Thursday 29 September 2016

NPC descriptions: what to include?

So while writing the Magonium Mine Murders, I am trying to find the (for me) ideal balance between detail and waste in character and place descriptions. I think it is rather tricky to find!

Let's start with the worst possible NPC description, because that's fun. Here is the description of a "Sales Clerk" from the World of Darkness 1st ed. rulebook (2004):

Sales Clerk

Really, they should just have included this picture and nothing else. 
Quote: "Let's see ... four stakes, a mallet and a mirror. Wasn't Halloween, like, last month?"
Background: They are the faceless masses that man every counter at every store and institution across the world. Most are young men and women earning minimum wage and working long hours while going to school, or trying to make ends meet with a second job. Frequently sullen and sarcastic, these characters have seen all manner of strangeness while working the graveyard shift at the local Mini-Mart.
Description: Sales clerks come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, largely depending on the kind of store or institution at which they work. Late-night convenience store clerks are usually young men or women with pasty skin and red-rimmed eyes. A car salesman might be artificially tanned, with bleached-white teeth and an off-the-rack business suit.
Storytelling Hints: Sales clerks can be sullen and sarcastic, distant and withdrawn, or outgoing chatterboxes eager to share the latest bizarre episode of their workaday lives. Longtime clerks are often keen observers, able to tell a lot about the people who come into their stores just by watching. Clerks can be a useful source of information with the right kind of motivation.
Awareness (dice pool 4) -- Sales clerks spend a lot of time watching people and gauging their moods. They can often discern a great deal about a person's intentions by observing what she wears and how she acts.
Empathy (dice pool 5) -- Successful clerks are adept at reading a customer's mood and manipulating it to make a sale.

I mean ... where to begin? It spends 250 words saying absolutely nothing. Sales clerks work in shops and don't earn very much? Some of them are quiet but others are talkative? Well, I'll be damned. And here I thought they were battle-hardened paramilitary killers. It repeats itself, suggesting that sales clerks are sharp-eyed twice. It even uses the exact same phrase, "sullen and sarcastic," twice. And weirdly, it ignores the fact that the people working a late-night shift at a Mini-Mart are, at least in the part of America I grew up in, pretty unlikely to be "pasty." Mechanically, it tells us nothing: sales clerks have slightly above-average pools in the stuff that you would assume they would have slightly above-average pools in. Half a column spent on providing absolutely no value to the reader at all.

I'm not suggesting that this is uniquely a White-Wolf-ism: I just think that once you get going it's hard to stop, and that this is the kind of writing that looks thorough, but which no one actually reads so no one cares. It doesn't really give us anything, a trend that you get a lot of in descriptions of NPCs from many publishers: Bryce Lynch (I think) summarised this as two pages of detailed backstory that explains why an NPC attacks on sight, fights to the death and can't be negotiated with. Here, we learn nothing other than "maybe something happened at a store and the clerk has some clues," a level of reasoning without which you can't be playing a mystery game in the first place.

Mind you, I'm more interested in descriptions of specific NPCs. Here's one from Escape from Innsmouth (1992):

Joseph Averill

Joseph Averill is a quiet, unassuming man. A friend of hybrid Warren Billingham's since childhood, Joseph was able to get a job driving a truck for Billingham's fishpacking house. Averill and Billingham have, over the years, grown apart as the latter becomes progressively less and less human. Averill likes driving the truck, however; it gets him out of Innsmouth. He would like to move is family out of town, but his father is too proud to leave and Joseph fears to leave the old man alone in this town.

(Snip nine lines of stat block)

OK, so the stat block is a bit useless (Averill has perfectly average stats, nothing above 14 or below 11, and, what do you know, is good at driving and truck-related skills), but the description is less than 100 words long and provides a little context to this guy. He becomes a tool the investigators can use: if they persuade his dad to move, maybe he'll flip on Billingham and implicate him in the conspiracy. Maybe they can borrow his truck. And he provides an example of why there are any normal people left in Innsmouth at all. He's not exciting, but he's fine and he's not too long. Some people don't like the over-descriptive style of the Lovecraft Country books, with every cabbie and coffee shop detailed, but in a mystery-focused game I think it works.

Here's an example of an even briefer narrative-focused description, from the scenario Star of Darkness (White Dwarf 68, August 1985):

Olmehir, the innkeeper, was a captain in the guard before retiring and is disgusted with the way Prebeh is now doing the job. Firne, his young wife, is involved in an affair with Prebeh, although it would be a foolish man who told Olmehir since he has a quick temper.

(A paragraph of rumours players might hear at the inn, than a three-line stat block for Olmehir, including the fact that he has a +1 Longsword! He's Level 4, which is about the typical PC level for this scenario.)

Again, not a bad resource. Olmehir is not a very important character, but he's a fun little moving part. He could be turned against Prebeh (who might need someone turned against him, depending on the PCs' agenda), and his personality, although hastily sketched, is pretty clear: a grumpy old hardass, envious and suspicious. He is just a smidgen above "Innkeeper," but in a way that adds fun for a minimal added number of words.

I am just thinking about this in terms of character descriptions in The Magonium Mine Murders. I worry that they're not detailed enough, or not detailed in an interesting way, but I don't want to go over the top. Here are a few that are currently at the level I'm happy with:

Rogin Hyland, an alchemist and conspirator. Killed Alba. An educated man from a good family, but without the money to maintain his social position. Joined the counterfeiting scheme to make money, but was discovered by Alba and killed her. Polite, witty and urbane, with a hint of desperation.

Lumicent Pulver, disillusioned veteran and guard captain. Wounded in battle, she got this job as a sinecure. She longs for action and purpose.

Livia Cherm, disgraced and bitter former mine engineer. She believes that nothing natural caused the cave-ins, but was fired for being unable to stop them. She now drowns her resentment in drink. She was completely right.

Bellows, Alba's overworked former assistant. Indecisive and easily manipulated.
I think those are OK. They should probably include more about what each character knows, but clues might be a separate segment.

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