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How do I help the PCs to create meaningful relationships with NPCs?

Maybe it is a result of my group playing too many one-dimensional adventures trying to find whatever MacGuffin they are after each week, but most of the time my PCs don't tend to value NPCs too much. Every time they meet an NPC they quickly evaluate what immediate values the NPC can give or tend to ignore them.

What I would really like is to have some good relationships where the PCs actually go out of their way to help NPCs without selfish motivation or even just to try to think of NPCs more and how their actions affect others.

I am not looking for a specific game rules solution to this, but instead techniques to get the players to feel attachment to these fictional characters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey everyone - the plural of PC is PCs and NPC is NPCs, no apostrophe. The singular possessive is PC's and the plural possessive is PCs'. This has been your grammatical public service announcement of the day. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Dec 2 '14 at 1:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ What game are you playing, though? I do not ask so we can provide rules-based solutions. I ask because this can help us understand how the game may be causing this behaviour, if it is -- and if you are playing Pathfinder, there are all too many reasons the players may be behaving this way. Understanding the game context will enable us to directly address the ways the system may be causing this behaviour is instrumental to a full solution to your problem. If you do not provide those details, we may only be able to provide ineffective answers or guesswork. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Dec 2 '14 at 3:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I've played tons of Pathfinder, D&D and even 4e games that NPCs were highly valued by the players. This is more a issue of game style than game engine. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Dec 2 '14 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThalesSarczuk I agree it's more an issue of style, but particular engines can support and encourage certain game styles more than others, so I'm with doppelgreener on wanting more detail. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Feb 2 '15 at 6:14
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Make the NPCs a vital part of the story.

Earning Trust

Perhaps the NPC is there for the PCs during tough times. Receiving a "get out of jail free card" once in a while from a prominent NPC can go a long way into the PCs caring. Also, increasing the amount of dialogue and feedback between the PCs and the NPCs also go a long way into developing a relationship.

Coercion

Perhaps there is an effect (curse, magic, hostage, blackmail, etc) in place that forces the PC's to care about the NPCs whether they really care to or not. "This or/for that" can be a very good story arc for the PC's to overcome and interact with. If the PC's make a wrong move toward the NPCs, then disaster can strike at any moment.

Overall Effect

The more you have your NPCs as part of the PCs' lives, they will care about them one way or the other. Have drawbacks that affect the PCs or lack of reward if the NPCs are neglected. Have boosts that affect the PCs or abundance of reward if the NPCs are not neglected.

It will really come down to what you, as the storyteller, give the PCs information and facilitation for a relationship with the NPCs. Whenever you read a novel, you as the reader will either care or not care about the protagonist/antagonist due to the writing style of the author. Your NPCs/PCs will be no different. Think of your roleplaying sessions as a chapter in a story novel you are writing. With that frame of mind, the PC's will flourish in ways you haven't seen them perform yet.

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    \$\begingroup\$ you also might look at making the NPCs welfare the MacGuffin, as happened in one of my favorite shows, SAO, when the main chars' only concern for the next two episodes was trying to get another character they found back to their family and those episodes, episodes 11 & 12, are my main inspiration for how to connect players to NPCs. \$\endgroup\$ – Cyberson Dec 2 '14 at 23:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also the players need to be really getting into the roll playing of characters and not just see everything as stats and numbers, but see through their characters eyes. \$\endgroup\$ – Oreo Dec 6 '14 at 13:45
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I'm playing in a group right now where we have a kobold permanently attached to our party. He's here because of a joke. We're currently playing the Hoard of Dragon Queen and at one point we captured a kobold and had him on a lead in front of us as we explored a cave network (we were using him to hopefully trigger traps).

We got into a fight with a bunch of half dragons and a few of us were lined up for a breath weapon attack, the kobold in the front of the line. Two PCs and the kobold went down in one attack. Our cleric, the comedian of the group, used Spare the Dying on the kobold and let us make our death saves. It was funny. The whole table was laughing. That little kobold is now enamored with him, follows him everywhere, will perform simple tasks for him (no attacks, the DM won't let him be a combat asset). The whole group has become attached to this meaningless little trinket character because it's a running gag for us now.

The point is you don't know what will make a character seem significant to the players. You have to set up situations that allow the players to feel immersed in the game (not necessarily in a pure roleplaying sense). Players feel attachments to characters who are funny or helpful or just interesting to talk to. It's not always about making the NPC Mr. (or Ms.) ImportantPerson MacguffinQuest. The local tavern keeper might be the players' favorite NPC just because of the accent you affect while playing them. Meanwhile, the prince they're supposed to be helping fight off bandits with is boring and pretentious, and they're more than happy to leave him to his own devices.

Just make the character interesting or fun to interact with, and the players will respond to them. And allow some of these important relationships to develop organically. Our DM never planned to give us a kobold companion. He didn't even plan to give us a prisoner. He went out of his way to have that thing get killed early on so we couldn't use him as a trap detector any longer. But when our cleric stabilized the kobold over the other PCs in the middle of a really dangerous combat encounter, our DM went with it. He had fun with it, and he let us have fun with it. If your players are more interested in NPCs you don't care about, it's a sign maybe you should start caring about different NPCs, not the other way around. If they're not interested in NPCs at all, then maybe the NPCs just aren't interesting.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for joke characters that otherwise mean relatively nothing becoming important due specifically to irrational PC behavior and epic dice rolls. I certainly suggest ALWAYS taking what the players think is important (whether it is or not) and trying to find ways to use it. After all, what the players and their characters want to do and actually do IS the story. \$\endgroup\$ – smiley trashbag Mar 17 '17 at 20:17
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Make sure your characters have a robust history, personality and goals

This is hard, and you'll basically have to choose which NPCs to keep bringing up, or let your players choose (so to speak) by seeing who they go back to. Some systems encourage this, such as World of Darkness. The following are mechanics pulled from World of Darkness that appear to be primarily created to encourage a more robust story via more robust characters.

I would recommend giving your NPCs the following things:

  • 3 aspirations. These are goals they're trying to accomplish. They can be short or long term, and may even be things they're not really aware of (e.g. God (the GM) wants the character to do something).

  • Give them Virtues and Vices. Virtues are what you aspire to be, such as a just person. A Vice is what is easy to fall into. It might be something like violent — the character will be quick to violence if they are not getting what they want.

For example I currently have an NPC whose vice is lust and has an aspiration of finding a "partner" in the current city she is in. There is a PC who is currently trying to "get with her". If she did not have these motivations I would see no reason to encourage the pursuit and thus it'd be a lost part of the plot, and my PCs would have less reasons to get attached to her.

There are actual mechanics relevant to the use of these via willpower and experience, but I will not mention that further here, as unless you're playing this game it's unlikely to help you. If you want more explanation or examples it is fully documented in the World of Darkness God Machine Update, which is free.

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Player investment and agreement

First off, you need to get the group agreeing that they want to play a game where characters matter and aren't just like videogame NPCs (people are just things to activate the next part of the adventure). For some players, this is the only way they know how to play, and you have to educate them to the variety of options out there.

This agreement is critical, because nothing else you can do will work without them actually being in on it. Since you are specifically asking for techniques that are not coded in hard mechanics, which are the most reliable method, you are effectively coasting 98% on player participation and 2% on your own actions.

NPCs are reasonable

The easiest way to get players to tie into NPCs is to give them likeable and unique NPCs. "Likeable" doesn't always mean nice, doesn't even mean they're on the same side as the players - they are simply characters who players can respect or enjoy their outlook on things - and part of that is these NPCs should be reasonable.

Reasonable means that friendly characters will try to help, to a limit, without even being asked, and unfriendly characters will oppose, but only up to a limit as well.

Most importantly, is that the players' reactions may cause these characters to shift - more or less friendly depending on the case. This makes NPCs feel more "real" and not like adventure markers in a videogame. Motivations are also particularly useful for interesting antagonists.

Now, one of the problems to this is that a lot of adventures are built on pre-set scenes or outcomes, which also means that the NPCs are highly limited in what they can do - if a character says too much, or changes sides, then the constructed adventure path falls apart, which then means a lot of NPCs end up being unreasonable. This becomes even more of a problem depending on the writing of the adventure as it is ("So wait, the Grand Priest wants us to stop the world from being destroyed, but won't give us a few Scrolls of Scrying? Why?")

When NPCs care, players care

Having NPCs actually care about the PCs and comment on it, is pretty much how this works.

A game I ran earlier this year had a girl who was orphaned who saw that one of the PCs did the same sword style as her dead older brother - she wanted him to teach her because it was her connection to her late brother. It was the combination of her personal motivation plus the admiration she had for the PC that the player really latched onto.

These characters also have problems of their own, some of which aren't directly tied to the PCs and after the players have gotten attached, they may begin taking their own steps to help the NPCs without questions asked.

Of course a key point to this is whether your overall game is about emotional ties or not in the first place. If not, you can expect these things to fall by the wayside rather than become a focus of play, and also, many players may have never encountered such play and therefore are totally unfamiliar with how to engage with it. This is pretty much the big reason why mechanics-based solutions tend to work more reliably because it often is hardcoded in a way players can't avoid or forget about it.

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