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Hearty NPCs

Season One, Episode Two

Vocabulary for this Episode:     

RPG – Role Playing Game.
NPC – Non-Player Character.
Handler – Person typically maintaining contact and feeding information to an operative.
Johnson – Person who acts as the main point of contact for a mission.
ACP – Armor Check Penalty, a hindrance designed to make armor choices matter.
LARP(ing) – Live-Action Role Playing


Putting the C in NPC – Part One: The History of a Soul

You have done it. You have set up your game, you have all of your plot pieces in play. All you need now is someone to trigger the events that will begin the party’s journey down that road.

So you send in Jim.

You see, Jim is just a man. A simple man, at that. Jim is very likely a human- probably an innkeeper if we are being honest, and looks to be about as thought out as that piece of paper you have on your table.

See Jim. Jim is what we like to call a plot device. He is the physical embodiment of that Lion King song- you know the one. He does not worry about anything. He does not have to. Do you know why? Of course not. Because Jim is a freak of nature. Jim has no soul. His entire purpose is to mention something about some holy artifact that will pique the interest of your party’s shady third cousin twice removed, so that they will go steal it back.

Fast forward to the next gaming session. We are back at stage one. This go-round, the party happens to meet up with Thearod Davic. He has requested they meet him in a very public place, as it will be less likely for others to notice the small envelopes he divvies out to each member of the party. You see, Thearod is a handler. Those envelopes contain equipment that will allow him constant communication with you, because not only can he not take the risk of being seen or heard discussing such things as what you are going to be doing in public, he physically cannot  speak.

After the party takes their new toys, they turn to try and thank their new contact, only he is not there. You see, Thearod was never there. He simply deployed a drone with holographic projectors to hand out the goods, which begs the question: Was that even Thearod’s face you saw?

Sitting in a dimly lit office on the third floor of the AerTech building in the center of the city, a mute CEO waves a hand to close the blinds of his windows. He has work to do. With another flick of his hand, he sends off a message to his husband and three children at home, letting them know that he is not going to make it home tonight. Important trade deal early in the morning across the pond and he wants to make sure every detail of that exchange is perfect. With a soft smile, he flicks on his computer’s display, and begins the down-link to send job information to the party.

Thearod Davic is what we call a Johnson. He is a complexly thought out individual with a history. He has character. He has a reason to be secretive, and most importantly, he has a badass name. Come on, Thearod Davic? I just came up with that. It’s that easy.

The difference in these two is that with Jim, your party starts the campaign directly into their mission. With Thearod (Still an awesome name, by the way), they get a tiny bit of insight as a player into what kind of campaign it is going to be. They are running through the shadows of one of the busiest cities in the world, helping secure objectives to ensure a wealthy businessman gets what he wants.

Jim’s guys? They’re going to fight some…uh, you know. Things. And get that thing, what was it again?

Giving your players a bit of history for an NPC changes the entire dynamic of the game you are running. They go from not caring about it, and just jiving through the mission on auto-pilot, to giving small thoughts and considerations to the curious fellow they are doing business for. Sure, you do not have to give every NPC they come across such thought, but having them scattered about the campaign will make it a memorable one.

You never hear stories about Jim. But that time we did the job for Thearod? Dude, we ran into so many people on that mission. We even made a few contacts from it.

Putting the C in NPC – Part Two: Five Sentence Fiction

Anyone who knows me knows that a while back I was part of a project entitled Five Sentence Fiction, where we took the concept of a full story and told it in exactly five sentences. Start to finish, a complete plot, in five. It is not an easy task at first, but it gets easier with practice.

I would recommend to anyone that if you have an NPC, and you want them to be important to the story of the game you are running, write a five sentence story of history for them. It does not have to include their entire life, just a specific piece that you want to convey. Here is an example for a ‘quest giver’ to start your campaign with to see what I’m talking about. Hopefully it will make sense once you have read it:

My eyes slammed shut for the third time that night. Ever since I found that damned sword hilt, I’ve been getting these visions. Each night I take rest in bed and the sight of the dead rising from their graves fills my mind’s eye, taunting me with terrors of the past. I pray for these images to pass, but each night they have grown stronger. The wretched, vile howling and cries of a civilization long gone still echo, but they are no longer in my mind.

You see, the village your party has come across has had several mysterious cases of people going missing. There is a farmer on the outskirts who claims that the dead are taking back those they once loved, but the rest of the town considers him a fool. What they do not know is that not only is their beloved town fool correct, he is also the reason it is happening.

Insert Jerimiah, the farmer from Copper Grove. He decided to till up some land to start a new field, and came across the hilt of a sword buried into the topsoil. As it were, this was the only thing binding the dead from a battle some years ago to their graves, and removing it from the ground has broken the words of power spoken by the priest who buried them there.

It is a fun little exercise that lets you develop the entire feel of a character. You don’t even really need to add more to him at this point, as he will serve the purpose and have a reason for wanting the party to succeed. If they manage to re-bind the dead to their graves, his visions will cease and the town may rest peacefully. If not, they may have to travel into the catacombs and slay the risen, ending their suffering once more.

Putting the C in NPC – Part Three: How to Draw a Flaw

Take a look at the wall closest to you. Look at it for a few moments, then return to reading this. Do not worry, I will wait.

Did you notice something? It likely was not completely smooth. It had flaws. Character defects, if you wall. They may be intentional, accidental or, in some cases, unwarranted, but they are there none the less. These are the things that tell a greater story. If I locked you in a room with crisp, clean, perfectly smooth white walls, you might think you are in some kind of experimentation room, or perhaps a psych ward. If I take you, the same person, and put you in a room with cold slab walls, cracks and impact craters scattered across the otherwise untouched surface, you would begin to develop a different narrative for what may have previously gone on in that room.

NPCs are much the same. Rare is the day you will find one that does not come with some form of defect- some broken piece of perfection. These flaws are what drive good storytelling, and breathe life into the things that you work so hard to envision. Some RPG systems come packaged in with things you can simply choose to take that act as character flaws, giving even your players a bit of extra depth, but something you should consider is giving these same tokens to your NPCs, and letting them breathe.

Perhaps your main quest giver in your campaign is a pathological liar and a kleptomaniac. While giving the party their instructions, he may proceed to step around them in a slow circle, speaking to each one directly whilst still addressing the group as a whole. In this time, if someone is not paying attention, they may find a small trinket or some currency missing. On the flip side of that coin, they may find themselves carrying an extra bit of contraband that the NPC did not wish to be caught with, and they themselves may end up taking the fall down the line if they do not discover and dispose of the item(s).

All-in-all, you want to ensure that your NPC has a reason to act the way that they do. Purist? Perhaps they are a member of a clergy with a tucked away horror in their past, trying to atone for a sin they did not commit. Rude, crude and definitely ‘that dude’? Maybe he’s battling a demon at home. Not all relationships are happy ones, and perhaps the wife has turned abusive in response to his newfound interest in this objective of your party’s. Either way, they both want to help, and they both have something they are trying to escape from.

Outfitting an Outrider – Part One: Environmentally Conscious Armors

When equipping your NPCs for inevitable combat, you should take into account their environment, and how such a thing will impact their ability to function properly. You’re not going to have a soldier in full plate roaming the desert who is still at the top of his game. Likewise, you won’t see a light-cloth forest warrior traversing the tundra without being on the brink of hypothermia at some point. Both your party, and your NPCs should be dressed appropriately for the weather they will be experiencing, and each should be punished in kind for failing to do so.

So, what kinds of things should you be on the lookout for? Well, for starters, you should grasp the general idea of armor itself. Even heavy, padded cloth is armor. Sure, steel will deflect an arrow almost entirely if struck properly, but a thick, padded and tucked tunic is going to do something interesting with that arrow. It is going to disperse the impact, even of the sharp arrowhead, over a wider area than the deflection. Yes, it is going to hit the person wearing it, but it will be traveling slower upon piercing than it would be otherwise, because of the way cloth armors are designed. This allows the wound to be survivable.

That said, you are going to find both in some environments, and only one in others. If you are in a desert, the locals will likely be wearing a variety of light chains and thin cloths, with padding only where needed. What you will not find en masse, will be people parading about in the blazing heat wearing full plate, as they would be reduced to a hunched over statue of pooling sweat and death rather rapidly.

In general, the hotter the environment, the less cumbersome and more breathy the armor will be. As you drop into more mild climates, armor will grow heavy and add greater protection. Upon venturing into the tundra, you will find the armors take a mix of both, typically joined by heavy cloths to keep the wearer warm.

This should act as a fair and decent guide to how your NPCs should be equipped for their environments on a very basic level, but is by no means the law on how to do things. Each campaign is different, as it each DM. As always, this is to simply act as a guide to assist you in making decisions. One should also keep in mind any cultural differences that may be seen in the armors by region, as the desert nomads may wear tattered cloths, while the Temple Guard may have clean-cut fabrics with light, ornate designed chains scattered atop them. In the same manner, a snow-topped mountain castle may have guards clad in heavy cloths beneath light plate armor and chains, while the hunters of the same land have donned heavy leathers instead, as in their hunts they have more dexterous requirements. In this environment, you are unlikely to find any finger details, as the snow and ice would simply cover them in the colder months.

In summary, your NPCs armor should make sense for their location, or even where they are from if they are travelling. Perhaps they’re shifting from the rolling plains into the cool highlands, and have not found a vendor with the equipment they require to properly care for themselves. Maybe the party would be willing to trade some of their extra gear for something of value these NPCs have to offer in exchange for their well-being.

Outfitting an Outrider – Part Two: Painting Yourself Into an Armor

A common practice when outfitting a character of any kind is the assumption of what they will be wearing based upon the path they follow. A Cleric will almost always be seen wearing heavy armor, or robes. Rangers? Congrats, you have got on leathers and chains. Rogue? You do not exist, stop kidding yourself, you are a Ranger who is not good at their job. That said, this does not always have to be the case- except for Rogues. You are still not real.

So, how do you combat this minor oversight? Take into account how you want this NPC to feel to your party upon first seeing them. Say you have a scholar that your party needs to interact with in order to gain information about their duties or quest. They walk into the library seeking this individual and are met by a woman wearing chainmail and brigandine, a claymore slung upon her back and is not wearing gauntlets or gloves of any kind. First impressions tells the party that this is obviously a heavy warrior of some fashion, who prefers dexterity as protection rather than cumbersome steel plates. They ask for this scholar they seek, and are informed that she is, in fact, the aforementioned scholar.

What you have done in this process is set an idea into your player’s heads that they may wish to stave off judgement upon what they might encounter in the future until they can dissect the situation and learn the truth. You have also introduced one of the most badass scholars on the face of the planet. A simple solution to a common, minor problem.

Have a bit of creativity, and allow your players to do the same. The results may surprise you.

Outfitting an Outrider – Part Three: Disorder, Disarray and Dis Dude Right Here

Have you ever worn a chain mail shirt? Personally, I have, but I did do a lot of Live Action Role-Playing (LARPing) in my past. A character I played wore a 25lb chain shirt. It was lovely, as this was in the heat of southern Mississippi, USA, so I stayed cooler than most. It was also a nightmare to wear. When you have an armor piece that rides atop you, as opposed to being affixed to an article of clothing, there is a wear and fatigue like no other. The straps or metal itself digs into you over a surprisingly short duration. It gets heavier with every passing moment and as you move, it shifts, causing it to chafe against whatever clothing you were smart enough to don beneath.

This has a direct impact on your behavior. For me personally, I moved in much slower, methodical motions when not in combat. The luxury of this was that I could relax as much as possible so that once I inevitably had to raise arms against someone, I could go all out without starting the battle exhausted. In combat, your adrenaline starts pumping and gives you a boost. You forget that your collar hurts. You forget that you are moving about ten percent slower than normal, and most importantly, you forget that the very thing that is protecting you, is hindering your movements.

Your attitude shifts after a while. You may still be the same happy-go-lucky fighter you were several hours prior, but you may find yourself getting snappy with your answers. This is not to say you do not mean well, just that your patience has been worn thin by the weight and interactions of your armor. The armor weighing on you brings you to the brink of exhaustion if exerted, and limits your movement. The typical Armor Check Penalty (ACP) is there for this reason. I personally think it is useless, but that is because I attribute the same disdain over a multitude of other factors. In some armors, your movements are restricted, and your opponent may not have such hindrances. This is when the ACP makes sense. There is a distinct advantage for one combatant. When it does not make sense is when you have two people with wearing the same armor going toe-to-toe with each other. There is no advantage at that point. They are both equally cumbersome. That said, the ACP is the combat-equivalent of being annoyed. For my NPCs, I personally add their ACP to all rolls after they fail the first of a check, just to show the kind of mental and physical toll that wearing such things has on a person. It adds depth to your character, and gives a slightly more accurate portrayal of the situation. Sure, some skills take it into account, especially in D&D, but there is much more to the state of being other than if you can raise your hands above your head or not.

Again, small bits of immersion that lets your characters feel more like a character and less like a cardboard cutout.

Outfitting and Outrider – Part Four: Less is Never More (A Micro-rant)

As a bit of an aside, I would like to address a very specific sect of people. A group typically in charge of design in video games or film.

I know that is looks nice to have a woman wearing super-revealing armor, or makes a dude look awesome when his abs are on full display, but for the love of all that exists, that is not how it works. You do not get more protection for wearing less protection. You do not get to look pretty when you are in a full suit of plate. You are a hot, sweaty, red-faced mess when that helmet comes off, and you damn sure are not going to leave anything exposed for attack.

Stop trying to sexualize something that has no reason to be sexualized. You want to make people look pretty? Make them look pretty before you try and outfit them. You will be surprised at how the problem then fixes itself.

Knickknacks, Rations and Common Sense – Part One: The Lion, The Witch, and the Epic Level Short Sword

Clear your mind for a moment. Done? Good. I want you to imagine that you are a fledgling archer, just barely even comfortable leveling a bow and drawing it. You are tasked with killing a rat which seems to be terrorizing the locals. You raise arms, pull, and release. As the arrow sails through the air, you have already done the math in your head: You are going to hit. The rat dies, you loot the corpse and are rewarded with a Masterwork Great Sword +1.

Clear your mind again. Yes, this is annoying, but you will understand in a moment. You are back in the same spot. Same rat, same bow, same lack of confidence in your abilities. Raise, pull, release. Rat tumbles, you loot the corpse. You are rewarded with two fangs, a pelt and a ring that the creature had swallowed at some point.

Which one of those sounds more appropriate? Leave a comment below real quick. Do not worry, I will wait.

A massive problem in games run that ranges from D&D to Shadowrun to GURPS and beyond, is that the loot people give their players makes absolutely no sense for the thing they are getting it from. Sure, if you are in an armory, you may find a really nice weapon or piece of armor. You are not going to get that off of a five thousand year old skeleton. Hate it for you. On the same hand, if you fight a group of bandits, you are very likely going to find left over food and drink. This is critical, as you should be making your players eat at regular, sensible intervals to ensure they do not do silly things such as die from starvation.

Think about the encounters your party may run into. Consider the locations. If you want them to have special items of that nature, scatter them into places that make sense for them to be there. Ask yourself if you would leave the item in that spot, or if it would survive for as long as the creature you want to have it would have been roaming about.

Once you have answered yes to those questions, then grant your party the right to yell at each other to find out which of the fake, nonexistent Rogues is going to get the item.

Knickknacks, Rations and Common Sense – Part Two: One Man’s Trash is Another Rogue’s Treasure

Another fun thing to toy with when you are thinking of what kinds of loot you would like to see in your campaign is the idea of having items that appear to be worthless that once realized, become immensely useful. This could range from a compass that the person holding it for the first time may need to make a perception check to see if they notice it is not quite pointing north, all the way to a bejeweled goblet that upon first inspection appears to be fake gemstones and Fool’s Gold. If the person finding it thinks to take a sip from it, they may find themselves fully refreshed from a single serving of whatever liquid they so happen to fill it with, and no longer require sustenance in the day so long as they take a swig in the morning.

Useful items are always hiding in plain sight, and while a vast majority of things your players will inspect are completely mundane, the occasional lesser quality and depowered magical item may be hibernating before their very eyes, should they look close enough.

On the Topic of Naming Things – A Rose by Any Other Name

There is a craft involved in placing a name to a character. It is one that takes a long time to perfect. So long, in fact, that I still believe that Patrick Rothfuss might name a Wood Elf ‘Barky McBark Bark’. Granted, that is hilarious, but still. You get the idea. The name you give should feel correct when said. You are not going to have a Human named Beksaundral Redmane. We all know her real name is Becky With The Good Hair. I am not proud of that, but I will not apologize.

When naming characters, ensure that your names are appropriate for the setting and time period. Names are one of the most important aspects of an NPC, as they are what will be seen and heard the most during interactions. Your Elven Bard may sing a fine tune, but they will be thanking him by name, not by instrument. His name is Elithandril, by the way. Humans probably call him Eli for short. His name sounds like it could be Elven. It makes sense, given that he is an Elf.

Exceptions to this come in very interesting forms, however. A Human abandoned to the Dwarves will likely have a Dwarven name. Erik Giantcrusher if you’re going for a fantasy style name. Erik Kolmkul for a more realistic approach. He is a Human, but only just.


That’s it for the second installment! Thank you for taking the time to read, and I apologize for the delay in getting it out to the public. This episode has undergone several re-writes, and I still want to change some aspects of it to better cover certain topics, but I believe they will be better addressed in other episodes.

As always, if you have comments, suggestions, concerns or sarcasm, leave them in the comments below and I’ll take a look!

Dakota Lewis

Fractured.Systems
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Episode Two Breakdown – Thearod Davic


Episode Breakdowns are free resources to accompany each episode of Fractured Systems which deal with the broad topic of each specific episode. Breakdowns may have bold placeholder text, which is meant to be replaced by whomever chooses to use the resource.

All Episode Breakdowns are completely free to use in their entirety.


NPC Quick Profile: Thearod Davic

Name: Thearod Davic

Age: 37

Race: Half-Elf

Archetype: Technomancer

Profession:  CEO of AerTech

5SF

Closing the message window, having notified my Husband and children that I would be working overnight. A smile crept across my lips as I booted up the comms system, closing the blinds of my office with a wave of a hand. By morning, I would be rich, I would retire, and my family would no longer have to worry about if they would see me often or not. After typing into the input window for the communication software, a synthetic voice reads aloud to the runners under my employ. “Begin operation.

General Summary

Thearod Davic is a successful businessman, husband, father, and CEO of AerTech- a company concerned with the security of military facilities and how to improve protection. He has worked tirelessly for years, sacrificing time with his family and friends in order to achieve a status of power within the company who took him off of the streets those ages ago. Over the course of his employment, he has seen changes in the company send clients and employees alike out of the window, leaving them behind so that AerTech could move onto greater things. All the while, he supported the company. Finally, he sat in a seat of power, the CEO of the company. And he finally had the resources to pull off something that would make him billions. Come morning, he will no longer be CEO, and he will be able to watch his children grow up into fine young adults. Assuming he is not tracked to the operation.

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Episode One Breakdown – A Fishing Village


Episode Breakdowns are free resources to accompany each episode of Fractured Systems which deal with the broad topic of each specific episode. Breakdowns may have bold placeholder text, which is meant to be replaced by whomever chooses to use the resource.

All Episode Breakdowns are completely free to use in their entirety.


The Breakdown: Immersive Environments – A Fishing Village and Outlying Lands

In the distance, a shoreline grows sharp against the horizon, the faded, blurry haze of the early morning sun giving way to smooth, water-laden banks of grayish-white sands. As the waves lap in towards the coastline, water rushes into the footprints left across the sands by those venturing out onto the beach. A particularly fresh set of prints leads towards strong, oaken piers, trusses stained dark from the high-tide waterline wearing down upon the lumber over the years.

As the port of the village grows closer, the sound of those waves slapping to shore grows louder, the wet squelching of water collapsing back in upon itself beneath the piers finding a home within the ears of all around. The wind flies crisply past, sharp breaths of the wild lands carrying the scent of fresh fish and damp wood out to sea. Voices pierce the noise upon closer listening, the fishermen calling out to one another in some form of shorthand speech, hawking wares to each other and selling their catch off to the vendors at the base of the docks.  A strong smell of salt washes out over the seas, followed by the faint chill of cold-kept meats, accompanied by the common villagers purchasing their food for the coming days. A trained ear can head the sharp slicing of a kept blade shearing through a fillet, offering up a sample for those nearby to taste for themselves. A true sign of confidence in your wares.

As boots meet the cold wood stepping off of the boat, doors and bells can be heard beyond the gates leading into the village, the morning life of the town bustling to full. Armor clanks quietly as the local militia continue their rounds, small talk keeping them sane on an otherwise mindless task. Canines and felines call out to their masters, crying their pleas and woes to the open air until some fashion of food is laid before them. Shop owners flip signs to indicate their status as open for business, several going so far as to slide a display or two just out of the doors of their shops, advertising some fashion of quality over the other vendors about.

One vendor bows his head respectfully, calling out a pleased greeting towards a small group of men and women heading for the Barracks, ready to relieve the current militia shift of their patrols just as soon as they’ve had a stiff drink and donned their armors.

All the while, pets and pests alike scurry about upon the gravel-laden paths, several skirting off into the two taverns perched opposite each other. <<Tavern Name>>, perched upon the hilltops of the Noble Ward, holds themselves to a higher standard, as seen by one of the barmaids chasing the critters out with a soft straw broom. No need to extinguish a life that is not directly harming, they feel. Whereas down near the docks, <<Tavern Name #2>> simply step outside and dump the carcasses caught in their traps from the previous night into the compost barrels, leaving them for the farmers to use as food or fertilizer where needed.

Stepping out of the main gates of <<Village Name>>, a sharp silence rings out, encompassing all. Strange, it seems, to hear so much as to let none of it be noticed. As ears adjust and vision softens, the quiet rustling of swaying grasses is picked up, the wildlife calling out to one another in the distance as several working shouts radiate from the town behind. It was easy to see why a lone farmer chose to keep his crops away from the village, choosing a quieter destiny than those within the safety of the walls. As the farmer tends to his crops for the morning, the cries of local fauna grow louder, drawing gazes towards the forest in the distance.

Soft grasses slip quietly into the dense underbrush of bushes and wild wheat, the occasional cotton hanging with an extra catch upon the plant, small fibers of canvas. Signs of travelers passing through before.

As the tree line draws ever nearer, the cawing of avian life shrieks into the canopy, the heavy bushes leading into the forest swaying with rabbits and foxes living within, hiding from those who would wish them serve a less lively purpose. A vision takes hold in a dream tucked back in the mind, giving view from above.

Upon the wings of a hawk, the canopy draws closer, leaving the viewer plummeting down towards the dense treetops at a terrifyingly quick speed. At the last moment, those wings flare out and curve back, granting enough dragging forces to slow to a manageable pace, only to tuck in on either side so that the avian can dive down and break through the leaves. Branches sway, the bark and sinewy, young fibrous woods twisting and creaking with a near guttural weight, echoing through the silence below.

The vision fades, giving way to the sight of various animals leaping about the underbrush, fallen leaves and branches acting as homes to some, and hiding spots for others. The soft warmth of the sun radiates down in shafts of light through the canopy, illuminating the forest floor like spotlights tracking a crime. A family of hares duck their heads back into their hovel, a sprinting fox blazing past the entrance before skittering itself gracefully to a stop, spinning around to await it’s next chance for breakfast. The soft, howling yawn of a wolf cub breaks the tension, it’s mother nudging it by the hind quarters gently before turning gaze to the fox, watching warily as if judging its worth as prey.

The splashing of water against flesh breaks that canine concentration, and all eyes slip towards the source. Tucked away down a path barely seen and uneasy to traverse, lies a pool of steaming water, the quiet, methodical sound of heated water melding to the airs above adding a pleasant backdrop to the sounds of the forest around.

Tucked into this secluded grove, stands a figure waist deep within those waters. Hands cup and gather the warm liquid, raising up to let rain come down over themselves. A bath anyone would be proud to start the morning with. Droplets and small rivers of water wash down the flesh of this individual, rinsing away the impurities and imperfections of a past that no longer matters.

With a jolt, attention is wrenched away from the scene ahead, the crisp, jagged, harsh snapping of metal hitting wood breaking through the air. Sprinting towards the source, well away from that hidden grove, a group of loggers continues their work from the previous day, large axes swinging in the slow, heavy rhythm of a company simply working for their pay.

Splinters and chips of wood fly with each impact of those axes into the massive, ancient spruce, shattering away carvings and symbols from another time long ago. The area around the loggers lay barren save for the capped off stumps of trees who have met a similar fate, devoid of the warm bustle of animal life the forest prior held. One final blow lands to the tree, consuming the focus of all around. Visions sync to one single point, fading into the sap-leaking chasm left by the metal blades.

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Immersive Environments

Season One, Episode One

Vocabulary for this Episode:

Undine – A lesser Water Elemental.
Primordial – The highest ranking entity in a given Plane. Their powers are not unlike that of a God.
GM / DM – Game Master / Dungeon Master | The person running the game.


Locations – Part One: Giving Story Some Character

There are a great many things to take into consideration when devising a locale for your players to traverse. Does this area of exploration make sense for the story you are desiring to tell? We all know that if you’re sending wave after wave of Undine at your party, then they very likely are not traversing the Plane of Fire. That said, there are caveats that you can swing into play to allow such a thing, which is why having a story in mind is critical.

Let us say that you wish for your party to traverse your own interpretation of the Plane of Fire, but for some twisted reason the only monster you can think of is your typical, water based Undine. Well, in order for an Undine to be traversing the Plane of Fire, you have to understand a few things. Firstly, that Undine is not going to survive. It is in the exact environment that is designed to kill it. This means that your party is going to have an easier time fighting the creature in this location, and it may not have abilities that work at their full power.

But why is this Undine here in the first place? This is why your location should make sense. Most DMs will simply wash away any malady about the issue by declaring a Planar war between the two conflicting elements, and assert that it is simply a scout sent out to report back to their home plane. While effective, those kinds of wars aren’t very gripping to the party. Sure, you can run the campaign through it, and it would be fine, but you may wish to consider an alternative.

Why would you go somewhere that is specifically designed to kill you? Perhaps you venture out of fear of something from your home. Maybe some fashion of love compels you. Perhaps to fulfill a contract from a previous set of adventurers. Whatever the reason, make sure it is compelling to your party. Let them pursue the idea that perhaps this Undine is running for dear life, trying to escape something terrible. Ensure that if a Planar Knowledge roll is met, you convey the severity of the implication of a rogue Undine traversing this Plane, and how absolutely deadly the journey truly is.

You may find that your party spares this Undine’s life, and decides to help it instead.

Going down that line, let us assume your party does help that Undine. At some point, you are going to have to take hold of the steering wheel and veer off in one direction or another to progress your story. Perhaps you have not thought about your party choosing this outcome. Fortunately, by them doing so, you are presented a beautiful opportunity to add another layer of depth to your story. Maybe you initially wanted the party to fight through the Plane of Fire, confront whatever Deity resides over it, and challenge them to battle. Maybe you simply wanted them to start the campaign already running full tilt, in a hostile environment to let your second session act as a bit of housekeeping. Either way, by the party choosing to save this Undine instead of killing it, you have bought yourself all the time in the world.

A great deal of being a DM is improvisation. If a player throws you a curve ball, you need to be able to spin in place, catch the ball and drag it with you without losing momentum so that you can send it right back to that player. It is a game of catch that if mastered, builds stories for friends to share forever. Our curve ball, in this instance, is the Undine.

So! You keep talking about this Undine being so great, but why is it great?

Funny you should ask, line of text above me that I literally just typed out. I’ll show you.

Your party is moving quickly, ducking, weaving and sauntering their way through the Plane of Fire when they come across the impossible: an Undine soldering forward, unable to make quick adjustments to movement, on a direct course for what anyone with the knowledge would reckon is the Throne. Now, once you’ve let the fact that what you are seeing is absolutely insane from a logistical standpoint sink in, your party goes and does you one better. They start leading the Undine to his destination, because they understand how grave a situation must be for a being of pure, raw, elemental water to sentence itself to death to escape whatever horror it is facing.

Along the way, one of your party members gets the bright idea to look down and realize that they speak Aquan. What a time to be alive. This person inquires as to what the Undine is running from, only to find out that a group of adventurers has set into motion a calamity for the creature’s home plane by killing the Primordial of Water, causing the reality that binds the Plane of Water into existence to begin crumbling. The sky is literally falling around them in their homeland, and any who remain will simply have never existed unless a way is found to stabilize the issue.

Well, you wanted your party to go toe-to-toe with the Primordial of Fire, here is a reason for it. Who knows, maybe your party will choose a diplomatic end to this conflict as well.

Locations – Part two: Trading Spaces and Getting There Fast

Another aspect of being a GM is knowing how to properly describe the “Environmental Fade” of an area. You cannot just go about saying “Alright, we’ve gone from this forest to a nearby field.” All that does is draw a line in the terrain and say “HEY GUESS WHAT, ITS LIKE TWO TOTALLY DIFFERENT PLACES!” While this is not inherently bad practice, as most people simply don’t want to waste time describing things, that’s not why you’re here.

Give character to the land around you. Make sure that you understand that without some INSANE magical forces, you’re not going to have a hard cut line of snow in the desert covering an underwater civilization. Everything has a fade. Everything transitions. This is one of the focuses in this episode’s Breakdown.

If you are transitioning from a desert into a forest, you are going to have to go through a plains of some form. It may only be a kilometer or two worth of it, before the lush greenery of treetops creep up on the horizon, but along with that, you must remember the grass growing into thicker and thicker patches, the bushes growing more vibrant, and the sky changing.

For example: I moved to Anchorage, Alaska a couple of years ago. I can see the difference in the sky here, from Gulfport, Mississippi where I lived before. The air is crisper, cleaner. The sky is a much richer shade of blueish white. There is not a pine needle trying to stab me in the eye. I noticed it as we drove up the US and through Canada. As elevation shifted, and depending on how close to civilization we were, the sky shifted. Some places were grimy. Not so much that you’d be put off, but definitely noticeable when you were climbing through the mountains cursing for not having a camera handy.

All of these details add up over time, and they help draw your players, and yourself, into the world. That is what immersion is about. You should look back after a session and be proud of the places you were. They should still be fresh and vivid in your mind the next day.

With that said, sometimes you simply cannot allocate resources to describing every little cross-fading environment. Sometimes you simply have to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, for the sake of real-world time constraints. That same journey through the desert and to the forest then becomes a time-lapse, and instead of giving intimate details, you need an alternative way to convey the complexity of the world to your players.

Everyone does this differently, and there is no correct way to do so. For example, a friend of mine sets aside thirty seconds to give quick overviews of each location between Point A and Point B, whereas I simply take a bit of time and describe the gradient of color in the environment as night fades to morning, and the hollow, warm yellows and golds break over the horizon. It is not much, but it gives the transition depth, as opposed to saying “Well, you’ve travelled all night and you’ve finally made it. Good job, everyone.”

As previously stated, this is not something set in stone and fact, but you should always consider giving at least a small portion of time to finding a way to make the concept your own. It is a small piece of the puzzle that just as important as having a world itself. Just do not think of it as doing work. Consider it kindly, like pursuing a small achievement in something you are passionate about, or like petting a Chinchilla.

Flora, Fauna and Free Trade – Part One: I Am Four Eels

Nearly as important as explaining out the area your party is trekking through, is adding in the bits of flare that make up the wildlife of the locale. Sure, you can be walking through a forest any day of the week, but does that forest have a tree whose bark has luminescent veins of residual energy from a battle many years ago? Does it have THIS RABBIT? Alright, you got me, it probably has this rabbit. He gets around. But what about that tree? It makes for an interesting plot point, sure, but it also breeds a creature to thrive on it. Maybe this rabbit isn’t that other rabbit. Come to think of it, that other rabbit is named Jeff, and this is definitely Terry. And what does Terry have that Jeff does not? A penchant for subconsciously feeding off of those left-over magical energies, which means… He glows in the dark. That is it, really. He glows. But you know what? I’m sure a merchant in town would pay nicely for a rabbit pelt that glows without needing a chemist to treat it.

Making sure to take a few moments to sort out any kinds of special creatures or plant life in the area can help draw your players in, and have them more involved in pushing the story forward. Sure, anyone can be paid to protect the forest, but your party’s Druid is going to have a hefty bit of leverage against them if there are rare creatures that their calling tasks them with ensuring the survival of. And let us not forget about that tree. What kind of magics were used that caused this level of a burnout? Does your party have a scholarly type person? Perhaps they would like to take a sample and study this further. You may even reward their exploratory nature by devising a play on a previously learned spell, granting them a slight advantage in certain situations, and giving their character one more reason to feel unique to them.

Flora, Fauna and Free Trade – Part Two: Paying the Iron Price

Another aspect to consider when explaining the plants and animals of the region, are to give insights into any native cultures that may be separated from the rest of society. A tribal group nestled deep into the woods, or a civilization of above-average intellect Kobolds who have not only surpassed their species typical technological innovative caps, but have names! Scary thing, a Kobold with a name.

Perhaps when venturing through the underbrush of the forest, the party happens across an encampment. What would they find? Humans? Elves? Jimothy the Kobold?

What would they do with this person? Obviously your party will likely attempt to bring a close to poor Jimothy’s bright existence, but what if they did not? Could they trade with this individual? Would the Elves require a mystical serum that can only be found deep within the forest, where the gods they worship once did battle? You know, rumor has it that if the sun hangs low in the sky, and the canopy parts in turn, the trees near the site of battle glow with the vengeance of memories past. Or a luminescent residual energy that your party’s Scholar happened to collect several phials of. Handy, is it not?

Always be ready to give your players an out of sorts. Sure, it is nice to let your players kick themselves in the foot, but if your party’s Scholar rolls to collect a sample, and he does well, give him two or three samples worth, and tuck away the knowledge that he has them. Maybe a foe down the road is from ancient times, and is still trained to target out the scent of those magics. Maybe that Scholar just became a giant target.

Either way, it is important to throw in a little bit of seasoning into the mix. Everyone can run a game with a forest or a desert. Few people can meet a rabbit named Terry.

Flora, Fauna and Free Trade – Part Three: I Can Ride My Bike With No Handlebars (An Aside)

As a quick note, it is always nice to toss your players the occasional free ball when they perform a spot or search check. Sure, you can look around the forest for hours, but you may not catch the path leading into a small grove behind you. Maybe one of your players crits. Maybe they got insanely lucky. Either way, your players will be more attentive if you have areas tucked away every now and them that can either grant solace, sustenance or surprise. Maybe they come across a low-powered magic items. Perhaps an abandoned camp with stored rations. Or better yet, an old lean-to with enough room for all to catch some sleep.

These areas also make for nice stopping points in a session if you have not come to the goal of the area yet.

Soundscapes – Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

Closing out our episode today, I’d like to give a quick mention to audio effects being utilized in your games. If you have the equipment and time, finding a slew of royalty-free sound bites and music tracks can help set the mood rapidly during your gameplay. Nearly everyone has a cellphone these days, which gives you a brilliant interface to be your session’s own personal DJ, queuing up a nice, peaceful ditty for the fishing village, or a low, heated rumbling breeze whipping through the trees as your players venture deeper into the forest.

Don’t have the time or resources to put all of that together? Just take a moment when you’re describing the setting to give in a few sound effects. Sure, we can say “You’re in a forest at night.”, yet an entirely different mood is brought on if you take it a step farther and say. “As you cautiously make your way through the branches and brush, the sound of bark and sinewy twigs twisting and creaking fill the air. Wind rushes past in gentle breaths of contempt as your boots make gritty contact with the leaf-ridden forest floor.”

One of those tells your party they’re in a forest. The other keeps them on their toes.


That wraps up the first installment of Fractured Systems. If you enjoyed what you

read, be sure to check back every two weeks for more content. As you may have seen up top, the first ‘season’ of these episodes is all about World Building. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at everything from creating custom items for your game, to explaining why it is important for the enemy of your party to have a motive that makes sense.

These episodes will be published to the website in a slightly edited form from the original transcripts, as to correct spelling errors and make sure I don’t use the word ▓▒░▒░▓ too much.

If you have comments, questions or wish to toss an idea my way, feel free to leave a comment here on the website, or give me a shout over on Twitter!

Thank you for your time.

Dakota Lewis

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