Monday, November 29, 2010

Dungeoncraft #8: NPCs

Despite some significant delay, I have not abandoned this series of articles utilizing Ray Winninger's DungeonCraft methodology to get my campaign setting ready to go. I am getting into the point where the work of done for my setting during my "off season", when I'm not running per se, isn't as useful anymore to what needs to be done going forward. In fact, I'm getting into the nuts and bolts of actually running the game itself, now, and rather than working in broad strokes on the setting, I'm starting to think about very specific things like the topic for today, which is non-player characters, or NPCs, that the PCs will interact with. This means that my pace will be much slower, since rather than adapt existing documents to the updated version of the setting, I now have to do actual new work in order to keep this series up, but given how long its been since I made an update anyway, that's unlikely to seem like much of a deterrent, I'm sure.

NPCs are important, because they are often the only effective way the GM can "dump" information on the PCs. They can also help set the tone and mood for the game, and allow the GM to have a real voice in the campaign. There are four things that NPCs can (and should) do, and then I'll talk very briefly about a few NPC's in Dark•Heritage and what they do in the framework of these four points of Ray's.

(1). Provide the players with exposition.

As discussed earlier, NPCs are valuable as a discreet and believable (and more interesting than reams of handouts) method of giving the players information about the setting. No matter what question the PCs may have, there's probably someone in the setting that can answer it. How did the world come to be peopled with unusual bloodlines like the jann and the hamazin? How did that shadowy Undead creature that's been murdering citizens in Upper Razina get here, and how do we get rid of it? What lies hidden under the sands of the Hamazi canyonlands, or in the forested interiors of the Tolosa islands? Where is the fabled and dreaded plateau of Leng?

All of those questions probably have quite obscure answers, though--the truth about the jann and the hamazin is probably only known to the most reclusive and possibly insane of sages and scholars, and the best person to tell you about the undead is the mad necromancer who summoned or created it. Only the bravest and stoutest of adventurers may speak of the Hamazi canyonlands or the Tolosa islands or the blasphemous plateau of Leng. It's the PC's jobs to figure out how to get that information from them.

For every major NPC you create, you should be thinking about what he or she knows, how that might be useful to the PCs, and how they might go about getting that information from them. It might be as simple as asking, or it might not. The NPC may require some big favor or even a quest before he answers the questions the PCs have, or they may simply need to be outwitted or intimidated. There may even be a few who are designed to offer information to the PCs even if they are apparently trying to avoid taking it! Wandering prophetic beggars might be a good example of just such an NPC. It's also a good idea to make the information from NPCs be subtle--don't come right out and tell the PCs what they need to know, hint at it, make them have to figure out what the NPC's sayings actually mean from a practical standpoint.

There's a few hints for how to string your PCs along a little bit, challenge them somewhat, and make them feel rewarded for figuring out what to make of this information. Always make the hints be somewhat subtle in one way or another. Either the information is a little difficult to find, or if it comes for free, it's difficult to interpret. You don't want to go overboard, and keep an eye on your players to make sure they're not getting frustrated because they don't know what to do. By the same token, don't hit them with proverbial 2x4s telling them exactly what to do either; give them hints, give them potential avenues to follow, and let them decide how and on what terms they will pursue those avenues. Also be aware of certain roleplaying conventions. If someone comes up to the PCs and starts telling them something that sounds outrageous, the players will likely take that person seriously and believe everything they say, in spite of the fact that their PCs probably wouldn't in real life. The convention is, "the GM is obviously trying to tell me something here" by making a minor scene out of something that would otherwise seem very pedestrian and would be ignored. Occasionally throw these conventions for a loop by putting red herrings in front of the PCs. Sometimes the crazy old man in the street really is just a crazy old man who doesn't know what he's talking about. Sometimes the NPCs actually don't know anything, even though they may act like they do. Sometimes they might even be mistaken and give bad info to the PCs, even if they are sincere in their motivations.

This is a tricky line to walk -- you don't want to lead the PCs down endless dead-ends, but having NPCs that are more like real people, occasionally fallible with the information they give the PCs (of course, until they find out otherwise) makes the campaign setting more real.

(2). Offer the PCs services and tactical options.

Even in the most paranoid and political of games, there have to be NPCs that can help the PCs either by offering them something they don't have access to, or by offering them the ability to do something they otherwise wouldn't. A high(ish) level cleric who can heal the PCs when they come limping back into town is the classic example of this, or the sage or wizard that can identify a mysterious magical item. It might even be something as simple as the blacksmith that can make a masterwork weapon for a PC, or a salesman who can provide an exotic animal or spell component, or other such story item.

This should be handled suitably subtlely as well; if the PCs need to have an antidote for the poison of some foul creature, they need to know that the old hermit who lives in the swamp is an expert herbalist and hedge doctor that can treat poisons. And it helps if they already know this from a subtle clue before hand, rather than feel like the GM is simply telling them what to do. If the old hermit is seen in town advising, or better yet, administering an antidote, to someone else the PCs know a few sessions before they need to use his services, the players will feel quite clever for remembering him, but if you have to tell them, "hey, there's a guy outside of town that might be able to help you," they'll feel led by the nose.

(3). Propel the PCs into adventures.

Naturally, NPCs give the PCs reasons to do things. They might have something about them that just begs to be investigated, or they might talk about potential threats or opportunites that the PCs naturally see as adventure seeds. There are three tried and true methods of doing this, and they should probably be mixed up from time to time for maximum effect.

The first is to create NPCs that the PCs care about, and then threaten them somehow. It's been my experience that this usually works; if their friendly landlord's son is kidnapped, or his wife accused of witchcraft, the PCs often take it upon themselves to "make things right" for him. However, I've also had plenty of players who's PCs were stone-cold heartless mercenaries who wanted to know what was in it for them first. You'll have to be the judge of your PCs' attitudes in this regard and make the judgement call accordingly.

An NPC who hires the PCs to do something is another classic method. The only problem, as Ray sees it, is that you want the PCs to undertake adventures on their own volition, not because you create NPCs that are conveniently dragging them along into whatever you as the DM have prepared. I think Ray overestimates to what extent this makes it seems as if the GM is telling the PCs what to do and un-empowering the players, but it is something to keep in mind. This is probably most effective at the beginning of a campaign when the PCs haven't yet put down roots in the setting, established fully-fleshed out motivations, or had other reasons to really get involved yet.

Create an NPC that is an obvious rival to the PCs, and they'll want to thwart him on principle. Another way to make this extremely effective is to first introduce the PC as a friend first, and then after some time show his true colors. This is even more effective if you can hold off on your big revelation for as long as you can--the players sense of having been betrayed and cheated by this NPC will be all the stronger if they assume he's they're friend for a longer amount of time. And I've never seen a more motivated player than one who feels his PC was betrayed or cheated by another NPC.

(4.) Create atmosphere

NPCs can help set the mood as well, when needed. A comic relief character who can turn up when the night is too serious, or a somber and dour fellow who can bring the PCs down to earth if they're having a goofy night can be important, as long as they're not overused. Along the same lines, NPCs can help establish cultural and racial hooks. If the elves in your campaign have a different attitude in some regard than the standard "hippy snob" elf, then an elf that exemplifies these differences, to showcase to the players what they're like, is crucial to get some setting atmosphere across.

So, let's apply those principles to the Dark•Heritage setting briefly, then I can type up some tips for instant NPCs that have character and seem full and fleshed out. Earlier, I identified two NPCs, Gauvain of the Inquisition, and his sister Alainna who is a sorceress. When I ran an earlier version of this setting, right off the bat, Gauvain did several of the NPC tasks in the first session or two. He provided the PCs with some exposition on the state of their homebase (he met them on the way into town), he propelled the PCs into adventure by hiring them to freelance for him on a difficult assignment to find a missing spellbook and it's dark abductor, and he provided services and tactical options by giving them a safehouse within the city, complete with a personal assistant (who conveniently enough is an accomplished student of the medical arts as well) and setting them up with any gear they needed. Much later on, the PCs discovered that Gauvain was in league with dark powers--he wanted the book himself, not to protect the city as he claimed, but so that he and Alainna could enact the ritual that would make them immortal. His ultimate goal was to challenge the High Lord Imperator himself for rulership of Cassant (a state that doesn't exist in the updated version of the setting,) although that goal was still a long way off when the campaign ended.

Alainna, on the other hand, had been the quieter partner so far. She didn't end up being as useful, but I envisioned that she could also propel the PCs into adventure due to her nature as a sorceress; extending invitations to the PCs to visit Governer Galceran's young wife's illicit occult parties, getting in some trouble herself for embarassing occult items found in her possession, or otherwise involving the PCs in the darker side of Iclezza society. She also can help the PCs by providing all kinds of exposition about Iclezza, by casting the occasional friendly spell, or helping the PCs to learn spellcasting themselves (which, although illegal, I naturally expect several PCs interested in seeing what they can learn.)

Next update we'll explore some more facets of using NPCs, and making them memorable, but first, as promised, here's a quick guide to instant NPCs.

Nothing makes an NPC seem more faceless and unimportant than not having a name. Before each session, I always make sure I've got a list with me of about a dozen names that I've devised according to whatever naming conventions I've decided on for my campaign. When the PCs meet someone, pick a name from this list, cross it off, and be sure to note later who the name attached to in case the PCs meet him again. Each session, I refresh my list by replacing used names with more names, just to make sure I have enough.

If the PCs will spend more time with the NPC than just asking a question or two, you might want to do something to make the NPC seem a little more memorable; a quirk or unique trait. We'll discuss this next time in more detail for your NPCs that you know you're going to be using regularly, but making up a quick list of traits and then applying them to your instant NPCs can help to bring them to life as well. Here's a little sample list of ideas:. I've made twenty of them, so you can roll a d20 to assign them randomly, if you're so inclined.

1) hunched posture
2) military-straight posture
3) always has arms crossed
4) always has hands in his pockets
5) distinctive tattoo
6) distinctive scars
7) unusual hair color
8) unusual eye color
9) missing teeth
10) distinctively shaped features (big, sloping forehead, large ears, frog-like eyes, etc.)
11) excessively hairy or bald
12) obese or over-thin
13) stutter
14) nasal voice
15) inappropriate use of jargon or slang
16) distinctive accent
17) unusual and easily visible birthmark
18) always eating and drinking, and offers the PCs unusual and exotic foods whenever they meet him
19) extremely dandy, and prone to wearing unusual or foreign clothes
20) missing fingers, or eye, or other obvious deformity

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