Quick overview: some styles of games ought to incorporate play that simulates care-giving. This can be done by allowing PCs to interact with NPCs in a manner that alters the NPCs dominant personality traits. If this is systemized in some fashion, it can add meaning, subtext, and consequences to player actions during non-social scenes (like combat or a skill challenge).
Establishing the Need for Care in Certain Setting Types
Lets say you want to play a high-biotech science fiction game. Your spaceship is a living being, your weapons are geneginered spore launching symbiots, and the melee characters are all modified to have chitinous plating and giant claws. These are all good, but not good enough. At this point, being a bio-tech game is just a “palette swap.” Things look different, but it is unlikely to significantly affect play.
Consider you have a campaign where magic is based on summoning spirits. A character casts a fireball by being possessed by a fire-dragon ghost, casts mage armor by summoning Hephaestus, and casts summon monster 1 by asking Quetzalcoatl to send a minion to help you. This sounds kind of cool to me, but I also find it unsatisfying. Once again, things end up being described differently but play will change very little.
A high-biotech sci fi and a high-conjuration fantasy are both setting types that emphasize the presence of living (or life-like) beings as the source of novel abilities. It seems natural, then, to look at interactions with living things for a source of novel play.
Living things in RPGs can act independently of the players, and make their own choices. They can react to PCs in a way that a mechanistic environment can not. That may have something to do with why combats are often more fun than environmental challenges, even though mechanically they can be equally challenging and incorporate nearly identical rules. Persistent NPCs ought to change and develop over time, if for no reason other than to remain interesting. In spite of this, the players’ choices and character development is far more important than the NPCs, so the development and choices of the NPCs must be obviously caused by the actions of the players.
The growth of the NPCs must be led by the players. Unless the players wish to be astoundingly manipulative, this implies a friendly relationship where the NPC cares what the player thinks. I propose that this is best done by allowing the players to nurture competing character traits in the NPCs, so that one may become dominant. This is analogous to a care-giving role in real life.
Step 1: Competing Character Traits
To keep things simple, each NPC has 2 competing character traits. Divide these traits along a simple dichotomy: public vs. private. Private will be traits exhibited amongst friends or when less than 2 other people are around. Public will be a trait exhibited when a single stranger or 2 or more other characters are present. We will consider all PCs friends for these purposes. There is overlap of these domains: large groups of friends, and one-on-one interaction with a stranger. It is during these interactions that the traits compete. When one eventually wins out, it becomes a permanent addition to that NPC’s set of traits, and the competition begins anew between two new traits.
Step 2: Nurturing the Character Traits
Characters gain the opportunity to encourage and discourage the various traits. They do so by taking actions with the NPC. Because these NPCs are directly the source of novel abilities in a high-biotech or high-conjuration setting, interaction with them is the same thing as using these abilities.
For example, an NPC is a living weapon. The public trait is “honest,” the private trait is “courageous.” Together they make the living weapon seem very honourable and knightly. Characters it would have a reason to interact with are (minimally) the person who wields the weapon, and the person who maintains the weapon. Maybe a sorcerer or genetic engineer will also be involved as more of designer, depending on whether its a spore-launching space cannon or a ghost bound into a sword.
When these characters interact with the living weapon in the way they would mechanically (swinging a sword, designing an upgrade to spore ammunition) they also can present opportunities for the NPC to exhibit its character traits. The PCs are put into a coaching and guiding role here, aiming to set up opportunities for the NPC to exhibit particular traits. When this happens, the GM is to take note.
For GURPS players ought there, note that the set of players who have reason to interact with the living weapon follows the “Design, Maintain, Use” trinity.
Once both traits have been exhibited at least once, the private vs public domain is to be resolved by one trait being forgotten and the other being added as a permanent trait to the character. During the next scene where both the public and private domains apply, the GM judges which trait is better “set up” by the players for the given circumstances. Of course, if you stop to think about it, you will note that “setting up” an NPC to behave a certain way will largely be about controlling the circumstances under which that NPC is used. Specifying “for the given circumstance” might therefore seem a little bit redundant, but it is important to remember as it turns “set up” into something more objective-oriented instead of an abstraction.
In the case of the honest, courageous living weapon, it might be very difficult to behave courageously when no danger is around. If a PC really wants the weapon to be honest all the time, that PC should try and set up a scene where acting courageously just doesn’t make sense. A negotiation would work. Conversely, if the PC really wants their weapon to be able to make dishonest, treacherous attacks on enemies when their back is turned, they will want to make sure that the weapon has an opportunity to exhibit courage next time the weapon is used. Setting up such a scene might be a combat with unfavourable odds.
In the event that it makes sense for both traits to apply at the same time, the conflict is simply not resolved yet.
This is Not Drama
This is not supposed to simulate interesting internal conflict in the NPCs. Remember that the conflict is not between the traits, but between the domains in which they occur: public and private. If the conflict was between the traits then it would be up to the GM to decide which one became dominant, because the GM would get to make decisions for the NPC. Instead, it is up to the PCs (individually and as a party) to create the scenario where a particular trait will be exhibited because the scenario makes more sense for one of the traits to occur than the other, and the domains overlap so both could occur.
How to Handle More Direct Care-Giving
What if one player is just a natural nurturer, and wants to talk to the living gun about hopes and dreams? This should not be discouraged, as it shows that the players are really getting into the spirit of treating these NPCs as characters, not just sources of cool abilities. It is also very direct, and can result in heavy handed storytelling. I suggest that the GM take note of these moments, and use them as a “tie-breaker.” If its time to resolve the conflicting traits, but neither one can really become dominant, then consider how the tie-breaking PC treated the NPC, what they said to each other, and how that could impact anything the NPC would do. It might have no result at all, but maybe it will have an effect.
The Results of Development
I would say that, much like how character development is represented mechanically by the addition of new abilities, the same ought to be true for an NPC. Since these NPCs are the source of new abilities for the players, this means the players also get more abilities. How this would work is system specific. If its a spirit that bestows magical abilities, it might teach new spells to a wizard, or enchant a new magic item. If it’s a living-computer (ie. a supersmart, stationary living thing) it might learn some new targeting algorithms or the ability to hack normal computers and robots.
If these abilities are somehow known in advance in-universe, and different PCs want to unlock different abilities, we may have some very fun, very light, very dramatic, PvP occur as the players try to help the piece of living equipment develop in the way they prefer.
Example Campaign: The Living Ship
This is a game I’m currently working on for GURPS. It’s a high biotech sci fi game, mostly set on a spaceship. There’s a lot of major decisions I’m still making about it, the most significant of which is how to balance the time on the spaceship with time on planets. I know I want to favour the spaceship heavily, but keeping the players couped up together in the vacuum of space significantly limits their capacity to behave in surprising ways.
Don the Living Computer
The NPC: There is a living computer on board the ship. It will be named Don. It is capable of directing all of the ships systems, but the players can probably do it better. Since Don sits in a tray and can’t move, it requires the assistance of human beings for routine tasks (like maintenance) and under sub-optimal conditions (like space-combat). It will look like a happy octopus in a tray.
Public Trait: All of the players will submit traits they think it would be fun for the GM to play. The GM will choose one of these traits.
Private Trait: The GM will determing this personally. The players do not start out knowing what this trait is, but the GM should roleplay it clearly enough that it is easy for the players to figure it out quickly during play.
Nurturing the Traits: Many opportunities to interact with Don will present themselves, as Don can assist with almost any task. Think of how often the crew of the enterprise asked the computer a question.
Benefits of Resolution: Each time a new trait is permanently added to Don, it grows stronger neural pathways. This allows it to take control of a new piece of technology, allowing the PCs to add a new high-biotech gadget to their spaceship. This will be something like a better engine, new armor, cloaking device, a new gun, etc.
A new device comes with new traits: when a new device is added, everybody (including the GM) gets to submit a suggestion for public and private traits. The player who bought the device gets to pick the public trait from the suggestions. Everybody starts of knowing this trait. The GM picks the private trait in secret. The game begins again.
Living Personal Gear
In high-biotech games, characters are more likely to own their own Tauntauns than Speeders. These can acquire personality traits also, but it is far more minimal than the care-giving mini-game used with Don. Parts of the spaceship don’t count; they are all parts of Don.
Acquiring Traits: When a PC critically fails, the living equipment refuses to cooperate and gains a personality trait that explains the refusal. Living equipment won’t act against its own traits. This might make the equipment become useless for one PC, and not a problem for another.
Traits work in a similar way to the Daredevil Advantage: When using equipment in a way that is in line with a permanent trait, the PC cannot critically fail. However, the device will refuse to cooperate if it goes against a trait.