Thursday, 2 May 2019

DM Workshop!

Saturday, May 25, 2019 from 12 PM to 4 PM at Storm Crow Manor, 580 Church Street in Toronto.

Don't let the name of the event fool you - the principles of good GMing and adventure design apply to far more than just Dungeons & Dragons (any edition)!

Registration provides four hours of instruction and workshopping plus your choice of appetizer and main dish. We'll talk about how to design adventures, how to run things at the table, and how to make lasting campaigns work. Moreover - we will tackling the aspects of GMing that you want to bring up!

If you are in Toronto, and you want to spend some time talking about designing adventures and running games, I would love to see you there!

Thursday, 25 April 2019

“Gotcha!” D&D and Telegraphing Encounters

I’ve often talked about telegraphing encounters, and in one blog post I’ve written about how Gary Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors is an essentially “fair” dungeon, although it is in no way easy to beat. When I was in high school, I played a party consisting of the special characters in the back of the Rouges Gallery, and I killed them all trying to solve the Tomb myself.

My own foray into the “deadly death trap dungeon” is Tomb of the Squonk, which was published by Mystic Bull Games as part of Pulp Weird Encounters #1. I wrote about it in the DCC Trove of Treasures here, and it is available for purchase here. I wrote about running it at Gary Con here.  

I am going to direct you to a couple of reviews. The Thilo G review can be found here originally, and I would encourage you to visit Endzeitgeist regularly as the reviews tend to be informative. He is, perhaps, a bit too positive regarding most of my output, but this is an exception. Tomb of the Squonk was not to his liking at all. In fact, the reviewer refers to it as a “dickish design-paradigm”…and it really is, because it is inspired by (and an homage to) Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series.  

(If you are unfamiliar with the World of Tiers, you can listen to podcasts pertaining to The Maker of Universes and The Gates of Creation at the Appendix N Bookclub, or The Maker of Universes at Sanctum Secorum.)

One of the Enzeitgeist criticisms is that some traps “kinda lack means to properly telegraph them”. Similarly, Noah S. writes that “the foolhardy adventurers would probably suffer a TPK either at the hands of the Squonk himself or in their efforts to assist him” and “it seems very likely to me that players not conversant in the old ways would suffer many many casualties”.

It is noted in the text that “This encounter is designed for 4-6 3rd-level characters. Because of the trap-heavy nature of the adventure, a party without at least one thief is seriously handicapped, and may not survive.”

Gotcha D&D

“Gotcha D&D” is a term for adventure design that sets you up to believe that X is true, while the opposite of X is actually true. The idea is that player expectations are subverted, which is fine, but in a way where rational decisions are punished, which is less fine. Good adventure design is not a series of “fuck you”s, where, no matter what the players do, they are screwed.

This is not to say that no level of “gotcha” is acceptable. For instance, a dwarf has the ability to smell gold and gems in DCC, and it is certainly within reason to make a gold-eating creature smell like gold to the poor dwarf. There is nothing wrong with the occasional creature, like a rust monster, that inverts the normal paradigm of the heavily armed (and armored) fighter having all of the advantage over her less-armored companions in a fight. In fact, the early rust monster had no effective attacks if you wore leather armor and beat it to death with a wooden club.

The goal should never to be taking away the PC’s hard-earned stuff (or the PCs themselves) without the players having any reasonable means to understand the risks involved. Ultimately, the best designs entice the players to take risks, continuing onward despite knowing that it is dangerous to do so. This is similar to how a judge can create a magic item that is good enough to use, but which has drawbacks forcing the players to consider how much they want to use it.

In several of the World of Tiers books, protagonists face a series of death traps and overcome them. The death traps are real, and brutal. Many of them would certainly kill the person who failed to discover and/or disarm or avoid them. Our protagonists, of course, do manage to survive them, just as Conan overcomes giant spiders and human adversaries, or Tarzan manages to kill lions with a knife.

The goal is to allow the players to experience a slice of Farmer-style Appendix N action, giving them a chance to succeed, all the while making them understand how slender the odds of success are. The Patricians are cruel, “childish, petty, and spiteful”. The players’ introduction to the Patricians must convey this.

The question becomes: How? And how do you make if fair?

There are going to be a lot of spoilers in what follows. If you intend on playing this adventure, you should skip the discussion below.

Enter the Tomb

The goal is to make the adventure fair. Despite being a death trap, a clever party should be able to survive with minimal (or no) loss. The players should also come out of it feeling that they were both lucky and clever to do so. The design has to feel “dickish” while telegraphing enough information to allow the players to succeed.

As the adventure describes, “About three months ago, Arvind Shar was captured by his sister, Yona, who transferred his body into that of the squonk, a hideous creature from a far distant plane. He has survived ever since on frogs, raw fish, and the bodies of those who refuse to speak with him or help him. Travellers who encounter Arvind are terrified, and in his rage he often kills them. If the judge desires, the characters may hear rumors that a hideous creature of the swamps has been accosting wayfarers in this region. Meanwhile, Yona watches to gain full satisfaction from Arvind Shar’s humiliation.”

The adventure starts when the PCs meet the titular Squonk in a swamp. He is “a sodden lump of darkness with an elephantine trunk, bulging eyes, clawed hands, horns, and a thick tail ending in tentacle-like grasping appendages. The trunk ends in what appears to be a stinger of some sort. Spikes and boney nodules stud its hide.

The Squonk asks for help. His story is that “he was seduced and captured by an evil witch (who looked like a comely young lass, of course) who called herself Yona. She trapped him in this horrific form, but torments him with the knowledge that his true body lies in a tomb just within the low hills. If the party will only help him, Arvind is certain that there is a fortune in jewels lying not far from his uninhabited shell. He is lying, of course.”

Arvind Shar flinches when he sees birds, calling them “the Eyes of Yona”. At one point, a 3-lbs shard of meteoric iron targets one of the PCs. It is unlikely to hit, but is both damaging if it does, and demonstrates that there is, indeed, active and deadly opposition to the PCs aiding the Squonk.

Reaching the Tomb complex, the PCs are greeted with this:

Past the doors, you can see a 10-foot wide corridor stretching out before you some 30 feet before entering a wider space. The walls give off a soft radiance, making it easy to see. Lying near the opening is a human corpse, obviously several weeks dead and crawling with beetles and flies. The man’s head lies some 10 feet further down the corridor – from this distance, it appears to have been neatly shorn off.

The trap here is arbitrary and cruel – a laser beam which will most likely kill any that walks blithely into the hallway. However, the dead body should (and, IME, always does) telegraph the trap nicely. Notes are given to describe what a thief sees who finds the trap, as well as how it might be effectively bypassed. Going under it is the easiest way. No one has ever failed to discover this trap when I have run this adventure. No one has ever been killed by it. Its purpose is to warn the players of the existence of serious traps, as well as to imply their frequently technological/sci fi nature.

The second room must be entered to continue.

The corridor enters into a square marble room, 30 feet to a side, with an archway exiting in the middle of both the far wall and the wall to your right. Marble benches line the west wall. The room is otherwise bare. As with the corridor, the walls glow softly.

This area is trapped with a heat field, which causes 4d6 damage to anything that enters. Anyone foolish
enough to remain in the room for a whole round takes an additional 8d6 damage. The heat field is triggered by touching the floor – even a small stick is enough to trigger the field – or the presence of warm bodies within the room.

Once the field is triggered, it takes a few seconds to reset, allowing a character to throw in an object to trigger it, and then dash across the room. Doing so requires a Reflex save to succeed – DC 10 for creatures with a 30’ movement rate, and DC 15 for those with a 20’ move. If a character has taken precautions, such as soaking himself with water, before the dash, he gains an additional DC 10 Fort save to take half damage.

While this field can be detected by a thief (DC 20), there is no way to disarm the trap from here.”

A 3rd level Thief in DCC has a +7 bonus to Find Traps, meaning that an average thief has a 40% chance of detecting the trap if it is searched for. 4d6 is a lot of damage, but it should be remembered that even reaching 0 hp doesn’t automatically kill you in DCC. And, after the first trap, most players approach this room cautiously. Tossing the head from the first encounter into this room is, IME, the most common means that the trap is discovered. Characters with infravision can, of course, see the heat, but other characters can see the effects, and the one-round-on/one –round-off nature of the trap is pretty easy to learn with a little observation.

I have yet to see a character die in this room.

The third area does not need to be entered. Characters are unlikely to realize that at this point, however. A trap can seal this area, possibly splitting the party. Possibly trapping the party. “A thief can discover the bronze plate by finding traps (DC 10) (the edge of the plate is visible at the top of the arched corridor) and can similarly locate the pressure plate. There is no exposed mechanism to disarm, although the trap is easily avoided once it and its trigger are located.”

Assuming that the characters take even rudimentary precautions, a 3rd level Thief has a 85% chance of discovering the trap, and using a 10’ pole will trigger it, closing off the room before the PCs can enter. The best outcome is that the party detects the trap, enters the room, and discovers that it is a decoy. This telegraphs that decoys like this exist. If they then trigger the trap from a safe distance, they can also realize how potentially dangerous the trap was to them.

Now, I have had PCs get trapped in this room. And, as the text notes, “Without magic, there is no way to raise the plate from here.” Magically, a wizard or elf may try a reversed enlarge or ward portal, or might use invoke patron, knock, levitate, or shatter. A 3rd level cleric may ask for divine aid…but second sight used earlier would have been less costly. In one convention game, a PC had the magical Rah-Neld’s Raygun to escape a similar – and nastier – version of the same trap in the next area: “When the plate falls, it opens a sluice leading from a water reservoir into the end of the corridor. Water will rush into the area, rising 1 foot every 10 minutes.”

Most players note the bronze door waiting overhead before triggering it. Corridors are arched to a 12’ height, and the water rises 1 foot per 10 minutes, meaning that the PCs have 2 hours to save themselves…or, alternatively, their trapped companions. Again, while a surprising number of PCs have triggered this trap, I cannot recall a single PC who ever died as a result.

After a brief combat, the PCs reach a room which is really dangerous:

The corridor beyond the massive bronze doors is 20-foot wide ending in another set of massive bronze doors 70 feet away. There are hexagonal niches built into the walls, three to the left and three to the right, large enough for a man to easily stand within. Midway down the corridor, the floor is marked with a large crimson hexagon 20 feet across – above it, the ceiling disappears into a 20-foot-square shaft of unknown height.

The hexagonal niches to east and west are all one-way gates into other worlds. Anything tossed into them is lost, unless the character passes through the gate to recover it – and then, he must find some other way home! If Arvind is with the characters, he will caution them about the gates, but he is evasive about the source of his knowledge.”

Characters exploring these niches have wound up in other adventures – The Weird Worm-Ways of Saturn, The Giggling Deep, Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess, and others. They also allow the judge to introduce PCs to the worlds of Mutant Crawl Classics, The Umerican Survival Guide, Star Crawl, DCC Lankhmar, or whatever else the judge desires. A judge who wants to include more treasure can do so here, and can include a gate wherever it is located that allows the PCs to return.

But this room contains a real trap:

“The hexagon on the floor is different: it triggers a vortex that can pull a man-sized creature (or two halflings, etc.) 30’ up the shaft to another gate. This one is twoway and leads into the atmosphere of a super-heated gas giant. Any character passing through the gate drops back down 1d4 rounds later – charred and asphyxiated.

The vortex draws a creature up at the rate of 5’ per round and can be defeated simply by adding another creature to the glyph – if there are more creatures than it can draw, the vortex collapses. Creatures that are 10’ or higher when this is discovered suffer falling damage as usual.”

Rooms are 15’ high in the complex, which gives three rounds where the victim is clearly visible to rescue them. Thereafter, to see the victim, characters must enter the hex…automatically defeating the trap. What could have happened should be clear to the players, at least as a general outcome – the PC was heading up to a gate. That it did not happen should also be, by far, the most common outcome.

What happens next is either (1) the Squonk escapes with a potential new body, and the PCs follow it through a gate to recover their own, or (2) the PCs defeat the Squonk and go on to the last room. If the PCs just enter the room, it will kill them. Hopefully, though, by this time they have learned that just entering rooms in this place isn’t a good idea. There is a way to disarm the trap (DC 15, or 35-60% likely for a Thief who does not spend Luck). Using a pole, or throwing something into the room, is almost certain to discover the trap as well.

In the end, the PCs can gain just over 3,000 gp worth of gems, but doing so causes the archway leading from the room to “permanently becomes a gate leading to any location the judge desires – this is Yona’s last vengeance, so the judge should choose somewhere interesting.” This also deactivates the remaining gates, which some players might think of as a greater treasure than the gems. I have had players decide that the Tomb, with traps and gates intact, would make a great lair for themselves!


I have run this a number of times, and some of the players who have encountered it have been relatively new gamers (in every sense of the word; some were kids). In each case, the adventure worked as I had intended it to. Rather than being a series of “fuck you”s to the players, it is a series of terrible things that the players can resolve with wit and daring, allowing them to give a rousing series of triumphant “fuck you”s to the judge after surviving yet another trap which was clearly not meant to be survived (from their standpoint).

And that is, for a player, perhaps one of the best feelings you can have. You were “meant” to fail, but you succeeded anyway. Don’t believe me? Read some accounts of how player ingenuity conquered various tournament scenarios, from the very first Gen Con tournament to the very last. Consider all the weird (and brilliant!) plans players come up with to defeat obvious meat grinders in various funnel adventures.

At least twice I’ve come up with solutions to in-game problems that left gaming legend Brendan LaSalle having to wing the repercussions of my solutions…and I have to say, that is some of the best gaming I have ever experienced from the players’ side of the screen. I don’t know if our solution to the Damn Tasty! playtest last Gary Con was expected or not, but when the players think they are being clever (as we did!) it is the wise GM who avoids disabusing them of that notion.

But maybe what I was trying to do wasn’t clear from the writing. I therefore would like to open this up. Have you run or played in Tomb of the Squonk? If so, how did it go for your group? Feel free to tell me if I am really off-base here!

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

DM & Dine at Storm Crow Manor

The DM & Dine program at Storm Crow Manor in Toronto is now officially open. As one of the GMs in the program, I hope that you will take a look at it. 

From the website:

"The main quest of the DM & Dine program is to give new players, experienced player or just DMs who need the night off the chance to come play the tabletop RPG of their choice with one of our expert dungeon masters. 

Don't worry, we will supply you any provisions you may need on your journey: characters sheets, dice and of course – food is included!  Each player gets their choice of appetizer and entrée for their journey."

Please allow me to facilitate an evening of great food and high adventure!

Friday, 15 February 2019

Reading the GM Section

The question came up on Facebook recently: Should players be allowed to read the GM section of RPG rulebooks?

I thought that it was an interesting enough question to crosspost my answer here.

Allowed? Obviously.

Encouraged? That's a different question, because you can't unlearn what you see....and, regardless of being "really outdated and obsolete", the opportunity for true discovery of the fictional milieu can be removed by knowledge. This is analogous to film spoilers, in a way. 

Which is how you get a game like Dungeon Crawl Classics, which actively encourages the GM to make new monsters, has no standard magic items, and even suggests that the GM make campaign locations where the forces of magic work....differently.

If you can remember that magic when you first played, when you were facing some skeleton or goblin or whatever, and you didn't know what it could do.....or when the magic thingamabob you discovered really seemed special, it was because of the information disparity between you and the GM. The GM knew the skeleton was beatable; you did not. The GM knew the blunt mace was going to work better than your spear; you did not. The GM knew what the thingamabob did; you did not.

For some of us, that sense of discovery is actually what the game is about.

At some point, through experience or through reading the monster and GM books, you learned the ropes. The game shifted. It became about how the pieces were used, rather than discovering what the pieces were. That information disparity was about the current (and extended) situation - the particulars of this encounter or that adventure. Rather like most fantasy fiction itself, the process of discovery narrowed from not even knowing what a word like "goblin" was going to mean in the context of the fictive world to wondering how common tropes are going to be combined this time out.

I run Dungeon Crawl Classics because you can read the book cover-to-cover and that magic will still be there. There is no monster book to memorize. There is nothing to un-know.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Rock Me, GenreCon

Chris Jeffers, Jace Shulz, and Ryan Bishop level survivors

Last weekend, I drove to Guelph, Ontario to attend GenreCon at the Delta Hotel & Conference Centre. GenreCon is primarily a media-based event, with a lot of cosplay, but fellow judge Chris Jeffers and I did our best to represent!

One issue that occurred with the programming was that DCC event times, while clearly listed on the website, were not clearly listed at the event. Nonetheless, on Saturday I was able to run Thirteen Brides of Blood and The Imperishable Sorceress at the convention.

Because turnout was insufficient to run two tables, Chris joined me at mine on Saturday, and I got to be a player in his Sisters of the Moon Furnace game on Sunday. This turned out to be the best-attended game of the convention, with Chris having to handle a very full table!

Neither Chris nor I had received swag for these events in particular, but Chris had managed to put together not only a nice amount of stuff to give away, but set up a generous raffle to support the United Way.

All in all, it was fun, and I would do it again. I would try to plan better, and make sure that a schedule was posted at the convention, though!

Monday, 14 January 2019

GenreCon Event Dates

I will be running games at GenreCon February 9-10, 2019, at the Delta Hotel & Conference Centre in Guelph Ontario.

Events are:


10:30am - 2:30pm: Thirteen Brides of Blood (0-level funnel)
3:00pm - 7:00pm: The Imperishable Sorceress (1st level)


11:30am - 2:00pm: Thirteen Brides of Blood (0-level funnel)
2:30pm - 5:00pm: The Imperishable Sorceress (1st level)

All materials provided.

Players who play in Thirteen Brides of Blood may use a leveled-up PC from that funnel in The Imperishable Sorceress if they wish. Pregenerated characters will also be available.

The Delta Hotel is located at 50 Stone Road West in Guelph.

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Nerdvana Comes to Toronto

Release the Kraken!
Storm Crow Manor, which bills itself as "Canada's Nerdiest Bar" has opened a location in Toronto. So, two days after Christmas my two older children, myself, and their respective partners went there. After all, they have a shot menu where you can roll 1d20 to get a random shot!

I'll get the disclosure bit out of the way upfront. Storm Crow Manor in Vancouver has a rent-a-DM program, and Storm Crow Manor in Toronto is creating a program like this.

It may well be possible, in the near future, to book an evening or weekend day where I run you through any Dungeon Crawl Classics or Mutant Crawl Classics adventure that exists - I own them all - or you get to playtest something new I am working on. I have already talked to the general manager at Storm Crow Manor and this looks like something that is going to happen. So, feel free to keep that in mind.

The ambiance was worth the price

Going to Dinner; Paying for Ambiance

I found the food to be good. You could probably find the same meal for cheaper, but you wouldn't get the same decor. If you are pinching pennies (and all of us are from time to time), you can get an idea of price range from their menu. And, yes, you can roll 1d20 for a burger, too.

Our table ordered a starter of Legendary Chickpea Fries, which were actually quite good. I had the New New York Strip, medium rare, which was great....but I should have upgraded and gotten the peppercorn sauce! I also had my first sour beer, which was an interesting experience. One I would definitely try again!

Jace Schulz and Ryan Bishop at dinner
A Good Mix of Genres

Dinner was in a room modeled after the bars in Twin Peaks and the Overlook Hotel from The Shining (Stanley Kubrick version). Walking through the Manor showed various fantasy, horror, and science fiction themes. There is a statue of Cthulhu. There is a beholder mounted over a fireplace. There is a rancor head mounted on one wall. I am told that this is still a work in progress, and that there will eventually be a TARDIS to pass through on the way to the room we had dinner in. My understanding is that the summer patio furniture is also going to be interesting.

Storm Crow Manor also features a secret door built into a bookcase, which leads to a room based off of the Nautilus from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Going down to the bathroom requires passing through a hall that is lined with skulls. The individual rest rooms also have interesting and thematic decor.

Critical Hit!
A Word About Scott

After dinner, we were able to get a seat at the bar near the Jules Verne room. And yes, we did roll for shots. I managed to roll a critical hit on my third go.

The drink menu included quite a few interesting concoctions. I found the Corpse Reanimator particularly enticing, but other drinks, such as the Romulan Ale, were also pretty good. There were group cocktails, which we did not get, but the presentation of the Dark Side Bowl made me wish we had tried a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. Another time, perhaps.

But the bartender that night, Scott, sold the experience more than even the decor. Could it be that my entire reason for writing this post is to let the management know how excellent Scott is? His banter, delivery, conversational skills, and simple enjoyment of his job (or damn fine acting if he doesn't love it!) made that part of the evening a real treat.

Best. Bartender. Ever.

Mike Bishop and Ramona Ross in the Jules Verne Room

Mike opening the secret door

Wall in the Jules Verne Room
Passage to the rest rooms
The Storm Crow Manor website can be found here!

Some of the pictures in this blog post were taken by Mike Bishop and used with permission.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

NPCs - A Couple of Quick Shots

A little bit to add to the content of The Care and Feeding of NPCs, Part I and Part II:

  • If you can, watch Breaking Bad and look at the background characters whose names you never learn. They all seem to fit seamlessly into the setting. Breaking Bad is actually a masterpiece in terms of examining how secondary characters fill out a setting, and in terms of how they can interact with the primary characters (including shifts in function over time).
  • Published adventures often include statistics for NPCs you would never need to stat out for home games. Unless you are publishing, you probably need to stat less than half of the NPCs in an average module. Fewer, if the module is The Village of Hommlet.
  • That said, stat out anything and anyone you feel like statting out, or feel the need to have a statblock for.
  • As with all prepwork, do what you need to do first, and then do whatever you feel like doing afterwards.
  • You don't need to "create a mystery" for every NPC that you introduce, or even for every major NPC. What you may wish to do, though, is create a list of interesting things to learn about an NPC, and then link them to NPCs as the need arises in play.
  • NPCs change over time. Let them get married, fall ill, have children, move, fall on hard times, gain windfalls, and die of sickness, old age, or misadventure. The goal is to have a dynamic setting, not a static one.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Care and Feeding of NPCs (Part II)

Memorable NPCs
Or, “Who was that masked man?”

In Part I, we talked about how NPCs can be used in a game. In Part II, we are going to talk about methods to create interesting NPCs. Again, this is just a collection of notes and observations based on decades of running games for various people and in diverse locations.

What’s In a Name?

William Shakespeare may argue that “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet”, but in a role-playing game, the names that you give your NPCs is going to shape (in part) how your players see them. It is pretty easy to see that Sauron, although portrayed exactly the same way in The Lord of the Rings, would have been less imposing if he were named “Chester” by Professor Tolkien.

Likewise, if your game is set in a pseudo-Roman area, calling the local tavern keeper “Bob” is going to take your players right out of the setting. Names need to feel like they fit. No one can spend the time – or, for that matter, has the organizational memory – to name every stray character that might be met in the average marketplace. It is a good idea to keep a list of 10 or so male and female names common to the area, so that if the PCs take an unexpected interest in the local greengrocer you can give him a name that makes sense for where he is, and what his social position is.

I personally own half a dozen baby name books. A good book of this nature includes older versions of names, and tells you what the name means. The Internet contains dozens of similar websites, many of which break down names by culture and gender. These are excellent sources when devising such a list!

“Special” NPCs – those you want or expect the players to pay attention to – should have names assigned to them already. Truly special characters should have unique names….Vos the Spell-Thief rather than Linda, for instance.  If you are playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, Appendix S provides a treasure trove of ideas for names and titles.

If you go back to Part I, and look at the uses of NPCs, you will note that “overshadowing the PCs” is not on that list. NPCs should not overshadow the PCs, but some NPCs should seem to temporarily do so if they are intended, for instance, as a foil or a credible threat. That list might also give you an idea whether or not to give an NPC a common local name or a unique one. A service provider or an instrument doesn’t need a cool name. A patron, though, is someone whose name you want the PCs to remember.

You can also assume that any reasonably good author has named their characters using similar principles. This means that you can mine an author’s work for names – possibly altering them somewhat, and certainly avoiding obvious ones like Conan or Gandalf – to populate an area or adventure reminiscent of the author’s work. The names in Prince Charming, Reanimator, for instance, owe much to those in H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West, Reanimator. Likewise, the names in The Arwich Grinder come from Lovecraft, with only a slight amount of shuffling.


In Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Chekov’s reaction to discovering The Botany Bay comes before Khan appears on the screen.  Throughout the movie, even when he is not on-camera, the other characters spend quite a bit of time talking about him….enough that the character can be meaningfully rewritten for Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the name means something as soon as you hear it.

Likewise, in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is never “seen” until Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are on the precipice of Mount Doom. Instead, Sauron is felt throughout the narrative.

It is quite possible to have an NPC be effective in a setting even if the PCs never meet her. For instance, in one campaign there was a notable and mysterious thief called Jack of Roses. Jack of Roses always left a rose at the site of his high-class robberies, and he was terribly mysterious. No one knew his identity, and the PCs never found out who he was. This didn’t prevent the NPC from lending important colour to the urban setting. Nor did it prevent the NPC from being a reasonable riddle/foil – one of the PCs was actually mistaken for the “true identity” of the Jack of Roses.

(In fact, Jack of Roses was a young noblewoman that the PCs had met in her normal guise, and who could have been tapped for a wide variety of NPC functions within the setting. This is a case where using a relatively common name for her “civilian” persona disguised the fact that she was also the much more romantically named Jack of Roses.)

The point here is: How other NPCs react to your NPC when your NPC is off-screen is as important as how the NPC acts when he is present. You can create a credible threat by having everyone speak of “William Hornsby, the Moneylender” in hushed and fearful tones, even if the Moneylender seems cultured and polite in person. When a character’s reputation and actions do not seem to mesh, the resultant mystery highlights the character’s reputation – and importance to the setting.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words…..

What an NPC does in a setting is often far more important than what an NPC says. If you want the players to know Lord Voldemort is a serious threat, sooner or later Lord Voldemort is going to have to actually kill someone. If, instead, Lord Voldemort is repeatedly beaten by school children who escape unscathed from their escapades, Lord Voldemort becomes a joke. If you want to know why the Harry Potter series became so much darker as it went on, the answer is “Because it had to”.

….But Words Are Important Too!

On the other hand, important characters can be given a unique “voice”. This doesn’t mean that you literally have to “do voices” (not all of us are good at that), but that the character can have idiosyncratic ways of speaking. A nobleman and a ditch digger don’t sound the same. Education, philosophy, and dialect/slang (including terms related to an NPC’s trade) affect how a character speaks.

I once ran the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands, adapted to 3rd Edition rules. When the PCs entered the evil temple, they got into an argument about the ethics of sacrificing people with one of the clerics they captured there. It lasted about half an hour of real time before one of the players (my son, in this case) realized that I was using Christian theology to justify human sacrifice, including that of babies. It was, perhaps, the highlight of the session. Another highlight occurred when a group of orcs were so impressed by another PC that they shifted from his opposition to his followers.

For important NPCs, where you know or expect that there will be role-playing, it is often useful to have made a cheat sheet of dialogue snippets that you can throw into the conversation. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is try to develop and maintain good improvisational skills. See below for more on this.

Recognition Handles

This is an idea that I stole from FASA’s Star Trek and Doctor Who role-playing games. Simply put, it is choosing something that is unique to that character, which you can use as a “hook” to make the players tell which character they are encountering. It helps players to remember your various characters, and it helps you to portray them consistently. For instance:

  • Spock raises an eyebrow and talks about whether or not things are “logical”.
  • The 4th Doctor has a really long scarf and offers you jelly babies.
  • Harry Potter has a lightning bolt scar.
  • James Bond has his martinis shaken, not stirred.
  • Zorro carves his trademark Z into walls and people.
  • Superman and Batman literally wear logos on their chests.
  • Many cartoon characters (including Sylvester and Tweetie, Donald Duck, and Daffy Duck) have speech impediments.

Steal, Steal, and Steal Again!

Further to this, you don’t have to make everything up yourself. You can pretend that various characters in the game are being played by chosen actors. You can take ideas from movies, television, or fiction … just file off any obvious serial numbers and you are ready to go! You can use your best Batman voice for the Captain of the Guard, and play the greengrocer with a Tom Baker flair. Unless you are a very, very good actor, it is unlikely that your players will know.

It is even less likely if you mix & match. That nobleman is basically Spock, but instead of saying “logical”, he also womanizes like Kirk. If you watched the excellent medical mystery drama, House, you might not have noticed that House combines traits of Sherlock Holmes (analytical mind, drug problem, off-putting personality) with Watson (has a limp, medical doctor).

The goal with stealing is to not make it obvious. You can have that dwarf act as though played by Sylvester Stallone, but avoid making him yell “Yo! Adrian!”  You can play a riff off of Sauron, but don’t make him a world threat, and don’t make him manifest as a giant disembodied Eye in great need of Visine.

Use and Abuse of Stereotypes

Maybe the dwarves in your campaign world seem like they could come directly from The Hobbit. The elves have more than a nod to those in Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. The halflings would be at home anywhere in the Four Farthings or Bree.

Boring, you say? Maybe. But also easily graspable by the people who sit down to play the game. Don’t believe me? Give a listen to the Glowburn Podcast when they start talking about Manimals and Plantients. Trying to figure out examples of the same from literature or other media is part of the discussion. It helps to get a mental picture of what a particular character type is about.

The general rule is that using stereotypes as a shorthand is okay. Focusing on stereotypes is not. So, the strong smith whose back is bent from years of working the forge, or the Butterbur-like innkeeper is fine. In fact, using stereotypes is rather like using common names. They give you something to contrast the unusual types against. And they give you something to help hide the unusual types if they are meant to be a riddle.

The thing is, all of us have some expectations about what it means to be a cleric, a wizard, a warrior, or a dwarf. Whether these expectations are conscious or subconscious, they are going to creep into your depictions of NPCs. You might as well embrace them, and make use of them knowingly.

This doesn’t give you carte blanche to use harmful stereotypes about real-world groups of people, though.  Know your audience, and try to avoid hurting people. If your players walk away from your game the better for having played it, that is excellent. If they walk away from your table with a head full of bias because of the way you depict real people, that is not so good. Try to work well with others.

All Shapes and Sizes

Which leads us to this – when populating your world, try to take real people into account. The NPC tables in the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide are actually excellent for this, and I highly recommend using them sporadically. Another thing that works quite well is to characterize some NPCs as people whom you have met (although not people at the table).

Pay attention to the people around you. It is good for you as a GM. It is also good for you as a person.

And, for the sake of Crom, if one of your players tells you that his character is a gay male Ferengi who is attracted to Klingons, make use of it. That means Klingons who are not interested, and who can therefore act as foils, threats, etc., but it also means that, at some point, the player would like to Quest For the love of his character’s life. Make it so!

Creating NPCs
Or, “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.”

Finally, after all this consideration, we get to talk about game statistics. This is actually the part where I have the least advice to offer, because statting out NPCs really isn’t that difficult.

NPCs on the Fly

Have a page of NPCs available to use if you need someone unique right now.

When you are reading an Appendix N novel or story, keep a notebook nearby. Stat out some of the people you meet in the story. Now you have some premade NPCs.

Average Characters Don’t Require Unique Statblocks

Literally, use the statblock of another NPC. Your players will never know.

In the event of a truly average character, AC 10, 2 hp, no bonus to attack, damage, initiative, or saves. There you go. You’re welcome.

Many NPCs don’t need stats at all. Your PCs are unlikely to murder the local greengrocer. If they do, AC 10 and 2hp.

If you are playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, there are statblocks in the core rulebook for various types of people the PCs might typically encounter. Use them. Modify them to meet your needs, if you can, so you don’t have to start from whole cloth.

Crafted Characters

The Purple Sorcerer tools are a wonderful means for making crafted characters. Want a 5th level thief? You can have 10 options with the click of a button.

Remember when you were jotting out stats for those Appendix N characters? Change their names, modify them as needed, and supply a new recognition handle to differentiate them from their source. Now you have some specially crafted NPCs.

NPCs Don’t Follow the Rules. You don’t have to figure out a “rules legal” way to give your wizard a special power that you want, or give your thief lightning reflexes that grant him a bonus to Reflex saves and Initiative rolls. Just modify his stats, and be thankful that you are not playing a game where you have to get the math right. And, if you are playing a game where you have to get the math right, just modify her stats and treat it the same as if you went through the effort of doing the math. At the end of the day, the outcome is the same.

Death Throes are not just for monsters.

Steal, Steal, Steal, and Steal Again!

Every NPC in every module you own has a statblock that you can reuse, or modify and reuse, or convert to your current system and reuse. Unless you make it obvious, the odds are that your players will never notice.

Or, “The End Has Come. But the Moment Has Been Prepared For.”

Remember that the goal is always to get at least two hours play for every hour of prep work. If an NPC is only going to see play for 30 seconds, you shouldn’t be spending more than 15 seconds on him. If an NPC is going to see many hours of play over many sessions, it still shouldn’t take more than half an hour (at the very most) to create her.

Recycle, reduce, and reuse.

Practice your improv.

Most of all, have fun. That is why you are gaming in the first place!

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Care and Feeding of NPCs (Part I)

This post comes as a request from the Comments in a previous post.

Almost every game is going to need NPCs. In fact, unless the PCs are the only living intelligent beings around, your game will need some. Even if there is no one to interact with directly, the presence of other people will probably be felt, like with the found documents and riddles in the first version of Myst.  I am going to assume, therefore, that everyone reading this understands the basic concept. Likewise, most of this post applies to any role-playing game, and is not limited to Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Basically, this is just a collection of ideas and observations arising from decades of play using various systems.

Non-Player Characters
Or, “The last monster we talked to ate half of the party!”

Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures don’t waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren’t meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you remember, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere.

If you are reading this blog, you probably know that quote as the tagline of the Dungeon Crawl Classics series of modules, starting from 3rd Edition days, and published by Goodman Games. I am going to suggest that you replace “NPCs who aren’t meant to be killed” with “NPCs who aren’t meant to survive” in your thinking. The first implies that the NPCs in question should die at the hands of the PCs, but the tagline is actually a reaction against modules where NPCs are given plot protection to make an adventure run as intended by its author.

In the parlance of TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons, it is important to note that all NPCs were considered monsters, although not all monsters are NPCs. This meant that it is always okay to consider them as the opposition, to be met with violence – or even just simply as a target to be murdered and despoiled. On the other hand, as with many thinking monsters, talking to an NPC is often rewarded. In the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook, Gary Gygax advises players to talk to creatures they encounter when it is possible.

One of the upsides of this is that NPCs are NOT and should not be DM PCs. They do not have plot protection. They are not favoured. If the PCs kill them, they die.  Or, if they do not die, there is some reason why they do not which makes sense within the milieu and tone of the game. 

Some of the potential uses of NPCs are:

Colour: There are people walking around in the marketplace. Someone is drinking in the inn. A server brings you your clichéd bowl of stew. Pilgrims are encountered on the road. Kids roll a barrel hoop down a muddy street. The Duke has hired people to repair the bridge. Etc., etc. The world around your PCs is filled with people. Many of them are just there because the world would feel barren without them.

Concealment:  The king disguised as a beggar, or the pickpocket, are going to stand out like sore thumbs if the PCs never encounter non-king beggars and non-pickpocket urchins. Don’t let that be your game. A vibrant population means that the assassin, the thief, and the would-be duelist don’t necessarily stand out initially. Determining who is important among the multitudes is a result of play, although some characters obviously stand out due to position (the Duke, the King, the old witch in the swamp) or circumstances (the weapon seller, the drunkards you are brawling with, the old witch in the swamp). This is similar in principles to a 2011 blog post, A is for Animals (or Lions, Tigers, &Bears, Oh My!).

Change of Pace: Talking to things provides a change of pace from fighting them. Especially if talking can lead to fighting, or vice versa, if the encounter is handled poorly or well.

Or, “What the heck is this guy doing here anyway?”

Beyond the general notes above, major (and even relatively minor) NPCs can serve a function within game play itself. There are two general rules to keep in mind here:

(1) If the players are interested in an NPC, that NPC has just become elevated in the hierarchy of campaign importance. That doesn’t mean that he or she has become more important in the milieu. Rather, it means that the player’s interest makes them important in the game itself.

(2) No NPC should ever serve only one purpose if they can serve two or more. People are complex. The NPCs we focus on should also be complex, not necessarily in the way they are played (more on this later), but certainly on the way they impact game play.

Here are some functions NPCs can fulfill. Note that, while some of these are similar to each other, they are listed separately to encourage the GM to consider all of these functions.

Ally: Someone who is capable of giving substantial help to the PCs, but isn’t an adventurer (or, at least, not part of the PCs’ party). The viscount who offers them men and equipment, the priest who provides sanctuary, the senator who smuggles them out of the city when the political winds blow against them. In fiction, Elrond is an ally who provides rest and sanctuary in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Foil: A foil is an enemy, but not a combat-related enemy. Or, if a combat-related enemy, someone that the PCs don’t necessarily want to kill. A foil exists to complicate the PCs’ lives, causing irritations minor or major that cannot simply be solved with sword or spell. Tyrian Lannister, in A Game of Thrones, plays the foil to many other characters…in the early seasons, anyway. Even a character like Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a foil that gets his eventual comeuppance.

The thing that the discerning judge must remember about a foil is this: If you don’t want the PCs to kill your foil, you need to supply reasons why they should not. Something must offset the irritation of having the character survive, be it fear of her power, his superior position each time they meet, or even a grudging admiration due to aid received from the foil in the past.

And if the PCs do succeed in killing your foil, let the PCs succeed. Never, ever make your adventure rely upon the survival of a single NPC!

This doesn’t mean that consequences should not apply. The king looks unkindly on those who destroy his agents, for instance, no matter how annoying those agents might be!

Information Source: The NPC knows something the PCs need or want to know, and can convey that information to the PCs. Gollum knows a secret way into Mordor. Elrond can read the runes on Glamdring and Orcrist. A long-deceased NPC’s diary gives clues about an adventure location. A scarecrow can give directions to the Emerald City. And so on.

One of the nice things about an information source, as mentioned, is that the NPC need not ever be met in person, and need not even be alive. Some information sources are manipulators, which attempt to give misleading or false information to cause the PCs to act as their instruments. Other information sources are well-meaning but wrong. The players should always be aware that no NPC is the “Voice of the DM” telling them what they must do, but rather all information sources should be taken with a grain of salt.

In a game like Dungeon Crawl Classics, where “Quest For It” is the beating heart of play, information sources are especially valuable. How does one Quest For a particular spell, if there is no one who can say where such a spell might be found? These do not always have to be NPCs, but they must be something the PCs can interact with. Examples of information sources, living or otherwise, can be found in The Black Goat, The Giggling Deep, and TheSeven Deadly Skills of Sir Amoral the Misbegotten, among other places.

Instrument: The NPC is a tool that the PCs may use…an extension of their own powers, as it were. Rhadagast the Brown is an instrument of Saruman when he goes to fetch Gandalf from the borders of the Shire. Tyrion Lannister uses Bronn as a physical instrument in A Game of Thrones, and is later himself the instrument of Daenerys Targaryen. A PC who hires an assassin to remove a foe has made use of an instrument. Unlike a support character, the PC does not generally supervise an instrument.

Love Interest/Friend: The NPC is simply so likable that the players want to hitch their characters to him or her. When I wrote The Dread God Al-Khazadar, I created rules to encourage this sort of relationship. You can find rules in Drongo:Ruins of the Witch Kingdom that do the same. You don’t have to play out any part of the romance at the table, especially if it makes you or others uncomfortable, to establish that it is there. But having it there means that you have the option of creating PC dynasties in long-lasting campaigns, where the children of your adventurers grow up be heathen slayers themselves. Edgar Rice Burroughs certainly did this, giving strong love interests and full grown sons to both Tarzan and John Carter.

There will certainly be a temptation to place friends, loved ones, and family in harm’s way. This does happen often enough in Burroughs’ novels, for instance, and even Conan’s temporary romances often find themselves in need of his rescue. Yet, Conan and Tarzan are going to get recompense for their chivalry which, frankly, you are unlikely to want to play out at the table. And, even if you did, rolling dice is not the same as canoodling for real. What happens in games is that players quickly learn to avoid emotional entanglements with their characters. There is no real benefit to the player, but it does give the PC a vulnerability that the judge (and therefore his imaginary enemies) can exploit.

You overcome this in two ways:

(1) Provide a benefit. The NPC might have information, or provide support. The PC may get a mechanical game benefit, such as extra hit points. Something within the game itself offsets the vulnerability that the player is accepting. Another example: Princess Annegret in Creeping Beauties of the Wood comes with a chest full of gold and a dukedom once her father dies.

(2) Limit your exploitation of the vulnerability. Simply put, if you place your PCs’ significant others in danger regularly, your PCs will choose not to have significant others. In The Portsmouth Mermaid, the aforementioned Princess Annegret is never placed in danger, although she is often used as a foil to spur the PCs towards taking action in the situations they encounter. There is one scenario in Three Nights in Portsmouth where the princess might be placed in danger, but even that doesn’t require the judge to target her specifically. This is not accidental.

Family may be included in this category as well.

Opportunity: The NPC is a mark. Your thieves have to do something to earn the name, right? Here is someone whose jangling purse demands to be taken by stealth or force. Or someone whose home is in desperate need of burgling. Or who is ripe for a con. If you have thieves in your game (or rogues, depending upon what you are playing), let them act the part. Provide some opportunities.

This doesn’t mean that all opportunities turn out the way that the PCs expect them to. I would highly recommend Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld for a number of great examples of how a clever and observational fellow may attempt to scam the world around him, both to his weal and his woe.

Opposition: Some NPCs are out to kill you. They are more interesting if they also partake of another potential NPC function.  Darth Vader was compelling as a villain; he was exponentially more compelling as Luke Skywalker’s father. The initial appearance of the Master in Doctor Who was fantastic; the Master as an ongoing foil to the Doctor is better. But be warned – a little of this goes a very long way. Few and far between should be the opponents who were old school chums, family members, and so on. Once in a while is spice. Too much spice destroys the dish.

Patron: Possibly, but not necessarily, in the general Dungeon Crawl Classics magical sense, a patron is any NPC who sends the PCs on missions in exchange for something else (money, freedom, information, magical power, etc.). Again, the players should always be aware that no NPC is the “Voice of the DM” telling them what they must do, but rather all patrons should be taken with a grain of salt. But also, again, most patrons should be (relatively) level with the PCs, or the PCs will soon no longer desire the patronage of anyone.

Riddle: The NPC presents a challenge to the players. If they can figure out what he wants/how to treat her, then they can get some benefit from the relationship. If not, they might face some danger. More likely, they just won’t gain the benefit. For example:

(1) Determining how to deal with Gollum allows Frodo and Sam to get across the Dead Marshes, and then make use of a secret way into Mordor.

(2) Sam Tarly in A Game of Thrones is mostly cowardly, but by treating him well and giving him something worth fighting for, Jon Snow gains a useful ally.

(3) Sherlock Holmes, attempting to find out where a goose was raised in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, makes a recalcitrant vendor more forthcoming by pretending to be a gambler who stands to lose a tidy sum if the vendor talks.

Note that these sorts of things should reward the player’s ingenuity rather than the character’s build, wherever possible. Even if the game is very build-centric, you can offer bonuses for how the players approach the problem….or even use their build as an excuse to present the problem more completely, while leaving the solution up to the players.

Support: The NPC is literally going on adventures with the characters, and might be used as a replacement PC if there is a death. These characters – known in Ye Days of Olde as henchmen and hirelings – should have their own personalities, but are often left mostly to the players to order about and control. Note that familiars and intelligent magic items are often NPCs of this sort.

Reward: The NPC is, or is the means to, some form of reward. The reward might be some esoteric knowledge, the start of a relationship, or even simply access to another NPC (directly or via letter of introduction). A familiar, a henchman, a lover, a friend, or a new patron are all potential rewards for successfully completing an adventure.

Service Provider: The innkeeper who sells you ale, the farrier who shoes your mighty steed, and even the cleric or chirurgeon who heals your wounds are all service providers. So is the person who runs the baths or mends your armour. In general, they provide a given service in exchange for coin.

Threat: The NPC provides a threat by which the PCs’ options are delimited. This can be relatively benign (the queen supplies the threat her tax collectors wield) or downright hostile (Sauron will send more orcs and Nazgûl, and probably obtain the One Ring, thus covering Middle Earth in darkness, should the Fellowship not proceed with care).  A threat is an NPC who is largely offstage, encountered only through the actions of his own servants and/or reputation during actual play. Another good example of a threat is Ernst Stavro Blowfeld until near the end of You Only Live Twice. Likewise, the shadowy Quantum organization is a major threat in Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace, only to be downplayed in 2015’s Spectre.

The important thing for the GM to remember about a threat is that, while it delimits the PCs’ options, the threat should not be used to railroad the PCs into a given course of action. The threat acts as context for the PCs’ choices, and can certainly lead to consequences, but a large part of the game is the players figuring out how to beat the limitations imposed by the threat – just as James Bond does when faced by the threat of Blofeld, or the Fellowship does when faced by the threat of Sauron’s dominion.

Even if a threat is initially portrayed as all-encompassing, in should not be. There should always be a way – not necessarily an easy one – for the PCs to come out on top! And, importantly, if the players can come up with a reasonable way for doing so, it should have a commensurately reasonable chance to work!