Use the Small World Principle to Build a Better Game

Before you introduce a new non-player character to your game, seek to reuse an existing character who can fill the role.

I think of this as the Small World Principle, because I sometimes extend it beyond NPCs. Other writers call it the Law of Conservation of NPCs.

The Small World Principle brings a few benefits:

  • NPCs become more memorable and better developed because players spend more time with them.
  • The smaller number of characters creates more interaction, conflict, and drama within the cast. Drama builds rather than dissipates.
  • Game masters save the work of creating new and potentially interesting NPCs by relying on proven ones.

When I run one of the published D&D campaign adventures, I may consolidate the cast to focus on the non-player characters that I favor. Many DMs prefer to audition lots of NPCs in play and see who players fancy. Watch how players react to the characters they meet. If one sparks interest, then look for ways to expand the character’s role. See How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like.

The Small World Principle extends beyond NPCs. Instead of letting the game sprawl, look to circle back to existing locations.

Creators of fiction rely on the Small World Principle, even when they work on larger canvases. The Star Wars tales span a galaxy, but somehow everything happens to the Skywalkers, usually on Tatooine. In Marvel comics, almost every hero and villain lives in New York City. What are the odds? Sure, the Hulk spends time in the desert, but he seems to visit New York monthly for a team up or two. People notice the unlikeliness, but few seem overly bothered by it.

Sometimes an NPC brings some qualifications to a role, but seems disqualified for some reason. For example, perhaps the character last appeared a continent away. Or maybe they were dead. Before you conclude that the existing character won’t fit, reconsider the NPC in the part and ask, How could this be true? See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention. Perhaps the character’s reappearance just requires a line of explanation. Perhaps it sparks a mystery that enriches the game.

Related: How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

10 thoughts on “Use the Small World Principle to Build a Better Game

  1. Tim West

    The small world syndrome in fiction actually bugs me. Star Wars is an example of something that feels smaller and smaller due to all the references and reoccurring characters.

    They way I do it is to develop independent location but make sure they separated by some kind of distance, whether it’s physical, by time or effort. If I were playing in the Middle Earth for example I would develop Hobbiton, Bree and Minas Tirith but travelling between the two would take several sessions and only in very unusual circumstances would characters appear in both locations.

    That’s the best of both worlds IMO.

  2. Ilbranteloth

    This seems to be one of the current trends in design, and is kind of the opposite of what we like.

    Our goal is to put the players center stage, and let them, through the actions and decisions of their PCs, drive the narrative.

    The current trend in adventure design is very influenced by the Adventure Path concept, with a story that is semi-pre-authored by the DM (or somebody else if a published adventure). The general approach has seemingly evolved from a DM style that aims to create a dramatic story with the same type of scene structure as a book or movie. Get to the action, skip the boring bits, etc.

    This is similar in that it narrows the interactions with the world to primarily the ‘important’ NPCs.

    “If the DM put this NPC in the game, they must be important.”

    This has an unfortunate side-effect of often coloring the types of interactions PCs have with the NPCs, including murder-hobo type encounters, or digging and trying to find what they’re missing, when the NPC is truly unimportant and there isn’t anything to be found.

    One of your arguments for the approach is a common one – less prep work for the DM.

    The biggest issue I have with all of these approaches is that they rely on the DM for the story, and they require the players to adhere to that vision, whether it’s a published adventure or one developed by the DM. The specific path through the story is variable, but there’s typically an end-game fully prepared for somewhere down the road. Occasionally it’s not fully fleshed out yet, but all paths tend to lead toward that conclusion one way or the other.

    We prefer the opposite. A Big World Approach, if you will, where the narrative is driven by the actions and decisions of the PCs. Locations, rumors, NPCs, motivations are all typically one or two sentences. There might be larger things going on behind the scenes that help explain the motivations, but overall the decision of what is important is made by the PCs.

    I make sure every NPC has a name (although it may not come up), and maybe a sentence or two about them, if that. Most are unremarkable, and are just a passing part of the game. Just like in real life. Because it’s not up to me as the DM to decide whether an NPC warrants additional visits, or investigation, or whatever. I might throw a hook out with an interaction, and see if the players take it. But I usually don’t have anything beyond that fleshed out. If they take it, we see where it goes.

    I have no idea what direction the PCs will take, and where things will lead. While that doesn’t mean I don’t dig deeper into the plot threads we uncover to prepare (I do, because I love the process), I do know that the majority of time the players/PCs will head off into some direction I don’t expect. So that’s where we go – rather than me trying to get them to go where I thought they would.

    Reusing NPCs (especially dead ones, or those from distant lands) ruins this approach. Rather than it being a world that we explore from the PCs perspective, it feels like a game, a construct and narrative written and controlled by me, the DM. Those NPCs that do rise above are memorable because of that fact, and usually directly because of the decisions/actions of the players/PCs.

    This applies to the world as well. The sprawl, or lack of it, is entirely up to the players/PCs.

    Note that I’m not talking about a complete sandbox. I ‘write’ lots of material and plot points, and at some stage if they decide they are going to go down a certain rabbit hole, those threads coalesce into a coherent form. I have layers and layers of intrigue going on in the world, and their actions (or lack thereof) impact how those unfold. I avoid the world-changing events, but they do often have an impact on the world around them. Sometimes just their immediate surroundings (like exploring an old dungeon), to local (uncovering criminal activity, or corrupt politics, for example), and even regional from time-to-time.

    It’s less about the amount of prep, but the type of prep I do as a DM. The small world approach just isn’t it, for me/us.

  3. Alex Davis

    There is a line between logical re-use and grabbing the most popular NPC. Bobbo the Gobbo might be good for that first few quests, but he isn’t going to hand out Ducal or Lordly quests, same with universe saving or god level quests, not his bag.

  4. alphastream

    I am a fan of this, in part because adventures and most campaigns tend to spend very little time with NPCs. An important NPCS might only be a fraction of a scene, but they are supposed to be important. This makes them forgettable. But if the merchant is also the spy for the thieves’ guild, and the person that knows the safe route to the other town… now they are memorable.

    I think the overall NPC issue, and especially the mention of locations, is a larger design issue hinging on the kinds of stories adventures tell: stories where we leave places behind and keep moving to bigger threats. We should write stories more often where your home base matters. We can see this in most 5E official adventures. In Icewind Dale we are supposed to care about their plight. But we soon leave the towns behind, and increasingly so as the campaign progresses. That impedes all sorts of NPC development, character development, and ties between the heroes and the reason why they are being heroic.

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