After reading up on Ravyn’s excellent series on Engaging Secondary Characters over at Exchange of Realities, I figure I could take a parallel approach to things, and start talking about specific archetypes for memorable NPCs.
NPCs occupy an important place in any GM’s arsenal, as they become the vehicle upon which he is able to interact with the characters without necessarily having to break out the battlemats as with the case of villains. Appropriate use of memorable, well defined and emotionally engaging NPCs is the hallmark of a good game, as players are drawn further into the narrative, further suspending their disbelief.
In this series, we’ll start looking at the basic NPC archetypes, characters that manifest in most games and are valid across multiple genres. Furthermore, we’ll look into the role they can serve in a game, and how they can be used as a part of a GM’s storytelling arsensal, including hooks and twists common to each.
Today, we start off with a much loved archetype: the Mentor.
The Mentor is an older character, with “older” being a relative term, as the mentor could simply be an upperclassman, or someone with years of experience, which has an obligation (that could be imposed by the self, or by society) to guide, teach and assist someone of less experience.
This relationship is what defines the Mentor NPC as a tool for the GM. Mentor characters make for interesting NPCs since they provide multiple functions:
- Role Model – The Mentor serves as an ideal “template” for a given character concept. An older samurai teaching his kohai the ways of bushido, for example. The PCis given leeway to learn from the Mentor NPC, and the Mentor has a chance to interfere when the PC is in trouble.
- Benchmark – As a Mentor and student’s relationship progresses and becomes more defined in play, the Mentor NPC should begin to serve as a benchmark. In the same way that Obi-Wan Kenobi was a mentor only until surpassed by Luke Skywalker, the Mentor NPC should not remain superior forever. The student becoming a master in his own right should be a character defining moment, one provided when the Mentor acknowledges that the student no longer has anything to learn from him.
- Adviser – Mentor NPCs shouldn’t be joined at the PC at the hip. However, if the PC is stuck in a bind, the Mentor is there to provide advice and assistance. This can take different forms depending on the Mentor’s teaching style. Esoteric Asian Mentors might have the PC practice odd tasks over and over, or give a strang Koan only to coerce the PC to reach an epiphany. Other Mentors might be more prone to a transaction based relationship, with a Hacker Mentor for example giving a vital clue for his student to breach a given company’s security.
Of course, all relationships are give and take, and the Mentor can also be in a position to ask for the PC to perform certain favors. These could be something simple as to clean the dojo in the mornings, or as complex as to steal an artifact from a museum for some unknown motive. It’s this give and take aspect to the Mentor NPC that is a literal breeding ground of countless plot hooks.
As for plot twists, the Mentor is one of those Archetypes best played straight, since the subverstion of the Archetype is already toeing the line to cliche. Still, it’s worth mentioning, since the final product relies completely on the execution:
- The Mentor is the Villain – All this time, the PC(s) have been working for the bad guy all along. The mysterious errands he’s sent them on are all part of the master plan. That code he had you upload in bank security? It wasn’t a hotline to the hero headquarters after all, but a backdoor for him to exploit. The Artifact you took from the Orcs? Necessary for a vile ritual to summon a demon. This particular twist is a high risk one as the “bait and switch” effect might turn your players off from trusting any Mentor again.
- The Mentor turns Traitor – Similar to the first example, the Mentor has been pushed by circumstances (psychological or social) to betray those who trusted him. Whether it’s because of his fear of being outdated by those of the up and coming generation, or a betrayal of trust from those in power, the students are now sent to stop their Mentor. This has a lot of promise to it, as the betrayal doesn’t necessarily affect the PCs directly. Instead, it works by amping up on the importance of the PC’s relationship with his Mentor. Mentors of this type might be talked down, for example, or shown the error of their ways.
The Mentor is one of my favorite NPCs to play, importing a lot of the lessons I’ve learned in running these guys to The Veteran character concepts that I played. When played right, the Mentor can be a valuable NPC in your arsenal, both serving the “voice of god” role for dispensing plot hooks, as well as being a valuable asset for making your game that extra bit more awesome.