Saturday, July 16, 2016

5 Goals Your NPC Organizations Shouldn't Have

There are three types of NPC groups in fantasy RPG worlds:
  1. Groups the PCs can fight. Example: the cult of an evil demon lord.
  2. Groups the PCs can receive service from. Example: a merchant guild.
  3. Groups the PCs can join. Example: giant-slayer mercenaries. 

No DM has trouble with the first group. They are the easiest to think-up and use in the game.

The second group is easier than the first, in that their motivations need not be world-shaking or nuanced. They can just be a trading band, after all. But they are also more difficult than the first group, because it is much less natural to roleplay a merchant than an evil cultist, considering how scant merchants are in most fantasy novels and D&D plot-lines. It's very similar to writing: the mundane stuff is the hardest to make believable because you haven't ever given much though to it.

Where many D&D worlds fail, however, is with the third group. I'll give you some examples.

Black-Flame Zealots: If these aren't the coolest divine group ever, I don't know what is. They are Assassin's Creed meets ninja meets Nepalese holy-warrior. If there was a novel or video game about these guys, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, they are a clandestine order of monks who work primarily out of city hideouts and only battle with the enemies of their god. They are like a thieves guild, but with more smiting and less casual sex.

How in the world do you DM a PC that is a member of this group? How do you convince the PC that going off to a random dungeon and looking for treasure is a reasonable quest given his profession? If an old lady says she has ROUSs in her basement, why on earth would a member of the BFZs offer to help her? Don't they have a dark god to keep at bay?

How about the Cavaliers? Mounted soldiers? Really? That's the kind of character you are going to play in this dungeon-crawling game? One who needs a horse at all times to have any fun?

The deeper you dig into all these supplemental classes and groups, the more you realize that over half of them cannot be played.

Sure, you can take the Purple Dragon Knight prestige class from 3.5's Complete Warrior, but take a look at their description, and the paragraph-long disclaimer about player-character members...

D&D 3.5, Complete Warrior, p. 70, Wizards of the Coast

In the end, a PC Purple Dragon Knight has no rank, no authority, no experience, no service record, no commitment to future service, nothing. They have nothing but an honorary title and a slew of class abilities that seemingly appear out of nowhere, given how little the PC actually has contact with their affiliate group...

These disclaimers are included because the designers know that players want the cool features and titles, but none of the responsibility. The PCs still plan to explore and search for treasure and kill monsters as their primary lifestyle, so being a full-time (or even reserve) member of some army is not on their to-do list.

And why should it be? This is Dungeons & Dragons, not Soldiers & Sergeants. If you want to play a medieval warfare simulator, play one. D&D is not that.

This is a reality that DMs and PCs need to accept: limit yourself so you can focus your game and do it well. Players don't need access to infinite character concepts to have fun, they need access to a handful of character concepts that fit the world and the tone the game is going for. DMs don't need infinite NPC groups from every walk of life, they need a couple dozen groups, the majority of which should be adventuring groups that PCs could easily join while still maintaining their normal day job.

There are a million reasons why an NPC group would be invested in dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. I'll put a bunch into a blog post sometime. But until then, here are five goals your joinable NPC groups shouldn't have, because they create direct contradictions with the adventuring lifestyle:

1. Operate in a particular area, e.g. a specific city, forest, or even country.

If the PCs ever want to leave, either the PC members have to quit, get some sort of negotiated leave time, or create a convoluted reason for why it is relevant to the Elvish Defenders of Leafwood that Joe the Ranger go off into a desert and dig up some magic scrolls about turning lead into gold.... These groups are type one or type two: enemies or service providers.

2. Research a particular thing unrelated to dungeons, e.g. feywild specialists, divination experts, very specific monster-hunters, etc.

This shouldn't be confused with something like a weapon-specialist group. I'm talking about any group where actively adventuring would cut into their study time, rather than be study time. Sword masters-in-training can hone their skills anywhere, but students of Fey lore have nothing to learn while infiltrating the underground city of the Derro. These kind of academic groups are also type two.

3. Serve a particular (non-deity) leader or country, e.g. a king or empire.

Unless he is the king of dungeon exploration, I don't want to hear about any PCs being in the kingsguard.... These are type one and/or two.

4. Pursue sedentary or mundane professions, e.g. blacksmiting, fishing, etc.

You don't have time to smith while you are slaying dragons and stealing their treasure, so smiths don't do that stuff. They stay home and smith. If you are a smith, you aren't a PC. If you are a PC, you aren't a smith. No ifs, ands, or buts. Type two again.

5. Enact a modern moral or ethical sensibility.

I'm not saying every group should be made up of assholes, but if your PCs come across the Loving Sisters of Peaceful Coexistence, do NOT let them join. Peace and non-violence are for farmers, not adventurers. Sad but true. The players can agree with their message in spirit, but they have to realize that their entire lifestyle (i.e. the entire game) is premised on violence and stealing, whether it is against other sentient races, monstrous races, or just plain ol' monsters. Evil in D&D is real, and it is out to get you. Monsters exist, and they don't only attack when threatened by oil spills or aggressive human expansion. And since the monsters are evil, might as well take their stuff when their dead. Right? Peace can be an ideal in your world, but it cannot be the mainstream. This could be type one or two.

Now go make some NPC groups that love spelunking and looting. I'd join that shit...