creating atmosphere

Characterizations [The Forge #9]

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This week will see the beginning of a departure from our previous schedule, which saw one "Vault" and one "Forge" entry going up each week. We will be alternating posts for the foreseeable future in order to focus some attention on...other development (cue devious and maniacal laughter). 

Several members of the community have raised questions as to how one might best introduce and use non-player characters (NPCs) in their quests.  This week we will address both the mechanics of using them in combat and skill checks (and drop some scripts from the Quest Creator to help) and the aesthetics of making them memorable.

Precocious Personalities

Think about the characters you've come to love or hate in fiction works.  What made you engage with them emotionally? Did you see yourself in them?  Associate with their hopes, dreams, or fears?  Detest what they stood for? What gave them personality?

Did they intrigue you, hinting at hidden stories or depth beyond the surface appearance?  The famous psychologist Carl Jung made the case that there are basically only 16 personality types and human beings could reliably be sorted into one of those Archetypes.  The general validity of Jungian psychology can be seen in the fact that most schools and organizations use personality typing to this day, at some level.  

Expedition has already tried to integrate some personality in our "adventurer" and "persona" cards. When you find yourself playing someone else's quest or writing one, you can pull out those cards to give a little flava' to that generic storekeep, guard-captain, or bartender.  

In fact, you could endow quests with "mini-games" whenever you encounter vague NPCs. Get some player to give them a name and choose (or fabricate) a personality or backstory for them. You'll soon find your game world takes on textures you didn't envision before.  For example, you go to the Inn to obtain information, and draw the leftover "Idealist Monk" adventurer card as the personality of the barkeep. How has he come to be the purveyor of libations? Is he a teetotaler under magical compulsion or punishment? Is he a jovial "Friar Tuck" type who enjoys carousing with common folk? Is he trying to prevent his lazy parents from having their inn repossessed? 

The possibilities with one card become manifold.  

A Rose by Any Other Name...

...would still be a rose, Shakespeare claimed. The Essential nature of a thing remains the same, but the facade we see is often more interesting.  The "Titles" we've been creating in Vault entries piggyback on the insights of George R.R. Martin and the developers of the "Shadow of Mordor/War" games that a simple descriptive name (The Hound, The Mountain that Rides, Ratbag the Orc, or Mez-uz the Defiler) goes a long way toward making an otherwise forgettable encounter memorable. 

NAME YOUR CHARACTERS. And don't give them common names, unless your quest is a comedy (think of the Enchanter, "Tim" from Monty Python's "Search for the Holy Grail").  Give characters names that speak to their natures or histories in the world. Some authors have lamented that they struggle with this task. Borrow names. Borrow from books, from histories/historical periods, or from mythological pantheons.  When they encounter that "Loki" in the story, it isn't always a bad thing if the players are wondering, "Is this THE Loki?"

 If you must, give generic archetypes to each NPC: the trickster, the tyrant, the fair maiden, the fool, the wisdom figure, the angry but loyal brute, etc. Many allegories make use of symbolic archetypal names. 

 Mechanics, Combat, and Skill Checks

When it comes to having your characters influencing the world around them, you have several options. You could have them play a random ability from a deck that seems to fit them. Or you could write some custom combat or skill script, randomized to allow success or benefit at some times but to do nothing on another random roll.  Below we will see what that script looks like in the "Rage of Rodents" quest I'm experimenting with (currently unpublished).  The Archmage's golem has just pointed you to the sewers, insulting you ("Cretins!") if you failed the skill check to track your prey. A beast emerges before you can descend.  Below are four responses the golem may make while you fight it: 


The * {{ randomInt(0,2) == 1 }} on round  tells the app to randomly select a number between 0 and 2 each round beginning with the first. 

If that number is "1" the golem bludgeons the Soul Eater for damage before you resolve your attacks. If a "0" the golem does nothing (the Soul Eater cannot harm it as the golem has no soul).  The one weakness to this approach is that you can have the same response repeated many times. In one test of the script I had the golem declare, "Another specimen for the Master!" for three rounds while players battled the beast. It was only on the fourth round that the golem attacked and dealt damage. Slightly amusing, perhaps, or infuriating. 

You'll also notice that one of the options that can occur entails the golem holding the creature while you wail away on it ( > Gain a +3 to your next roll. )  

As long as you watch your indentation and formatting, emulating this simple script can give some "Ooomph" to your NPCs. 

We hope these suggestions enliven your quests and aid Quest writing!

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