Currently, the Ranger Games Publishing blog is on hold. Don’t worry there is still plenty of material for it. The blog will start again in October with the final entry in the Dead World Zombie Horror Campaign. There are more entries for the Cabal of Mages campaign all the way up to the finish as well. The hold is due to the publishing work on two, possibly, three new books for Dice & Glory.
I’m hoping once the first book rolls out others will begin coming one after the other over the following months. Dark Home: Land of the Dwarves is back on the roster as well. I am working with GM Cris on that one. In the meantime, there may be intermittent miscellaneous blog entries and downloadable PDFs. My schedule currently precludes articles, however. Although do not completely write off an article or two in the next few months. For now, though, there is nothing ready to go for a while.
Characters begin to loot the dusty old room after slaying their foe, some monstrous undead thing. They find the typical loot, some coins, a few gems, and a couple of items. Their first impulse is to appraise the monetary value of the loot and calculate what the split will be. Then they find an old sword hanging on the cobweb-tangled rear wall of the room. When they reach it the Gamesmaster does something that they only half expected. The GM gives the item details that distinguish it from the rest of the loot piquing their collective curiosity.
Giving items a level of detail and a backstory much like a non-player character (NPC) increases that item’s role. The storied item will have a higher position as opposed to other items in the gaming narrative. This technique takes items beyond the role of simple spoils of adventure or a material reward. Note that gaming narrative is different from narratives in the traditional sense. The ‘beats’ of the game tend to follow a perpetual Sine-wave type pattern. High points on the wave being action/drama then dropping back to normalcy. Alternately, they can sink to a low point before the next rise.
Adding details and a history to any item meant for a PC to acquire helps keep certain players on track. This is especially true if the GM hints at the right clues and incidents relating to the item regularly. This can add flavor and detail to the game setting and add some complication to fairly straight forward campaigns. These specially designed items are not just treasure they double as tiny bits of the game world custom packaged for the players to explore.
More than a MacGuffin
To be clear, these are not exclusively MacGuffins. These specially designed items better serve to enrich a campaign. Storied items are not meant to serve as the central focus of a campaign. Nor are they to provide motivation for the group to go on a specific quest. However, they are meant to run the length of the campaign alongside their owners hopefully adding a richness of detail. In a way, storied items ornament a long-term campaign and provide the GM with adventure fodder.
Specially detailed items with a backstory can lead to more adventure hooks. These hooks occurring at the low points of the curve leading to the highs. These items possibly leading to an adventure within an adventure. Similarly, they can lead to side-quests galore branching off or intertwining with the primary campaign focus. It is another thread to weave into the fabric of the game-world. For instance, take a quite common but also much-desired item found in any fantasy campaign, a sword.
A Sword, Any Sword
Any sword, after a morbid fashion, can give (or rather carve) somebody a red smile. However, the true value of unique items with compelling histories and as-of-yet unfulfilled destiny is to Gamesmasters. It is a boon. GMs should try to write up specially designed items. These the players can discover, quest for, win, or loot in the normal course of a campaign. It does not have to be magical or have special powers. However, if that is the carrot onto which your players will bite then by all means.
However, the item needs to be immediately visually (meaning descriptively) interesting. At least to one of the players. This serving as the initial hook. It also does not hurt to try and tailor the item to specific characters. However, always remember to try to attract the players’ attention to it. For an example, let us use a Chinese Dao. It has a long tassel at the pommel and broad, heavy machete-like blade.
There is a sword hanging on the far wall all covered in the same dusty sheet of cobwebs. It appears to be a Dao of a particularly high quality. You can make out the glint of gold, silver, and the glitter of gems. As you look closer, there is a strange faint flickering as of flame. Even from underneath the webs and centuries of sedimentary filth you can see its strange light.
A Hook by Any Other Name
There are a few methods to snag the players using these characterized items. They are very much like those used in writing adventure hooks. You must ask yourself two questions. What type of weapon/item is it and what have the characters been looking for? Additionally, is it something they can pick up and use? However, can the characters also explore its uses (immediate bait). A brief example being a weapon with special features. However, those abilities only make it a more formidable weapon when one learns how to use those features. Of course, this last aspect would rest almost entirely on the system within which you are working.
This brings us to the “Bling.” Bling being the visual details that mark the item as one-of-a-kind. The flashy part of the description. The sole purpose of bling is in attracting the attention of the player(s). Basically, the visual details that tempt them. Start with the main details such as what material(s) make it up. Is this material out-of-the-ordinary or exotic in some way? Are there gems and what kinds, and how are they cut? Are there engravings or inlays? Is the engraving a message of some sort? Can the players read it, or do they need an interpreter? What language is it in? Is it magical script or Elvish? What is the handle wrapping made of? Do the materials, design, or make give hints as to its regional/historical origin?
The Dao blade is of silver and the guard and pommel gold with the engraving of patterns resembling flames. There are characters along the blade inlaid with platinum. They appear to be in an archaic northern dialect. Alternating jade gems, rubies, and deep blue sapphires all cut en cabochon along the guard’s edge sparkle. The tassel that extends from the golden pommel is fire silk and there is a large dark red carbuncle at the base of the blade.This glows with its own flickering flame light. The grip is wrapped in the smooth skin of a metallic blue sea serpent.
Details, Details, Details!
Details construct this special item within the minds of your players. As with the initial appearance of an NPC, the initial description of the item’s general shape and condition affects its perception. Its appearance provides fuel for any perceived or applied “personality”. When in doubt use an engraving bearing a name or saying for an easy addition and telling detail.
The details you use can be battle scars, personal/familial heraldry, makers’ marks, or decorations. These can have attached stories and may play to a certain theme. Visible imperfections will mark the item as unique and may contribute to the backstory. These can be from the original artisan’s hand or even a defect in the base material itself.
The important thing to remember is that these details should mark it out from the rest of the swag. It should be unique compared to that the characters may have come upon up to this point of the game. It should remain at least somewhat unique throughout the campaign. After adding details with at least one marking it unique, a brief history or backstory is necessary to finish it. Certain details should be invented exclusively for the item based on its history.
The blade of the sword shows a deep nick. Apparently, an old battle-wound from an especially powerful blow. Additionally, there is a patch of very pale scales among soft deep-blue scales on the grip. The angler you have asked about the skin on the handle mentions off-handedly an old fisherman’s yarn. It is about a vicious sea-serpent nicknamed ‘Old Scar’ due to the patches here and there on its hide earned from the harpoons of defending sailors.
Backstory is Essential
When writing the backstory keep in mind the group resources. You should know what abilities or resources the group possesses to let them probe the backstory of the item. Psychics and spell-casters with certain augury or ESP-effect spells/powers can help by catching tempting glimpses. They can even catch bits of dialogue and other certain clues. Like about who made it, owned it, where it has been, and its unique history. Alternately, if you are trying to hold back certain details these types of abilities may ruin the clue chasing. They may even spill the whole story out all at once. This is when it pays to be subtle. Hone the GM fudging skills using the rules governing these powers to your advantage.
Investigative abilities are certainly suited to engage this type of GM-device. Using science and/or lab skills to gather information in a CSI-like mode is yet another dimension to keep abreast of. In fantasy settings such skills as alchemy would qualify for this mode. However, this is especially so in a modern setting. Do not discount library research either. This allows the GM to create accessories to the item like works that collect lore or document legends. Even antiquarian guides not to mention antiquarian-type characters become more important. These character archetypes are probably the most equipped (besides certain psychics) to delve into such campaign aspects. These types of characters and skills are already, or should be anyway, motivated to participate. They will make it easier for the players to dig into the backstory.
The backstory will consist of a few basic points. Where was it made, who made it, and who was the last owner? Alternately to the latter, who was the most significant character in the item’s history? Pick out the individuals in the backstory that matter the most in-game terms. This can be the craftsman, the original owner, the last owner, or the one who stole it. Only one to two points are necessary to create a rough character outline. Other details can be filled in on the fly. NPCs in the backstory do not require full game stats but need only to communicate impressions to the players. Note that the main characters from the backstory will have names and those names may be recognizable as connected to other legends and stories etc.
When conceiving these special items, the GM must ask themselves a few questions to get the creative juices flowing. How recognizable is the item itself? Does it have a reputation? Did the maker/owner of the item have a reputation? Or is there a folktale or story circulating around them and thus the item? Does the item have a name itself? Players and their characters may be asking these questions themselves. Therefore, the GM should have answers ready typically through the mouth of NPCs.
The blade could have been forged somewhere to the south. Where the high-grade silver used for the blade is refined from lead. This is also where the skills necessary to craft such a blade are not rare. There is a village in a remote area of that region rumored to raise the dragon-worms that produce the extremely rare fire-silk, but no one has seen newly spun fire-silk in an age.
A Brief History of Bling
The next step is making the “bling” jive with the history you have written. Turn the details into clues. First, make sure the attached background NPCs, important details, base materials, and general craftwork go together. Make sure that they collectively put the story of the item forward. This does not mean, however, that all the details need to match or correspond in some way. You can also use bling to put forward a telling contradiction between details. Alternately, you can use details as a device putting to the players a puzzle, a paradox to be deciphered. Using the details in this manner can serve to perk up the players’ curiosity. Or help to coax them along the path the item reveals to them.
The characters on the blade say, “Death to the Usurper of the South!” The sea-serpent skin is from an extinct variety of sea serpent. It was known as the Sapphire of the North Seas fished by enterprising fishermen. Additionally, there are characters engraved around the edge of the pommel that are hard to read and badly worn. They mention a name — Master Snake Commander of the… — but the last few characters have worn away.
Backstories & Side-Quests
The backstory the GM creates can lead to a side quest (i.e., away from the main thrust of the campaign). It can run a parallel course, intertwine with the main story usually joining at a certain point. Or can be any combination of the three. Intertwining the backstory of the item with the current campaign direction can keep a wayward player engaged. Doing this by merging their character’s story with it and thus the campaign dragging them along by their curiosity. It can also help to engage players in a concurrent story if the current main plot is not keeping them hooked. At a certain point it can serve to lead them back to the main story at a certain point.
Intersecting points in the main thread with the story of the item can be multiple. Giving a little tidbit of information to the players each time they reach such a story point. Such as while traveling south from a northern frontier the PCs get the related odd tale or a small bit of conversation. Each of these shedding light on specific aspects of the item(s). As the PCs chase down their main goal they will run into the points of the game where the special item figures in.
On your stop-over in the village, the town-drunk regales you with an old story. Its widely known in this region. It is about the young son of a wealthy merchant. The merchant’s riches were said to be held in uncounted smooth-cut gems. Some of which glowed with an inner fire of their very own. A barbaric warlord descended from the mountains with his horsemen and conquered the whole of this region. The merchant’s family slaughtered; their riches pilfered. The son ran to the provinces of the north vowing vengeance upon his return…
A World unto Itself (Sort of)
The backstory of the item can expand upon or add to the campaign world. Just as would a well-constructed NPC but unlike an NPC its details are passive. It requires the players and their characters to investigate them actively. Or have an NPC recognize and communicate what they know about it to the player characters (PCs). Its added flavor if nothing else but it requires the participants to actively engage it. To taste it as it were. This is of course barring any supernatural abilities that may grant the item agency.
These types of specially designed items will add to the game-text for the group. Especially so for the specific player whose character owns it. However, the latter choice may alienate others in the group. Unless you are trying to pit them against each it is probably not the best idea. In this case, tailoring the item to a single character is best. Add in storied items for the rest of the group gradually not all at once.
In fact, it might be useful for the first item to lead to the next and that to another. This lets the GM bait the entire group with each item. Each providing a single piece to a puzzle that begs players to solve it. Or a story that they cannot help but want the conclusion to. Not to mention the items should be useful for the characters in-game. This is outside of the clues and backstory. It is particularly important to never forget this. If it is useless in-game, why would they keep it? Always play to the players’ practical side. However, at the same time use their greed to hook them and their curiosity to propel them.
Players and thus their characters tend to become attached to specially detailed items. Much the same as favorite NPC’s if the backstory and details are just right. The players may even face a hard decision later on in keeping a beloved but mundane item over an upgrade. A rare case of emotional value triumphing over practicality. A well-crafted item can contribute to the overall quality of the game that is if your players are willing to bite.
Designing a non-MacGuffin item as you would a full-blown NPC has its rewards during gameplay. The item can become a worldbuilding aid as well as evolving into a story point in and of itself. It deepens the game world and can help to engage curious even greedy PCs rewarding them not just materially but with emotional payoff as well.
A ghostly blue layer of spiced smog hovered high above the heads of the flowing crowd as they chattered, haggled with merchants, and carried their burdens of purchased goods in baskets, sacks, and small wagons along packed and narrow central pathways in each wing. From the oculi in the massive central dome shafts of smoky sunlight cut through the dim oil-lit atmosphere of the Great Bazaar. As a result, the multi-colored glass bottles of the perfume and potion sellers below glittered with cobalt blue, blood red, glistening green, and brilliant yellow.
Not far from the central dome around a corner in the short southern wing, one of many, many merchants’ booths lay two green banners sporting golden dragonflies hanging over the counter from the high peaked ceiling. Behind the rear drapery of this booth in a small pillowed-lounge, Fauna (played by Jenn) sat with Vor Jetl, his dragonfly brooch sparkling in the foggy lamplight.
Fauna (taking the long-stemmed pipe Vor Jetl offered her): “So, um, me and my friends need a place to “chill” if you know what I mean.” She takes a deep pull on the pipe.
Vor Jetl: “Well…” he exhales a torrent of acrid smoke, “a safe place perhaps?”
Fauna (passing the pipe back): “Yeah…” she blows a cloud from her lungs, “um, it’s getting tense on the streets and we need a safe place to hide out for a while.”
Vor Jetl (after taking another toke and blowing out yet another smoke cloud): “Sure, sure. Least I can do for the high priestess eh? Eh? Okay, you will owe me a favor to be paid later, not by you, by your associates. Let’s sit and smoke for a little and I’ll have my man take you to the place.”
She continued to watch her tail nonchalantly browse Vor Jetl’s wares from between the curtains. Eventually, a clerk shooed the dirty-faced beggar away. Consequently, Fauna breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back into the cover of the curtained lounge. She was not sure but Fauna did have a decent idea for whom the street urchin was working eyes.
Fauna (feeling a little light-headed): “Thanks! Hey what is in the pipe anyway?”
Vor Jetl: “Oh nothing just some above-average pipeweed… with a little Night Leaf mixed in.”
Elsewhere, in the Old Market District not that far from the Old Bazaar, Excor (played by Cris) purchased a Wand of Spell Penetration (+8) from the Sapphire guild Alchemist Shop. He handed over 8,000 gold pieces and 7 sapphires in exchange. As he packed it away, he watched as Szoo (played by Isis) slithered up to the counter after intent on selling his dragon’s eye set in a crystal ball. The blue-clad clerk was almost giddy as she was about to hand over a pouch filled with 1,000 gp. As a result of the clerk’s wild expression, Excor stepped in and publicly appraised the item for his compatriot.
Excor (to Szoo and scowling at the clerk): “Don’t accept less than 4,000 gold for this.”
Excor left before Szoo got his cash. He made sure to look out for a tail. He saw no one. Consequently, Szoo hastily accepted 3,500 gp for his item and hurried out the door sending its bell into a flurry. Subsequently, he spotted his friend a fairway to the north on the street amongst the light foot traffic. Someone was trailing suspiciously behind him. Szoo shouted for Excor to “wait up!” The mysterious cloaked figure that had been following Excor stopped, pivoted south, then hurried in the opposite direction. So, the pair decided to ignore the retreating spy and hurried onward.
Eventually, the pair found their selves in Baba’s Apothecary shop. The tiny shop’s atmosphere was heavy with assorted spices and pungent herbs wafting from the rafters that were crowded with an upside-down forest of drying leaves, fronds, and flowers. Here and there, a draft of an exotic scent would glide into their noses only to be overwhelmed by the general dense herbal ambiance a moment later. Meanwhile, Baba, the naga proprietor, sat coiled on a large purple pillow in a far corner smoking her long-stemmed pipe. Excor noticed the peppery scent that her pipe smoke carried.
Excor: “Got any uh, yellow lotus in?”
Baba (thick white smoke escaping as she spoke): “Yup, but yer too late. The same guy came by and bought it up again. Got some night leaf left over though.”
Excor declined the night leaf, as it was a strong narcotic.
Excor: “What about the stuff you’re smokin’?”
A few minutes later, the pair was on their way to meet Fauna at the White Prong over lunch. Excor purchased a small bag of the spicy mix that Baba had been smoking. Szoo was smoking his new short-stemmed carved bone pipe packed with a bowl load of the same spicy smoke mix. It was not long until Excor noticed that they were being followed. It took almost an hour to shake the tail but they finally made it to the prong and into a private booth across from Fauna.
After all three settled in, Szoo and Fauna had a weird and overlong argument over fire walking. In the meantime, Excor pulled out and set a silver ring set with turquoise and a silver bracelet with a large gem of turquoise on the table. These he had lifted from the blue-cloaked dragon shaman’s corpse (see The Cabal of Eight II – Pt.19: The Dragon & the Wasp). After casting Identify on them, he found that the ring was a level 10 ring of Protection from Water with constant effect. The bracelet was also a level 10 item with the Heal Self spell (healing 10D4 HP triggered automatically at zero hit-points once per day).
Szoosha took a break from his discussion with the woozy druid to trade his ring of Breathe without Air for the bracelet. Finally, the druid decided to “get serious”. They sat in silence for a short while trying to think of something to do. However, all the druid seemed to do was giggle. Certainly, the three needed a plan to deal with the dragon, the infamous Ocean of the Desert.
Cris (breaking the awkward silence of the table with a snap of his fingers): “I got it!”
Excor grasped the cabal medallion around his neck and sent a whisper to Jirek. “If you’re alright come to the White Prong until dusk, watch out for the Ocean of the Desert.” Jirek’s response came almost immediately, “I’ll be there!”
It took the better part of an hour before Jirek ducked into their booth. By then the table was crowded with empty cups and three pitchers all soaked in ale. As a result of Jirek’s lateness, Excor and Szoo had eaten to try to offset the effects of too much alcohol. Still eating, Excor told Jirek that the Wasp was in possession of “the item” and after getting Jirek to promise to pay them for the info Excor turned it over to Fauna. Subsequently, the druid explained about waking up in a strange extra-dimensional hideout that Xanto the Wasp was using and about the magic-key, the one that opens the portal in the mirror in the college library closet.
Immediately, the booth curtain zipped aside, and there stood the captain of the Grey Serpent Pirates to the consternation of the three mages, “WE are going to the Red Helm!”
The three mages cursed Jirek under their breaths and wordlessly allowed the swashbuckler to walk behind them all the way to the Red Helm, his hand on his hilt. Fauna had spotted two hooded men following them but said nothing to the others.
The tavern was in a sorry state the entire front quarter of the place was gone. There were several carpenters and several large wood beams holding the floor above, which was still intact, keeping it from collapsing. The three adventurers all hissed realizing for the first time the damage dealt to the place by the Wasp’s magic misfire.
The Grey Serpent Captain strutted up to Draega Skullshine as he sat on a stool outside his partially open establishment. The large publican stood up and captain demanded his “pay” a thick finger stabbing back at the three mages.
Cris: “I knew it. Never trust a Tanglenite. Damn Poisonwood scum!”
Cris: “Of course they’re in it together! Skullshine’s a CRIMINAL!”
Draega (pointing at the adventurer trio): “You THREE! Your deposit on the clubroom is gone and you owe me for the damage! Until that’s paid, no more clubroom!”
Excor: *Sputter* “Uh, um, hmm.”
Cris: “Yeah,…that’s about right.”
Draega puffed out his chest and tried to intimidate the pirate as he approached for whatever reason causing the three mages and Jirek to take a step back. The pirate captain convulsed, “I will not be intimidated!” He began to pull his rapier and Draega stepped back and reached with both hands into his black cloak.
Szoo: “Oh no!”
Excor: “Aw crap!”
Fauna (narrow-eyed and grinning): “Heh, heh. This is gonna be good.”
Excor jumped in between them only to have the captain sweep him aside with one heavily muscled and hairy arm.
Excor (shrugging to his companions): “Well, I tried.”
A few seconds later just as it seemed the pudgy publican and the pirate captain would finally come to blows Xanto the Wasp imposed himself between them unexpectedly. All stopped and glared at him wide-eyed.
Xanto: “Hey! My friends! Please, please. Calm down, the package is safe…please my dear purveyor of brew; pay the man his meager salary. As a favor to me eh?”
Szoo rushed up and greeted the Wasp who quickly brushed the fire elementalist aside as he put an arm around Draega’s shoulders. The captain was tossed a small coin bag and after jingling it a few times, weighing it by guess, and finally satisfied strode away in the direction of the harbor.
Jirek (via a whisper spell to Excor): “Let’s run while they’re distracted.” Excor acknowledged with a nod. He walked quickly but quietly over to his friends and they all rushed away at once. The Wasp and Draega never even turned around.
Fauna: “Hey! Where’re we going?”
Excor: “What!? Are you kidding me! We’re goin’ to the mirror door thing!”
Well, Ranger Games Publishing has had a decent past year and sales remain strong enough to continue publishing books. So, I am planning a new release sometime in the first quarter of 2021 but I’m not going to set a solid date yet on that. I am hoping to get at least two other projects out in the coming year which includes Storywise. The Black Teeth Adventure module has been shelved although I am planning a more economical adventure module for next year.
As for the blogs, The Cabal of Eight II campaign is scheduled to finish out by December. I am currently busy writing the blog entries all at once. New entries should start to roll out next week, the week of Thanksgiving. The final Corpse World Zombie Horror campaign blog entry should be in December as well. I also have Can a Sword Smile? article on the back burner for revision from the old Gnomestew version and that should drop sometime in January. As for outside articles especially on Hubpages, there are none scheduled or planned for next year.
Next year the company is going to focus more on publishing RPG material and the blogging will drop to a steady once or twice per month. If sales equal this past year’s levels or if they pick up our publishing rate will increase in kind. Well, here’s hoping anyway. Also, keep an eye out for the December promo.
*** UPDATE 2/3/2021 ***
Writing on the next two RGS projects continues and coming soon to the coming soon page. The beginning of this year has been busier than I could have guessed and thus completing the Cabal of Eight II blog has been delayed. Things should start slowing down and getting back to a reliable schedule by mid-March (hopefully).
Games-Masters (GM’s) are already like mad scientists modifying their current gaming system often on the fly. This is through either in-play rulings (e.g. building precedence) or directly fabricating rules or guidelines. This is sometimes to patch deficiencies or fill in gaps discovered during play regardless of the potential for unforeseen consequences. Often, GM’s tinker with their current system adding in rules or new additions. However, they are often hesitant to rebuild or mess with the engine of the system.
However, GM’s can achieve some amazing results by doing just such a thing. GM’s can completely rebuild the machinery of a game with only some basic knowledge. Games-Masters can go further than simple modifications stepping into the shoes of a game designer. That is without stepping blindly onto the unsteady ground of game creation from scratch but still achieving something very similar.
Modifying existing systems is the gateway to creating one’s own full-on tabletop rules-system. However, like Frankenstein’s monster, missteps and using the wrong parts can lead to disaster. All GM’s who have ever run a few games know of the vicious cycle of modifying the modifications. All in service of keeping a campaign limping along.
The Frankengame exists in the realm between the patchwork game and game-creation as a sort of gateway. Here, like Doctor Frankenstein in the graveyard, a Games-Master can get closer to being the creator of their own system. They are starting not from scratch but from the constituent parts dug-up and snatched from sundry and various places. They will know the resulting system more intimately allowing them to avoid the vicious cycle mentioned above. In addition, this process sharpens the mechanical skill of GM’s allowing them to be better able to patch any flaws on the fly.
A Frankengame, like its namesake, is created by taking the operative portions of a game-system referred to here as Modules. Then taking these from multiple other games and slamming them together creating a functional homebrew mash-up. This, in an effort to maximize your enjoyment around the table. This is regardless of whether you or your group are more interested in a more Simulationist or Storytelling gaming mode. Alternately, also useful if you and they enjoy a simplified set of rules or rules-heavy systems.
The newly assembled game should function reasonably well enough to be used as its own standalone tabletop RPG system. Metaphorically similar to the human corpses that contributed to Frankenstein’s monster, you stitch a Frankengame together from the working organs of other games. This is given that all tabletop RPG systems have functional organs that allow them to tick. They share a common anatomy.
Basic RPG Anatomy
A roleplaying game system as a unit is a collection of interacting rules that help to determine the in-game actions of characters. This at least according to Wikipedia. It is also a system of interacting modules, a package of rules and details, each module-package being a subsystem. Modules allow for the construction of in-game items and resolution subsystems. Sometimes they even add to a core resolution system modifying it to some extent based on circumstance.
The common Base Modules of any RPG System are the Combat System, Skill System, the Mystical Engine, and the Object Subsystems. The Mystical Engine being the governing mechanic of the magic & psionic systems as well as any similar such ideas. Object subsystems being the component governing such in-game objects as weapons and armor. The Character Creation system/mechanic can also be included in these modules. This is especially so if there are several different methods presented for players to create characters in the materials.
Base modules are subsystems that handle a specific portion of the game but still have a wide enough reach as to be able to have further subsystems within them depending on their complexity. Note that the more complex the longer it takes to make a rule-call or task-determination. As stated before, these Base Modules handle a limited but still broad aspect of the game. This includes such things as Combat. For example, subdividing combat into such aspects as Vehicular, Barehanded, or even Armed combat although generally it still encompasses these. Similarly, expanding combat with smaller sets of rules or increasing complexity by adding a subsystem to handle one of the different and more specific aspects/scales of combat. At the center of all of these modules and subsystems lay the heart of the RPG, the Core Mechanic.
At the heart of the game system from which these modules branch is the Core Mechanic. The Core Mechanic is the principle that all the rest of the system works on. A Core Mechanic is in the simplest terms a formula for conflict resolution. Conflict in this context being an in-game occurrence where an impartial decision is required. Core Mechanics usually rely on a single die roll with certain modifiers added and may even rely on looking up that result on a table or even the number of dice rolled as in a Dice Pool. Most systems wear this on their sleeves so it is easy to get right in there and cut it out so it can share its beat with your homebrewed monstrosity.
Core Mechanic Examples:
D20 (d20 roll + modifiers vs. a target number)
Talislanta (d20 roll + Skill or Attribute Rating – Degree of Difficulty; check result to Table)
World of Darkness (character attributes and skill “pips” together determine the Dice Pool of D10’s vs. a target number)
Fudge (uses 6-sided plus/minus dice and elevates character attributes rated in an adjective scale (terrible, poor, good, etc.) and lowered or elevated based on the number of pluses and minuses rolled)
A Games-Master/potential Doctor Frankenstein can simply add in or swap certain Base Modules or subsystems with those from another. Although as compared with assembling a completely new system, this counts more as transplantation. However, even mad doctors need some practice. True Frankengames are an actual fusion of at least two other games (hopefully more) and recognizable as apart/different from either of them.
Most groups already modify and patch together isolated bits to their favorite systems. Especially when incorporating tweaks, hacks, and divers guidelines/tools from the internet. Taking that farther into Frankengame territory can enrich the Games-Master’s knowledge of tabletop roleplaying systems. But it also builds a custom engine that fits perfectly with their style of play. In addition, the custom engine can answer the needs and wants of the GM and their group. The reasons to begin such an endeavor are manifold.
A Few Reasons to Start a FrankenGame
To adapt the rule-set to the group’s play-style and wants, or to better suit the theater of the game (its world and/or setting including era).
In order to reflect the level of involvement in certain aspects of the tabletop RPG hobby, i.e. skewed more to story-telling mechanics or to combat and tactical based mechanics.
To push a game towards a more Simulationist version where accuracy rises to the desired level.
Or to expand the scope or potential of a desired setting or world to include things that another existing system already does, exceeding its current limits.
This last point can be satisfied, and usually is, by simply expanding the rules or transplanting specific chunks or modules. You can use your own invented rules or those borrowed to patch an existing system. However, this births something more of a hybrid system rather than a genuine Frankengame. A true Frankengame pushes even further across that line.
A Frankengame maximizes your vision for your game world, allowing a deeper level of believability (suspension of disbelief). Therefore allowing for deeper emotional ties and freeing you and the players to role-play more within comfortable and familiar bounds. These bounds better fitted to the tastes of the group. However, be warned this is reliant as much on the conduct of players and the GM as a function of system mechanics.
A Step-By-Step Guide to Building a FrankenGame
To begin the process you have to start with the most vital point of any roleplaying game system from which all else circulates – its core mechanic. From here, you can move on to the other points of concern. All other aspects of the game from character creation to all of the modules and subsystems rely on it. They may modify or use it in slightly different ways but all require it to function. There can conceivably be more than a single Core Mechanic. However, rules conflicts and exponentially expanding complexity result from this. Therefore, unless absolutely necessary to your vision it is ill-advised to add more than one.
This does not mean you may use more than 1 type of die in the core mechanic, just that the core mechanic remains the same. An example would be the D20 mechanic of a modified dice roll to meet a set target number. Conceivably, depending on a given subsystem you can use different types of dice or a variant on this basic concept.
What is Necessary?
Next, try to decide which subsystems or modules will be necessary for your game to both function and include those aspects, which you desire. Note that a module can include more than a single subsystem as well as ‘patch rules’ to shore it up. You also have to figure out what modifications are necessary to fit these subsystems to the Core Mechanic. There are 4 or 5 subsystems and modules needed for most RPGs. These are Character Attributes, Skill System, Item Generation, and Combat System, with the Mystic Engine coming in as optional. Most other tertiary systems are a combination of the aforementioned mechanics such as Character Generation and Monster/Creature Generation. These using rules and systematic processes connected to the subsystems to produce an in-game character. Their abilities embedded in or functioning within the applicable game modules.
Torch Proof It
A word of advice in these first few steps, keep in mind how disruptive players might take advantage of the system and its components to break the game. Running some of the still bleeding rules past a rules-lawyer, min-maxer, or power-gamer can help to mitigate their impact on a fresh Frankengame. Also, stay aware of any gaping holes or gray areas in the rule-set as well. Although you may want to build-in some gray areas. This allowing GM rulings to take precedence in certain areas, but gaps should be documented.
Once you have all of the guts for your monster you should begin to organize them. Take note of what parts need to be rewritten or modified to work with the Core Mechanic. Do not forget the other smaller parts as well. You also need to think about how these may interact. Compile a list of each mechanic with notes on how to deal with any inherent flaws. Keep in mind any original bits that you have that will help stitch it together. Drawing a crude diagram of inter-system connections will also help. While dissecting the desired parts from your material RPG-systems, you should throw out any patch-rules that act as connective tissue to other subsystems that you are not taking. However, make sure to keep any for those that you are.
Stitching It All Together
After you have all of the raw material on the table and have a good idea via a list, possibly a diagram of how to put it together, all it takes is stitching it up. After that, make a few test rolls and quick scenario runs to make sure that at least initially it’ll work. Patch-rules serve as your sutures to sew these bits and pieces together.
Rule Patching is a fundamental aspect to creating the Frankengame. It is adding in clauses often based on certain situations to plug up a “hole” in the rules. Alternately, they can also clear up any unintended gray areas as well. These patches serve not just to correct flaws but are also the connective material between subsystems so that they can function in unison.
Essentially the process for writing a Frankengame is as follows:
Decide on a core conflict-resolution mechanic (e.g. D20, D6, Fudge, etc.)
Pick the Core Stats or Character Attributes (the first subsystem) also note that attributes may multiply based on connections to the other subsystems (they are a function of these systems after all).
Decide on the other necessary subsystems (skill, combat, weapons & armor, social mechanics, etc.)
Mind interactions across the subsystems as surprises both unpleasant and extraordinary are within these in-between places. The attentions of rules-lawyers focus here typically.
Compile a list of the modules and subsystems (a connection diagram is helpful).
Make notes on what modifications and patch rules you will need to apply and where.
Creating a Frankengame helps to create a custom system for your group. This has several potential benefits. However, it does take some trial and error even after doing the work of piecing it together. Sometimes it will rise up and be super other times it’ll just strangle you. The main benefit of participating in this activity is learning about the construction of a roleplaying game system on a blood & guts level. In any event, it can give you a firm grounding in the basics of RPG construction.
In addition, exploring a new system with parts that are already familiar can be fun inside of itself. This is especially so when probing for flaws, gray areas, and holes. Even on a dry run of the Franken-system, the group should not be completely lost. The familiar parts may initially give players a steady base from which to explore experiencing genuine surprise when they stumble into new unfamiliar territory. Being the mad scientist type and patching together a Frankengame not to mention hacking established systems apart sharpens your understanding of how RPG systems work. Maybe grafting together a FrankenGame will put you on the road to writing your own original game later on.
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!”
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!”
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.”
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.”
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:
Gear (clothing & equipment)
Skillset (skills of note & combat style)
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There was definitely a reaction on the part of the roleplaying community to my recent HubPages article “Why Do Orc Lives Matter?” This is a stream-of-thought meditation on that reaction as a whole and on the most common positive and negative comments. The original reason for writing the article in the first place was in response to a spate of Orc-Posting and the counter-reactions to the reactions. I also stated this in my introductory post for the article.
I appreciate the positive reactions, which were not as common as the negative but far more thought out and valuable. The most interesting reactions included mentions of maintaining Orc Armies and the Sentience of Undead creatures. The latter is actually a subject I have on the backburner but that is a stream-of-consciousness piece that philosophizes more about the nature and sentience of undead creatures and ghosts than adhering to any tabletop specifics or sourcing. These are the reasons I’ve never published it or worked further on it after putting a page of it down. I might dust it off in the future though. Note that not all of the positive comments agreed with the main thrust of my article but were civil and thought out plus the respondents seemed to have actually read the piece in the first place.
“Fantasy Wargaming and the Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien”
This document, an article from a miniature war game fanzine circa 1974 authored by Gary Gygax, was sent to me and I was aware of this document as I was conducting my research. However, it seems not to have a clear pedigree. At least at the time I was doing my research so I could not really include it as a solid source. The main conclusion is that Gygax did not like Tolkien or his fiction. Although it doesn’t really matter how Gary Gygax felt about Tolkien when it comes to my article.
All that matters is that he was an influence on Dungeons & Dragons and the “proof is in the pudding” as it were. Tolkien is named in Appendix N as an influence and the Tolkien Estate did sue TSR over the use of Ents, Hobbits, and Balrogs to cite some obvious links. So, the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons is very well known and pretty much indisputable. Even in Gygax’s article, it says that both Chain Mail and Dungeons & Dragons were influenced by Professor Tolkien who originated modern Orcs, though his influence might be weaker on one than the other, it is still influence and a solid connection.
Most of these types of responses were pretty much knee-jerk reactionary garbage most made before even reading the article itself or including a commitment to “never read it” thus making these posts utterly meaningless and ignored for the most part or responded to with “Read the Article” which elicited accusations of deflection. There were a couple of nasty responses, which I reported immediately. A few responses were puzzlingly long, that rambled about the article in such a way and I guess trying to summarize it and nitpicking details from varying game systems that just were so unorganized and confusing that I completely ignored them.
There was also a peculiar obsession on trying to shame me because of the title (all came off as a deliberate attempt to shame me into silence however). So let me be clear and reiterate – The article is asking a question that needs to be asked of our hobby because of the same forces that #BlackLivesMatter has risen to combat are tearing at our hobby, it is not gauche or insensitive and taste concerning this matter is irrelevant, the article and its title are relevant.
There were even those who claimed to have read the article then still used the same dismissals argued against in the article.
Overall, the types of reactions throughout the social media platforms I participate in split right down the middle. This lending evidence to my thought that the tabletop gaming landscape is split or splitting into two factions where concerning this issue which like all fantasy fiction is a stand-in symbol for attitudes in the community on certain real-life matters if I really had to spell that out (I guess I did, based on some of the reactions I got).
I had put off writing about Orcs as I have about Liches, Elves, Dwarves, and Trolls because to be frank, I always viewed them as cliché and over-used. Embarking on this trip, I had no idea how complex Orcs are. This article was less a tracing of the creation of the modern RPG concept of the Orc rather than the tracing of evidence as to why the concept of the Orc carries such emotional baggage as it does. This is especially so for certain demographics of the roleplaying community and the effects it is having on the community thus the subject should be seriously discussed. So, in my mind, the reactions and non-reaction in some quarters were very telling of the general roleplaying community. However, I do cherish the civil feedback and criticisms that I have received so far.
P.S. – I do understand those who did not want the article posted in their groups and on their boards due to the content being “too hot right now”.
I’ve written another article over at Hubpages. This one I started several months ago in response to a resurgence in the OrcLivesMatter hashtag then as that died down, small arguments here and there erupted about the sociopolitical aspect of Orcs and if they were okay to use in games. After that, Twitter blew up with the “Are Orcs Racist?” question. So, I expanded my research and tried to hone my response to a razor’s edge.
The article is an exploration into the evolution of the Orc as concept from inception to #OrcLivesMatter that strives to answer: are Orcs a racist trope? The answer is much more complicated than you think.
Excor (played by Cris) under the influence of the Ghost Form and Invisibility I spells trailed just behind the blue dragon-shaman as he in turn followed the blue lady into the caves from the dusty tunnel. The blue-lady was sniffing the air, apparently tracking the others via scent quite accurately.
Meanwhile, Fauna (played by Jenn), Szoo (played by Isis), Bumble, and Xanto the Wasp were picking themselves up from the wet gravel beach they had landed on after sliding through a slimy chute and over the edge of a 10 ft. cliff.
Szoo: “Hey! At least she can’t follow us through that chute!”
Jenn: “Yeah,” looking over to the GM (me), “right?”
The GM (me): “Um, you guys know she can transform back and forth from human form so…”
Isis: “Aww crap.”
The Wasp chanted a spell and giant wasps appeared under him and Bumble his apprentice. The pair rose above the heads of their former two companions and began flying over the reeking green body of water before them. It was at this moment that Szoo realized that the Wasp was cradling the case. Szoo had forgotten to pick it back up after sliding down the chute distracted by his concern over the dragon.
Cris: *disgusted sigh* “Damned Wasp.”
Suddenly a deafening roar shattered the quiet atmosphere of the cavern. The four mages could see the glowing eyes of the blue dragon in her full draconic form just 20 ft. southwest of them on another bank of gravel & sand.
Excor moved in range of the Dragon Shaman, both still in the passage coming out of the previous cavern (R5 on the map) into the water chamber (R8 on the map). He began to cast Force Ram but fumbled the casting. His invisibility spell dispersed. Fauna rushed to the water’s edge and shouted for Szoo. The Wasp and his apprentice flew their steeds further north turning just in time to avoid hitting the cavern wall.
The blue dragon’s throat swelled and glowed intensely blue before she unleashed a massive blast of lightning at the two wasp-riders. Bumble easily dodged but the bolt hit the Wasp and his mount blasting it to smithereens causing him to drop splashing into the water below. Szoo transformed into a large black sea turtle and began to slide into the water. The Dragon-Shaman spat a lightning bolt at the ghostly form of Excor but it passed harmlessly through.
Excor cast Slow on the Dragon-Shaman but the shaman resisted the spell. Fauna leaped onto the back of the turtle as it slid under the water. The Wasp meanwhile was swimming to the beach immediately to his west his white knuckles still clutching the case. The Blue Dragon jumped into the water plowing through it like a giant shark heading straight for Xanto. She snapped her jaws at the turtle and his unfortunate passenger but the turtle dodged by the slightest margin (by 1 point). The Dragon-Shaman charged Excor and swung his quarterstaff at the adventurer, the blow passing straight through. The Dragon-Shaman looked up possibly re-thinking his combat strategy.
Excor backed up and cast Force Ram again targeting the Dragon-Shaman. The Dragon-Shaman dodged to the side taking a glancing blow. Fauna jumped off the turtle and clawed her way onto the beach near the Wasp (R7 on the map). The Wasp checked the case; it was intact and still sealed. The dragon swam up near the beach on which the Wasp and Fauna were standing rising like a titan from the water. The Dragon-Shaman began casting a spell but a stitch in his bruised side caused him to falter and the spell fizzled.
Excor cast paralyze II on the shaman paralyzing him.
The Wasp took a stance meant to increase agility and focused his light-starved eyes on the dragon before him. The Blue Dragon surged forward to stomp on him but he easily evaded the blow. Szoo as he was right next to the Wasp forced to dodge as well wound up on the opposite side of the monster from that of the Wasp. Bumble flew her giant-wasp-mount over the dragon’s head in an effort to get near her master. Grinning maliciously, Excor canceled Ghost Form and pulled out a magic dagger (+5) and stabbed the paralyzed Dragon-Shaman in the throat but failed to kill him in a single blow. Fauna moved around next to the Wasp.
The Wasp took the same stance and readied. The Blue Dragon blew its breath at both the Wasp and Fauna. Both managed to avoid the lightning bolt completely. Szoo transformed back into his true form and withdrew his Fire Fang (see The Cabal of Eight II Pt.1: The Checkered Eye). Excor again buried his dagger in the Shaman’s throat this time mercifully finishing the job with that final blow. Fauna dissipated into a cloud of mist as she cast Gaseous Form on herself.
The Wasp again took a defensive stance but was also able to quickdraw a scroll from his sleeve. The Dragon snapped her razor-studded jaws at the Wasp missing by a hair. Szoo moved further around to the opposite side of the dragon from his companions and blasted the dragon with a cone of fire from the tooth, to no effect. Bumble flew down next to her master.
Cris: “Man! They’re gonna run! Somebody get on ‘em!”
Jenn: “I’m on it! I’m going to stick to them no matter what!”
Excor looted the still-warm corpse of the dragon shaman. Fauna, in gaseous form, floated up to the dragon’s face, flew up her nostrils, and immediately canceled her spell.
The Wasp leaped onto Bumble’s wasp-mount and read the scroll. A golden glow surrounded him and his apprentice as they began to fade away. Reflexively the dragon sneezed shooting the druidess from one of her nostrils directly into the area of the teleportation spell. In a flash, the Wasp, Bumble, and Fauna were gone.
Immediately, the Dragon swiveled around and grabbed at Szoo who was barely able to avoid the massive claw. Meanwhile, Excor after packing away the loot in his portable hole twisted his silver ring activating the ghost form spell as he rushed towards the commotion. Szoo activated the Temporal Jump ability on his phoenix feather cloak and took a step into nothing completely disappearing. The dragon sniffed around then as she turned to leave, she spotted the faintly glowing ghost form of Excor standing on the opposite shore.
The dragon charged him and stomped around snarling and proclaiming herself “the ocean of the desert” and “the great queen of the mountains, pale yellow forests, and desert sands”. After a few minutes, she lowered her face to his ghostly visage and growled, “I’ll track down that lowly wasp and crush him slowly beneath my feet and then when I reclaim my property, I’ll find all of you!” Excor just shrugged and waved goodbye. The dragon stomped off.
Isis (to Cris): “Wow, dude.”
Cris: “Pfft! She can’t do anything! The Ghost Form on my silver ring lasts for over an hour!”
After waiting a few minutes, Excor started on his way back up unexpectedly joined by Szoo. Together they decided to rent a room for the night in a place called the Shield & Helm Inn near the new amphitheater on the corner of Arena Circle and Tourney Way. They paid the 10 gp for the night and an additional 20 gp for a security detail. Not soon enough did they both collapse exhausted, bellies full of wine and food, onto their soft feather beds.
*And yes dear reader, Fauna the Druid did transform into mist and then went up the dragon’s nose in the game. It worked to stall out one of the dragon’s turns although she did have a chance of falling back into the throat and getting swallowed. I did roll for that.😁 *