Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Wire Paladin, San Francisco

posted by Dave

Paramount Home Video has released the first season of Have Gun, Will Travel on DVD.

If you aren't familiar with the show, track down a copy for rent or purchase, and watch the first two episodes. Don't worry, the web page will wait.


On the surface, the character of Paladin would be great for inclusion in an RPG. Suave, educated, an honorable man, and one of the deadliest gunmen in the world, without being overly enamored of violence. But too often, this way lies destruction.

Most of us have seen it. The GMNPC, the person the GM really wishes he or she could be, who is great at anything they set their hand to, and comes in to solve the problems, leaving the PCs to side, impotent and useless. So how can we integrate a Paladin or Paladin-like character into an RPG without ruining the game?

The answer is that the NPC has to be turned into a commodity. An asset, something earned by the players, or purchased, which can be used in extremis.

So, let's look at one example. If we were to cast Paladin into the World of Darkness, the character would be a superb Toreador 4 or 5 dot Mentor. By integrating the appearance of the NPC into the mechanics (a player has chosen to pay the points, and in an ideal world, has built parts of the character concept and other purchase decisions around this relationship) we justify the appearance of the GMNPC, and put it under some degree of player control. Moreover, the game world also brings with it a whole set of obligations (both on the player, and on the NPC) as part of this background, and the player has the option to use additional merits, flaws, or backgrounds, to exert further control over the shape of the relationship.

Now, let's consider the case where the players are not purchasing a pre-existing relationship during character creation, but are rather earning one during the course of play. This is trickier -- there isn't the explicity social contract of "I bought this as part of my character, and you agreed to it", instead, the players are being presented with an opportunity, for good or ill.

The players could first observe Paladin in San Francisco (or indeed, have their early interactions in San Francisco, or a setting-appropriate equivalent), which is a far less explicitly adversarial situation than coming across a gunfighter.

Conversely, the first interaction could be witnessing the Paladin involved in a gunfight (those familiar with it might consider the introduction of Calo Nord in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). This has higher risks, the players might decide to get involved, potentially on the wrong side. This could result in serious injury or death to the PCs, or, depending on how much of Paladin's survival in similar situations the GM decides was due to having others decide not to get involved, the death or serious injury of the NPC. If the players don't get involved, they have information. If they do get involved, things may get trickier for the GM. It is important for the GM to think about consequences -- if the players ever feel that they are being forced into letting an enemy GMNPC survive to keep the GM's pet plot alive, it can be detrimental to the gaming group.

The players could first encounter Paladin on the other side. Since the GMNPC in question is always willing to talk before fighting, the players would have a chance to convince him they were on the side of right (or, for that matter, be convinced that he was). If, however, your players are inclined to shoot first, and think later, this is probably not a wise introduction.

The players could find Paladin in need of help and assistance, and therefore place him in their debt. Again, know your players. If your players are the sort who would be more inclined to kill him, and keep the high quality firearm, and any spare assets, this is probably not the best way.

However the introduction is handled, the earned relationship is perhaps best expressed as one of near equals. The players may owe Paladin a favor, or he may feel he owes them one, but neither should be a supplicant of the other. Even in the mentor relationship given as the first example, where there would be an in-game power imbalance (mitigated by any other backgrounds and merits), because the player has paid for the ability, there is less of a feel of supplication or GM fiat.

Finally, since Paladin is often away on business, the GM has a useful and credible means to keep him from being the eternal crutch and easy get-out-of-trouble card.