Wall: Adventurers You Can Hate

How Can Non-Monster NPCs Motivate Players?

In the excellent blog Deeper in the Game, Christopher Chinn often talks about trap NPCs, which are the stereotypical quest-givers that turns out to be some sort of villain who the PCs have been helping all along. Repeated exposure to trap NPCs (or even a singular exposure that is poorly done), can leave players feeling distrustful and even make them unwilling to engage with future NPCs.

In opposition to trap NPCs, Chinn encourages DMs to create NPCs that characters will like—NPCs that give them basic goods, places to stay, good advice, and other little tokens of friendship. This NPC becomes a tool to direct players toward, well, anythinglocations, treasures, story hooks—without creating that sense of betrayal and fear.

But Christopher Chinn is a better DM than I am, or he knows his players better than I know mine, or his players are nicer people than mine. Early on in the Wall campaign, they entered a church of singing animals. The animals ran away on noticing the invaders, with one bear staying behind to cover their exit, grappling the characters to keep them from chasing. It dealt no damage, and I tried to be as clear as possible about the bear’s intentions. Pepper the elf promptly arrowed the bear to death, and it became a touch point and long-running joke: why does Pepper the elf hate bears?

A bear by Jon Carling, from his Tumblr

Pepper’s player blamed a history of video games for his leap to violence, and over the following months, Pepper experimented with a variety of diplomacies. But the writing was on the wall: I couldn’t assume that NPC friendliness would be reciprocated. So what could I do?

Since my players already seemed to be suffering from Chinn’s abused gamer syndrome, I decided to make a number of NPCs into out-and-out jerks. It was bizarro logic, but I figured if everyone had a crappy demeanor, the players would be less scared of betrayal; you can’t be betrayed by a meanie.

Advent of the B Squad

First up was a group of adventurers working in the same guild as the PCs. In the very first session, they had been assembled at random from this chart:

Name Abilities Class HP Equipment Personality
Lydia of the Southlands S 8, D 10, C 10, I 11, W 10, Ch 14 bard 8 lute, hand crossbow pleasant, naïve
Jonas Mercykiller S 15, D 9, C 13, I 13, W 17, Ch 8 paladin 7 chainmail, longsword insightful, manipulative
Hob the Gambler S 14, D 11, C 8, I 14, W 9, Ch 16 warlock 2 dagger gambler, patron: fiend
Husband Bartholomew S 9, D 8, C 14, I 14, W 9, Ch 7 wizard 8 dagger, staff must bring his wife
Hale Jennifer S 12, D 8, C 15, I 12, W 8, Ch 13 fighter 9 club, crossbow, chain ignorant, pleasant
Craig White S 5, D 11, C 10, I 12, W 11, Ch 9 wizard 5 staff, poisoned darts betrayer
Jon Fergusson S 18, D 12, C 8, I 8, W 7, Ch 13 ranger 5 two shortswords, bow, leather armor lucky, optimistic, werebear
Dashing Antonilla S 11, D 14, C 10, I 7, W 9, Ch 15 rogue 3 sling self-preserving bravado
Plain Thomas S 11, D 8, C 11, I 8, W 9, Ch 7 fighter 9 longsword, shield, chain boring, talks about himself
The Duchess S 7, D 15, C 12, I 12, W 11, Ch 7 rogue 8 cloak, mask, shortsword, crossbow noble slumming it in disguise
Veronica Olafsdottir S 17, D 10, C 15, I 13, W 7, Ch 10 ranger 11 great axe, throwing axes, scale biracial, something to prove
Quick Peter S 11, D 11, C 4, I 14, W 9, Ch 16 warlock 3 wand dense, patron: fey
Sister Helena S 12, D 13, C 7, I 12, W 15, Ch 18 cleric 6 holy symbol, mace terminally ill, cloistered
Roger the Sage S 8, D 5, C 6, I 18, W 7, Ch 8 wizard 1 books coughing fits
Scott Cooper S 10, D 7, C 3, I 7, W 8, Ch 14 bard 4 shortsword, leather armor singer
Ragged Finn S 10, D 7, C 8, I 8, W 10, Ch 10 cleric 3 quarterstaff alms beggar
The Burned Man S 10, D 14, C 12, I 8, W 4, Ch 8 rogue 8 crossbow, leather armor, water burned, impetuous
Sir Alexander IV S 12, D 10, C 11, I 8, W 8, Ch 10 wizard 5 gilded staff inherited position in wizard school
Big Brother S 11, D 9, C 17, I 14, W 14, Ch 15 cleric 11 club loves animals
Ragnar the Great S 17, D 12, C 9, I 8, W 9, Ch 13 bard 7 drums viking bard, boastful

A few quick rolls netted me a party consisting of Hob the Gambler, Hale Jennifer, Jonas Mercykiller, Husband Bartholomew, and the Duchess. They were quickly overshadowed on that first adventure and became known as “the B Squad,” which means they had a perfect reason to treat the PCs like dirt.

It wasn’t long before the B Squad had a chance to get their revenge. On one of the first days in the dungeon beneath Wall, the PCs were seeking an abandoned mine. They asked for directions from B Squad, who was returning from an exploration session. For 20 gold, Mercykiller told the PCs they’d find the mine down a western passage…which led to a kingdom of bone creatures who constantly fight for and purchase more bones to add onto their bodies.

The creatures of the Bone Kingdom, as drawn by Kevin Budnik.

(Perhaps due to Pepper’s absence, no fight arose directly from the visit to the Bone People. Sylvester the halfling rogue signed a contract with them, though, willing them his bones upon his death.)

B Squad’s other crimes were many: they killed most of the singing animals; they took their companion Hob’s bones to the Bone People to cash in on his contract despite his wishes otherwise; and when the PCs discovered that the Bone People were enslaving ghosts, B Squad stood in the way of the PCs’ attempt to enter the Bone Kingdom to investigate. After 14 sessions of play, the two groups of adventurers finally fought, and all of B Squad were killed except for the mysterious masked Duchess.

I used B Squad to reveal the nature of some of the dungeon factions. Since they slaughtered the talking animals, the players had pity for them, and this led directly to their befriending the leader of the animals, St. James of the Mold. And while the players were waffling over the moral consequences of the Bone People’s enslavement of the ghosts of their contract signatories, aligning B Squad with the Bone People almost automatically clinched the players’ feelings: the bone guys are bad guys.

The mystery of the Duchess and the death of Hob continued to drive the players throughout the campaign. Those random rolls for five random jerks provided story fodder through the entire campaign.

Wall Act One: The Dungeon as Economic Stimulus

Why a Dungeon?

Early in the campaign, the governor of Wall broke the seals and undid the chains that kept shut the well in the center of town. She did this because Wall was flagging; it had no major exports, and the wars that had led to the town’s creation had ended long ago. The local adventurers’ guild was home to bums and thugs, and she wasn’t going to take it anymore. She believed the town’s redemption was in those caves: rich mines, lost treasures, and new magics.

I love a good dungeon. When done right, it’s a frontier, a mythic underworld, and an ecosystem all at once. A dungeon usually has rules, but the rules are different; there’s a sense that what happens in the dungeon stays in the dungeon (and that it might be impossible outside of the dungeon).

I wanted the governor’s choice to open the well to be understood (if not necessarily agreed with). Why have a cave full of dangerous things open to whoever stumbles in?

So I tried to have NPCs talk about the dungeon the way people in our world talk about nuclear power, fracking, or building a dam: there was danger, sure, but if it was systematized and managed, it could be harnessed. And if one of the adventurers expressed some concerns, why, the best way they could deal with the danger was to go down there and tame it.

How a Cave Becomes a Dungeon

The tunnel complex beneath the well had been overrun in Hell’s war against the mortal world. Beasts and devils burst from a gate far below, and the Demon Wars raged. After a long fight, the demons were driven back, the gate was sealed, and the caves were abandoned. 60 years passed. What could be down there now?

  • things left over by the human armies: weapons, armor, buildings, and a group of humans who decided to stay down there and protect the gate
  • things left by the demons: a lab, traps, and the effects of their tainted magic seeping into things
  • the natural inhabitants of the cave: animals, myconids, and elemental things
  • a mine famed for its black iron but judged an acceptable loss to keep the gate blocked
  • the gate itself, protected by modrons, sealed by magic and iron and the vegetable love of an alien god

How do all these factors interact, and what do those interactions produce? How have they changed each other across 60 years? And how can they reveal the story of the Demon Wars and the adventurers, a group known as the King’s Men, who sealed the gate in the first place?

Gerlachs Jugendbücherei: Märchensammlung von Ludwig Bechstein (A fairy tale collection by Ludwig Bechstein) edited by Hans Fraungruber, illustrated by Carl Fahringer. Published 1912 by Verlag v. Martin Gerlach & Co., Vienna & Leipzig. See the complete book here.

About Wall: The Campaign

Wall & the Gates of Hell began in November of 2014 and ran for 60 almost-weekly sessions across 16 months. It used 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules and saw 12 players, mostly first-timers, explore a long-closed dungeon, rural Hell, a titanic void ship, and more.

When I started designing the campaign, I did so around a few desires:

1) Accommodate a weekly drop-in model of D&D. Anywhere from 3 to 8 players might come to any given session, and sessions can’t last more than 4 hours since everyone works the next day. This meant getting characters “home” at the end of each session in case a different group attended the next; everyone could sally forth from their base together

2) Avoid Tolkienesque fantasy. While the implied villains of the campaign, the demons of Hell, are a familiar trope, the creatures and factions of the caves and wilderness around town were intended to surprise my players, most of whom were wary of generic fantasy. Even when I ended up getting tapping into that stuff (fairies and elves, for example), I tried to lean more toward old fairy tales and D&D-originated monsters than to modern fantasy fiction. I also didn’t want to use “savage” races as tides of disposable Others. NPC factions needed more motivation than “they are all evil.” This leads to…

3) Create an ecology of assholes, which is a term coined by a friend to describe his DMing style. It consisted of dropping the PCs into a situation with two or more competing sides, none of which were particularly savory or “good.” (Think Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars.) It was up to the PCs to determine which side (if any) was better to support, and choices should always have both positive and negative consequences that lead to further stories

(It was important to me not to turn these choices into “gotcha!” moments. Instead, think of it as a choice between raw materials. In this situation, you aren’t choosing between two awesome weapons; you’re choosing between two dirty, trouble-filled mines. You might be able to do a bit of research on each that can inform your choice, but in the end, regardless of which you go with, there’s more work to do afterward. The awesome weapons can be created eventually, but it’ll take some commitment.)

4) No read-aloud text. I hate that stuff. Nothing kills a mood faster than forced text that doesn’t match the tone that players have established. I went with minimal imagery and other sensory information and let the players ask questions from there. If they asked if something specific was near them, I’d almost always say yes, and this led to rooms as good or better than rooms I’d have designed (and it saved me a lot of time).

5) Use 5th Edition D&D. As far as D20 systems go, 5e is pretty malleable. Since almost everyone was new to the game, 3.x and 4e both felt too cumbersome. My only veteran player was familiar with OD&D and Advanced, so 5e wasn’t hard to pick up. In the posts on the blog here, I’ve tried to keep edition-specific rules out, hoping to keep stuff compatible with OD&D, AD&D and OSR stuff, but I’m sure 5e “flavored” the original campaign in ways that other editions might not.

And naturally, I drew (stole stuff) from a ton of sources:

Appendix N
Games
The Village of Hommlet by Gary Gygax

  • I love the amount of detail in this old module. I love that they’re presented as a toolbox without telling you what to build.

Planescape: Torment by Black Isle Studios (Chris Avellone, et al.)

  • I wanted factions and social situations that weren’t discretely good or bad. They could be odious, but they might also be salvageable.

Elder Scrolls work of Michael Kirkbride

  • There’s some weird stuff in his writing: flying Arctic whales who drop hallucinogenic snow, fractal cloud cyborgs, etc. I wanted weird stuff.

Books
Sagas of the Icelanders by various

  • Choices in the sagas have bloody and long-lasting consequences. Also, I have tons of respect for their brevity and their combination of humor and seriousness.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber

  • The only fantasy books I regularly return to. So urbane. And full of picaresque continent-crossing adventures, small heists, tragedy, jokes, and even trips into our real world.

The War Hound & the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock

  • Full of different realms with different rules. Powerful creatures have unfathomable drives. My favorite opening sentence: “It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children, but a similar fate for their household animals, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me.”

Blogs
False Machine by Patrick Stuart

  • I specifically stole Mr. Stuart’s idea for an apocalypse-preventing dwarven fortress.

Sſtabhmontown Adventures

  • My true inspiration for a weekly drop-in campaign. I love their weekly previews, and they’re the kindest-sounding podcasters ever.

Dreams in the Lich House by John Arendt

  • I could not have made this happen without his play-by-play description of creating his Black City campaign.

Comics
The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple
Prophet by Brandon Graham
Hellboy by Mike Mignola

  • Bio-weirdness meets fairy tales and demonic fate.

Movies
Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa (director)
Django by Sergio Corbucci (director)
The Tale of Zatoichi by Kenji Misumi (director)

  • Sundry factions, none of them wholly good or evil, meet and battle over wealth and freedom. Yojimbo particularly features an intimacy and ownership of space that I tried to replicate.

Combat Poets

A game for 2+ poets and one arbiter, originally a one-page RPG.

You are a poet, or that’s what they say,
But not for love or craft or memory.
Your verse is for that highest goddess, pay,
And causes all competitors to flee.

Our Sexless and Beautiful Monarch arrived nearly five years ago, calmly walking in from the waste wrapped in the entrails of our previous warlord. Our Esteemed Ruler is a true lover of all art, but they especially love poetry. You chosen poets have one month to prove your craft. The winner will sit at our Majesty’s side. The others will be fed to those slavering dogs you hear, whose palates have developed a fine appreciation for overripe poetasters.

You will each deliver a poem a week. For our Lovely and Rippling Ruler, a week may consist of any amount of time. After four weeks, the poet with the highest measure will be crowned. The others, if they survive–well, I’ve already mentioned the dogs.

Esteem is measured in syllables, which are known in these parts as His/her Perfect Majesty’s Poetics, or HPMP. You begin with 100 HPMP, and you may utilize them in any way you see fit. Each week, our Monarch will choose a theme for your poems. Our Omnipotent Ruler will choose a winner, who can distribute 20 HPMP of “damage” to the other poets or regain 10 HPMP (up to a maximum of 100).

While any sorts of poems are accepted, we here in the Wretched Kingdom have developed some regional variations that may serve you well to utilize. The numbers below indicate the syllables per line, and matching letters indicate rhyme scheme. If you fail to understand this, I expect to soon be filching valuables from your poem-punctured corpse.

Iambic Pentameter Couplets, “The Bastard’s Sonnet”

Use all your current syllables to create a poem in iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line) with optional rhyming couplets. Must have at least 20 HPMP to use.

10 A 10 A
10 A or… 10 B
10 B 10 A
10 B 10 B
etc.

Each correctly iambic line prevents 5 damage that week (50 max). Each rhyming couplet deals 5 damage to a poet of your choice (25 max).

Double Limerick, “Dual-Wielded Doggerel”

Utilizing all your HPMP, follow the format below. Must have at least 42 HPMP to use.

10 A
10 A
6 B
6 B
10 A
(repeat)

Each rhyming and correctly rhythmed “small” couplet (the 6B above) deals 10 damage. Each rhyming triplet deals 20 damage. Thus, a perfectly executed Double Limerick deals 60 damage.

Haiku, “The Last Resort”

You know the drill.

5
7
5

While only usable at 25 or less HPMP, a haiku, when properly written, will prevent all damage dealt to a poet that week. However, if chosen as the winner, the poet cannot deal the usual 20 damage. Their only option is to regain 10 HPMP.

At the end of each week, all poets must present their poems aloud to You Know Who. In all matters of rhyme and pronunciation, Our Majesty is the final arbiter of truth. However, the Fated Ruler of All is aware of our language as a living, writhing beast, so common variants of pronunciation are often accepted. Also, the Great and Benevolent Dictator is known to disqualify or require a certain format some weeks according to Their infinitely wise whims.

A poet reduced to 0 HPMP is thrown to the dogs. The poet with the most HPMP at the end of the month (or the last poet standing) is given a laurel made of garbage. All others will be eaten.

So please announce your name and where you’re from. List your accolades, disparage your rivals, and let the poetry begin.