few of those diagnostic questions directed back at the party. No complaints (thus far) from the players on stealing their thunder, being railroaded, etc., though much like you advocate, I did my best to use a light touch.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On March 13, 2012 @ 9:29 am

Yep, I use this guy as well, but in the case of Delta Green it isn’t enough because the plot lines get all twisty and wound together.

A recent game that twisted a local police case in with an FBI concern *and* a Delta Green mythos plot (actually three mini plots that circled each other) had the players lost in the byways of supposition and the assumption it was All Dun By Magic. I call this “going D&D” and it is a constant problem caused by, believe it or not, too much buy-in of the arcane side of the game.

Real World investigators would not run to the weird as the *first* option, but at the table there’s a disconnect because we are not in the real world any more. Figuring out how much unreal is in action is part of the game, but is difficult for the players to properly assess without real-world style feedback.

I found that making a whiteboard and asking the players to write what they think in terms of who, what, where and how helped them properly collate the information they already had but were keeping in a form that overwhelmed them.

Then I ask them to review the result with respect to what their characters *know*, what they can *prove* in a court of law and what they *suspect* differentiated.

This was particularly apt as the game is part police procedural (in a way all games of Call of Cthulhu are).

Cases solved and closed, and threat to world put in abeyance in two and a half hours.

Put another way, they had all but finished the game but didn’t know it, and were becoming demoralized as a result.

The gestalt think-in the whiteboard generated was totally worth the two hours of recap and rethink that went on with me only peripherally involved.

I love watching these players in action. They make the game worth the effort I put into it.

#5 Comment By BishopOfBattle On March 13, 2012 @ 10:28 am

I used this method a few months ago. The team had a job to break in to a building and steal some data and they had a GREAT plan. It was plausible, covered several ways things could go wrong, it was very well thought out; only problem was it only really involved two of the six players, with the other four just waiting in the wings in case something went disastrously wrong or performing tacked on tasks that really had no impact on the mission.

I got the players together for a planning phase to “rethink” the job with the group and one of their (NPC) friends who was helping out with the intent (stated to them before hand) to turn the job into more of an “Ocean’s 11″ type job with lots of specific, moving parts. The NPC helped keep the team on track as they tended to gravitate towards choices that kept to their original plan and worked as sort of a “discussion with the GM” to come up with a plan that would keep everyone entertained.

#6 Comment By Ben Scerri On March 13, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

I have to stress with this idea that you cannot let the players rely on the Juror! In a campaign I am planning, I am setting the PCs up in the basement of a tavern which is secretly owned by a crippled Grey Wizard (it is WFRP 2nd) who couldn’t continue his job because he was injured during the Storm of Chaos. So, the Grey Order sends out the PCs.

But, as he is a man who has worked the city streets for years and is a ‘better’ wizard than the party wizard, he will act as a Juror and Mentor, although in a gruff “I’m too old for this” kind of way. He can’t fight (except from behind the bar when defending the tavern with his magic) nor can he really go anywhere, but he is a wealth of knowledge. However, he is also begrudging to help the PCs too much, for he thinks so long as he keeps his nose out of things, the horrors from the Storm might not come back to get him after all…

#7 Comment By Jharviss On March 13, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

I must foremost say that, as a person who lives in Austin, TX, and consistently finds myself using “y’all” in somewhat out-of-place contexts, I was quite happy to see “y’all” used here. Thanks for also being an Austinite, Kurt!

I often find myself over-using the Juror NPC as well, but more often as a solid sounding board for the PCs. My players are almost all A-type personalities, and each player gets a different idea for a direction to go. I use the juror NPC to bring them all together and give them a solid direction. (I say “juror NPC” when I should say “juror NPCs,” as I use a lot of them.)

Cheers & Gears!

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 14, 2012 @ 10:43 am

Thanks for the replies and kudos. I found myself doing this a few times, and overstepped on one of them, so I somewhat formalized it.

@Tsenn – Since nearly every setting has some kind of social interaction with neutral or friendly NPCs, there are a lot of ways to slot one in. Good point on those particular settings.

@Riklurt – Most of my Juror NPCs stay at a home base (bar, university, etc), but there’s no reason why one can’t travel with the party. I’d suggest merging them with Martin’s “Good GMPC” concept from the old Treasure Tables site.

@TheCartographer – “Nudge” is an excellent word here. The GM isn’t saying that you need to take another look at the facts, an NPC is.

@Roxysteve – As a former employee of a tech startup, I applaud (and strongly recommend) the use of the whiteboard.

@BishopOfBattle – Including the entire party in a harebrained scheme is always commendable.

@Ben Scerri – Agreed! Over-reliance is a Bad Thing. More than one of mine has said “How the hell should I know what to do next? You’re the Big Damn Heroes.”

@Jharviss – Howdy! Good to hear from a fellow Austinite. I hadn’t considered the “all officers and no troops” aspect, but yes it could be used to facilitate a single plan of action.

And nobody noticed the “Fight Club” reference? Yeesh…

#9 Comment By randite On March 14, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

I’ve been on both sides of the screen with “Juror” type NPCs and I’ve found them to be great as “in character” sounding boards and faulty logic alarms so long as they remain decidedly “in character.” The abused and recently-rescued kidnap victim, for instance, probably wont volunteer anything thoughts no matter how obvious the misjudgments of the PCs.

Though I always prefer to stay in character, sometimes there just isn’t anybody else (NPCs) around. In those situations I have no problem being a sounding board or working with the players to point out the difference between what the character’s know and what they suspect or to just give ‘em a quick rundown of events/clues. When hashing these things out with the players so I always try and keep in mind the PCs various prejudices, philosophies, and beliefs. To say it another way, I try and skew the sounding board to be shaped like the PCs. If I have the luxury of a small enough group, I’ll try and do this with each player, individually.

Though we’ve never directly addressed it, I suppose we always just took the above-mentioned sounding board discussions to be an externalizing of the character’s inner monologue. We’re both sort of roleplaying the character at the same time.

@Roxysteve I’ve also found that having a police procedural or legal aspect really sort of acts as a built in “Juror.” The characters don’t get bogged down as much because they already have to look at everything through different lenses, what they know/suspect/feel and what they can legally prove. It creates a great dichotomy to keep things from getting bogged down (not to mention some fantastic drama when it comes down to morality vs law).

#10 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2012-03-16 On March 16, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

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#11 Comment By Loonook On March 19, 2012 @ 4:58 am

I personally have wandered away from the use of NPCs in this role and just riff with the players on the biological/smoke break. I don’t really like having to have my GMPCs involved in this sort of way, but I also DM for a goodly amount of DMs and/or players who have DM’ed heavily in their past so a lot of the questions we deal with are just sort of in need of bouncing ideas… And I don’t necessarily want the contrivance there.

Now if the players wish for such things, I would have no issue placing a sounding board in, but usually we can organically get together and go with it.

Slainte,

-Loonook.


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