Last week I discussed minimum prep; before that I talked about NPC complexity; let’s combine the two!

Emotionally Engaging

Rivals are, I think, the easiest way to engage your players emotionally in the game. They elicit an immediate response – “Wait, they’re after the same thing as me? The bastards.” The competition can be lighthearted and friendly (old friends, all racing for the same benign objective), patronising and fierce (just watch these guys), deadly and serious, or anything in between. The important thing is, that the mere fact of their existence in the story forces you to feel something about them, since you’re going for the same thing as them, and, well, not everyone will win the prize.

There’s a simple writer’s/GM’s trick that you might find useful here: the moment you get any response, you can make it into a different response. Caring at all about a person in the first place, that’s the hard part! But after that, being emotionally attached to a character has little to do with what the emotion is – it can change a thousand times.

If the GM places the rivals against terrible odds, in a way that make you sympathize with them, rivalry can become cooperation, then even friendship. If they later betray you, it becomes bitter hatred. If it’s later revealed that the betrayal was the result of a curse, mind control, or the like, that hatred can turn into pity, maybe even patron-ship, as the poor bastards beg you to help them become better, stronger. See Cohort Motivations for more thoughts on rivals that become your cohorts.

Introductions are In Order

As with any NPC, the way you introduce the rivals will set the first impressions about them – and this should be taken into account way before they even appear in the story. NPCs as important as the rivals, who you expect to be a big part of the story going forward, deserve to be fleshed out behind the scenes, as soon as possible. Even if they appear only later on, you’ll want to know enough about them early on, so you’ll be able to foreshadow their existence – and thus, plant the roots for the emotional bond – during the first sessions.

In our case, Nadav knew from the start that he wants to put a rival Agent team against the heroes; He created the whole concept of Syn Agents with this thought in mind. This is a trope that he’s imitating from shonen anime: Having several groups going for the same goal, but with all of them being on the same side while still competing. You can’t kill a fellow Agent, after all! While having the occasional fight is verging on acceptable behavior (hey, you give people super powers, sometimes they get into fights), you’re still all working for Syn. You’ll need to find a different way to overcome your opponents and beat them to the prize.

At first, Nadav didn’t know much about the rival team, but seeing how Rotem created Muna with the intention of having her face various leadership crises, it seemed natural that her rival will be a leader who’s totally in control, full of confidence, and, probably, simply better at it. By the time they got to the interludes, he already knew enough about Contessa to intervene in Rotem’s story. (By the way, the mere act of interfering with Rotem’s tale mid-sentence and changing what she said, helped a lot in establishing Contessa as an unwanted, patronising, antagonistic force). Her two team-mates were only finalised before the session in which they appeared, since Contessa is obviously the main issue here.

Not All Rivals

Going forward, you’ll see that not all players are equally engaged with these rivals. That’s okay, you don’t need every player to be emotionally engaged with every major NPC. You should have some such interactions, though, which is why Nadav is keeping a close eye on two other story threads: Lily has something going on with a mysterious Agent from her past, and Guy… well, he’s a bit of a hard nut to crack (unlike Lily and Rotem, he didn’t provide Nadav with any NPC or background detail of his own design [the Tank doesn’t count]), but Nadav already has an idea about how to approach that matter. It’ll have to wait for the 3rd adventure, though.