Encourage interactivity. Always. If you can find a way to make something dependent on player actions, go for it.
Share the spotlight. This is where skill variety, character ties or factional connections can really shine. Find a way to keep everyone involved and connected in the story.
Even when NPCs are talking to each other, player involvement should matter. If two NPCs are going to have at each other, keep it short and snappy and let PC interactions dominate the discussion. If they throw out a few comments here and there, make those comments matter.
Also bear in mind that a small group of 6 watching two NPCs argue with each other is far more impactful than a crowd of 30 — because that small group of 6 know that their choices (whether silence or involvement) will be more meaningful to the discussion and not devolve it into an unintentional chaos of 30 people randomly shouting at two NPCs.
PCs should also have a vested interest in the outcomes of the conversation and should have some capacity to interact with it. Two force shielded bad guys waxing lyrical at each other is boring — though if the PCs are trying to distract them or set them at war with each other it can get a whole lot more interesting.
Let them make decisions and let those decisions matter. If they take hostages, don’t just immediately free them. That undoes their decision. If their decisions go off-script in a way that damages the game itself (i.e. they have taken all six cast members hostage) then find a compromise. Perhaps you remove the hostage’s phys-reps (i.e. cast members) and say they are locked behind a closed door. Maybe you upfront tell the player base that this isn’t a game of arrests and hostage taking and get them in on the ground floor with how the game will play out.
Don’t criticise them for stupidity for doing what their characters would do — but do provide them with alternative options if their characters would know them. A lot of players aren’t highly trained professionals in crisis negotiation and SWAT tactics. Providing them with a set of dot points or the occasional nudge that suits their skill selection can be appreciated. Never tell them the path they should take. In other words, provide them with the tools to make their choices — don’t tell them which choices they should make.
Make the character’s suffering *about* the characters and not about the villains. This is kind of a hard thing to describe but basically what it boils down to is that if the villain is torturing a PC, it’s the actions and reactions of the PCs that matter. Keep the spotlight on them and their feelings toward the villain — not on the villain’s moustache twirling. You can do this through a variety of mechanisms depending on the style of game and players involved:
- Avoid gagging the player character. That way their threats, pleas or silence are all valid options.
- Redirect their attention to the suffering player character rather than away from it.
If the players think of a way to destroy your schemes and machinations, let them, and build on it. Give them the win. Let them have a cool thing. If they take out your big boss early, maybe throw out a few waves of minions and create something new for later. Players absolutely love scheming their way through your plans for a reason. It means their choices really have made a difference.
The more often powerful items and factions and NPCs show up in the game, the more they must be reliant, in some way, on player actions. No one likes an unstoppable spirit showing up in-game … except when that spirit can be summoned, negotiated with, empowered and sent at their enemies! Keep the players centre stage so that the glories of more powerful elements are reflected on them. Any exceptions to this rule are best treated as a force of nature that guides the PC’s actions and gives them something to bounce off of. Players will react better to an invulnerable NPC they must hide from or lure away than one they have to obey unless the complexities of obedience is the story — in which case the NPC is a force of nature anyway.
These are just a handful of ways to keep the players feeling like they’re relevant and that their characters are the protagonists. Do you have any additional ideas?