Saturday, September 1, 2018

30 Minutes: Monsters

(Okay, I actually spent 60 minutes writing...)

CW: death, drowning, body horror.

I'm updating the seed to 2d6, aka 11 possibilities!  Better bell curve.

2: Essay: "Concerning ________" (roll again; on this result, Concerning Players) 
3: Dungeons
4: Tricks
5: Treasure
6: Npcs
7: Gods
8: Adventure Hooks
9: Monsters
10: Traps
11: Dungeon Rooms
12: Diseases or Poisons

The Dice Roll:

2d6 result: 9: Monsters

Incrementing the Chart

For next time:

2: Diseases or Poisons
3: Essay: "Concerning ________" (roll again; on this result, Concerning Players) 
4: Dungeons
5: Tricks
6: Treasure
7: Npcs
8: Gods
9: Adventure Hooks
10: Monsters
11: Traps
12: Dungeon Rooms


The average monster stat block fails to inspire me pretty significantly.  The average monster description isn't much better.  I've been trying to think about what it is about some monsters that light my fire, while many don't!  I think perhaps the thing about monsters is they're only as scary as their fictional positioning- and most modern Monster Manuals don't deliver on the promise of the Monster, from a fictional positioning perspective.  Slender Man isn't scary because he has 15' reach and if he hits he strangles for 2d6 damage each round.  Slender Man is scary because of where he lives, and how he expresses threat, and the targets he chooses- because of his fictional positioning.

Especially when so many monsters are just... intelligent races that attack the "Good" races?  Why am I killing these goblins and orcs again?  Shouldn't we send some emissaries to negotiate with them?  Establish trade?  Help relieve their environmental pressures so they stop attacking us?

Is a goblin just a "short green humanoid with sharp teeth, sharp nose, sharp ears, and sharp eyes?  They favor sharp daggers and love to pretend they're surrendering, before redoubling the attack?"  

"They shout Bree-Yark?"


Or is a goblin the manifestation of greed- the greed humans feel for the things other humans own?  Living things, mostly.  First they come for small working animals- cats, dogs.  Vanished in the night, stolen from the edges of civilized land.  Sometimes they show up later, slain- a warning.  The first sign of goblin infestation is often, in fact, rats- an overabundance of rats, where cats and small dogs would once have kept them at bay.  But goblins don't stop there.  An untreated goblin infestation grows- one goblin is a threat, five an atrocity.  

After pets, livestock are stolen away at night- prized cows, sheep, goats disappeared or slain, their meat spoiled.  After livestock... children... and then adults.  You might catch glimpses of them in the woods- their pale white almost translucent skin flashing as they duck into the brush.  At night, the glow of their eyes can make you think that lost pet is just lurking out of sight, maybe a bit feral now.  You might approach, hand held out, a treat extended to coax Whiskers back to you... this is a mistake.

Goblins never attack unless they are sure of the kill, and they are excellent at staying hidden.  Their needle sharp fangs drive straight for the throat, their claws razor sharp to rend skin.  They don't eat or drink from what they kill- nobody knows how they subsist.  The infest the dark crevices of the earth, yes, but where possible, they prefer the abandoned remnants of humanity.  They act out mock plays of life in there, small rituals, cooking eating, spats and feuds, ritual without substance, almost like clockwork.  If they are ever seen engaging in this, they fly into a frenzy- they will accept no evidence of their secret pantomimes.

"Okay" you might say.  "So a cat goes missing, the town gets their torches, and flushes the goblin out of the woods and slay it.  No big threat."


Only, Goblins have an instinct for choosing their targets.  The farmer who had a bad year, the one everyone looks down on?  The man trying to raise his two boys, who everyone whispers about?  The hedge witch whose services everyone needs, and resents needing?  When these people run through town, tears on their face, pleading and panicked... who listens?

The pain of the Goblin is that they target those who are the most genuinely attached to what they hold dear- and also the least likely to elicit sympathy from their peers.  In this way the Goblins grow, drip fed, until it is too late...

There are rumors of occasional towns who have had Goblin infestations vanish- usually after some wide-spread common outcry, mock trial, and sentencing of someone very well established and connected.  Usually the person who, for some reason or other, is benefiting the most as a byproduct of the attacks and uncertainty.  The Coveter In Chief.

But we all know how likely that is.


Monsters, then, aren't just "apex predators" or "bad people-things"- monsters are inextricably tied to our humanity.

The Tentacleel

There is a stream in the woods where once lovers lay.  They would meet there, and whisper sweet songs into each others ears.  A popular spot, spoken of behind hands, in shadow.  Where the sun shines bright on the banks, and a strong tree grows out over the swift and deep currents- perhaps a rope hangs from its bough.

We all know the place.

Swift, cold water hides many dangers, but is it not the folly of youth to believe their invincibility?

"You should have been more careful"

"I warned you that boy was nothing but heartbreak"

"I told you not to go to the stream"

The tentacleel wants nothing so much as warmth and companionship.  It is drawn to the places where such things are on display, and it waits.  It waits, until that joyous moment when a companion deigns to join it, deep in the dark waters, so warm and soft.  The tentacleel holds on tight, as long as it can- days, certainly- sometimes weeks.  Until there's nothing left to hold, until everything has sifted out, washing downstream.  

But that's okay.  Mourners so often pay it visits, that it's just a matter of time, really.

Death Adder

It is a fact of life that life is finite- and this the Death Adder understands above all.

A hunter may occasionally come across the carcass of some wild beast, slain or fallen as a result of its natural circumstances.  At first glance, everything may seem normal- but a sharp eye will spot a pool of shadow under the creature's mouth.  A thick, scaled skin, shed- winding back into the corpse.  The Death Adder's leavings, coated in a contact venom that causes a hot, searing pain, and leaves behind a wicked burn, small at first, which grows with the years.

The Death Adder is no threat, unless accosted.  Its bite is an aging venom- the skin dries, the hair greys, the eyes wrinkle.  But it bites only under duress.  Humanity hates the Death Adder, because humanity hates death.

The Death Adder finds comfort in the presence of those who are near to death.  It will often be found coiled underneath a newborn's crib, an invalid's bed.  Around the bell of a church's tower; in the dark corner of an infirmary basement.  Wallowing in the mud of an impending battlefield.

Those who have seen it insist that the doomed can be saved if the Adder is removed... but this is rarely achieved.  It is a stubborn beast.  Many make the attempt- fire, sword, axe, pitchfork... the sick bed is moved, the invalid encouraged to take air.  The Death Adder desires nothing so much as to remain in its chosen locale... waiting.

After the beloved passes beyond the veil, the only sign that remains of the beast is often a long, gossamer skin, dried and crinkly.

Of course, humanity hates the Death Adder for a second reason as well.

Nobody enjoys watching a newborn serpent shedding, sliding out of the mouth of a recently deceased loved one.

Monday, August 27, 2018

20 Minutes: Tricks

Today's 2d4 Seed:

2: Treasure
3: Npcs
4: Gods
5: Adventure Hooks
6: Monsters
7: Traps
8: Tricks

Roll result: 8: Tricks


Tricks are odd encounters in dungeons.  Some rooms contain treasures, and that's good.  Some rooms contain traps or monsters, and that's bad.  But some rooms contain tricks... and who knows what's going on with them?

Tricks are the things that make the players stop and proceed with caution.  The 30 seconds of prep you spend writing a line that starts "A creepy doll sits on a chair..." that turns into two hours of gameplay.  So let's see what we can come up with in 20 minutes?

  1. Blood stained letters scrawled on the far wall: "WAS I NOT WORTHY?"  In the center of the room, channels gouged into the rock of the floor, in the circle-and-runes shape of some arcane ritual, connecting four small basins at the cardinal directions- currently dry.  A faint magic aura can be detected.
    • If the four basins are filled with blood, the channels also fill.  When the blood flows to the center and fills the channels, a Sleep spell discharges on everyone in the area.  Anyone who sleeps in this room (at any time, spell or no) has dreams of intense disapproval from whichever god they worship.
  2. A door with a gaping demon-maw forged in bronze in the center of it, where a doorknob should be.  Deep in the mouth, about a forearm-length back, you can juuuust make out the latch for the door.  A faint magic aura can be detected.  The handle must be grabbed and manipulated in order to open the door.  There's a clasp on the back that a finger has to pull.  Each time the player says "okay, I press the clasp," describe how another clasp pops out- requiring another finger to pull it.  
    • Secretly roll 1d4+4: that is how many clasps pop out.  Every time beyond number 5, the player who is manipulating the door grows one additional finger to press the next clasp that has popped out.
    • These new additional fingers live for 24 hours.  Having extra fingers gives advantage on sleight of hand, picking locks, disarming traps, or other tasks requiring manual dexterity.  One finger falls off at the end of each subsequent 24 hour period, and then begins inching in the direction of the closest undiscovered treasure.  No two fingers will head for the same treasure stockpile- they split up.
    • When a finger reaches its selected treasure stockpile it pupates; if left alone overnight, it morphs into giant mucosoid fingers defending the goods (fight as a Carrion Crawler).
  3. An ornamental cigar humidor of mahogany and oak- well polished.  Has- would you believe it??- just enough cigars for the current adventuring party.
    • Once a cigar is lit- any one of these cigars, no matter where the players are- a spectral ghost appears, forming out of the smoke!  They are a jovial creature, delighted to see the players, and ravenous for news of the world- after all, it has been so long since they've had any.  They light up their own cigar, invite everyone else to join in (insist, really- they refuse to proceed with niceties until everyone is well situated and participating)- and then beg for details and news- of course, they promise to tell the players all manner of interesting and quest-relevant details once they're satisfied.  Once details and news are exhausted, they beg for performances and showmanship.  Once performances and showmanship are exhausted, they are ready to tell the players anything they might want to know.
    • ... It's a shame all the cigars burn out JUST before the jovial spirit is able to say the most important words the players want so desperately to know.

That does it for our 20 minute (okay, 16- I had to seed the random table first) sprint of brainstorming!  I'll see if I can't come back often and make a new roll for a sprint brainstorm.  Cheers!

Seeding the Table

For next time!

2: Tricks
3: Treasure
4: Npcs
5: Gods
6: Adventure Hooks
7: Monsters
8: Traps

Sunday, August 26, 2018

6 Dungeon Rooms

  1. A rotten library, filled with shelves.  There's a handful of books that remain worthwhile hidden in the stacks- spend 10 minutes and roll a DC20/15 Perception test to search.  If you roll 20 or above, you find the book you need.  If you roll 15-19, the book is there... but it's in the hands of a damn flying monkey, who pokes its head out and chatters at you loudly.  Careful with your attacks, don't want to damage the text...
  2. In each corner of the room, an iron statue of a woman with a veiled face, ropes coiled at the feet of each statue.  On the far wall, a door that says "please go away."  If you leave, nothing happens.  If you approach within 5' of the door, the iron maidens spring open, and the ropes come to life, lashing out to drag party members slowly towards the waiting spiked containers.
  3. A giant frog sits in the center of a room, on wooden floorboards.  He slaps his hands wetly against the ground when he sees you.  Around him are a scattering of objects- a broken chair, an old shirt, etc- but also a brass lantern; a fine silk rope, coiled expertly; a swirling vial of silvered liquid; a finely honed longsword.  If you talk to him, he says only: "BRAAAP.  BRING ME...." (roll 1d6)
    1. HEAVY
    2. LONG
    3. WET
    4. GREEN
    5. ALIVE
    6. (roll twice and combine, ignoring further 6's)
  4. Along the back wall are six valuable urns sitting on a mantlepiece.  In front of them, a heavy stone statue with burning red eyes and a baleful glare!  It's unbelievably slow and heavy- it can only move 5' per round.  However, every time it stomps forwards 5', one of those priceless urns slides forwards right off the shelf, crashing to the ground....  He hits like a truck, too.
  5. In the center of the chamber, a chasm, spanned by a long rope bridge.  About 30' before the bridge, a large, green slime- placid, unconcerned.  It doesn't really care about you.  Hanging above the close side of the bridge, an odd packet of cloth about the size of a waste basket, tied around with rope.  The air smells sickly sweet and sulfurous.
    • Stepping onto the bridge, the three kobold archers far on the other side pop out and fire on the bundle of cloth, breaking it open- rotten meats and fruits and mushrooms spill out onto the bridge.
    • The large green slime- if left intact- slowly oozes over onto the rope bridge to get at the bounty.... its acids working away at the ropes.
  6. A crystal cavern, redolent with crystals of all sizes that tinkle with slight chimes as you pass.  12 large crystals stand tall around the room, each reverberating with a different note on the scale.  Whatever song the players play first by striking the crystals, an Angel of Law and Music appears.
    • If it was a good song, the angel is pleased, and whispers one of the words of Musical Order into a proffered weapon, which becomes a +1 Weapon of Law (+1 when wielded by a lawful creature, or when attacking a chaotic creature).  Once per day, a Bard can strike this weapon against a hard surface as a part of their use of Bardic Inspiration, in order to increase the size of their Bardic Inspiration die by one step.
    • If it was a bad song, turn up Beethoven's 9th symphony (first movement) and play it loud.  The angel attacks the player of the song that summoned it, for as long as the first movement is playing.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Survey Results: Watching D&D

One week ago today, I released a survey called "Watching D&D: An Audience Questionnaire."  I'd solicited questions from my close friends in TTRPG streaming, as well as publicly, and gotten some really good guidance from y'all on what sorts of questions you'd like to see answered!

After 2,695 responses, I think we've got what we came for!  Let's take a look.

As promised, the survey results are completely public!  As mentioned in the survey and its tweet, this survey collected no personally identifying information of any kind, not even demographic information.  You can't look through this information and figure out who said what.

I hope you find it interesting!

About the Survey

First things first, some survey methodology critical thinking:
  • This survey was distributed primarily via Twitter.  It also got a little traction over on reddit, but not as much.
    • There are wide swaths of fandom who were probably missed by this survey.
  • The respondents were self-selecting; only people who wanted to respond responded.  It wasn't a random sample or anything like that.
    • I expect this survey represents the opinions of core viewers and highly engaged TTRPG watchers.
  • This is inherently a survey about what people report that they think and feel- which, unfortunately, is not always exactly the same as what they actually do think and feel.  
    • People can say things like, for example, that they don't care if your breaks run long- but viewership numbers can tell a pretty clear contrary story for your stream.

All that said.... let's take a look at the survey!  You'll have your own impressions to take away from it, but here are some things that stood out to me.

Results I Expected!

Yup.  No surprise here.  If you're looking to run a TTRPG show, invest in a good audio setup for all of your members, and try to work out sound problems before your first show.  Audio quality was far and away the most important technical element for respondents.  A Blue Yeti microphone with an arm and a pop filter will probably set you back $150 in total, and is a very fine introductory audio quality solution.

No surprise here- your cast matters hugely to your show.  This one can feel a bit frustrating if you're starting out, but don't worry.  While I think there is an element of fame here ("I like watching my favorite streamer"), I think there's also a strong element of... plain ol' good entertainership.  Skills like smooth improvisation, clear enunciation, eliminating filler words from your speech, developing good supportive friendly table banter, finding the right balance between clearly descriptive and quickly descriptive- these are all things you can practice that will probably pay strong dividends for you at the table.

Secondary to your cast are their characters- which I think of as an extension of your cast.  If your cast are playing characters they're having fun with, then the characters are fun, and the cast is fun.

Coming in third place, and actually as a little bit of a surprise- the world and setting really does motivate audience members pretty strongly!

The importance of your cast, and their having fun in character, was repeated a few times over the course of survey results!  People come to your show for your cast; they stay if they're having fun; they like seeing their fun characters interact.  It echoes again and again!  To me, the answer here is- build an environment where everyone at your table is as comfortable as they can be, encourage them to play the game in the way they like best, that supports the other players playing the ways they like best.

A "session 0" is probably a great way to get everyone on board with that jolly cooperation!


Results that Surprised Me!

People prefer to watch the show, but specifically, people prefer to watch the show on Youtube / VOD- and they prefer to WATCH the show, rather than just listening to it in the background.

Relatively few people find chat a frustrating or neutral part of the experience (8.1% who don't participate at all, 4.2% who participate little, and 0.8% who actively participate)- but 47.2% of respondents either hide chat (28.9%) or watch on a chat-free platform (18.3%).

As a twitch streamer primarily, this was a bit surprising to me!

Wait, what??  People prefer to watch the show visually over listen... but say that it's not important to have visible dice roll results?  For how often we got complaints about lack of visible dice rolls in chat, this one surprised me.  I suspect this might have fallen prey to the self-reporting bias, but it's an interesting result.

TEN PEOPLE.  TEN.  1-0.  Ten people out of 2695- 0.4% of respondents- said that they prefer show content to be Pre-created adventures they could go buy from the publisher.

I don't know how stream numbers have worked out, but unless you're Wizards of the Coast, you might not see as much engagement with your Curse of Strahd stream as you'd hoped.

This one surprised me a lot.  Yeah, there's a slight preference towards the "free form role playing" side of things, but I actually expected respondents to be WAY more in favor of free form RP!  Instead, the majority of respondents prefer a balanced experience, with a bit of a preference on the RP side of the fence.  Neat!

And what about the stuff that I had no preconceptions about, but nevertheless found interesting?

Other Interesting Notes!

Our first entry in the "interesting notes" section, folks generally like to see homebrew classes, rules, systems, character options etc in your show!  If you've got a cool idea... go for it!  I'd always thought it was a bit of a risk on my part to include in my shows, but I'm glad to see folks are curious.

People are generally very happy about guest stars!  Bring 'em on!

Again, not on the surprising or not-surprising categories, since I didn't have any expectations here, but the number 1 reported reasons for viewers to stop viewing your show is player bickering or infighting.  I saw a great tweet recently that said "consider not doing what your character would do if it would take away from the fun of the other players."  This is a mantra I will forever ask my players to keep close to their heart.

Also of note, the second biggest reason viewers declined to return is that the "content became distasteful!"  Obviously, that word will mean different things to different people- but given that it's the second highest reason for drop-out (from this list), it's worth heavily considering what lines your show should avoid crossing, to avoid alienating your audience.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Of Roles and Rolls

There is a certain kind of roll in Dungeons & Dragons that I personally dislike- a roll which eliminates both rich, in-character play, and also eliminates the skill, creativity, or cleverness of the player herself.

This tends to happen more heavily with a subset of skills:

  • Deception
  • Investigation
  • Persuasion
  • Search

The simplest way to talk about it is to showcase examples of play from the two perspectives:

Rolls vs Roles

Deception Roll
DM: The medusa stares at you furiously, holding back her stone gaze for the briefest moment.  "Why have you come here, fools?"
Player: "Oh great medusa, we are here to worship you and serve as your bodyguards!" I roll my Deception skill.... 18!
DM: That's a success!  "Fascinating... no sooner do I have a need than you appear.  What skills do you have that can be of service for me?"


Deception Role
DM: The medusa stares at you furiously, holding back her stone gaze for the briefest moment.  "Why have you come here, fools?"
Player 1: Okay wait.  What do we know about this medusa so far?
Player 2: She eats ash and drinks smoke?
Player 1: Awesome, but I don't know if it helps us right now...
Player 3: She's had graven images of Cadixtat, the Chaos Titan all through her halls!
Player 1: Hmm yeah, and we heard from the Knowspider that she's pretty paranoid- and all those traps sure prove it.
Player 2: Hey wait, didn't we kill some priests of Cadixtat earlier?  I stole one of their holy symbols thinking we could sell it... are you thinking what I'm thinking?
Player 1: Awesome!  We've got it.  Follow my lead.  "Ohh great medusa!  We suffered a plague of nightmares sent by the Chaos Titan, Cadixtat, exhorting us to come to your aid and protection!  We bear his mark, and show it now as a sign of our faith and service!"
DM: Her tension visibly relaxes!  Her shoulders relax and her serpents move in slow sinuous waves.  "So.  The titan himself has heard my need?  This bodes well.  Come forward..."


Search Roll
DM: The room is centered around a wooden parquetry table, with a blue-and-white china vase sitting on top of it.  On the far wall is a blackened stone fireplace, with candleholders on each side.  What do you do?
Player: Hmmm, I smell a trap.  I want to search the room.  ... I rolled a 21!
DM: Okay!  Yeah, you examine the table and sure enough, there's a tripwire under the vase, connecting to mechanisms running down the central column of the table...


Search Role
DM: The room is centered around a wooden parquetry table, with a blue-and-white china vase sitting on top of it.  On the far wall is a blackened stone fireplace, with candleholders on each side.  What do you do?
Player 1: Okay, I raise my torch good and high so I can see clearly.  How does the floor around the table look?  Anything unusual or distinctive about it?
DM: Nope!  The whole floor in here is the same uniform black stone.  No markings or scuffing.
Player 1: Okay, I'm going to walk over next to the table.  ... Do I die?
DM: Not this time!
Player 2: I want to go look around the fireplace!  I'm walking over next to it, and examining one of the candlesticks.
DM: Which one?
Player 2: The right one.  I'm just looking right now!  Seeing if I see anything!
DM: Okay!  While you do that, Player 1, what are you doing next to the table?
Player 1: Oh I'm totally messing with this vase.  Carefully!
DM: How are you doing that?
Player 1: I guess I'm... putting my fingers on the lip of the vase and gently tilting it, looking under it for any kind of, like, pressure plate or whatever.
DM: Okay!  Yeah, as you tilt the vase and peer under it, you see a tiny wire being stretched taut under it, disappearing into a hole in the table.
Player 1: I put the vase down!  I put the vase down!
Player 2: Do I notice anything about these candlesticks?
DM: Well the right one you're looking at now?  Its candles are unburned- and you notice the left one's candles are burned about half down.
Player 2: Hmmmm... what do you all think?  Should we try lighting some candles?
Player 3: But which ones?  The burnt ones, or the new ones?


As you can see, asking players to engage in the fiction- to actually find out what kind of lies or persuasions might be effective against their target, or to actually fictionally engage with the contents of a room- gives many more chances for play.

Though I'm half inclined to simply remove these skills from my game, I can see a possible middle ground- keep the skill, and let a successful roll against a fairly challenging DC represent the character's intuitive knowledge about the situation.

Search: "I rolled an 18!"  Hmm okay, yeah!  Your astute senses draw your attention to the wardrobe at the back of the room.  It'd be a great place to hide some loot.... or a deadly threat.
Persuade: "Hey hey!  A 21!"  Rad.  You can see that the nobleman is checking his water clock regularly, and you remember overhearing a whispered conversation between the servants earlier as you passed- something about "making sure it's ready in time."  He seems pretty nervous about timing, specifically...

Of course, on the DM's side, this asks more work of us!  In the case of the medusa example above, elements of the wider dungeon tied into her characterization- her paranoia, her worship of Cadixtat.  In the trapped vase example, the DM should know how the trap functions, what physical evidence it leaves behind (a nearly invisible black ash coating over the black floor?), how it can be deactivated... you as the DM must invest your world with the authenticity the players will need to discover these things by engaging!

For elements of the environment, ask yourself:

  • What tells might there be?
  • What is the most interesting?
  • What is the most valuable?
  • How sensitive is the danger here?
  • How could it be negated?  What evidence is there of that?
For elements of personalities, ask yourself:
  • What does this personality claim to want?
  • What does this personality really want?
  • What does this personality fear?
  • How could the players present effective leverage?
  • What is there about the surroundings, or other personalities, that can give insight into these answers?

What do you think?

Monday, August 13, 2018

On the Nature of The Dungeon

On the subject of the dungeon, there is but one comfort, and it is this: the dungeon is an entity, and, like all entities, it can be described.

The nature of the dungeon is that of subversion.

If you are lucky, the dungeon has been a known place.  It was your place once, a place that belonged to you, or to people like you.  Even if they were a very different people, they were far more like you than not, and their place was far more like the places you know than it has now become.  It was very likely built for a purpose, to be used and to exist in ways that are familiar to you.  It was a home, or a workplace, or a storage space; a defensible location, a place of strength and purpose.  The people and creatures in it were known, they operated by rules and laws that you intuit, that you can feel in your bones.  Rules and laws that wrap around you in a bustling marketplace- you feel them in a lecture hall- you feel them walking down the street, sitting in the theatre, pouring a glass of wine, pulling bread out of the oven.  Even when you pick the lock, when you slice the throat, when you lift the vase- even then, the rules and laws of the known blanket you in a soft comfort.  You are at home.

In the dungeon, you are not at home.  It may look like home- it may even try to convince you that you feel at home.  But you are not, and if you believe its lies, you will die.  The dungeon is anathema to you.  The creatures that live in it are not like you, the people in it follow a life at angles to your own.  But do not make the mistake of believing the dungeon has no rule, for if you believe that, too, you will die.

The dungeon follows a rule and a law that is utterly alien to you.  It is the rule and law of the abandoned school, of the marketplace suddenly empty and silent, of the zoological park at night as the animals stare you down, their eyes saying "we know what you are."  The entities that exist there, they move through the space in ways you can't.  They occupy hallways as if they were rooms, and move through rooms as if they were stairs.  They sleep in the lavatory, and eat in the study.  Their needs are wholly different from yours.  Perhaps they feed off of salt, slowly accruing it in vast pockets of alkali venoms stored in their pallid grey flesh.  Perhaps they desire only to insert themselves into a thought, returning and returning until no other thought remains.  But mostly, mostly, they have nothing to do with you at all.

The dungeon does not care about you, for the dungeon is beyond you.  It has become.  It is new, whole.  It is its own entity now, where once it was only a place to be used by you.  And make no mistake, like all entities, the dungeon lives.  It breathes, it eats, it produces waste.

It grows.

Above all, it grows.  The dungeon seeks ever to expand.  First, the worms move in, slowly opening cracks in walls where there were no cracks, creating doors where no doors should be.  The dungeon opens into the earth, reaching out, seeking to touch its companions.  Seeking to join with its kind.  Then the dungeon seeks sustenance.  The scavengers and hoarders move out, stretching across the land, stealing, devouring, returning, collecting.  Food, yes- but more importantly, power.  The power of gold, of capital- the power to bend the weak minded to its will, the power of greed.  The raw power of arcana- the ancient, the mystic, the reagent, the solvent.  It needs this to fuel its continual becoming.  Finally, the wastes begin to flow.  Inhabitants of the dungeon that straddle the boundaries between the known world and the dungeon begin venturing out.  They seek violence, predation, dominion.  And the psychic effluvia of the dungeon infests everything around it.  Ordinarily satisfied men and women turn their heads, looking at the horizon, unknowing, in its direction.  Surely, they think- surely it will be different for me.

It never is.

Let them come, says the dungeon.  They, too, are a part of me, now.

All this, of course, if the dungeon was, in fact, known.  There is another face of the dungeon, too- that which has never been known, but instead, was merely hidden, locked away.  It is the dungeon's oldest face.  After the known parts have been sacked, the treasures removed, the magics stolen away, the creatures slain, their blood sprayed across the walls, holy rituals intoned, mountains of earth and rock and mortar and blood sealed into place.  After the known has been reclaimed, erased, made clean, the fears soothed, calming words spoken, griefs expressed, and tears shed.

After all this, the dungeon yet lives- behind the wall, in the crack, in the blood and in the stone.  It grows away from its momentary defeat, opening itself inside the earth, reaching, searching.

The dungeon


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Creating Play-Focused NPCs

I was talking with my friend Ben recently, and we were mutually lamenting the challenge of making compelling NPCs that were dynamite in play!  Our conversation got me thinking more about my process of NPC design, so here are some thoughts.  I also started talking with Luke (@wildwoodsgames) halfway through writing, and their insights were super valuable in fleshing out and finaling my thoughts on this topic.  Cheers, Luke!

"Three Things" Theory

Generally, I have tended to stick to the "three things" school of NPC design: choose three obvious things, and make the NPC all about that:

  • Hextia, in my IRL west marches game:
    • Throws things to you (nicely)
    • Makes you tea (probably throws it to you)
    • Always busy, somewhere else in her house
  • Hypatia, the general store proprietor:
    • Broad shoulders, embroidered leather vest, gold tusk caps
    • Business minded smooth talker: a con artist
    • Tries to sell you a random snake-oil charm
  • Sir Galodor of the Leech:
    • Leech motifs on armor
    • Regal, fated
    • Suspicious; hiding a secret quest
Let's talk pros and cons.  

On the Pros side, this is a very condensed way to store information.  It has the added benefit of asking me as a GM to focus down on the three most obvious, play-impacting aspects of a character.  

This is nice, but- on the Cons side- it's more a short-hand that jogs my memory than anything else- it's code that draws information out of my brain, that I never wrote down.  It's also pretty one dimensional, so it breaks down after a while of interacting with the same character!

Maybe I can flesh out what I find to be the most valuable information about a character to have at a table.  Since all design is intended to solve a problem, let's focus on our problem statement.  What do we want to achieve?  How do we define a "good" NPC?

What makes a Good NPC?

A Good NPC is one who...
  • Is engaging for the players- that the people at your table want to mess with, in whatever way
  • Is engaging for the characters- that your characters want or need to engage with 
  • Is easily memorable and distinct from others
  • Has strong goals and motivations
  • ...But is secretly willing to subvert those broad goals and motivations in service of a specific desire
  • Has one poignant detail that can only be learned after engaging with the character more fully as an ally

Let's break it down.  A good NPC is one who...

Engages your Players

At the end of the day, a role playing game is played by people talking to each other.  One of my first objectives with PCs or NPCs is to inject the game with something that will create fun for the other people at my table.

How is your NPC engaging your players?  What fires up your players' brains?  To do this, you have to know what your players will respond to.  Try a few things, and gauge their reactions!

Ask yourself: "What motivates my players?"
  • Does one of your players like flirting with everything they come across?
    • "The elf king is really hot.  SO hot.  Piercing amber eyes, beautiful and slender face, thick dark ringlets of hair cascading to just under his jawline.  Definitely like an 18 on a weighted, 18-point scale."
  • Does one of your players like grandstanding and taking the center spotlight?
    • "The street snake oil salesman points to you and says- 'you there!  I need a volunteer to demonstrate this marvelous product!  Come up here, and if you're satisfied with the instant results, I'll give you a free sample!"
  • Do your players like figuring out how to communicate with entities that are clearly intelligent, but blocked from communicating through the ease of speech?
    • "The octopus's eyes are white and milky, and each of its long tentacles ends in a questing hand.  One touches your torso, the hand covering most of you- then recoils quickly!  The octopus thinks for a moment, then more hands reach out, tapping the ground, gently prodding your chest- and other hands float forwards, bringing various items to just out of reach; a sheaf of paper, a quill and pot, a collection of stones, a sapphire..."
  • Do your players like playing charades?
    • "The wizened librarian shushes at you harshly, his moustache bristling with the force of the air.  He points to a sign behind him reading "MAINTAIN ABSOLUTE SILENCE." He fixes you with a quizzical look, then spreads his hands- seeming to ask what you want."
  • Do your players like performing quick and clever / creative services to unlock friendship?
    • "The frog croaks, then slaps its giant webbed hands against the floor wetly.  'Braap!  Bring me.....' the frog pauses for a moment, thinking, then continues: '...HEAVY!'  He looks pleased with himself, and croaks softly and expectantly while looking at you."

Your players may also be motivated simply by characters who are unexpected within the confines of the common setting, or by a character who looks or acts in unexpected ways!

But if your NPC bores your players, or fails to engage the people at your table, it won't sing in your game.  That's why I put this step first!  If your players love it, they'll figure out reasons for their characters to mess with it.

Engages their Characters

Yep.  It's a role playing game, and your players are playing roles.  Their characters have wants, needs, motivations, goals, dreams.  How does this NPC help or hinder those characters?  Do the characters have types of situations they like engaging with?

Importantly, for a combat-heavy game like Dungeons & Dragons, if the NPC is providing an obstacle to the players, strongly consider making the character either strong enough or important / well connected enough that players are deterred from simply killing them outright.

Ask yourself: "What motivates my players' characters?"
  • Is a character disguised as a holy monk, worshiping Arkyn the White Lord of Law?
    • Wouldn't it be entertaining for them to meet an actual Cleric of Arkyn?  What if they got found out?  Do they know the religion well?  Will these characters bond over this shared attribute?  Will the PC be afraid of discovery?
  • What do your players' characters need right now?  Could this NPC give them that, under the right circumstances?  Could this NPC be preventing them from getting that?
    • "The giant frog is sitting right in front of a large wooden door, carved with the face of a laughing jester.  It slaps the ground, expectantly.  'Braap!  Heavy!  Heavy!' it says, looking excitedly at the large crate you're wrestling between the two of you."
  • What are your players' characters' long term goals and motivations?  How could this NPC tantalize the promise of help, while delaying the fulfillment of that promise?  What will it look like when that promise is fulfilled?
    • "Yes!  If you win a drinking contest against the Circle of Drunken Priests, then you, too, may drink from the Horn of Intoxia, and make a boast that will be witnessed by our goddess of revelry!"  The large, jovial man grows serious and eyes you for a moment.  "... But... is your constitution up to the task?"
  • What are the character qualities that my players want to express about their characters?
    • Tenderness?  Control?  Dominion?  Trickery?  How could an NPC allow a character to act out their characteristics in a fun way?

Is Memorable and Distinct

Here's where the "Three Things" come in, but let's separate them into two categories: physical, and personality.  Choose three obvious and visible physical markers for this character, and three obvious and visible personality markers for this character, and then make them big.

  • Three physical markers:
    • Extreme age?  Unique facial hair?  A dramatic style of dress?  A unique accessory?
    • When your players think back and ask "oh wait, we know a guy who can help with this- that guy who.... __________"  What fills in the blank?
  • Three personality markers:
    • Is this NPC aggressive?  Sly?  Shifty?  Seem like they're hiding something?  Smiles broadly with a smile that doesn't reach their eyes?  Strokes their beard?  Always makes you tea?  Is always in a different room of the house?
Choosing just three physical markers and just three personality markers allows you to bring them out at the table and highlight them quickly: "Hextia looks down at you from the top of her ladder, where she's dusting cobwebs.  "Here dearie," she says, reaching for a teapot balanced precariously on a stack of books.  She pours a cup, and then hurls it in your direction.  "Have some tea!"  Somehow, it doesn't spill."

Restricting yourself to three big obvious things also helps guarantee that more of your characters can be distinct and memorable.

Has a Strong Goal or Motivation

What does this NPC ultimately want?  Choose something strong- a reason for them to be acting in the world.  Think of this as one of the reasons the players come to THIS character, as opposed to any of the hundreds of other characters who could exist in the game world.  This character has strings attached.

Consider things like:

  • The sorceress wants to protect those weaker than herself.
  • Hextia wants to provide useful medical services to the women of nearby villages.
  • Sir Galodor of the Leech wants to complete their quest for their holy order.
  • Hypatia the general store owner wants to acquire profit with the least possible effort.
Why does this NPC exist in your game world?  Tie them in, with one big motivation or goal.

Has a Secret Willingness to Make an Exception

Think of this as the twist to the character, the detail that makes them rich and two dimensional.  This is a hidden detail, a specific exception to the general goals and motivations above.  These exceptions should inspire questions: "What?  Why?  What's going on here?"  Tie them into the previous facts about the character- this is a specific detail that counters previous expectations.

This detail shouldn't be something the characters see on first meeting the character- it's a reward for continuing to engage.

  • The sorceress wants to protect those weaker than herself...
    • ... But will drop everything to gather the pollen from the rare flowering junia bush.
  • Hextia wants to provide useful medical services to the women of nearby villages...
    • ... But once she's found a willing vessel to rebirth her, that's all she cares about.
  • Sir Galodor of the Leech wants to complete his quest for his holy order...
    • ... but he is sworn not to desecrate dead remains, even those reanimated after death.
  • Hypatia wants to acquire profit with the least possible effort...
    • ... but will spring into action and go to any lengths to protect the lover she has in the next town over.

One Poignant Detail

Finally, add one small detail to the character.  You may think of this as an intimate expression this character might choose to show (show!  never tell!) to those they're closest with.  It's not centered on the players' characters- it's not a romantic intimacy, simply a core vulnerability this NPC might choose to express to or share with someone they're very close to, in a roundabout way.  Rather than countering previous expectations, view this detail as expressing another dimension of the character, possibly unrelated to the other details.

  • The sorceress has preserved in a looking glass a single memory, of being pushed on a swingset.
  • In her disastrously unkempt and dusty house, Hextia keeps one tea pot spotlessly clean, but never used.
  • Sir Galodor of the Leech keeps a short letter close to his breast at all times: "Gal, thank you for writing, it's so good to hear from you.  Of course you can stay here for a time, whenever you need- just let me know.  Thinking of you."
  • Hypatia keeps a box of letters on the bottom drawer of her shelf, and under them all, a pair of train tickets, good for any date, destined for a distant city.

Three Last Examples

This was a long way to explain a fairly condensed thing, in prep!  Putting this together can be very quick and space-efficient.

Let's look at three examples of characters from media who fit this formula: Kamaji, from Spirited Away; the Faun, from Pan's Labyrinth; and Calcifer, from Howl's Moving Castle.

Kamaji, Spirited Away

Engages Players: Mostly via surprising their expectations.  "Wait, what?  He's a multi-armed forgeworker who looks like a spider, and his arms are of indeterminate length?"
Engages Characters: Sen needs a job in order to be protected from Yubaba, and Kamaji might be able to give her one.
Memorable and Distinct: Physically: many long arms of indeterminate length, bushy bristly moustache, small black glasses.  Personality: gruff, wants to keep his operation running smoothly, irritated by the demands of his job.
Goal or Motivation:  Wants to keep his operation running smoothly at all costs.
Secret Exception: Wants to keep his operation running smoothly, but will interrupt his focus to help someone if he sees they have a strong work ethic.
Poignant Detail: Can offer Sen two train tickets far away from here... tickets he's had for years.

The Faun, Pan's Labyrinth

Engages Players: Again, mostly by surprising expectations: "Wait, I thought this was the real world.  What the hell is this??"
Engages Characters: Ofelia desperately needs to escape from her dangerous real life circumstances- the Faun can offer her escape... for a price.
Memorable and Distinct: Physically: is a Faun.  Horns, hooves, long spindly fingers.  Personality: Loving and soothing, but manipulative and fickle.
Goal or Motivation: To restore the fairy kingdom to prominence.
Secret Exception: Will abandon his efforts if his companion isn't effective or obedient.
Poignant Detail: Loves fairies, as the last living remnant of his connection with the fairy kingdom.

Calcifer, Howl's Moving Castle

Engages Players: There's an element of surprise, but also his abilities to interact are strongly limited to the area of his fireplace, giving players the upper hand on interacting with him.
Engages Characters: Seems to have hidden information about the Wizard, Howl- also provides control over the castle.
Memorable and Distinct: Physically: Is a fire, and also a demon.  Personality: Cranky, cantankerous, but responds well to kindly bullying.
Goal or Motivation: To escape his captivating contract with Howl.
Secret Exception: Willing to set aside this goal in times of self interest- which seems to extend to the castle itself.
Poignant Detail: Comes back after finally winning his freedom.

I hope you find this perspective on making compelling, play focused NPCs!  Give it a try at home, and let me know how you find it works for you!  Is there something you'd change?  Thanks for reading!