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


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