My most recent campaign is starting up again today (with some new players, exciting!) so I’m brushing up on my notes. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a simple but effective trick I picked up from my time MCing Apocalypse World that helps create inter-PC drama. This works best in sandbox-style games where PCs can have independent agendas, but whatever style your campaign it’s a useful tool to have.
So the basic idea of PC-NPC-PC triangles is this: make your NPCs be different things to different PCs.
The usual thing to do in games is to have NPCs be allies or enemies, or at least be generally helpful or unhelpful to everyone in the party equally, but if you’re wanting to make things a bit more interesting this doesn’t have to be the case. If an NPC is a childhood friend to one PC but owes money to another then that creates tension between those two players. One player is happy to rely on the NPC for help, while the other is trying to recoup their money and may be tempted to leverage that debt even if the other player wouldn’t like it. PC-NPC-PC triangles are used in this way to drive a wedge between players and encourage more intrigue.
An example of PC-NPC-PC triangles in practice:
Newton was an NPC warlord in a post apocalyptic world I ran. She was a real tough character, first appearing to the party when one of them got caught wandering through her territory. Spector (the PC in question) was tied to a chair and being threatened, he called her bluff and only realised she wasn’t actually bluffing when her sledgehammer broke his knee. He spent a lot of time conspiring for revenge after that…
Relationship 1: Spector has a grudge
Vega was another PC and local warlord, she was the de facto “leader” of the party. As warlords, Vega and Newton spent a lot of time at each other’s throats but neither was willing to spark all-out war. Towards the conclusion of the campaign they actually ended up in a friends-with-benefits situation, so keep in mind that none of this means that the relationships can’t change and grow.
Relationship 2: Vega is a rival
Nif was a Child Thing, son of the maelstrom and all around weird boy. He specialised in getting into places he shouldn’t be, and ended up stealing a lot of stuff from Newton. At a couple of points he had the chance to kill her, either by surprise attack or by slipping something into her food; he chose not to because having her around to steal from was better than throwing the district into chaos.
Relationship 3: Nif is a nuisance
Stomp lived blood and violence. He ran a fight-pit which he often took part in himself, Newton’s gang were regular customers and eventually Newton herself showed up to see what the fuss was about. After some hot and heavy fighting/flirting over the course of a few months, they ended up falling into bed together and in a pretty serious relationship (which ended up kind of including Vega?).
Relationship 4: Stomp is in love
There were other PCs, but they didn’t have such clearly defined relationships. This was by far the most successful triangle (or collection of triangles) I ever used, so don’t feel the need to take it to such extremes in order for it to be worth including. The party in question were still allies, despite the conflicting pulls from this and other NPCs, but the slight wedge I had driven between them resulted in some mild conspiring and the occasional tense moment; like when Newton began raiding some outlying settlements under Vega’s rule and Vega tried to hire Stomp to protect them.
Hopefully this gets the point across as to the potential of PC-NPC-PC triangles, I’m sure a lot of you have been using this technique without ever hearing it formalised. Let me know if you have any cool stories or tips about similar methods!