Episode 78 – NPC’s, Allies, and Adversaries

NPCs

NPCs; they are the lifeblood of any adventure, campaign, or gaming world.  Sure, the story is created by the actions of the Player Characters, but without NPCs, who would the heroes turn to for help, sell all their (sometimes ill-gotten) treasures off too, or shiv prison-style in a back-alley for some easy XP?  Join us this week as we jump back almost two decades to discuss some of the memorable NPCs – allies, adversaries, and otherwise – from our epic AD&D 2nd Edition campaign!  Ready your fantasy cellphones, lock down that split-personality disorder, and for the sake of your family take out a life insurance policy as you prepare for an all new episode of Monkey in the Cage!

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My Many Characters – A PC Snapshot

I love to create both Player Characters and Non-Player Characters as I feel that the individuals that populate game worlds are as important (if not moreso) than the game world itself.  The rest of the group has verbalized many, many, many times that I can get so wrapped up in my affinity for creating that it often gets in the way of actually playing a table-top RPG.  Be that as it may, I know that I am first and foremost a player, so this week, I’ve decided to share some of my favorite creations – past, present, and in limbo.

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GMing INCEPTION: A GM’s Paradise is a PC’s Purgatory and Vice Versa – Part 2

When we left off, I was explaining that the role of the Architect in the Inception game module can go both ways.  Either the GM can create the world and guide the PC’s through the layers of dreamscape as per the standard mode of play in a game OR they can let the PC’s run the session and simply enact ground rules keeping the scenario on (justifiable) rails, thus keeping true to the source material in the film.  I explained that the Architect is the most vital and influential character to the Inception module, but they are simply the creator of the world.  If the GM decides to have the Players fulfill the role of Architect, it will most likely be a collaborative effort.  Additionally it is up to the other characters to delve into the dream and accomplish the goals of the scenario, so it is unlikely one of your Players is going to say “Well, I designed it.  I guess my work is done here.”  If they do, you need to find some new players.  More likely is that all the PC’s will delve into the dream and will need to fill a role in order for the team to succeed.  Now we’ll look at those remaining roles to be acted.

The Extractor and The Pointman

The role of the Extractor can be performed by any player and any character type.  What is simply needed is the proper set-up to help that character shine.  Understandable, the Extractor serve’s as the team leader, and will likely end the scenario having accomplished the most important task of either extracting or implanting information.  This character will need to be persuasive, capable and cunning.  As far as Player’s go, your groups strongest role-player has the best chance of selling the interactions to the rest of the group and to the most important person at the table of all, the GM.

The Pointman serves the primary support role in the Extraction/Inception module.  While this character may not receive the laurels for a mission successfully completed, their actions undoubtedly serve as the key to success.  This is particularly important with multiple layers of the dream.  As the team delves deeper and deeper into alternating subconscious’, someone needs to stay behind and make sure all goes according to plan.  Like the Extractor, this role can be fulfilled by any character, but I would suggest that the most well-rounded character assume it.  There is no telling what may happen in the dream, especially if your GM feels like being a particularly conniving psychopath.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve seen the great special effects in the “Hotel” sequence and understand how “interesting” things can get.

The Forger and The Tourist

The Forger is perhaps the most unique character type to be involved in the module.  This character is vital if the Mark the PC’s are looking to dupe is a particularly tough nut to crack.  As is seen in the film, the Forger is responsible for assuming various identities within the dreamscape to help deepen the believability of the manufactured dream.  Depending on which roles are assigned to each Player at the table and the way the team plans out their deception, strong role-playing and (for d20 games) either a high bluff modifier or a high Charisma score are a must.  Additionally, this role could be the most fun to play if you really like to assume the role of several characters in a session, or if you happen to be a little schizophrenic.

The Tourist can be, for all intents and purposes, unnecessary and can become a potential hindrance to the team in the module, as seen in the film.  However, given the complexity of the dream, or the number of layers that are to be delved, one extra person can mean the difference between success and failure.  Essentially, any character NOT fulfilling the role of Extractor, Pointman or Forger becomes a Tourist and is responsible for adding additional support to the group.  If the GM wants to be an even BIGGER jerk than normal, they can plant an NPC in the role of Tourist (this is exactly what Saito would be, an NPC) and ever so subtly send the PC’s to Hell in a handbasket….

The Shade

The Shade is an NPC and should serve as the main antagonist for the team during the module.  This is where the GM can really have a field day.  In the film, the Shade is Mal, a projection of Dom’s deceased wife.  Her vindictive nature is a by-product of Dom’s own guilt.  Because all the PC’s subconscious’ are sharing the same head space as one another due to the nature of the module, there really are no limits to what the GM can do in creating the Shade.  Character back-stories can be filled with personal tragedy, unfinished business or emotionally scarring traumatic events.  Any bit of information a Player gives you can be twisted and warped to creating a psychologically devastating enemy.  Additionally, not all dreams are about the mundane or typical.  Think of how much chaos a recurring nightmare could wreak on a fragile dream state, three levels deep!

I had mentioned in the Part 1 post that additional genres could be utilized in creating the dreamscape.  The film portrays every dream level in a consistent real-world manner.  Each location, though fabricated by Ariadne, is essentially a believable, true to life setting.  This does not mean, however, that this has to be the rule the GM abides by.  While most of our dreams are undoubtedly grounded in what our senses provide on a daily basis, the subconscious is still the imagination’s playground.  If the regular game has a modern setting, whose to say the Mark doesn’t dream of historical events, fantasy realms or outer-space exploration?  The intricacy of the module is solely at the discretion of the GM (or Player’s), but the key is making the experience believable, not only for the NPC Mark, but for the Player’s at the table as well.  Just like a dream within a dream, the deeper you go (or the more complicated you make it), the more unstable (and possible less rewarding) the module can become.  Happy Extracting!!!

“Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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GameMastery Decks – Add a Little Fate to the Fire

While I’ve embroiled myself in the (very) long process of homebrewing my own campaign world, I have looked to many aspects of d20 and other game systems for mechanics and rule systems that I find appealing.  It’s natural for a GM to want to add as much flavor to a game, homebrewed or not, and the result is definitely more rewarding to the players, but what happens if the rule set becomes too familiar, combat bogs down, or everyone (players and GM’s alike) plain just draw a blank as to what to do next?  The minds behind Pathfinder over at Paizo Publishing seem to think that adding a little more fate and chance to a game seems just the thing.  Enter – GameMastery Decks!  This week, we’ll look at two of the decks I purchased for use in my upcoming campaign.

Critical Hit Deck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, in a d20 system, there are very few things as rewarding as a Critical Hit. That moment when your dice decide to play nice and offer up that huge damage boost can turn the tide of any battle, and sometimes, all the Players really want is for the fight to be over.  The Critical Hit Deck can not only speed up the untimely demise of the latest mad scientist or Orc chieftain a party face, it also adds a little flair to the organized chaos that is RPG combat.  The deck offers a couple of variable rule options based on critical modifiers for weapons, which can either boost or reign in the damage and dismemberment achieved, but Paizo greatly urges that GM’s use caution when turning the deck on the players.  Those nasty effects go both ways, and unless you’re looking for a dreaded (and unappreciated) TPK, use against your players sparingly!

Chase Cards

Everyone loves a good chase scene, and they are often some of the most intense and action-packed aspects of film.  From the Nazgûl chasing Arwen and Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings to the Hummer vs. Ferrari chase in The Rock, chases add a whole new dynamic action.  I became enamored with the concepts of cinematic chases in-game after reading the rule set in Spycraft 2.0, but had trouble adapting them to a less-than-modern setting.  Wizards of the Coast introduced Skill Challenges in 4E which were capable of fulfilling the role, but still felt lacking to me.  My hope is the Chase Cards Deck will give this GM what he’s looking for.  Designed for three terrain types – city, forest, and dungeon – the rules are simple.  The GM establishes how many cards the chase lasts, lies them face down in a row.  Once each of the players complete one of two skill rolls listed, they advance to the next card.  Rinse, repeat, escape.  It seems to be a solid process with the chance for plenty of variation, and also appears to take some of the awkward guesswork out of the 4E skill challenge while still presenting PC’s with options.  I’m looking forward to introducing this to the group, sooner rather than later.

Paizo currently has 23 other decks released, everything from NPCs to Magic Items, and all are compatible with 3.5 OGL rules.  Check them out and add a little more spice to your ‘brew.

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Episode 13 – Campaign Settings

You walk into a room.  It has some walls and there are some figures in it.  What do you do?  Sound familiar?  If you’ve ever played a role-playing game, you’ve undoubtedly heard countless iterations of varying detail along those lines.  Some may have been incredibly memorable, while others as vague and unappealing as the one written above.  If  you suffer from lack of attention to detail, or symptoms of poorly descriptive writing,  just ask your favorite podcast Monkey if Episode 13 is the right prescription for you.

This week the podcast crew is talking about what (in our opinions) are some of the ins and outs of successful worldbuilding.  Everything from visual props to novel length world history, we look at some of the various aspects of world-building and campaign management that we think will help breathe some long-lasting life into your adventuring party’s world.  Strap on your ears, take some notes, and enjoy this week’s discussion on bringing a setting to life.

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Know Your Role: The Three Roles of Gaming, Part 4

The Hybrid

Seeing as I’ve already covered the basic elements of being a Player and a Game Master, there is really no need to revisit the individual aspects of either role.  However, for those individuals that choose to embrace both roles simultaneously, and become what I call a Hybrid, it must be known that to do so is to walk the razor’s edge between epic success and absolute disaster!!!  Ok, I’m being a little dramatic, but choosing to become a Hybrid can be extremely challenging but equally rewarding as well.

Generally, we all begin as Players and eventually find ourselves delving into the role of the Game Master.  For some, it becomes a permanent mantle that is worn within the gaming group and can sometimes feel more like a job than a pathway to entertainment and escapism.  For those of us seeking the best of both worlds, creating a GMPC is the way to go.  Simultaneously running a game AND a Player Character within that game allows the GM to feel that, to an extent, they too have an interactive, rather than purely narrative, role in the story unfolding around the gaming table.

PROS

  • Flexibility – The ability of a GMPC can be limiting in terms of the Player role being fulfilled.  As the GM knows the answer to all the puzzles, what sort of encounters lay behind which door, and the ultimate story-arc of the session, the GMPC is relegated to a support role in terms of proactive adventuring.  The flip side is that when the chips are down and the Players are stuck, the GMPC serves as a perfect deus ex machina, able to help resolve the issue and move the plot forward, hopefully in character.  While this may not be ideal for the sake of the GM’s storytelling, it keeps the game moving.
  • Direction – If utilized correctly, the GMPC can help steer the PCs in the direction needed if they get too far off course.  This is best done with subtlety and in character and is more successful than attempting the same with standard NPCs, whom Players generally treat as tools to be cast aside once used.  It’s only railroading if the Players realize it!
  • Equality – The GM gets to enjoy being a Player again.  While they have the task of creating, organizing and running the game, the GMPC is a vehicle in which they can interact with the group on a Player to Player level, which is something we can all appreciate.

CONS

  • Focus – If a GM is the type of writer that REALLY enjoys details, being a Hybrid can serve to bog down the creative process.  Trying to create a gaming world and the story while seeking to develop and character with back-story can split focus and result in either the game, the character or both suffering.  Being a GM is a balancing act, and if too much time is being spent on developing a single PC, the responsibility to the group is being neglected.  It’s okay to have your cake and eat it too, but greed will get you nowhere.
  • Temptation – You’re the GM.  You’re the boss.  You run the game world and establish the house rules, so why shouldn’t you be able to boost your stats, trick out your equipment and bend the rules to your liking?  Because it’s not fair to your players.  If you want your GMPC to be the toughest adventurer out there, you better relegate them to NPC status or else your Players are going to revolt.  As was stated before, the role of the GMPC is one of support.  If the GMPC is the best at everything, the Players are going to be less willing (and able!) to contribute while the GM has one-sided encounters with themselves.

Protip #4 – The game is for the Players first and the GM second.  If your GMPC waltzes into every battle like Jack Bauer and every verbal encounter with the wits of George Clooney and Brad Pitt from the Ocean’s 11-13 movies, your reign as GM will end more brutally than the fall of Tsarist Russia.  Let the Players be the heroes and bask in the glory, with the GMPC on the sideline.  It makes totally screwing over the PCs that much more fun!

“I know the world isn’t fair, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?” – Bill Waterson

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