Sunday, May 09, 2010

Q: What's the difference between an NPC and a monster?

A: NPCs have names, backgrounds and motivations.

This week I was looking through the Keep on the Borderlands when I thought to myself "Hey, lazy ass.  You need to finish fleshing out the inhabitants of the keep."  Then it dawned on me that none of the inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos have much in the way of detail either.  Dave Hargrave used to urge his readers to take a troll to lunch.  That's a lot easier to do if instead of plain ol' "Troll (32 hp)" the DM is equiped with "Ignatz the Troll (32 hp), an excellent fisherman, a pariah among his kind because he actually gets more nutrition from the bounty of the sea than man-flesh.  Willing to trade smoked herring for any wine or beer the party has on them.  Seeks some sort of magical aid to assist in the wooing of a nearby mermaid".

Of course sometimes the players just want to slaughter nameless orcs.  I'm not against that sort of thing.  One of the great things about RPGs is that you can let your id go on a little romp and no one gets hurt.  And I don't see why you can't have both approaches in the same campaign.


  1. I think the key is finding a balance. While I wouldn't want to stat out EVERY troll, maybe one unique one would make for an interesting diversion. I tried doing the same thing when I ran Keep last year, but I found less is more. Other than fleshing out a few of the key players, I left the rest alone, and just jotted down notes on stuff I winged.

    WORD VERIFICAION: pulle - a broken pulley

  2. Consider Ignatz stolen. I like the simplicity of the advice "Take a _____ to lunch." Brilliant. Thanks to you and to Mr. Hargrave.

  3. This sort of thing is awfully fun to do on the fly. When I ran the Caves of Chaos last I had great fun playing an imprisoned orc Charmed by one of the players--and the same session introduced perhaps the most beloved sidekick NPC of my campaign, Donny the Kobold.

  4. The thing is, if it says "Orc (9 hp)", then I know this is a selfish, greedy monster that will attack the party with the intention of murdering the strong, enslaving the weak, and taking all their cheese either way.

    If the module designer needs one to be an exception, they will specify "Hudglizz the Orc (9hp). Hudglizz was raised in a human monastery, speaks common, and has an extensive collection of holy symbols. If the party contains an obvious cleric, he will offer food and a safe place to sleep in exchange for a blessing." Hudglizz is an exception, so needs his own entry. I don't need the module designer to suggest how many skulls are hanging from their belts, or that they will attack the mage first.

  5. I also like to make the non-grunt monsters (or the grunt that stand-out of the crowd) play out like NPCs - more so with a Borderlands type of game, where players would have to engage in a lot of diplomacy in order to survive. Such adventures make for good role-playing and backstabbery!

    Oh, and even if "Guss the Juggling Troll" got killed outright by a bloodthirsty party before he had a chance stand out, I just drop him in another adventure, and reuse him until the players stop killing Trolls as soon as they see them. I once made an Ogre that was based on Larry Kubiak from Parker Lewis Can't Lose - he would watch your back for fish! The players killed 3 "Larrys" before they found out one would "kick ass for bass!" He was a fun NPC monster.

  6. Totally dude! Cosign in the fullest. Winging stuff like this is how my campaign now has Mr. Buttertooth the Troll and Turd Man (yep) the Goblin as returning characters.

    ....I will ignore Mr. Hargrave's advice on Jewish Kobolds though.

  7. "...I will ignore Mr. Hargrave's advice on Jewish Kobolds though."

    Yeah, me too.

  8. Vortimax6:12 AM

    Once I thought I gave an orc tribe a proper background. The Player's butchered them down to the last one, finally realizing, that the orcs had a proper social skills and had only moved to human lands because of a much more sinister evil lurking up in the mountains...I remember them being seriously angry at me for portraying the Orcs as conscious and social tribal people, since they had a blast killing "worthless vermin equaling rampant weed" and now felt guilty for an actual genocide...

  9. Dunno Vortimax - sounds like an awesome "Enders Game" to "Speaker for the Dead" moment right there.

    On the other hand, yeah: I had some lizardfolks with a similar role and somewhat similar reactions.

    Entertainingly, some players were still quite happy to kill them. Others took the time to learn their language, etc.

    Also, I did still provide them with baddies they could all kill with gusto: there were religious variations amongst the lizardfolks and they learned to differentiate. Or most learned anyway :)

  10. Details like that really helps me run monster NPCs even if the players never have a clue about the backgrounds. It's just easier to come up with tactics and natural behaviors on the fly if I know their motivations and the players, hopefully, get a slightly more vivid experience for that fight.

    It also lets me get more mileage out of the old stand-bys too, hee. 'You fought orcish slavers last time, these are orcish hunters, duh!'