Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dungeoncraft #9: More with NPCs

Last time I made a Dungeoncraft post, I talked about four things that NPCs can and should do. Today, let's finish talking about NPCs and I'll finish detailing Gauvain and Alainna, the brother/sister duo of sinister sorcerer-patrons that initially seem friendly, but who have designs that will probably bring them into conflict with the PCs for one reason or another. Good ole Ray Winninger splits this entry, which I'm using as a template for my own post, into four additional categories; four things that make up NPCs. Only three of them are required, but the fourth is handy, especially for NPCs that look like they're going to end up being significant, recurring characters. Without further ado, let's have a look at the four things that most NPCs will end up having:

1) Game mechanics. In theory, behind every NPC is a character sheet as detailed and comprehensive as that which supports the PCs of your campaign. With few exceptions, though, this is not the practice in most game systems, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Ray introduces (somewhat belatedly, but here it's most relevant) his third rule of Dungeoncraft at this point. I'm going to state it, but then I'm also going to adapt it a bit more specifically to the system and playstyle I prefer. Keep in mind also the first rule of Dungeoncraft; don't create more than you have to. For most NPCs that the PCs encounter, they won't interact with them mechanically. If they're in court being presented to the King, do you need to know what the King's armor class is? Hopefully not! In fact, for the vast majority of NPCs that you use to people your setting, even many recurring ones, there won't be any need to create any mechanical information whatsoever. Because of the first rule of Dungeoncraft, well, then you probably shouldn't.

However, that means that you might get caught with your pants down when the PCs decide that the King is actually a doppleganger or something equally absurd, and decide to attack him. Suddenly, you need to know stats for the king, several of the other nobles in the throne room, and the guards, and ... whoops! You didn't generate any, because you never thought you'd need them! This is where the third rule of Dungeoncraft comes into its own.

Dungeoncraft Rule #3: Whenever you have no idea what the probability of success should be for a given situation, it's 50%.

Now, taking this idea to an even higher, more conceptual level, what this means is that you can go through several entire sessions in a row, including sessions that feature several combats and other mechanical interactions, without having any statblocks pregenerated at all. 50% seems pretty reasonable if you really have no idea how likely something should be, right? By the same token, if you have a vague idea; i.e., something should be unlikely or difficult (75%) or something should be fairly likely and easy (25%) you can adjust that 50% as needed on the fly. This same principle can be applied to all kinds of things in game. Many, many times I've run combats without having any stats for my NPCs.

Gamist purists probably blanche at the very thought of this. That's OK; I can dig where you're coming from. However, those same folks are frequently the ones that I hear expressing frustration with the d20 system because it stifles them under an overwhelming weight of rules and subsystems. Remember the old mantra back at the release of third edition? I do. "Tools, not rules." This fit my playstyle quite well anyway, so I didn't really need it spelled out for me in order for me to run the game that way, but it's a nice reminder. Use the rules you like or need or find useful; ignore the rest.

So, how can I convert those percentages to target numbers? Ray Winninger wrote that rule during the era of second edition D&D, when it was more useful. In a d20 environment, you're not likely to be using percentages much anyway.

Difficulty classes: A 15 is a standard DC for most tasks that are meant to be challenging to low level characters, but not really to higher level characters, or specialists who are particularly good at that skill, save or what-have you. Use 15 for default difficulty. 20 is more difficult, and only mid-level or specialist characters should attempt these tasks most of the time. 25 is beyond the capability of all but real experts. Because I don't really play very high level games and refuse to touch higher than some point below the midpoint of the level spectrum, I really don't have any use for any DCs higher than 25. Keeping in mind that 15 is relatively easy (but still challenging for non-experts) and 25 is extremely challenging even for experts, I can pick DCs for almost anything on the fly as needed. Anything easier than 15 I mostly won't bother calling for checks for, although occasionally I'll have an easier DC if for no other reason so we can laugh at PCs that fail to make their check. Failures can be as entertaining and interesting (and frequently, in fact, are moreso) than successes.

NPC bonuses: For the most part, if an NPC needs a bonus to a roll (to hit, damage, skill check, saving throw, etc.) I pick a number equal to about the average PC character level and add that to my dice roll. This tends to mean that they are relatively well scaled with the PCs themselves--close enough, anyway--to make them challenging. This can also be modified as needed; really strong characters can double the to hit and damage bonus, for example, if needed. I even use the same principle for armor class; if 10 is the default, then I can add that to 10 to get the AC. ACs tend to be higher for any character wearing any type of armor, so I can throw a few extra points on there as needed too; again, all on the fly.

Hit points: This is perhaps the most radical proposal I'm going to make in this post--you don't need to know how many hit points your PCs antagonists have. For many NPCs, especially "mook" or minion type PCs (the proverbial goblins or stormtroopers) they really should fall down as soon as they're hit most of the time (really low damage rolls excepted). For others, it's easier to keep track of how much damage they've sustained, and when it seems like it's been long enough, then they go down. This is more an art than a science; you have to be able to read your players and understand if they're finding the combat exciting and interesting, or if its starting to drag or feel frustrating. End it before you get to that point, but ideally, right before you get there; when the very first signs of "holy cow, how many times do we need to hit this guy?" start to appear.

Class abilities and spells: I don't use many magic characters (maybe because they take more preparation to use well) but if you want to have one, it's best to have a few handy go-to spells that you know quite well that you can use as needed. Similarly, I don't frequently need much in the way of class abilities, but sometimes for fun, I'll throw in a sneak attack extra damage, or rule that an NPC has evasion or something like that. Grab stuff that you're familiar with and can make the combat fun and use these types of abilities sparingly. It's usually better (or at least easier) to just factor these types of abilites into the numbers; if you want a character to be a bit more challenging, make his bonuses higher. But sometimes a spell, unusual weapon (like a blast of fire or flask of acid) or something like that goes a long way towards making an NPC memorable in combat.

Focus on environment: In my experience, combats are rarely memorable because an enemy combatant was dutifully statted out. Something that's more likely is a "standard" NPC without any special abilities per se, but one who the PCs have to fight in an unusual environment will be the combats that they really remember. What if the NPCs are jumping back and forth from rooftops and scaffolds? What if it's on a stormy, swaying deck of a ship in the rain? What if NPCs are ambushing the PCs from dark corners and hiding places at every turn?

I've used this "technique" throughout most of my d20 GMing career. Most of the time, my players don't know if I have stats for NPCs or not--it's seamless enough that combats run more or less the same whether I do, or whether I'm just making up numbers on the fly as I need them. It sure makes running the game less of a chore, and it also really facilitates the kind of PC driven types of games that I prefer.

However, I don't run entire games that way from start to finish. Having a few "generic" statblocks, either from the DMG or some other source, can be quite handy. Just make sure that they're easy to find and that you aren't scrambling, flipping through pages when what you really need is to be jumping right into combat right now with a reasonable number in hand. Having a few statblocks printed out on a single sheet of paper and paperclipped to the inside of my GM screen has come in handy more than once for me.

And for really important, dramatic battles against recurring or heavily foreshadowed NPCs, nothing beats having an actual, complete, custom statblock. As always, keep in mind the role you expect the NPC to play in the campaign. If it's just a bunch of thugs jumping the PCs while they're otherwise engaged in a bit of investigation which is dragging down the pacing of the game, then they're disposible and stats aren't important. If all the PCs need to do to interact mechanically with the NPCs is have them make a Sense Motive or Spot check, or a saving throw, then again; who cares what their other stats are as long as the relevant one is reasonable? And unless you feel pretty comfortable with the system, you may not know what reasonable means. So this technique, my "expanded rule #3", is a powerful tool, but one that you should make sure to use wisely.

2) Description. This one seems obvious, but it's one that few GMs (in my experience) remember to utilize as wisely as they should. Unless your players are extraordinary and your play schedule quite regular and frequent, players aren't going to remember your NPCs based on their name, or even necessarily on their role. But give the NPC a distinctive description, and suddenly they've got something to latch on to. Of course, they might nickname your NPC by a physical feature, but that's usually OK too. Knowing that Gauvain and Alainna are unsually pale skinned, with striking eyes so pale that they almost appear white, but with rich, dark hair, makes them stand out in a setting that's mostly settled by folks with a "Mediterranean" phsyical disposition (which is true for much of my setting.) Of course, you've got to find ways to work it in when they meet them again, and that can be cumbersome if you're not careful. "Gauvain and Alainna enter the common room, and you notice again that their skin and eyes are extremely pale, in contrast to their thick dark hair,"--yeah, don't do that. "You see two pale, disembodied faces floating in the air in the dark alley. A closer look and you can see the dark, hooded cloaks that Gauvain and Alainna are wearing blending into the shadows," works much better. And while it might not be the tone you're going for, heck, simply saying, "Gauvain and Alainna, the goth twins, are waiting for you in your room when you arrive," is at least memorable.

Pictures are great here too. See if you can start gathering a collection of digital images, scans, or whatever of characters. Old Dungeon Magazines are one of the best resources here, but they're really not hard to find and they're all over the place. If you're looking for realistic portraits, check out links like this one. Fantasy character shots can be found a places like this, on the other hand.

3) Memorable personality trait. Even moreso than a description, an unusual quirk or something that you can demonstrate will help your players latch on to your NPCs. Knowing that both Gauvain and Alainna are extremely well-dressed, even quite dandy, for example, and that Gauvain speaks stiffly and formally like Stephen Fry playing Jeeves, while Alainna speaks only in a strained, hoarse whisper and carries a flask around to wet her mouth after speaking are great ideas. If you can actually imitate that speech, even better. It doesn't matter if your players don't ever seem to notice that your Stephen Fry impersonation is, in fact, Stephen Fry, they'll still probably find it memorable and catchy anyway.

4) Secret. I've already talked about Gauvain and Alainna's secret, and about the importance of secrets in the campaign in general, but a good rule of thumb is that any NPC that the PCs are likely to encounter again, especially with any regularity, can benefit from having some kind of secret that you can start hinting at right away. Keep in mind the role the NPC will play in the campaign, from last "episode." If the character's role is to provide exposition, the NPC probably has a secret related to the setting overall, or some of the other non-NPC secrets you've developed. If the role of the NPC is to provide services or goods to the PCs, he might have a secret device, spell, or item that they can use, steal, or earn for themselves at the appropriate time.

When I come back for Dungeoncraft #10, we'll have a look at regional mapping, and extending our campaign setting out from the home base area a bit... but not too far! Remember the first rule of dungeoncraft; never create more than you need!

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