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The Cabal of Eight II Pt.20: Hideaway

Dragonfly & Unicorn Wand

Fauna (played by Jenn) woke up in a large round silk bed. She luxuriated in the smooth, cool sheets. The druid had taken a long hot bath in the tiled bathing room a few rooms over and enjoyed a hot meal and tea before bed. She sighed. Her mind drifted to the previous night. After following the Wasp and his apprentice Bumble, she had found herself standing in a vast strange hall. The vaulted ceiling was at least 20 ft. high and the walls smooth beige lined with magic sconces whose light instead of banishing them seemed to multiply and deepen the dull shadows that populated the blank walls. The brightly colored sconces were of blue, green, and orange stained glass in the shape of dragonflies.

Isis (Szoo’s player): “Uh oh is that the merchant guy’s hideout?”

Jenn: *roll*roll* “Um…”

The GM (me): “The sconces don’t ring a bell, as far as you’re concerned they’re just part of the scenery.”

Fauna was shook from her reverie by the rattling of the silver tray that Bumble clumsily carried into the room. Ilna dropped onto the side of the large circular bed and lavender sheets setting the silver tray on the bed next to her. It was Fauna’s breakfast, fresh fruit, steaming meat, fresh baked bread, a bowl of broth, and a silver teapot filled with herbal tea at perfect temperature.

Fauna (“just trying to make conversation”): “Wow! Where did this come from?”

Bumble: “Oh just the larder in the kitchen. You just reach in and it gives you food.”

Cris (Excor’s player): “Yup, of course, magic, damn mages.”

Isis (Szoo’s player): “You’re a MAGE!”

Cris: “Yeah! Well it doesn’t mean I like OTHER mages!”

Bumble seemed thrilled that Fauna was there but was not very forthcoming with where they were. Consequently, Fauna was suspicious as to their actual location. There were no windows anywhere in the place and the main hall seemed endless. Apparently, Bumble had learned to deflect.

Cris: “Pocket dimension possibly?”

Isis: “That’s what I was thinkin’.”

Jenn: “Yeah, I think so too.”

Fauna: “So, where is the… your master?”

Bumble: “Oh he’s downstairs trying to open that box.”

With that, Fauna leapt to her feet, snatched up her robe, and donned her clothes as she ran down the sweeping ivory grand staircase into the main hall.

Cris: “You sleep naked!?”

Isis: “Really sis?”

Jenn: “Well, yeah my girl sleeps naked! Duh.”

She rushed across the polished marble mosaic floor towards a large niche under the ivory stairs. However, it was crowded with book stacks and piles of scrolls. There was a green lacquered double-door in the rear wall of the niche. This certainly led to a library.

Cris (to Jenn): “Aw man, you CAN’T read!”

In the niche amongst the clutter, was the Wasp frantically unrolling and scanning various scrolls before tossing them carelessly away, the long case on the floor not far from him. Fauna again initiated some small talk and maneuvered her way to the case.

Fauna: “So, hi there… Xanto!”

Xanto: “Oh Hi! Hope you slept well, Bumble says you enjoyed the bath!”

Fauna (pointing to some scorch and blast marks on the walls and floor): “Um, the damage?”

Xanto: “Oh. Ha, ha. The case cannot be broken open apparently. Very powerful magic sealing it up!”

Fauna (unsure of what to say next): “Well, that… shouldn’t be a problem for, um… the Great and Powerful Xanto! Now would it?”

He looked at her with narrowed eyes and his cocked to one side. Then he snapped back to his cheery self.

Xanto: “Well, I guess since you’re Draega’s friends, I’m, uh, I just want to make sure the goods are in there y’know?”

Fauna: “Um. Yes. Yes we are Draega’s associates… friends. We do business all the time.”

Xanto: “Yeah. Tell him he still owes me for delivery of the chest, well, I guess I didn’t deliver that, but it’s this that counts. He owes me a lot of money. That guy! He has his fingers in every Ezmerian pie!”

Fauna (blurting out her sudden realization): “So he’s selling it to the dragon!”

Xanto: “Uh, oh well yeah. I am cut in for a small percentage upon delivery. Boy that went up in smoke didn’t it! Ha, ha! He had you guys keeping tabs on me; you’re not very good at it. Now where’s Bumble? Oh, hey! Help me with this!”

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She waited until the Wasp and Bumble were distracted by pulling out a heavy volume from an unstable stack of books then began running her hands over the case carefully and thoroughly inspecting it. The slight sound of a click, the other pair seemed not to notice, and the druidess opened a small hidden compartment out of sheer luck (Nat 20). She withdrew a tiny scroll of paper sealed with a wax seal and stuffed that in her robes before closing the compartment.

Xanto: “Did you find anything?”

Fauna: “Uh, what? No, nope nothing.”

This lasted about an hour or so Fauna reckoned before the Wasp stopped and stood perplexed rubbing his pointed beard between his thumb and forefinger. It seemed he had run out of ideas.

Xanto (his finger jutting into the air like a proclamation): “I need to pick up some… ahem… supplies! You!”, pointing at Fauna, “We will part ways after leaving here. Bumble!”

Bumble: “Yes?”

Xanto: “Don’t forget to blindfold your friend, oh, and, um, carry this, and this, this one, aaannd, this and that one.” He had stacked several books in her outstretched arms. “Okay! Let’s get on the move no time to waste! Come, come, come!”

            The trio walked a fair distance down the main hall until they came to a large mirror built into the wall. It was rimmed in gold with a sapphire and emerald dragonfly at the top edge. The Wasp reached into his robes and from what Fauna could see; he pulled out a gold key with the emblem of a dragonfly at one end. He stepped through the mirror as if the silvered glass were still water rippling and reflecting like quicksilver. Bumble quickly followed carrying the stack of books and Fauna jumped through last.

Before she could orientate her senses, everything was spinning, the Wasp and Bumble had left and the druidess found herself in a small dusty closet alone. It appeared to have not been used for quite some time. There was a small rectangular window high on the wall providing the only light. She turned and saw a large standing mirror behind her, the only thing in the large closet that was free of dust. She peeked out of the only door and found that she was somewhere near the back of the Bardic College’s library. All she could see were whitewashed walls lined with an unending reading table and case after case of books and scrolls dangling with so many chains and locks that she could barely see any of the actual reading material. Immediately, she thought to use the cabal medallion around her neck.

Elsewhere, Excor and Szoo met up outside of the Shield & Helm Inn. In contrast to Szoo, Excor was dressed in his “noble gear”. His outfit was a richly embroidered silk robe with a black silk sash at the waist and a buttoned undershirt. Additionally, he had on hard-soled black silk shoes with buttons up the side and pointed toes. On his head was a black felt pork-pie type hat rimmed with purple and a peacock feather. Finally, a new gold ring, a signet ring, was shining on his right hand. He still wore the magic blue cape.

Szoo: “Whaaat is this?”

Excor (feigning a regal attitude): “I am of noble blood.”

Szoo: “Okaay.”

Cris: “No. Seriously, I’m from a noble family check my background.”

Szoo: “Well, what good does that do us?”

Excor: “I don’t know about you but it’ll help me a whole lot! You just can’t kill a nobleman in the city! I have rights!”

            They went on their way to the White Prong to meet up with Fauna after receiving her Whisper message. Soon enough all three of the adventurers were sitting at a table discussing things over a pitcher of strong ale. It was not long before Fauna passed Excor the small scroll she had nicked from the long case.

He unrolled it after breaking the blank wax seal and found two sheets of paper, a letter and an ancient sheet of sheepskin documenting an item. After casting Comprehend Languages, Excor began reading the letter so the other two could hear.

Dear distinguished blue steward,

I hope the object has found its way to you with this letter with little difficulty. We had a slight complication with the hirelings who found it and some information may have passed from one of their number to persons unknown. There are others whom desire its power but we do not currently know who they may be. However, there is at least one based out of your city or thereabouts. We have hired a group of freebooters; they should be of sufficient strength and honesty to make this delivery. I am glad to hear my first letter has reached you and will follow a month after the cargo to make sure all is in order.

P.S. – The case is proof against dragons, one cannot be too careful, and not just magic will open it.

The letter bore no signatures. Excor set down the letter and picked up the documentation for the contents of the case. It described the item in the case as the Unicorn Scepter; it is a wand with a polished jet grip and a rounded azurite pommel stone. There is an alicorn mounted to it by a polished platinum horse head acting as a guard when the “battle-wand” is used as a weapon. Consequently, the wand was first found in an ancient tomb in Granfor and was created by an ancient Southlander Mage-lord. Further, the alicorn cut from a heroic unicorn warrior. Consequently, it possesses all of the powers of the alicorn and can cast the Control Weather, Summon Locust Storm, Chain Lightning, Summon & Control Rain, and Wind Step spells. There was a color illustration of the Unicorn Scepter alongside the text.

Excor: “Aw man, this thing is powerful. No wonder the dragon wants this thing.”

Szoo: “Yeah, we can’t let her get her hands on that.”

Fauna then told her companions about what the Wasp had said about Draega the publican of the Red Helm tavern, their favorite haunt.

Cris (throwing his pencil down): “Whoop! There it is! Aw, man! I knew it, I knew it! Never trust a f@#$*&g Tanglenite! Everyone from Poisonwood are damn crooks! You can’t trust ‘em! Just…I knew that guy was untrustworthy. Can’t trust ‘em!”

As a result, the trio decided they needed to split up and make preparations. They would use the medallions to meet up at evening when everything was ready.

Excor (leaning in): “We are gonna need some real fire power for this one.”

To Be Continued…

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NPC-Craft: Can An Onion Bleed?

NPCs like an onion

Non-player characters (NPCs) populate Gamesmasters’ game worlds providing a life source alongside the vitality injected by the player characters (PCs). Unlike PCs, however NPCs do not need to be complete characters. The level of completeness of an NPC is directly related to their level of intended interaction with the players. And to a lesser extent their role in the campaign or in a given scenario.

Those constructed to have some individuality identifiable by the players and even a modicum of believability can make the difference between a bland, artificial environment and a vibrant, exciting, living world. Applying layers of detail is a proven technique in NPC design that can payoff in spades during play.

The Five Layers

A believable NPC can be described as an interesting, engaging, and memorable character. This is in addition to the fact that they are likely to exist in the campaign world in the first place. To create a believable NPC the GM can employ five layers in their construction. These five layers are:

  • Archetype
  • Physical features
  • Gear (clothing & equipment)
  • Skillset (skills of note & combat style)
  • Personality

How Much Detail?

The first concern when constructing an NPC is the level of detail needed. This is preliminary and aside from a quick rundown of each of the five layers. Simply inserting a single generic item in each layer can quickly generate mooks (nameless fodder) or a background NPC. However, these will be suited only to limited contact with the PCs. The level of contact an NPC has with the PCs is important. This as you do not want to waste time adding minute detail to a character that shows up once, says next to nothing then has no other significant/repeating contact.

The Interaction Hierarchy

Game masters should have a basic hierarchy for their NPCs besides the main antagonist(s). These would be (in ascending order): background, foreground or limited interactors with limited appearances, those with limited interaction but the potential for multiple appearances, frequent interactors even if their appearances are limited, and those who interact regularly with the PCs.

The higher up you move along the NPC interactor hierarchy the more detail needed. NPCs can move up the hierarchy or become elevated by ongoing interactions even if not designed for long-term existence. These gaining added detail either acquired from play (shear improvisation) or details and minutiae added by the GM. Often this occurs as a response to player inquiries or in an effort to give the NPC extra story weight. After determining the interaction level of an NPC, the very next concern is Archetype.

Archetypes & Stereotypes

Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are useful tools in the hands of a talented GM. The latter pair are often considered cheap tricks (especially stereotypes). Stereotypes can if the GM is not careful or sufficiently creative, become cliché. And if the GM is not mindful, offensive. Archetypes carry the connotations of role, skillset, and ability. Stereotypes convey assumptions and preconceptions about behavior, motivating factors, and “genetic traits.”

Common stereotypes found in fantasy tabletop roleplaying include Evil-Murderous-Orcs, Suicide-Attack-Goblins, Bad-Guy-in-Black-Adorned-in-Batwings-and-Skulls, the Common-Thug, etc. These are trenchant and brief descriptions with an attached assumption.

Archetypes

An archetype on the other hand is a sort of blueprint. It is often built into or associated with various settings and works of fiction. It gathers together certain attributes. These presenting a general sketch of a character and possible patterns of behavior packaged together with general appearance. The archetype should be selected with the NPC’s role in mind. Stereotyping, on the other hand, is shallow shorthand communicating specific character traits to players. based on a large social/economic/regional/ethnic group. An especially useful tool when there is limited playtime, while in a pinch, or in a faster-paced part of the game.

Certain classic archetypes found in roleplaying include the Do-Gooder-Paladin, Prefers-the-Wilderness-Ranger, the Might-Makes-Right-Barbarian, and the Sticky-Handed-Backstabbing-Rogue among others.

Tropes

Tropes, another tool in the box, allow the use of a shorthand statement to easily communicate certain aspects of NPCs. These can be as short as a name for a fantasy race or profession. Perhaps a short description not containing a value judgment or opinion in and of itself but carried by familiarity. GMs can use tropes to influence the players’ in-game actions dependent on their reactions. If the group groans at the mention of specific tropes, the GM probably shouldn’t use it. Unless, of course, trying to raise the ire of their players. This actually holds true for stereotypes as well.

Examples of common fantasy tropes include the Knight and variations on, the Archer, the Spell-Slinger, Half-Dragons, the Scholar, etc.

Physical Features

The second NPC layer, distinguishing physical features and build, begins to grant the archetypal NPC more individuality. Race, in roleplaying terms, is a way of communicating the most general physical features and behavioral patterns to the players simply by attaching a label to the NPC. Race is a combination of stat templates and stereotypes promoting a general idea, right or wrong, about personality and role. Again, a simple mook character does not need much more than that. Maybe some equipment. But a well-rounded NPC would need a few more visual cues to deliver some additional information to the players. This information can include a verbal exchange. This is good to use with a simple encounter as well to drive home the NPC’s intentions.

An NPC’s face is a roadmap of experience particularly if they have had an especially brutal life. Acquiring scars, tattoos (which can carry their own symbolic meaning) or losing teeth, eyes, noses, etc. adds character. Prototypical pigmentation that carries meaning in the game that the players can clue into, is also useful. Even a deep suntan and very visible tan-lines can reveal occupation before the GM names it. Alternately, regional racial features can distinguish an NPC from the racial norm. For example, a lighter shade of green or very tall points on the ears. These hinting at a different origin than the racial norm can communicate some ethnopolitical information expanding the game world. Physical disability can also add layers to the character. This due to birth defects, the mutilation of war wounds, or more specific instances of physical trauma; abuse, ritual mutilation/scarification, accidents, or draconian punishment.

Gear & Clothing

Costume and equipment, the next layer, can be used to express the character forthrightly. Alternately, it can hide their true nature or intentions, heighten the anxiety of players. Or it can feed them hints/clues as to the wider world, the NPC’s fighting ability, skillset. Or reveal otherwise unexpressed aspects of the NPC’s personality as well as connections to other individuals or organizations. Mooks and background NPCs need only the gear to carry out their brief and likely, temporary purpose with perhaps some token details.

NPCs should have an equipment list comparable to their interaction level. As well as a role and an appearance that distinguishes them more as individuals from the lesser interactors. The players should take one look and know that these are more than just nameless minions. Personal items should be on this list, which can give clues to their religious beliefs, sentimentalities, and pastimes. Their costume can also reveal that the face they are presenting to the players may be a façade. Details such as neatness, quality, and the relevance of clothing style or equipment used to hide their true nature.

Here, certain visual tools, particularly heraldry, are very useful. An NPC warrior with a family crest or striking heraldic image across their chest is set apart from the crowd.

Skillset

Another very important point when building an NPC is what skills they have at their disposal; their skillset, not necessarily their whole skill-list just the ones they are likely to use in-game. This including their combat ability and fighting style. They should have the tools required to make use of these skills and implements cogent to their combat style. Variation in combat style can demonstrate personality during a fight even without any verbal communication.

NPCs can also have customized gear identifying the piece as their personal property. Also, keep in mind the symbolic significance that the weaponry you equip your NPCs with can convey. For example, a spiked club indicating a real brute and probably a powerhouse.

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Personality

Ultimately, personality distinguishes vibrant and detailed NPCs from simple mooks. The previous four layers can help to steer you towards a disposition that fits with the rest of the characterization. Alternatively, you can start here then make the rest of the layers agree with (or disguise) the predetermined core personality. Personality feeds into attitudes, reactions, and displays of emotion based on the surrounding world and towards the PCs. Personality can be conveyed in brief exchanges before combat, inciting comments, or during any kind of verbal interaction.

Quips and a nasty comment in the right place in an exchange can convey a lot. When it comes to straight-up combat NPC disposition will be reflected on many levels. This includes levels of aggression and the strategies, techniques, and types of attacks employed. Personality influences weapons and equipment as well. A character that desires attention or is a showboat will desire a level of flash or bling others will not. This can also determine how they decorate their gear. Comparatively, shy characters that have no desire to be the center of attention will wear less ostentatious clothing/gear. Likewise, a shy character who deep down craves the attention that they cannot bear to pursue may wield something flamboyant in battle like a scythe. The personal taste and interests of high-interacting NPCs should not be discounted.

Using Personality as a Tool

The GM can use an NPC’s personality to surprise the players. Subverting tropes using an unexpected personality or displaying contradictory behaviors to what is expected. This can also subvert the apparent stereotype of an NPC. It can also be contrary to what is expected for one of their archetype, especially through reaction. Just take the previous example of a shy character wielding a scythe. However, NPCs should react at least somewhat realistically to the actions or even attitudes put forth by the PCs. Take into account what the NPC’s goals are, what they can read about the PCs visually. Similarly, take into consideration any raw gut feelings, unanalyzed emotional reactions, and disposition that they may have. The NPC’s attitudes towards the PCs are of note. What the NPC has experienced outside of the players’ purview influences their opinion of the PCs.

Quirks

Another tool that should be used sparingly if at all is personality quirks. Nevertheless, an obvious quirk or tick can overpower an NPCs other qualities. It may become their singular defining characteristic in the eyes of the players. For the most part quirks, not to be confused with habits, have the effect of creating a character that has been set up from the start to be a one-trick pony. Obviously, this is not the best idea for long-term NPCs. Although it can help to single out a character that may only appear once or in a limited capacity. In this case, it will be their only memorable characteristic.

However, this can lead to gimmick personalities, which are essentially a form of bad stereotyping. A ‘gimmick personality’ is where all of the character’s actions and reactions revolve around their quirks or a single unique personality trait diminishing them to an unchangeable monolith rendering them utterly predictable. Quirks should be used sparingly and be reserved for one-shots unless somehow the quirk is not so ostentatious. Subtlety is required for use with recurring NPCs.

Habits & Vices

Habits and vices, unlike quirks, alter character behavior adding to personality depth. A habit is a behavior that the character will participate in as a matter of usual business with some regularity. The most obsessive types of which you could set a clock to. Some habits are dictated by occupation e.g. a clerk opening a store at around the same time every morning. But the primary concern in regards to NPC’s are personal habits.

Personal habits are those that NPCs have acquired in order to make their lives easier, out of a sense of security, addiction, or tradition. Personal habits at times are dependent on the character’s vices as well. Vices are behaviors the character participates in willingly for personal pleasure. Keep in mind that an NPC will carry the artifacts of their habits and vices as personal items. These are keys, lucky charms, mementos, paraphernalia, etc.

Names

Most NPCs do not call for naming unless of course, the PCs ask. And as unpredictable as players can be, you can never be quite sure when they’ll ask. Therefore, it is wise to have a list on hand so you can name NPCs on the fly. Be sure to cross off the used names so as not to have multiple instances of the same name in-game. To be fair it is probable to have NPCs of the same name. However, it is just confusing to the players during gameplay. Also, do not dismiss the use of nicknames or Homeric Epithets, which can be easier to remember in some cases.

Note that friends, family, associates, and contacts give nicknames. These are often terms of endearment that can be embarrassing to the so-named NPC and a potential source of humor. Nicknames reflect the character’s background to some degree. With nicknames, the NPC’s behavior and occupation/profession will definitely come into play in the naming. This does not discount a specific incident that may lie in the character’s past, however. Nobody lives in a vacuum and neither do NPCs. They will have relationships enmeshing them in a web that represents the social portion of the in-game world.

Relationships

GMs have several options when it comes to the relationships of NPCs and the strength of those bonds. Family relationships include relatives, parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, children, friends, and partners. At the very least, they may have comrades that could miss them when they are gone. Relationships are dependent on a character’s background. But instead of writing out a complete background, the GM can simply make a list of connections between NPCs and organizations referring to it during gameplay as necessary.

Motivation

All non-player characters serve a purpose in the game determined by the GM. They, as fictional characters, have no actual agency or motivation. However, to be believable they need to have an in-game reason to be doing what the GM has set them to. NPC motivation is often simple such as a service to appetite, revenge, greed etc.; for most NPC’s there is really no reason to go any further. Those that are higher in the interactor hierarchy however should have some goals set for them taking into account their personality and contacts.

These types of NPCs, those with goals, should display some agency. They take the steps to get the metaphorical ball rolling. This is done by starting rumors, setting out bait, paying off the right individuals. Possibly carrying out what they see as the proper action at the right time. The more goals an NPC has the more they should be fleshed out. This is because the more present they will be in the campaign.

The GM must decide, often fairly quickly, what an NPC is willing to SACRIFICE in the quest to achieve their goals and how strongly their motivation and personality fuel this desire to fulfill these goals. However, usually, only specific factors will push an NPC to the ultimate sacrifice. Such as those that are coerced with credible threats; their families will be killed if they do anything other than die in the attempt to succeed in their mission. This can elevate even the most generic mook beyond the Manichean model. This is especially so if the players discover this after killing them.

Bringing It All Home

Archetype, physicalness, gear and clothing, skills of note & combat style, and general personality are required to build complex, lively NPCs. This five-layer strategy assists in generating, and fairly quickly, NPCs with enough detail to easily suit their roles and cover their intended interactions with the PCs while keeping the game interesting and varied as well as deepening the game world. However, true depth results from long-term development arising from interactions and reactions accumulating in player memory (and the GM’s notes).

All characters within a campaign, PCs included (hopefully), grow and deepen with time. The longer they are played the more detail they accrue eventually growing beyond their initial meta-purpose. Meta-purpose being the reason the GM put them into the game and for which they were initially written. NPCs that the players remember and include in their war-stories are the true measure of success. A completed and fully developed NPC should have several layers like a fresh onion. Should that bulb happen to get diced, a few tears, and not just the Gamesmaster’s, should flow.

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