One way to prime players to think deeply about their character is to introduce NPCs that mirror some aspect of them. When PCs take positions about that NPC they implicitly take positions about the player character. Done well, this technique judo throws players natural egocentrisim into nuanced roleplaying.
First: an example
An example I expect will be familiar to most folks here is the Bloody Baron from the Witcher 3 (if you're not familiar with the game skip to the next section). The Bloody Baron is a warlord who is presented as a someone who uses violence against his family. The player character (Geralt) can take a sympathetic or scornful position to the baron's justifications.
These responses prime the player to think about Geralt's relationship to his adopted daughter Ciri. If the player takes a scornful position toward the baron they are implicitly saying "Geralt wouldn't treat Ciri like that". If they take a sympathetic position toward the baron they are implying something much different about how Geralt could treat Ciri.
How to do this well:
To pull this off you need to listen deeply to what the players say about their characters. Use that to identify aspects you can pluck out, put in a NPC, and draw a contrast with. Good aspects to use include a character's flaw or a harbinger of their future.
For an example of the flaw, a party animal bard may enjoy their irresponsible lifestyle or feel trapped in a cycle of addition. Have them cross paths with a NPC who suffers some ill fortune because they were too busy partying and see what the PCs say.
For an example of the harbinger, a novice paladin may be eager to earn glory. Have them cross paths with a wounded and bitter veteran who mocks their earnest desire to good. Subtly the veteran is a warning to the player, once scared by battle this could be you!
This technique works on the whole table not just the PC being mirrored. In the partying Bard example, if the Wizard is scornful toward the partying NPC the Bard may feel indirectly judged. The Bard may then spring to the NPC's defense.
Pitfalls to avoid:
If the NPC at any point says "we're not so different you and I" you're saying the quite part loud. For this to be subtle the player has to be the one to connect the dots. Expect that some connections will not be noticed. But those that do can bring a huge amount of surprise and delight to the whole table.
You also want to ensure that the NPC is substantially different than the PC, despite the shared aspect. The NPC is suppose to hold a mirror to the PC, not be their doppelganger. In the bitter veteran example, the NPC could also be cowardly. This difference creates openings for the players to rationalize having a double standard (the coward was weak, I am not, that can't happen to me!).
Thinking in the mirror
Roleplaying is about thinking in character. Characters have many aspects that don't show up in dice rolls or appear on the character sheet. By including NPCs that share one of these aspects you can prime players to think about how their character feels about that part of them. And give them a canvas to express that understanding at the table.
- Geralt v.s Ciri
- CD Projekt Red Owes me a New Controller
- I got some complaints for the main storyline….
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Subtly encourage roleplaying by using NPCs that mirror aspects of a PC" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
- Thoughts on why players might not “just run away”
- Short Adventure: Harpy Murder – a 3rd level oneshot adventure featuring a missing expedition and bloodthirsty harpies.
- Beholders are way more hardcore than I’d expected
- I would like to know if I am in the wrong with telling off one of my party members
- Mimics as a PC
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