Messing With Your Players: Troublesome NPCs

It was a normal enough day for the crew of the Citadel-class transport called the Black Rose, currently berthed in a space station dock in orbit around Nar Shaddaa. Drake the Bothan Entrepreneur was trying to balance the crew’s budget after they sold their last ship, the Red Empress. Aralai the Twi’lek Pilot could be heard grumbling in the cockpit about how she had run out of booze the night before. Zeb the Human Mechanic was tinkering with the ship’s modifications, and his younger sister Morgan was putting together a particularly malicious slicing program on her datapad. Patches the B-1 Doctor, Bulldawg the Klatooinian Heavy, and the sundry other members of the crew were keeping to themselves . . . when a loud banging sound echoed on the main hatch. Instead of the usual bounty hunters, when they opened the hatch they found the furious owner of the space dock, screaming about how one of his two shuttles had just been stolen. Drake immediately turned to Zeb and Morgan and asked the dreaded question: “Where’s Barry?”

Barry, you see, was Zeb and Morgan’s youngest sibling, a 9-year-old lad who wasn’t an official part of the crew but who lived with them because the parent-less siblings had nowhere else to go. He was also the focus of their Family Obligation in this Edge of the Empire campaign (although Zeb had some of that because of Morgan, honestly), and the last time they’d lost track of him he’d disassembled the hyperdrive to learn how it worked. With Zeb around that had been relatively easy to fix (it had also been the first session, and was more to demonstrate what an Obligation roll might do), but this sounded much worse. As it was a Critical Obligation roll, it certainly was.

The crew rented the remaining shuttle to head down to the moon’s surface, finding the stolen one easily enough . . . parked right on top of a row of swoop bikes. The swoop gang they belonged to was getting together to find and kill the ‘little brat’ who’d smashed most of their vehicles and stolen another, but Drake was able to calm the situation down just enough with a few loose credits and some quick words. The Black Rose crew then tracked the swoop bike to a cantina, whose owner happily informed them that ‘Master Barry’ had offered his services to update the security of the warehouse out back. Upon rushing back there they were set upon by the warehouse’s security droids, which had apparently been sliced . . . but upon recognizing the crew the droids loudly engaged “Family Mode” and began firing nets instead of blaster bolts.

Upon blasting the droids and extracting themselves from the nets, the crew saw that Barry had departed the warehouse with a hovertruck; pursuing him with their rented shuttle, Aralai was able to fly in front and bring Barry’s day out to a slow crawl and then a safe stop. Inside the hovertruck they discovered several crates of the finest whiskey, the load lifter droid that Barry had used to fill the truck, and a fire suppression droid. Barry informed them that he had wanted to help ‘Auntie’ Aralai because he’d overheard she was out of her drinks, and he’d decided the other stuff would be useful. Drake pointed out that Barry hadn’t asked permission to steal the shuttle first, upon which point the young boy realized his mistake and promised never to do so again.

Aralai grumbled and took her share, the rest of the whiskey and the hovertruck were sold off for a tidy profit, the load lifter was put to work, and the fire suppression droid saved Patches’s functionality a few days later when flame-projector-wielding bounty hunters stormed the ship.

Some time later the Black Rose found herself on an uncharted planet deep in Hutt Space, her crew performing a little corporate espionage by scanning the planet from the air and on foot for the Corellian Mining Corporation. Things were going relatively well until they found some kind of ancient structure on the planet, leading deep into a mountain. When some giant multi-legged beast burst from the jungle, the ground team were forced to flee inside, and in the process of the Black Rose gunning the thing down the entrance collapsed. Discussion began of blowing the entrance back open until Aralai and TM-89 the Droid Slicer (the only crew still on the ship) asked what Barry was up to. A quick ‘we thought he was with you’ exchange later, and the ground team had little choice but to forge ahead underground to find the errant Barry.

Which might’ve been for the best, as the Black Rose was shortly thereafter attacked by several lightning-breathing flying reptiles.

Anyway, as Aralai and 89 were in for the ride of their lives the rest of the crew continued to run into increasingly dangerous monsters themselves as they traveled deeply into what they gradually learned to be an ancient Sith temple. They found evidence of Barry’s presence everywhere: monsters that were already agitated, a trap or two that had been disarmed, a crab-like thing that had been smushed by a fallen pillar (when they reached for a grenade to kill its twin and found the explosive missing, the ground team both understood how it had happened and were no longer as happy about it). Eventually they found Barry sitting on a Sith sarcophagus, arcane-looking helm on his head, strange-looking sword in his hand, a small bag full of jewels on his back, and an impish grin on his face.

Which is when the multi-headed beast burst through the back wall.

The crew eventually managed to find the way out, get back aboard the Black Rose, and flee the planet before the next flight of creatures got within lightning breath range. They handed over their survey data and even got paid for it despite the unsuitability of the planet (something about saving the CMC the trouble of getting eaten), sold the jewels for another tidy sum, kept the sword since it could cut through armor like it was nothing, and when Barry complained of the helm making him ‘sulky’ Patches promptly remembered the Dark Side-users in the Clone Wars and pitched it out the airlock into a convenient star.

Much later in their adventures the crew were taking shelter with Talon Karrde, but in exchange for hiding them for a while they had to go and recover a shipment for him. Taking the House of Karrde’s in order to avoid their Black Sun and Imperial entanglements, the crew settled in for a long trip to The Wheel where they could enjoy robbing a fellow outlaw for a change . . . until a few days into the trip, when Zeb realized that Barry was nowhere on the House. With no other choice, they completed the job as fast as they could and rushed back, only to find that in their absence Karrde had hired the enterprising young Barry to be a distraction for a team of his. A team that was now actually behind schedule. In a complete panic, the crew rushed back aboard the Black Rose and raced to Ord Mantell as fast as they could.

When they got there, the world was in a state of total chaos and martial law. Karrde’s team had been sent to steal an Action VI freighter that Karrde had his eye on, and the information broker had decided that Barry’s now well-known brand of chaos would be a good cover. It had worked a little too well. The crew kept running into rumors about a small being, who couldn’t possibly be human, human children couldn’t be this capable, who had been involved in getting most of the planet’s criminal factions brawling with one another. When the local Imperial forces stepped in it only got more chaotic, and the Imps were done playing around; when Morgan spoofed an anonymous tip that Barry was in a random city block to throw them off the trail, the Imperials sent a flight of TIE Bombers to level the place.

What followed was a chase where Barry was always two steps ahead, as the crew followed his trail into an attack on an Imperial base as the young man freed Karrde’s team from prison, an AT-ST death ride through the city in pursuit of a TIE interceptor they believed Barry to be flying, and an attack run on a Dreadnought class vessel as the Action VI that was the goal of all this and a stolen Sentinel-class shuttle joined the Black Rose in running the blockade around the planet.

The Dreadnought went down in flames, Ord Mantell exploded into further chaos and a general revolt, the base ended up leveled, and everyone on the crew ended up on wanted posters. Barry was paid handsomely by Karrde for his efforts, a sum the young man immediately turned over to Drake. The TIE Interceptor, a Sentinel’s-worth of blaster rifles, and what was left of the only AT-ST to survive the death ride were sold to the Alliance for oodles of credits via Thriask Fey’lya (no relation). TM-89 quickly claimed the Sentinel-class, heavily modifying it and dubbing it the Here’s Barry, second ship of the nascent Black Rose Syndicate. When the crew tried to tell Karrde what their next plan was he put his fingers in his ears and sang. And Drake, along with everyone else, began thinking of a way to get themselves out of all the trouble they were in now . . . .

Barry was, fundamentally, a giant pain in the butt for the entire Edge of the Empire: Rise of the Black Rose Syndicate campaign. He got them in tons of trouble. They had to scramble to get him back under their supervision before he made things even worse than he already had, and they nearly all died doing so more than once. Efforts to admonish him worked just fine, but only for the thing he was specifically being admonished for: next time his Obligation came up with yet another critical effect he’d just do something different. Attempts to plant a tracker in him didn’t work because he simply took it out, reverse-engineered it, bought a crate of gizka, put trackers in all of them, and unleashed them into the ship. Aralai threatened to put him out the airlock more than once. And it’s not like the crew weren’t great at making problems of their own. Aralai turned out to be Force Sensitive and got an Inquisitor on her trail, Drake had extremely bad risk assessment capabilities, Bulldawg developed an addiction to Booster Blue, 89 kept leaving X-rated Wookiee films in every computer he sliced, and Morgan was almost as bad as Barry was but with slicing instead of Grand Theft Everything. They hardly needed a hyper-competent-but-nigh-uncontrollable NPC tagging along to make their lives more difficult.

So here’s why Barry didn’t go out the airlock, why “Where’s Barry?” still draws shudders and laughter in equal measure years later, why he’s possibly the best darn NPC I’ve ever had the luck to run: he was useful.

Yes, every time they lost track of the little scamp the crew of the Black Rose knew they were in for a rough go of it, but from that first Barry’s Day Out on the Smuggler’s Moon they knew something else: if they could just get through it, they’d find themselves with a great payday in the end. The worse things were in the moment, the more that Barry would have to hand over to them when the smoke cleared.

This is a separate issue from potentially troubling player characters. Hyper-larcenous rogues, overly righteous paladins, Dark Side-users in a party of do-gooders, they all have to agree to play nice with one another, and the GM has to make sure they do so. But I’m talking about NPCs here, specifically NPCs meant to mess with the players. Messing with your players can be a lot of fun, it really can, but the lesson of Barry is that once you’ve had your fun torturing them you need to make it worth their while.

This is why Barry always returned with a sheepish smile and a ton of credits. This is why your kender ends up having grabbed the lich’s phylactery just at the right time because ‘it looked pretty’. Heck, this is your Episode 1 Jar Jar Binks. Yes he’s annoying, yes he gets the ‘party’ into all sorts of trouble, but he also gets them in with Boss Nass in the beginning so they can make it to Theed, then gets the Gungans and the Naboo in touch so they can form an alliance. Frustrating? Oh my yes. Useful? Well, he may be no genius, but also yes.

There’s one last takeaway from finding Barry: like any other gag, an NPC that the party can’t seem to get rid of and keeps giving them trouble has a limited lifespan. I had a blast sending the players after Barry, but I don’t think I could ever do it again. Well, I unleashed a horde of Barry clones on them in a game of Paranoia once, but that was different. There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, you sort of need to escalate things to keep them fresh and entertaining, and there’s only so far you can escalate. Leaving Barry unsupervised for a month on Ord Mantell was the peak of it, and it sent the campaign into its final arc as things got too hot for the crew to do anything but try and get the Big Score. Barry went missing again during the finale, but the only in-game effect was the Strain penalty; the players had their hands full, so Barry was safely off making sure one of the ships chasing them would turn itself over intact as a prize once they’d won. There is a point, basically, where you’ve gotten as crazy as you can get with a character.

But I mention keeping things fresh and entertaining, and that’s the other part of it that doesn’t just apply to NPCs. Any method the GM uses to deliberately mess with their players and make their lives more difficult has to take that into account. When the party of Acolytes got split up and had to trudge through the Occurrence Border they were waylaid by rooms of fire, alien monsters, Warpy shenanigans, and more than one door that burst open with tentacles reaching for the party. There’s only so many times, though, that the same character keeps getting snatched up before it just gets dull, the one thing a game can never be and hope to survive long. As the adventure proceeded, the random mishaps trickled off as the players knuckled down and got focused. They had a daemon-possessed space dino to worry about, after all. More power to the folks who like playing things like the Tomb of Horrors, but personally catching a crossbow bolt to the face every time I twitched in a new direction started off as funny but got mind-numbing real quick.

This even came into play mid-Black Rose. I actually rolled at least twice as many results of that Family Obligation as I actually featured in the campaign; the Obligation roll right after getting off of Ord Mantell was another critical Barry! I spent about two seconds thinking about what that would do to the players’ psyches, and then I rolled again until I got something different. Rule zero, after all.

So go on. Create an NPC born to mess with your players, whether they’re a mischievous little brother, the kobold trickster whose land they’ve stumbled upon, or the drunken pirate whose ship they had to board. Stick them on the Warpiest ship in the void, trap them in the most comically-overdesigned deathtrap imaginable, or send in the clones. You and they will probably have a load of fun and something memorable to enjoy. Just remember:

  1. Make it worth their while.
  2. Don’t push the joke further than the laughter
  3. Where’s Barry?


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