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Pulling the Trigger on NPC Timelines

A few weeks back I wrote about how to quickly hammer out a series of timelines for NPC factions for your game [1]. In the course of using the timelines I’d made I found myself asking the question: “How do I know when to pull the trigger on the next stage of the timeline?”

The easy answers are “Whenever is dramatically appropriate”, “Whenever you feel like it.” or even “When the stars are right”. For me though, that wasn’t quite a good enough answer. I like to have things planned out loosely because I have a tendency to forget to set events in motion if there’s no reminder.

The answer I came up with is a simple and widely applicable system. After building your timelines, you assign a number of points to each step. The NPC group in question has to accumulate that number of points to begin the next phase of the timeline. These points are arbitrary and can represent anything you want. “6 points” can be “6 artifacts”, “247 cultists”, “$5.2 million”, or whatever you want. As you write each adventure, in the “victory conditions” or what passes for them, include how many points each group gets toward their current timeline, depending on what happened in the adventure. You can also simply evaluate how many to had out post-game if you don’t fancy guessing how the game will go down beforehand. Again, this is arbitrary and you can fiat it whenever you like, it’s just a rough framework and it helps you to get a feel for the state of where various plans currently are.

Something important to remember is that any factions that the PCs aren’t currently opposing during the adventure probably get some points simply to represent time to pursue their goals unmolested. This means that if the PCs are dealing with multiple NPC groups, the only way to keep all the groups stymied is for the PCs to deal them defeats that are so crushing that they actually lose “progress points” otherwise, they slowly work their way to success while the PCs’ attention is elsewhere.

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6 Comments To "Pulling the Trigger on NPC Timelines"

#1 Comment By bif On January 13, 2011 @ 2:54 am

Great advice! I also like the countdown clock from Apocalypse World. It’s an easy way for me to visualize what’s going on while setting conditional triggers to advance “the clock.” It anchors progress specific story details. Tasty stuff.

#2 Comment By bif On January 13, 2011 @ 2:55 am

[2] – ^…progress in specific…

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 13, 2011 @ 7:31 am

NPC benchmarks are an excellent way to advance the story and keep it interesting. This is a great suggestion.

I find the last part of the post — basically advancing NPC goals/achievements during adventure “downtime” to be the most useful.

The main villain in my Steffenhold campaign, for example, can be counted on to keep scheming everytime the PCs go exploring/dungeon crawling. Heck, the players even expect it, coming back to town and asking: What’s she been up to now?

#4 Comment By lomythica On January 13, 2011 @ 7:53 am

Great idea!

I have been using the template suggestion from DNAphils post on templates for stories. I am going to add faction and npc timelines to my template. I think this will. Be really handy for sandbox games to give that vibe that the world keeps on going regardless of the pcs, and ensures that everything doesn’t revolve around PCs.

#5 Comment By Jeff Carlsen On January 13, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

It seems that everything always comes back to the victory point system from Heroes of Battle. In many ways, what you’re talking about is similar to that.

To sum it up:

Players attempt to achieve objectives.

Each objective is worth so many victory points.

The total outcome of the battle or war is based on the total number of victory points earned. Low points might mean failure, medium points might mean success with devastating losses, and a high number of points might be an overwhelming success.

Under your system, it works for both players and NPCs, which is a nice unifying mechanic. It’s even how I would run a Skill Challenge. But you’re missing a valuable piece.

Victory points always relate to a tangible objective. In a battle, it would be killing an enemy general, or taking a defensive point on the field. For NPC objectives, points should always represent something the NPCs have accomplished. This lends to better storytelling and a more cohesive world. It also serves as an adventure hook for the players.

Basically, I think you’re on the correct path, but it’s still just a little too abstract.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On January 13, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

Oh man I’m in need of good advice on this front! I’m running a Delta Green campaign in which the players are navigating the years during which DG gets plowed under and is reborn.

The sheer number of NPC conspiracies that have sprung up in addition to the handful described in the sourcebook has completely caught me without m’dodge bonus to AC and no mistake.

I’ve got conspiracies within conspiracies, NPC groups in mutual to-the-death struggles for clandestine supremacy and the players only make things worse with their note-passing shenanigans!

Things actually got simpler when I figured out that some of these secret societies and cults could be handled as mirrors of the various PC groups I’ve had over the years rather than the usual omnipotent band of geniuses that makes just *one* untimely mistake …

Now my players have to face NPC organisation who can act capriciously (while still having a legitimate and believable overall agenda of course).

But keeping them all tootling along is proving to be a nightmare. I took 2D6 SAN loss just writing up the session notes last time (two copies – one for the players and one with all the behind-the-green-curtain stuff left in for me).

I’m going to watch this space like a hawk.