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The newly started scenario places my players on their own spaceship, but they are lacking a competent mechanic among them since they are only two; a pilot and a computer operator.

I am considering adding a NPC to fit that role, and play it myself since no one is capable of filling the role of mechanic on the vessel. How should I play the character to prevent him/her being nothing but another prop, but at the same avoid unnecessary conflict?

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These are the droids you're looking for. :)

You should consider using a droid / AI. Droids are ideal for the non-conflict (or limited conflict) NPC role: just think of R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars: They do what they must do, but can relatively easily be ignored, commanded... and even turned off.

As you yourself have said in a comment, they can be controlled by a party member - but I'd recommend allowing them to be commanded by both (all) PCs, to avoid unbalancing your game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There will not be a problem in making the bot controllable by all PCs, since the computers in Coriolis works around the notion of Commanding. All characters that are not primitive can issue a command to a computer, but only those skilled in computers can create new programs and commands. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Wigert Jul 4 '14 at 10:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a good idea, but it's just one example of Jack Lesnie's 'Subordinate Social Role' suggestion. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Jul 5 '14 at 5:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DCShannon Sure, and thanks. However, 1) I wrote my answer sooner than Jack, 2) I aimed to offer a brief and immediately usable answer specific to the Q, which is about a sci-fi game. Jack's answer is interesting and okay, but is considerably more generic, and the NPC options he discusses don't come with the likely built-in restraints of a droid, which everyone can take for granted both in-game and out of character. :) \$\endgroup\$ – OpaCitiZen Jul 5 '14 at 7:24
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NPCs

NPCs are not protagonists, except in unusual circumstances. So how do you make them interesting, part of the story and not a drag, but leaving the spotlight to the PCs?

  • Niche. Stereotypes are great. They add interest to a character without requiring a heavy focus to explore and create that interest. For a bit part, nothing is better. Reversing a stereotype, to create an erudite scotsman or a well-travelled hermit, is even better.
  • Subordinate Social Role. 'Get in there and clean that ballast, Ensign!' 'Yes sir!'. If they're accepting the command of another person, they immediately lose agency and spotlight, which is good for NPCs. Doesn't mean they can't have characterization of their own - but the Private is assumed to be less important than the Sergeant.
  • Less Screen Time. Tim the Engineer spends his time in the Engineering Bay, because he has work to do. On the Bridge, where the Action is occurring, he is rarely present - thus he is less likely to one-up the PCs.
  • Make the Players Do It. Give them a set of bonuses, or even a full sheet. Tim the Engineer is now being played by Joe, or Rachel, or whoever. Like a cohort or other 'secondary' character, his demeanour and usefulness are now in the hands of the players - and they can choose to give him as much or as little spotlight as THEY like.
  • Bashfulness. This guy doesn't want the spotlight - he prefers to work in the background, and that's his trope/milieu - 'naturally retiring' is great for a bit part that you actually don't want to be around much.
  • Curse of the Engineer. If it's a new guy every couple sessions as Engineers keep leaving for various reasons (not just death), then his 'spotlight time' is justifiable as introduction, and less of a problem.
  • Useless. NPCs who are problems for the PCs to resolve (in terms of attitude, skill or situation) aren't spotlight hoggers - they're quests! Quests are great! 'I cannae do it captain, she's givin' it all she's got!', 'We're all doomed, we're all going to die! AHHHHHHH!', 'Oh no... oh no.. they've found me! The Lizard Men!'.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with all the above points except for "Make the Players do It". I feel that putting too much control in the players' hands like that will promote the NPC to a PC in no time flat. Plus, think of all the juicy plot devices a GM loses out on if he/she doesn't have full control over the crew member. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall Jul 4 '14 at 14:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't see how the NPC you are describing is not a prop (apart form make the player do it, but this would simply nullify the rest)...? \$\endgroup\$ – Dargor Jul 4 '14 at 15:54
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I won't expand on how to build a proper NPC, give him a true identity, taste and above all moral ethics, and a past he should be able to tell when asked (or a past that should lead to have links with other NPCs),but here are two things you should consider to reach your goal:

Make him intelligent/skillful

Most NPCs are, well NPCs... They don't achieve great things because the players are expected to do that. If this NPC is to be an equal to the rest of the crew, don't hesitate to have him do some badass things, or come up with great idea.

In a nutshell, create it like you are a player going to play it for a long campaign.

However, the key is balance, you don't want him to be the wise or mighty mentor that will lead the team, or even turn PC into mere sidekicks. This will come along while playing, you will have to carefully take his decisions, make him give clever suggestions that don't solve the whole plot, fortunately you are the DM, so you can tailor challenges taking this help into account, thus giving an illusion of helpful character without doing all the job for the players.

Tie him to PCs

If you want to avoid unnecessary conflicts, it's simple, put the NPC into one or more of the players background, I mean put it seriously like family ties or long friendship. Make him faithful to the rest of the crew.

But keep in mind that the smoother the character, the more you are likely to make him a convenient prop. Your NPC should be able to come up with its own ideas and oppose to the PCs when they make stupid plans or make suggestions on his field of expertise.

Bonus

Unless your players are really uncomfortable with it, make a romance (or a bromance). I mean a complicated one, not a stereotypical YousavedMeMyPrinceLetsMarry, a love triangle should be even more interesting, although not unnecessary conflict proof.

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Okay, I don't know Coriolis, but certain fiction I've seen suggests possible in-fiction solutions to the vacant Engineer spot.

In Firefly (S01E05, "Out of Gas") the first engineer they had was an idiot who created a lot of down time for them. When a PC came along, she fixed the problem the idiot claimed was keeping them from taking off (starting at around 20 minutes, 25 seconds into the episode).

So if the NPC Engineers you provide them with in-fiction are idiots, have bad luck, or are bad news, the PCs are going to waste a lot of (possibly very entertaining) time with them until they figure out what to do to solve the problem of a missing engineer. An AI can only do so much, especially if the PCs keep turning it off when it starts demanding parts to solve problems.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. It's unclear to me what your recommendation to the OP is. (Once you clarify it, you should also support it by citing your own experiences applying such a recommendation.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 29 at 6:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ My recommendation is the third paragraph. Do I need to title it "Recommendation:" in order to make that fact clear? Meanwhile, my first paragraph makes it clear that I am making unsubstantiated suggestions. Are baseless suggestions frowned upon? \$\endgroup\$ – James Hays Jun 29 at 7:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't necessarily need to title it "recommendation:", but right now it's not entirely obvious that you're saying that that's what the OP should do. So it's good to be a little more clear about that. But yes, answers should be supporting by citing evidence or experience. See What are the citation expectations of answers on RPG Stack Exchange? and How do we ask and answer subjective questions? on meta for more detailed guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 29 at 7:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, the two links you provided mention that baseless suggestions ARE frowned upon. This alone suggests that this site is not a good fit for me, as I'm not sure what seems to be the scientific method can be applied to what is in my mind an exercise in practical psychology skill. That said, I'll make another attempt to fix this. \$\endgroup\$ – James Hays Jun 30 at 2:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sounds good. By the way, you should have enough reputation now to talk in Role-playing Games Chat, so if you have any questions, feel free to drop by and ask them in the general chat (you can ping me by typing @V2Blast there). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 30 at 4:05

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