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I'm a first-time GM using the Fate Core system. I got into RPGs to help me work on my storytelling while having fun with my friends, so I've been GMing a homebrew campaign for about a year now. Unfortunately, my players also happen to be my friends who I usually talk to about my storytelling, so I've had little to no feedback on my campaign outside of a few other friends who I'm not as close with. Despite this, I think it's going pretty well so far.

However, I've recently run into a bit of a roadblock. There are too many NPCs in my campaign. My campaign is intended to be short (the only reason it's been going for so long is because we don't have much opportunity to meet up for game sessions), and is also very focused. There are about four plot arcs and a finale with intermissions (we're currently on arc three). My story is also set in a pretty unusual world (it's basically the afterlife with a few twists and turns), and without going into much detail, basically there's an overarching plot with characters that connect each arc and will be prominent in the finale.

My issue is that I've introduced too many NPCs that connect the arcs. It makes them difficult to get rid of easily. The nature of my world also makes it virtually impossible to kill them (again, afterlife), and it would feel too unnatural to put them on a bus, especially because the BBEG is a major threat and kind of a nutcase, so anyone with the ability to stop him would naturally want to. This is combined with the fact that most of my NPCs are very strong-willed, capable people (as I have an ongoing theme in the story about resisting oppressive power systems).

I don't want the campaign to feel cluttered with too many NPCs. As a storyteller, the idea of having characters who have no reason to be there irks me, but I can't exactly edit them out of the story since they've already been introduced. It's making it hard to keep track of the story and tell it coherently, and I'm worried in the future the amount of NPCs will cause my players to be confused and that they'll have a lack of emotional investment.

As I see it have a couple options:

  1. Find a way to take them out of the story. This will be difficult considering the setting.
  2. Give them a purpose so they don't feel like they're there for no reason, without making the story too cluttered with unnecessary plot points. The story is already pretty expansive, especially for a first-time GM, so I'm hesitant about this.
  3. Let them naturally fade into the background by not mentioning them/giving them anything to do. Basically they still exist in the narrative and are technically opposing the BBEG but really they're just wallpaper. Would probably be unnatural as they have pretty strong/prominent personalities.

Which of these options would be the most natural/least jarring for my players? And how would I do it? Or am I missing another option entirely?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How directed is your campaign (as opposed to how sandbox-y it is)? How present are the NPCs in terms of places that your players go and things that they do? \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Sep 19 at 17:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dllhell That sounds like it should be an answer instead \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Sep 19 at 18:29
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I've run several campaigns with huge casts of characters. The key element to managing them all is to know what they're doing in the background, and why.

Give your NPCs their own missions

For example, my first major campaign included six prominent groups of NPCs: the Walkers, the Wizards, the Guardian, a werewolf pack, and two parties of NPC adventurers of similar level to the group. The Walkers were insanely powerful, but had their hands full dealing with the world-breaking effects of the BBEG's plans. Instead of tagging along with the PCs, the Walkers would send the PCs on "little" missions they knew the party could handle, and then go deal with the bigger, scarier stuff themselves.

The werewolf pack was introduced early, but spent some time in the background recovering from the plot events that had brought them into the game. Later, I introduced one of the two parties of NPC adventurers. As the reach of the BBEG's plan became clear, the PCs realized they couldn't fight back on all fronts - they simply couldn't be in two or three or five places at once. So they called on the werewolves and the NPC party. Just as the Wardens had directed the PCs on missions they didn't have time to handle, the PCs now directed this party of NPCs to deal with parts of the BBEG's plans while the PCs took care of other parts simultaneously.

(As an aside, this gives you as the GM a chance to let your players pick what they're interested in. I would present multiple mission hooks to my players and they'd choose which to take on themselves, and which to send their NPC friends on. That helped me get a feel for what sorts of missions interested my players and tailor the encounters accordingly.)

Have your BBEG target the NPCs

In that same campaign, the Wizards offered help to the players where they could, but when I realized they were getting too useful, I had disaster strike their tower in the form of the BBEG. The Wizards suddenly had to focus on saving themselves and their young apprentices, as well as protecting the MacGuffin they held, and didn't have resources to spare to help the PCs.

Similarly, the Guardian was an incredibly strong being with potentially game-breaking powers - but the BBEG was actively hunting her and if she spent too much time in one place, or used her powers too much, the BBEG would find her and possibly kill her. So she spent most of the game on the run, influencing things and providing occasional help where necessary, but only when she could do so safely. The players couldn't just summon her at the drop of a hat, and she couldn't stick around very long even when she was there.

Add a twist

The last big group of NPCs in that campaign was my fun secret: up until about halfway through the game, the players thought this party was also working against the BBEG. Then they learned that this party was actually working for the bad guy. Suddenly, a powerful group which the PCs had thought was on their side became a resource for the BBEG instead. They were still plot-relevant, but I could have them vanish for large chunks of time as they worked toward the BBEG's plans. (If I recall correctly, the PCs even sent one of the other NPC groups after this group at one point, so a whole bunch of my NPCs were fighting each other off-screen and I didn't have to deal with any of them!)

Borrow TV and movie techniques

Your NPCs don't all have to be on-screen at the same time. Borrow pacing and scene staging from TV shows and movies, where secondary characters conveniently happen to approach the main character one at a time. Things like, one person gets a phone call and has to walk away just as another is running up to report in; or groups of NPCs are set up in different physical locations so the PCs have to move from place to place to talk to each group.

Your NPCs are people with their own goals

The key thing to remember is that your NPCs are all people with their own goals and dreams and plans. Not all of them will want to be around the PCs at all times. Even if everyone in the world is working together to fight the BBEG, individuals will have different ideas of how to go about it. They might get upset at the PCs' chosen approach and storm off to do their own thing, or they might suggest a flanking maneuver, or something else that's useful but which takes place off-screen. Don't bind your NPCs to your PCs - a realistic world full of characters includes those characters running off to do things their own way.

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Side Quests

Surely the BBEG has many flanks on which he is either attacking or can be attacked. Perhaps one group of NPC's is off to stop the Corsairs of Umbar from landing on the Seas of Fate, while another mount a diversion maneuver so that the players can sneak through the Gates of Horn. They are in the campaign, doing some very vital task that will have a large impact on the heroes later in the story. ("We have the Sun-stone that will drive off the Shadow Hunters so that you can enter the City of the Forgotten Hour!")

The idea is to send the NPC's off on a mission that is vital to PC's even more challenging mission. That's why the NPC's can't help the PC's, and why they are still important.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You should add information supporting this answer. How has this worked out for you in practice? When is this not a good solution to this problem? What makes it work? Can you cite any other sources in support of this? \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Sep 19 at 5:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WendyG While the effort is valiant, I think it would be better for you to use that to back up your own answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Sep 19 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I seem to remember the Lord of the Rings series doing this. Granted, everyone running off on a sidequest was arguably a main character (?), but there were sidequests coming up left and right that were all at least important enough to distract the characters (if not all absolutely vital to Frodo's quest). \$\endgroup\$ – Brilliand Sep 19 at 21:45
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Organise your NPCs

Too many NPCs is a common problem when trying to keep your world realistic. You introduce a new faction and with it comes 20 members, and therefore 20 new NPCs to keep track of. Each time your players go to a new place there are new factions, new guards and new shopkeepers, before you know it there are hundreds of NPC.

The bad news is if you like to run realistic NPCs there isn't much you can do about the total number. Having many NPCs makes your world vibrant and full of life and detail. The good news is there are things you are do to help manage it.

Make groups and have a leader for each group

My most common solution is to group your NPCs into organizations and factions. Then for each group you choose a leader or representative that the players will interact with. This NPC becomes your point of contact for everything the group does. You allow the other NPCs from the group to fade into the background. They are still there but the players have no reason to interact with them.

For example; instead of introducing the 20 members of the Shadow Blade thieves guild, each with their own name and story, you introduce Uthdar, member of the Shadow Blade. Now when the players want to talk to a thief they go to Uthdar, conveniently he is always at the headquarter when the party go looking for him.

Sort your NPCs by location

Another technique I use is to organise my NPC notes by location, then I only need to worry about the ones that are in the players current location. When I prepare for a new location I come up with a short list of NPCs that might exist in that location. If the players ever go back there you already have all the NPCs you need in one place.

Major, minor and incidental characters

The last technique is to have multiple levels of NPCs. Some are more important and deserve more of your and your players attention than other lesser NPCs. I suggest classify them into three groups:

  1. Major NPCs: These are your parties prominent allies or enemies. Characters that are central to the plot or your players have taken a particular interest in. This is where you should spend most of your roleplaying/character development effort.
  2. Minor NPCs: Recurring characters that your party may interact with on occasion but they aren't critical to the story. Characters like the barkeep are the player's favourite bar or the local guard captain can fall into this category.
  3. Incidental NPCs: The characters don't even need names they show up and fill their purpose and disappear. The waiter in a restaurant, guards and enemies goons can all be in this category. Usually I won't even bother writing these characters down.

Importantly NPCs can move between categories. If you players start taking a particular interesting one of the minor NPCs consider adding more detail and turning them into a major NPC is a good idea.

Conclusion

Ultimately the number of NPCs you campaign and have is limited by how well you can organise them. Forming them into groups them can help reduce the number of NPCs you need to track without removing existing characters. Only being concerned with those at your current location further reduces complexity. Finally you can create multiple levels of NPCs to make managing them even easier.

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Consider Game Aspects.

Game aspects are permanent fixtures of the game, hence the name. While they might change over time, they're never going to go away. If you've already gone through game creation, you've already defined these - the current or impending issues that you came up with. They describe problems or threats that exist in the world, which are going to be the basis for your game's story.

-- Fate SRD, "Types of Aspects"

So if your big bad is someone who could legitimately threaten the entire afterworld, the means by which they do that is worth writing down as a game aspect. The Clotted Sun Menaces All or Hordes Of The Never-Were or something like that.

I suppose I should say it's "going to be" worth writing down as a game aspect, which you'll deploy when you raise the curtain on the final act, because having a menace to everybody lets you toss all three of your options into a blender and hit puree.

Unless all this diverse cast of characters care only and entirely about the PCs, this writes them out of the story. Yes, this is a lovely exposed expanse, perfect for Baroness Baronty and her Clockwork Knights to charge to the rescue, but they have to defend the walls of the Post-Machine against the Hordes of the Never-Were, darn the luck. Because it's a game aspect you don't need super storycrafting abilities to make use of it - you've already written down that it's important, so just say it matters, tap the sign, and hand out Fate Points.

Though because it's a game aspect, the PCs have an alternative; they can refuse the compel and buy their allies into the story with Fate Points at appropriate junctures. This lets you give them something to do, but for a much smaller selection of "them", the "them" that the players care about enough to drain their limited pool of plot forgiveness.

And lastly, you can let everyone fade into the background, since aspects and fate points are there to play against the PCs' actions and desires. If nobody in the party remembers some guy from back in act 1, to buy them into the crisis or let them get bought out, you don't have to worry about them either, as long as that crisis game aspect is on the table.

Now, if you want that guy from act 1 to show up and help the party out, you can just write them in, free and clear. (And do make it free and clear; charging the PCs Fate Point admission into a scene you already had planned out is a bad look.) And all bets are off, of course, for staging vignettes at the incongruous dance party epilogue, but that's for later.

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