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The players in my campaign will soon rescue a woman who's been trapped in an awful dimension (think Jumanji, if that helps) for ten years, and bring her home. After 2 sessions, they'll realize that bringing her home has destabilized the two worlds and is causing a lot of bad things. They'll have to return her to the awful dimension or see their own world get destroyed.

My goal is to make this decision hard on the players, by making the woman a likable NPC and not just someone they'll be glad to get rid of or have no second thoughts about condemning to a life in misery.

What tricks can I use to get my players attached to this NPC quickly and deeply?

Should she be an asset in combat or should she need their protection?

What mannerisms, attitudes, etc. should she have in order to evoke sympathy and acceptance in the players?

How can she be coming half-mad out of 5 years of solitude in a hostile world without seeming annoying, boring or ridiculous?

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How set are you on the storyline that the PCs 'have' to bring her home? If you make her likeable enough, they're going to do everything in their power to stop what is happening. Is that totally off the table? –  Discord May 3 '13 at 19:15
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You may also want to hedge your bets by making her presence also important somehow in the PCs' world, so that the dilemma isn't merely between saving the world and "but we like her." Make both choices meaningful beyond emotion, then her being likeable is icing on the cake and no longer a potential plot failure point. –  SevenSidedDie May 3 '13 at 19:20
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I’m not sure if you want to make this a question of morality or just of personal preferences for your party. But if the former, bear in mind that the true moral dilemma and test of character is saving someone you DON’T like. Even if you can’t stand her presence, and even if the existence of two worlds depends on it, you can’t easily condemn someone to a life in misery, if you are good at heart. So in this case you can make this a hard decision without making her likable just by reminding the party of the moral implications (if they don’t know by themselves). –  Xabei May 3 '13 at 19:44
    
@Discord: It's very heavily implied that they morally "should" bring her home and they'll certainly do it. But it's a good point, and I'll make sure to word it so that they don't actually HAVE to in order to get what they need from her. –  Ravn May 4 '13 at 6:46
    
I'd offer much the same advice I gave for this question about escort missions: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/25057/… –  Bradd Szonye May 7 '13 at 2:15
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9 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

"Like" can take a number of forms, each of which can be achieved in a different way.

One of the most reliable ways to get the players to like/respect an NPC is trust. Set up multiple scenarios where the NPC takes a big risk in trusting the players and having it payoff, and vice versa. This is the classic, "I got your back" situation, used very frequently in movies to establish a partner relationship between two characters.

To make them like/care for an NPC, construct scenes that demonstrate the NPC's vulnerability and provide the players with an opportunity to "do the right thing". The NPC may be injured or asleep, or suffering mental stress and be at the players' mercy. Or, more subtly, the NPC may open up about their emotions, anxieties, or future plans, that they don't want to reveal to just anyone. Or perhaps they need advice from the players as to how to handle some delicate situation.

To make them like/enjoy the company of an NPC, give the NPC some strong (likeable) personality traits, good one-liners, memorable strengths or weaknesses, or so on. The key is to make the players think, "Wow, this guy is... interesting... let's watch him to see what happens next."

All of the above are commonly used in fiction, particularly in multi-hero or action movies. In some cases (often seen in spy movies, cyberpunk stories, etc.) this is then inverted by having the trusted partner betray the primary hero; your players will likely be on the lookout for hints the trusted NPC is going to backstab them, perhaps testing them to be sure. This is also a good way to set up a long-standing arch-enemy (see False Friend, Evil Former Friend, and Face Heel Turn on tvtropes.)

If you want the character to be three dimensional, then avoid stereotypes and look for ways to twist the usual tropes. For instance, understand the "Damsel in Distress" trope and how pervasive it is in modern entertainment, then brainstorm ways of having your female characters act in non-stereotyped ways. Skip the puppies, shoe shopping, and girlish weakness, and avoid killing, maiming, or depowering her; or set your plot up to appear to go that direction, but have it veer off and do something much more unusual and interesting. Don't passively "let the players take her home/back to the awful dimension" but instead have her propose some adventure to the players that gets her some place that betters herself; perhaps she's the only remaining heir to the throne and she's not being considered since she's "just" a woman, but if she had a powerful army under her command, perhaps she'll be the land's first Queen.

Above all put yourself in her shoes. If the other dimension is such a terrible place, she's going to want to do what she can to find any other solution. Can the other dimension be destroyed? Can someone else take her place? Provide some fighting chance for her to escape that terrible fate, and enable the players to assist her in achieving it.

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It has happened to me before.

It's a simple design concept called UCD (User-Centered Design). If you WANT to introduce a likeable character, you HAVE to think what YOUR players like.

I once created an NPC, a cute singer who was very likeable and adorable to me, and I hoped one of my players would fall in love with her to start a story arc based on their relationsip, as she was being pursued by cultists who wanted to user her as a sacrifice. The result? She became practically unexistant as my player fell for a very rude girl NPC...

I have created victim NPCs for horror games that are supposed to be likeable, and everyone likes the unlikeable person... KNOW what kind of people your players like to be with, their characters usualy will like the same if they're not very good at acting, try to run a poll :)

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Align her with the party's own interests. Make her be a foil to someone the characters hate. Have her do things that the characters would want to do, but couldn't for purely social reasons. This would work especially well with the whole "half-mad" thing.

You should consider allowing some sort of compromise to be possible; maybe they still have to return her home, and that sucks, but she has some chance of changing the world for the better. It's not just returning her straight to hell. Even if you think it's an interesting moral dilemma, it's not necessarily very interesting from a narrative POV.

As an aside, the basic story you've laid out is really similar to Fred's character on Angel, so you might want to watch that arc if you've never seen the show.

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+1 if she tells one of the party's archenemies who's threatening her to slag off, they'll die to protect her. –  mxyzplk May 3 '13 at 21:55
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I agree that this is very like Fred in Angel. I second the remarks about building trust, showing vulnerability and exchanging stories. In real life a great deal of a relationship is established by sharing personal information. One way to drive this would be to make the NPC erratically psychic: this would allow her to make predictions that would be of great utility to the party, sometimes have astounding insight into the players motivations or background.

Avoid too much "crunch": if she behaves like +1 to knowledge rolls she will be treated like a magical item, ie with no compassion.

Having this vulnerable character conquer her fear to assist the players should be a defining moment. You could also have her gradually come to realize that she was the cause of the problems and heroically sacrifice herself.

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Having her be useful in combat would certainly be nice, but its not essential. People you like do not need to be useful to you, much less useful in any particular way.

But she probably shouldn't be a liability either. She could either be useful in combat, or just really good at staying out of the way.

To be really likable, a character needs to be well developped, otherwise its hard to devleop any emotion for them at all. So give them a backstory and quirks. Beyond that, think about what makes someone likable in real life. Look at things like "How to Win Friends and Influence People." She should call the characters by name, do things with them, bond with at least some of the characters in different ways (things in common helps a lot).

But you seem to want them to more than like her. You seem to want them to be protective. If they like her while thinking she is tough and powerful, they will likely see her need to return as a heroic sacrafice and honor her memory but help her do it (or think it is somewhat out of character and feel contempt if she refuses). If you want them to feel protective, then she needs to show some vulnerability. This does not mean that she needs to be a coward, but she needs to have a vulnerable side. She should also be reluctant to go back. That doesn't mean she needs to refuse, she might be willing to make the sacrafice. But she needs to hesitate, and express quiet resignation instead of stoic determination.

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In combat have her consistantly using aid another (or similar buff) to one or all members of the team (via magic) and give her the ability to bestow blessings on the characters allowing them a reroll an attack or get temp hp (aka slight dodge) as an automatic interupt once a combat encounter so the characters will like her for helping them be more bamf and not taking their spotlight.

After they make clear they're aware she's helpful the following encounter have a ranger directly target her and miss his inital shot, this will grab their attention and you can gain an understanding of how they react to her. Don't put her in danger too much or your party will feel it repetitive.

Outside of combat comes from knowing your party and what they do as well as reading the room. If your group often try to rob some people, next time they do and fail miserably near her have her distract and allow them to take the loot. Basically continuing the 'aid another' system outside of combat, encouraging the players moves and helping them achieve without overshadowing or being seen as directly responcible for anything that way they'll begin to see her as an extension of themselves more than another character on the team or just another npc.

Rarely do I have npcs in he group but I did this type of thing with a little girl once where the team kinda adopted her and she often road on the back of the dragonborn, having some divine powers that helped him deal radient damage to 'meanies' and acted as a spiritual guide towards their target goal.

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Make them believable and not ridiculous.

For instance, let's look at a Dark Heresy NPC I created.

  • Three times stronger than any character in the party (in combat, at least).
  • Inquisitor's pet, so anything he said was what their handler believed.
  • Complete disregard for his own safety, and that of party members.

The players were in shock when he died-and I don't mean surprise. One of the players actually smacked the guy playing the psyker (who had caused him to trip and fall mid-combat). There are a few things that I had to do to get this.

  • The character was still vulnerable, but in different ways. He was a hardened soldier, not a master at everything, and he relied on the party members even as he was pulling them from the fire.
  • The character fit the setting well, but didn't restrict the players. The lore-savvy player at the table kept them in line, while Avitus (the character in question) basically went along with what he said.

And perhaps the most important part:

  • He was an acolyte, first and foremost.

Now, to make it clear, acolytes were what all the player characters were. And Avitus was a particularly well-liked acolyte, and rose through ranks like candy. In addition to being the senior acolyte of the group, he was also the inquisitor's (secret) son, something that never came up in play because both of them died before this was made clear. He had a lot of power and things going for him, but he was humble. He was, in essence, the knight in shining armor, but he didn't insist on shoving it in everyone's face. Admittedly, the players weren't built for combat (except the assassin, but he was meant for long-range combat rather than toe-to-toe messy work), so having a combat monster really saved their hides, but Avitus was, as one of my players pointed out, a character who sort of modeled what they should do without making them feel like they'd failed at it.

Another thing I think helped was that I have a hands-off attitude to NPC's. You can kill them and the world won't end (theoretically, I mean, if they're actively saving the world it may end without their intervention, but that's another story) and the camera doesn't always focus on them. Avitus was dispatched off to do other things as much as possible (for instance, guarding that third doorway), and he did what the other players said for the most part. In addition, Avitus was always a player-focused NPC. He didn't charge into battle while the assassin flailed around knee-deep in sewage (he critical failed a lot of rolls), but instead he was pulling the assassin to safety while blocking bullets with his back. He was a rock serving its purpose.

In short, make your NPC functional and believable in the world, and don't treat them like they're the centerpiece of the story, or else your players will immediately know how futile their actions are. I had one player rage-quit a game after failing to kill a NPC who was moderately powerful and getting bad rolls, just because he suspected that the NPC was powerful and sent to force them along in the plot. You don't want that happening in your group.

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One side-note to this is that I intentionally made Avitus an NPC in some ways that usually get really annoying really quick. For instance, just today I got killed by an NPC in one of my GM's campaigns who sent a mage to astrally project and manabolt my meatspace-oriented character. If you're gonna make a NPC that has massive power, be responsible, and don't focus your campaign around them. If your character has a really deep background, way too much power, and you give them stuff none of the players can (effectively) do, be sure not to turn them into the centerpiece of the campaign. –  Kyle Willey May 4 '13 at 7:55
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Make her a respected asset in the group - have her intelligently contribute to battles.

That, however, is not relevant to how much your players will like her - her likability is much more related to how you role play her character:

  • Give her memorable traits: have one, or two, major character traits, and several minor ones, that define her. She might be a coward. She might be unreasonably caring for animals. She might sing softly to her self every time she falls asleep
  • Plan several scripted (on her part) conversations with existing characters. She might ask about a magical item and how the character obtained it (if there is one with good history), compliment a character on a particularly well executed combo of moves, or interrupt a shopping adventure to retell (in 3-4 sentences) a story which somehow relates to the characters in the party (or, if you're more devious, to the lives and experiences of the players themselves). Important ideas to remember: she should give deserved compliments, ask questions your players are likely to be happy to answer in detail (ie, if she's a mage and there's a mage in the group, she can ask him how to better optimize her build, or equivalent, and then share her plans to follow his advice)
  • Give her strong links to the PC's world. Maybe a long-lost lover, or husband. Have a short back-story as to what happens over the two sessions - maybe she meets him, and he's with another woman, but dumps that other woman after he's met his old love, and they are re-kindling their romance. Leave most of the story to happen where the players don't see it, dropping strong hints about it (so they can figure it out on their own)
  • Give her a pet. Make her save a puppy from certain death (or equivalent)
  • Have her need (minor) assistance on one or two occasions, which the players are likely to want to give (her shoes fall apart and she needs new ones, she hasn't had someone else give her a haircut in 10 years, etc...)
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Should she be an asset in combat or should she need their protection?

I would vote for an equal. If she's too powerful she'll look like a DMPC. If she's needy, the players won't like that either. Make her contribute without stealing anyone's spotlight. If your players are particularly gamey, make her a healer or buffer.

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