Mr. Insidious' games have lots of twisty plots, some great setpieces, and a certain inescapable logic to them. In the thick of things it's like "what the hell is going on, why is this happening", and then once you work things out it's like "oh, we did this, which led to the bad guys doing that, and then this happened and of course everything went to shit".
So let's talk about inescapable logic.
People tend to think with internally consistent logic. That is, that people don't act without reason. They might not understand or be able to communicate why they took an action, but people themselves are not random. Our brains do a great deal of work that we ourselves are not conscious of, much like background processes running on a computer.
This doesn't mean that people can't be wrong. An NPC might give a party terrible directions to a local landmark (and yet not lie to them) because he has the wrong information which he believes is accurate. Many GM's make a mistake of not attempting to play NPCs based on how much information that NPC should actually have.
I'll admit, it's fun to watch players try to deal with all-knowing illuminati types who have peeked behind the curtain, but generally most NPCs shouldn't know too much out of their sphere of influence.
Take security guards. Having dated one, and having had two family members and a few close friends work as one, I know the drill. It's mind-numbing boredom and tedium 95% of the time punctuated by crazy insanity and dealing with people being unreasonable. (Much like the army, actually, except with less firearms, explosions and mortar attacks.)
So if you're running an encounter where the party might encounter guards (largely talking in a modern context here), you should ask yourself:
- How well are these guys paid? Elite groups drawing top dollar because they have a reputation to maintain will be way more vigilant than a "I retire in four months" old timer getting $13/hr.
- To further establish morale and how much a guard might care about their job, how are the working conditions? Has it been boring and slow and the players are something interesting, or does the guard just want to go back to Candy Crush on their phone?
- Speaking of phones, boredom is one of the best penalties to PER skill checks ever, and you can sure as hell bet most NPCs (and let's be honest- PCs as well) don't have the Patience of Job perk.
- In addition to all of that, most people are very adverse to risk, particularly when the stakes involve death.
Logically, most security guards need a reason above and beyond the norm to ever willingly engage in combat with foes who they believe could reasonably bring lethal force to bear. Sure, you might have a hot-headed cowboy or two, or maybe an ex-vet at a post, but most security people are just regular Joes not even issued a gun. Faced with armed assailants, most are at best going to call 911 and GTFO of the area.
Never underestimate the power of 'Someone else's problem'.
Another good example of internal logic has to do with a failure my Prohibition Mobsters recently had.
A mob lawyer, Marco, has been putting pressure on the group after they drained the bank account of their recently-killed boss. Boss' wife is pissed that her inheritance is gone, Marco wants his cut of the money, so of course the group tried to intimidate him to get him to back down.
Due to some tactical blunders (splitting the party, not bringing the wheelman to shadow another car), bad luck (a crit PER roll by Marco while he was in the car of the Mayor of NYC), and good planning on the part of Marco (Most people don't get to become successful mob lawyers without some genre savviness), Marco and the Mayor are now aware that someone is out for Marco's life.
So, getting at Marco is going to be much more difficult in the future. His already decent paranoia is going to be on high alert, the Mayor has assigned him a police escort almost around the clock, and something tells me the players are going to get very annoyed by this problem. Unless they seriously escalate their level of planning and execution, the repercussions of this failure will continue to bite them in the ass.
A big part of gaming is consequences, with cause and effect being huge. My players haven't encountered much failure, with the examples of a few isolated fuck ups here and there. With smooth sailing generating a pretty fast rise through the ranks of their organization, I'm entirely fine making this failure sting.
I can't stress enough how much more consistent a game is when you get into the head of the NPCs you are controlling as a GM and attempt to base their actions off their perspective:
- What is the NPC's main goal?
- What's their current, immediate motivation?
- How is the NPC feeling?
- What external factors might be in play? (A county clerked mobbed by the press after a scandal will be feeling overwhelmed and likely won't like being asked questions.)
- What does the NPC actually know?
Once you have those answers, it should be pretty clear how to proceed. Characters will typically act in line with their emotions and goals, and characters forced to put the two at odds will be undergoing stress.
I should mention that establishing a precedent that NPCs aren't always completely right even when being completely honest makes hand-waving plot holes and sudden name-switch flubs MUCH easier for players to accept. Nothing like blaming a NPC for your brain fart when that one-off merchant becomes important later and 'Sergio the Spice Vendor' accidentally becomes 'Simon the Spice Vendor".