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The scenario...

My players are meeting lots of NPCs, and the galaxy around them is as deep as they desire... Whilst the flavour of our game is Action/Comedy (a little like Fifth Element) I'm struggling with building sufficient depth to the NPCs and their factions - to increase the drama & non-combat risks and challenges.

For example... The players meet the patriarch of a an elite family, who would clearly have enemies etc. I've got simple motivation for the patriarch & the house... but sketching anything out beyond that seems a struggle, or to consume too much time to maintain pacing and flow.

Other factors...

  • I'm time-poor. Can't commit to hours of prep work.
  • I'm running a weekly 2-3 hour session of Stars Without Number.
  • I struggle using prep-notes during a session. I don't like "pausing" the game whilst I read up on some notes...

So... are there "low-touch" methods - that don't require a large amount of note-taking or prep - that allows for fast, spontaneous development of intrigue et al?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How long of a "pause" is pausing the game to read notes? I'm not familiar with Stars Without Number, do you have time during the session where your players are figuring things out and you can work independently without slowing them down? Does simply thinking about your NPCs motivations and plans during the day while doing other things count as "prep work"? What's your difficulty with adding depth spontaneously? Are you concerned about consistency, or just can't come up with anything? \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Oct 28 '15 at 16:42
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Borrow Icons from 13th Age

Here's what Icons are and here's how they're used. The actual 13th Age rulebook goes into a bit more detail.

A summary: Icons are entities powerful enough to influence the world (like the patriarch you mention). Characters start out with 3 points of relationships with any of them, positive, negative or conflicted. At the start of each session, they roll a d6 for each such relationship. 6 means this relationship will come up this game and will be beneficial, 5 means it's beneficial at a cost, other results don't matter.

The primary purpose of these rolls is to act as guides for improv during sessions. You leave Icon-shaped holes in your plot, and plug in whatever Icon seems appropriate out of those rolled. It takes skill and getting used to it to implement this well. But the benefit is that the intrigue and relationships will just crop up on their own, with no specific prep required.

Icons also serve to tie PCs to the story and indicate the parts of it that players are interested in, but that's not your current concern.

In your example, suppose one of the PCs has a positive relationship with the patriarch (the patriarch or his organization likes them), and they roll a 5 for that relationship at the start of the game. If they're currently trying to break into a ship owned by another house, you can have a representative of the family show up and offer help in exchange for getting them something from that ship. There's now an established rivalry between the two houses, which you didn't need to imagine beforehand.

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You might enjoy the concept of Fronts from Dungeon World. It will likely fit your criteria for speed and ease of use during the session.

Boiled down to its essence, pick 2-3 short plotlines, then put 2-3 bullet points underneath that indicate gradual steps that will occur. Set the world in motion, dangle the hooks and let the PCs go where they will. Timelines advance, the world changes in a seemingly organic matter, and the GM isn't left with hours of summary or prep. This has worked really well for me over the past couple years in my semi-sandbox games.

Everything is bullet points and easy to read, and moreover, easy to scratch out when it's not needed. This system combined with shameless reuse of reskinned settings, characters, and storylines has provided my table with a never-ending fountain of story fodder. My prep time has gone from hours to minutes and our games are much more fluid and fun.

Finally, I let the fun we have be the gauge for this system; I've run across folks who consider this a lazy system, but my players report that they feel like I've done considerably more prep than I actually have, simply because I'm not reading a script or trying to railroad them.

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In a situation like this, I find it helpful to build outward from core concepts.

As an example, I start with a single patriarch obsessed with protecting his family. Why does he protect his family? Maybe they have been targeted; what if the party is there when a meeting with rival clan leaves the patriarch's daughter poisoned? Maybe purity of blood is important to him; the party might stumble upon information about an impending attack on his son's wedding. With that, we have a core concept: a defining trait, a reason for that trait, and even a plot hook. Those hooks can then tie into other clan leaders, who you can define the same way. Paint in broad strokes, that way you can fit the details to whatever you need later.

The party has stumbled on a plot hook with the family man. What other qualities are important to him? Fidelity, love, maybe honor. The core concept defines what challenges really bring out the character, the secondary traits define how he actually responds. Running with the poisoned daughter... A loyal patriarch might either suspect the fidelity of any of his compatriots unjustly, or maybe he is blinded to the machinations because he trusts them. A loving patriarch might be willing to concede the power of his clan in order to save his daughter, leaving the party to try and find another way. An honor-obsessed father might declare a crusade, devoting himself to crushing whomever disrespected his family.

Once the secondary traits have been established, then details can be painted. Maybe he hates So-and-So clan because the son broke his daughter's heart, maybe he is allied with Such-and-Such clan because they are related by marriage/grew up like brothers. The process of roughly creating a faction can take minutes and even less time if you can keep the party arguing over plans for long enough.

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I would suggest stealing from great stories and characters you like, then change them beyond recognition while leaving some essence the same. Dune, Norse legends, comics, movies...drop characters into the middle of plots loosely based on the source material. It gives you an easy way to remember the personalities and plots. Picture the guys from Reservoir Dogs as a team of space mercenaries. Thor and Loki as brothers in a powerful merchant house. The guys from Tombstone bringing law to a mining asteroid colony. Use some Shakespeare...lots of characters and schemes there. Change the names, descriptions, and how they talk and you can get away with a lot of "borrowing". Avatar was pretty much Dances With Wolves in space. Let legends and culture inspire you.

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