Chad Perrin: SOB

31 August 2008

10 tips and tricks for NPCs

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , — apotheon @ 11:07

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

I’ve put together a list of ten tips and tricks you can use to add some flavor to your game when creating and portraying the NPCs that interact with the PCs. The NPCs, after all, are what actually lends most of the depth and character (pun intended) to a campaign world during play. If they’re all cardboard cutouts and cookie cutter clones, the game lacks a lot of the flavor that might otherwise make it memorable.

  1. When you need inspiration for how to imagine an original and unique NPC personality, draw examples from co-workers, classmates, and other people not among your fellow gamers and their friends. Obviously, if your fellow gamers and their friends are your classmates, you may have to adjust the list of candidates to exclude them. This keeps your NPCs from merely being the result of spiteful and mocking caricatures, or from accidentally insulting someone — among other potential problems.

  2. When you want an NPC to provide a humorous reference to someone familiar to your players, draw inspiration from celebrities (and the characters they play, if they’re actors of some sort).

  3. You might also draw inspiration from pictures you’ve seen. Visual stimuli such as paintings by talented fantasy artists serve as excellent grist for NPC concepts.

  4. Build concepts off characters from non-fantasy fiction. My favorite example is actually that of a PC being inspired by the idea of playing a Batman type of character in D&D. The idea was initially to play the concept as a paladin, but by the time we were done with it the player had settled on the monk class.

  5. Avoid silly voices. If you’re a talented enough actor to actually fit unique mannerisms and speech patterns into portrayals of NPCs without hamming it up too badly, go for it — but unless your intent is to run a comedy game, you might want to avoid doing a campy overdone French accent or doing the Diablo merchant’s Scottish “Wot c’n ah dew fer ye!?” brogue. In most games, it’s better to have an immersive atmosphere to your game than memorable cartoon voices that break the mood of a tense encounter by either embarrassing yourself or making people snicker at your Bill Clinton impression.

  6. Get some detailed information about your players’ characters’ personality quirks — pet peeves, potent desires, strange habits, and so on. Draw inspiration from them when making NPCs. If you think you’re weak at making NPCs who will disagree with or stand up to PCs, focus a little on NPCs whose pet peeves match the PCs’ habits, and vice versa. In general, just find ways to play on the PCs’ personality quirks via your NPCs.

  7. Make sure your players have some kind of idea of their characters’ backgrounds. Consider that, every once in a while, a coincidental meeting with someone or some thing from a PC’s past can add some punch to an encounter — or create an entire encounter in and of itself. If you suddenly find you need to save the PCs from certain doom because everybody was rolling poorly while you kept rolling 20s for the kobolds they were supposed to be able to wipe out in short order, using someone from a PC’s past as your deus ex machina to rescue them (and subsequently to draw them into some other adventure hook, thanks to this chance meeting) makes you look like a GM who plans ahead brilliantly rather than one who is really bad at fudging rolls effectively. This also shakes loose the usual expectation that all background NPCs are enemies, murder victims who must be avenged, hostages, or forgotten entirely.

  8. Keep track of your PCs’ chance meetings and NPC traveling companions. The fact someone is no longer part of a given adventure doesn’t mean he or she can’t show up again later and lend some familiarity and color to the game. Just as the game can be made more interesting by bringing in NPCs from a character’s background, so too can you do the same thing with NPCs from earlier game sessions who “just happen” to be in the same part of the world. Such NPCs from earlier sessions can also serve as more deus ex machina saviors — and an earlier session’s friend might be more fun if he or she turns up later as an enemy thanks to unfortunate circumstance, lending some humanity to the PCs’ foes.

  9. Let an enemy get away now and then. They don’t all have to fight to the death. Plan out escape tactics in advance for NPCs, and trigger points (maybe having lost a certain number of hit points, or a certain number of rounds having passed, for instance) for fleeing. Keep in mind that even if your PCs are getting their butts kicked, the enemy is probably also unhappy with some hit point losses (or even friends dying around them) — so you can save your PCs from accidentally overpowered NPCs by having the NPCs flee. Then, for an interesting twist on the recurring NPC idea, maybe you can have a former enemy show up later and save the PCs’ collective bacon because the former enemy happens to be on the same side of a new and different conflict.

  10. Use occasional long-term NPCs who basically become members of the core group, become important compatriots and (apparently?) loyal companions. Get the PCs almost as attached to them as they are to their fellow PCs. Then kill the NPC — or have the NPC decide he or she gets in too damned much trouble hanging out with the PCs so that he or she finally gets fed up and leaves in a huff, or subvert the NPC’s loyalty through some outside agent who rewards the NPC for betraying the PCs (or blackmails the NPC, or offers a morally unignorable argument for betraying them, or offers possibly counterfeit proof that the PCs have betrayed the NPC, or whatever). This kind of surprise is always fun when handled well — both for the GM and, as becomes evident when players later reminisce about the game, for the players as well (though they may just be horrified at the exact moment they figure out what is happening).

Give me some more ideas I can add to this list, please. I’m always on the lookout for more good tricks to spice up the NPCs that make up the world around the PCs in my games.

Knowledge(Local) as Roleplaying Reward

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 10:08

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

The Knowledge(Local) skill in D&D 3.5 has always bothered me. There are basically two ways to interpret the skill as written in the PHB, and they both suck:

  1. The way the “Local” subskill for the Knowledge skill is presented in the Knowledge skill entry, it’s a universally applicable skill. If you have Knowledge(Local), you have specific local knowledge for every single locality you encounter unless that particular locality is covered by a different skill. Of course, that’s absurd. The skill essentially covers knowledge areas that one could only really know by having been in the area for a while, soaking up local cultural norms and learning about who and what the important people and places are.

  2. The obvious way to play it, and the way it’s presented in all examples of its use where something like this may come up, Knowledge(Local) must apply to a specific locality. The assumption, of course, is that you can purchase it anew for each locality where you want your character to feel at home. Unfortunately, playing the skill this way makes it almost entirely useless for a group that doesn’t spend all its time in one place. If your adventuring party is the sort that moves around a lot, you’re strongly discouraged from “wasting” any points on Knowledge(Local) under these conditions.

The way I’ve been handling it in games I run, the Knowledge(Local) skill represents a general skill at quickly getting familiar with a new locality. The character picks up local gossip, becomes quickly attuned to the rhythms of life in a new area, notices landmarks and other places that are central to people’s lives, and so on. This is a bit more difficult to adjudicate cleanly than the other two, but seems like the only appropriate way to handle it as a standard skill.

Well . . . screw all that. I’m not going to handle it as a standard skill any longer. Instead, I’m turning Knowledge(Local) into the basis for part of a roleplaying reward system.

The way I’ll handle this now, all characters will get a set of bonus skill points to spend in Knowledge(Local) at character creation. As things currently stand, I don’t know if I’ll even allow players to spend any points on Knowledge(Local) other than these specifically set aside bonus points when initially creating a character.

Then, as the game progresses — I still won’t let them spend normal skill points on Knowledge(Local). Whether I’ll hand out free points on a level advancement schedule is still to be decided (before Thursday, when I’ll spring this new rule on my players at the next game session) — but I will definitely be handing out Knowledge(Local) points as roleplaying rewards.

At the end of every session in which characters behave in a manner that I think really warrants it, I’ll give such a character a rank in Knowledge(Local) for the appropriate locality.

Previously, I handed out roleplaying experience rewards as part of a session’s standard experience reward totals. I had a set of fuzzy categories of roleplaying activities that might warrant a reward, and a sort of scale of “zero to good” for how much XP to grant in each category depending on performance. With this new idea in mind, I’ll be cutting back on the actual XP rewards in favor of new, direct stat increase rewards like this Knowledge(Local) bonus system. Between now and Thursday, I’ll also be looking into the possibility of taking other skills out of the standard skill point system to turn into roleplaying rewards, and checking for other ways to grant benefits as rewards for good roleplaying that have a direct and deserved effect on play.

Reputation rewards and established relationships aren’t quite sufficient for this sort of thing, because often good roleplaying can actually damage a character’s reputations and relationships with NPCs. That’s why I never used such things as rewards, per se, and just played them out instead.

Thanks to this idea about how to adjudicate Knowledge(Local) so that it not only doesn’t suck so badly you never end up with any points but also doesn’t break suspension of disbelief, I’ve also come up with a line on a way to improve roleplaying reward handling.

30 August 2008

Fucking WordPress

Filed under: Metalog — apotheon @ 11:13

It just happened again. I approved a comment in moderation, then bulk-deleted some others, and the fucking thing decided to delete the one I had just approved. Fuck’s sake.

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