So I’ve been inspired to do a few new things. Let’s see what you think. Consider this an unofficial sidebar to my unofficial conversion of the prinny for 5th edition.
The concept of a prinny is fascinating when it comes to the way it is integrated into the celestial hierarchies of Dungeons and Dragons. There are many creatures that could be considered analogues to the prinny, such as fiendish larva, lemures, and manes. However, none as as compelling as the knife wielding murder penguins.
Prinny have occupied an interesting place in the greater Disgaea universe, and I think they could fit very well. They are souls, trapped in a kind of indentured limbo, and forced to work until the universe decides they’ve paid their penance. Why not include these odd creatures as enemies, allies, or even paid conscripts in the planar landscape? You could do worse, DOOD!
So I was “baited”* into creating a monster stat block. Read into it what you will. Or nothing at all.
For what its worth, I’ve had a long and storied history with being kind to internet trolls. It often disarms them. I’ll point you to a famous incident that shows that most of these people are hurt, and there are not often enough hugs or good intentions in the world to undo what other lousy human beings have wrought.
That said, not everyone is a healer, so there is that, too. You never owe anything to anyone who has the intention to hurt you, ever. They can often do lasting harm if you do not have the armor necessary to help.
All that seriousness to introduce this ridiculous thing I wrote that pokes fun at a darker aspect of our media driven culture. Don’t judge me! Or do, I guess.
This page isn’t dead! You could liken it to a phoenix, or perhaps a pop-culture movie franchise*.
Today I would like to review the “Limitless Adventures: Non-Player Characters vol.1” product, which provides a vast wealth of NPC resources.
First off, the book is massive. I’m looking to print it out to have it available, and at 131 pages, it is going to be a decently sized resource that I’ll have to fit into a 3 ring binder**. Despite the lack of art (which I personally do not mind), this book does for NPC stat blocks what Tome of Beasts does for monster stat blocks.
The book is separated into five categories: allies, contacts, foes, merchants, and archenemies. Each category upwards of 20 entries, with the exception of archenemies which has five.
The ally section seems to skew towards lower CR creatures that serve as assistance and plot foils more than combatants, which is just fine. Though their statistics are not as important, knowing that an ally might have a skill or connection, or even a healing ability might be extra useful to a party out of combat. Great care is given to both giving these allies a lot of personality, as well as providing plenty of plot hooks to make each NPC both useful for advancing a plot, or for weaving a story!
While the archenemy section has fewer entries, each archenemy is given multiple stat blocks to map out the parallel growth they may have to your group during a campaign. This is an excellent move, and one that will make using these stat blocks easy and intuitive, cutting down significantly on prep time!
While the contacts section is ostensibly useful, though it mignt have been better to merely list an NPC, their personality, and the kind of information they can provide, as a contact is unlikely to be used in combat. On the other hand, I could also imagine people complaining for a lack of a stat block, and I this guide is nothing if not thorough. To that end, these contacts could serve double duty, and an enterprising GM could very well use the stat blocks for NPCs that are not contacts.
The foes section is really interesting, and provides a plethora of interesting combatants that could allow you to include all manner of enemies for your players, and can even be used to construct an enemy adventuring party! As a persistent theme for each NPC, the foes are given plenty of flavor and ample adventure seeds to make them relevant or even central to a session or even campaign! Entire stories could be weaved around foes of varying power. I am personally excited to include some of these ideas in my next game. The only complaint I have is that list seems to be a bit orc-heavy.
The merchant section is one that I am particularly impressed with, as it not only gives merchants that sell goods, but services as well. In both cases, the NPCs are given plenty of character and flare, as even the entries for their goods and services are given a bit of spice to differentiate and distinguish each NPC. The authors did a great job at this, and created merchants that are distinct enough to include in any campaign!
There are a few hiccups, such as referring to skills without their ability scores [i.e. Medicine rather than Wisdom (Medicine)], but this doesn’t bother me much. It depends on how much of a stickler you are for formatting.
All that being said, I am very happy with this book, and the few flaws I found are easily overlooked. This book is well worth the price, and can provide not only a reprieve from session planning, but even as an abundant source of inspiration for adventure!
One of the most neglected issues within the process of starting a campaign, it seems, is the formation of the group. While some groups appear to have a penchant for creating each character in a relative vacuum, this can very easily lead to problems down the line.
As I mentioned in Across the Screen #0, having a “session 0” is very important, and that session can and should include character creation for everyone. In terms of a D&D type game (settings and systems may vary), there is very little reason to be duplicitous about your character and their abilities.
I have seen numerous characters seek to hide aspects of their characters. This occurs with varying alignments, but tending towards the rogue class. Players often do this to “steal from others” with impunity, or at least with less scrutiny than if they were known to be sneaky types. This kind of approach is difficult at best, as it forces all players to maintain an anonymity about their characters and capabilities.
Here is the brass tacks: You are playing a game that hinges on creativity, cooperation, and more than a little luck to carry you through dangerous encounters. You don’t need to kneecap you or your party by trying to be greedy about loot distribution, nor should you impose an unnecessary inter-party conflict because you want to be able to dupe the other characters, and, by extension, other players.
And listen, there is a time and a place for that. Play Fiasco. Play Wraith: the Oblivion. Play a board game. Or be on board with everyone and play a fantastic campaign that relies on storytelling more than rules. Better yet, play some hack and slash computer game that will probably satisfy your need to loot and plunder. But don’t set out to cheat people in D&D. There is absolutely no reason to do that in the default game of D&D.
But I digress. There are other reasons to build your characters together, though. There is more synergy and enjoyment when you can riff off of and work alongside your fellow players, as well as the GM to create a group that isn’t just a bundle of strangers that are at a tavern at the same time. I can guarantee you that you will have a better time, work more cohesively, and better understand what your group can collectively do.
I defy anyone who approaches the game from a “I am going to hide a trick up my sleeve by creating my character in secret” to give me one good reason that it benefits anyone within the scope of the game, including yourself. Ask yourself, what do you gain by trying to keep a trick to use against your fellow adventurers, or sillier yet, the effective god of the shared reality. Really think about what you stand to gain by doing that, and consider the benefits of sharing and growing together, as the game tends to encourage.
Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but ask yourself how cohesive your group is before coming to any conclusions.
I had considered making a monster entry for today, but I thought that I would instead go for something a little more frightening. Like a zombie menace, there are some existential threats that can’t just be cut down by a sword.
The apathy virus is an insidious diseases that is spread subtly, laying low entire populations. What it does not do, however, is directly kill the infected, but instead causes them to lack the will to live or thrive. The virus may originate from many sources, up to and including sadistic death cults, apocalyptic horsemen, and aggressive biological weapons engineers.
The worst part of this virus is that it can spread quickly due to it not being immediately lethal, and having a very long incubation time. Worse yet, many of the symptoms are not readily recognized as being signs of infection. Within one week of infection, victims suffer from a mild depression and lack of energy. After approximately two weeks of being infected, victims begin having a lack of appetite, and sink deeper into depression.
In the final stages of the disease, victims merely lay about waiting to starve to death, and are not easily roused or woken. Approximately 10% of the victims simply fall into a coma, while 85% simply die of starvation. This process will destroy a given population center within a handful of months, bringing the collective society to a halt.
A mere 5% of infected are able to function in an almost zombie-like state, attempting to survive with as little exertion as possible. These “survivors” will often die due to predation, accidents, or simply not being able to feed or care for themselves, sometimes contracting other diseases due to lack of hygiene. So called survivors are also likely to continue spreading the disease, often living long enough for ill-fated rescuers to discover them and become infected.
If caught soon enough, the disease can be quarantined and controlled. The cure, interestingly enough, is overwhelming happiness. Some magics are effective at creating positive emotions, and thus remove the infection. More mundane attempts to combat the virus have sometimes relied on opiates and liquor heavy festivals.
Given time, the disease will die out with its infected victims. When properly treated, victims can recover within a day.
5e Statistics: The apathy virus is airborn, and spread by exposure to an infected individual. Exposed individuals must make a DC 11 Constitution saving throw, becoming infected on a failure.
Once infected, symptoms develop within 4+1d4 days. Symptoms manifest as levels of exhaustion; when the symptoms have manifested, the creature must make a Charisma saving throw after each long rest. On a failure, the creature gains a level of exhaustion. This exhaustion is not physical, but has the same penalties tied to it.
These exhaustion levels can only be removed by magic, or by experiencing great joy. This joy can be reuniting with a loved one, or hearing a beautiful song. Not all joy is created equal; some joy can remove all levels of exhaustion, while some are small enough to remove only one or none at all. Once all levels of exhaustion have been removed, or if joy is felt during the incubation period, then the disease is expelled, and the creature is inoculated to the disease.
It should be noted that this disease may affect only a certain race, may or may not include animals, and can vary in its intensity or length of incubation. Some creatures may or may not have a natural immunity to this virus, perhaps as many as 10% of the population. If the creators of the virus are especially cruel, these immune may or may not function as carriers.
Adventure Seed: The adventurers come upon a city of dying city. The few functioning survivors are at a loss for what to do, and ask the players to help while also warning them to stay away. The city stands as a bulwark against a great danger (perhaps an orc tribe), and its loss would devastate the region. The players must first research the nature of the disease, keep it from spreading outside of the city, and discover a functional cure for the abundance of infected people, all while trying not to contract it themselves.
#1. Listen to your players. Solicit feedback. Make sure that they are enjoying things. Some people like less combat, some people want more logic puzzles, and some people don’t want to hear you prattle about the minutia of the labor dispute of your created world. That’s important information! You share your world with others, and it is important to let them shape it as they move through it. You will soon see that the players who are heard will be more engaged, more connected to the world, and more enthusiastic about the game in general. And it doesn’t mean that you have to accede to every request, but that some compromise makes the game more fun.
#2. Be firm, but fair. You can’t try to kill the players unless that is the point of the game (say, Call of Cthulhu). You aren’t there to provide a challenge, you are there to provide fun. These two goals can sometimes match up, but you shouldn’t confuse one for the other. The trick is that you can always kill your players. You are the alpha and the omega. But surely you are there to tell some kind of story, whether it be a sweeping epic or a gritty drama. The story should not end with the characters killed by five angry dragons that they foolishly insulted. It is important to…
#3. Fail forward. No consequence should stop the progress of the story. Did your players fail to solve the puzzle? Figure out a way to move the plot along. Maybe there is a consequence, but allow the players to continue moving towards their goal. Losing or failing at something should not bring the game to a screeching halt, and no consequence should ever make your players feel hopeless or highly frustrated. And don’t be afraid of letting your players find “gordian knot” and “ocams razor” style solutions. Unless your players are especially good or enjoy complicated puzzles and mysteries, you won’t get much enjoyment from sitting and watching them try to solve them.
#4. Make your encounters memorable. Don’t just make an encounter with 12 orcs because a table told you to do so. Instead, make the encounter meaningful, either by including complications (strange terrain, some narrative element, etc) that makes the encounter meaningful. I refer you to the bonus article “Creative Encounters”. It seriously makes a difference when your players can remember a session as being dynamic.
That’s all for now. This list is not exhaustive, and will be appended, but I hope you find some usefulness in it.
Next week we tackle the ever popular session zero. Until then, don’t forget to reach across the screen!
If you are reading this soon after I post it, you will know the shock that I do (or an elation I cannot understand). But… I intend to move on.
There is always so much to do. But lets start with something simple.
Today I ask you to think about tactics and emotions. You may not think it, but your groups tactics are shaped by circumstance. Whether you are a tactical leader for your group of players, or a GM looking to predict how your players will act, you should take care to understand the role that emotions play in a fight.
For instance, consider a fight in which there are innocent lives at stake. There is a very much different tone to a fight with an evil dragon in its cave lair than it might be in a crowded church full of children. The final action sequence in the first Avengers movie was a pretty good portrayal of this, and shows not only the difficulty of simultaneously managing a battle and a crisis, but how true heroism can be achieved by rising to the occasion.
If your players are more mercenary, you could even have the treasure (a pile of loot or some mcguffin) being dangled over a pit of lava about to be dropped in at any moment, and suddenly the stakes have changed. Or perhaps the players have the choice of sacrificing their own lives to achieve an objective that may or may not be greater than themselves.
It is actually exceedingly easy to unbalance your players, as long as they are invested enough in the story, or at the very least in their characters. Once the fight has ceased being about “who can make the other side stop moving first”, the tactical themes can shift dramatically.
And I say all of this to highlight that the point is to care. You should care that your characters are making choices that are more meaningful than “kill thing, get paid”, and game masters should really think to craft a story into something that is more memorable than a diablo-clone*. It falls on both sides of the screen to come together and make a story shine with highs and lows of dramatic tension and narrative depth.
With all honesty, this requires less buy in than you would think. The players are already there, and you as the game master should take initiative to really make encounters be as exciting as possible** so as to be a highlight of the game, and not just a statistical break between social interactions and exploration. Your combats and encounters should be as much a part of the story, not because combat is intrinsic to the game, but because it is an ever growing opportunity to blend rules and storytelling in exciting ways.
So I put to you that you should try to think of a great encounter.
The group find a ghost town where actual ghosts are about to hang a live captive at the town gallows. Use difficult terrain, put a fountain full of oozes between them and the prisoner. Make them work for it!
A throng of refugees is running from a pack of hell hounds. How does the group hold the line and keep the hounds from maiming a large number of innocents? What do they do to help afterwards?
An eclipse has caused the sky to open up and rain monsters on a crowded city. How do your characters react? Do they flee the city and leave the rest up to fate, or do they try to enact a plan to minimize the chaos?
There are no bad ideas, only bad implementations. Remember to be kind and let the players decide. If you punish them for any choice, that is bad game mastering. Of course they COULD want to flee with their lives. Of course they MIGHT want to try and take a valiant stand against insurmountable odds. You have to roll with those punches because you are the one that put that situation in front of them.
Just shape the campaign to reflect the choice they made, and don’t crush or judge your players. If there is a “right answer” that you have in mind for a situation, there is no way for the players to know it without some guidance, and at that point it isn’t about their agency or their story, but yours. If you present a unique challenge, always ask yourself what you might do if the players don’t do as you wish them to do, because they are VERY likely to surprise you with an ironic consistency.
That having been said, please share with me some of your ideas. Have you had some exciting encounters that have made you or your players really think or feel? Are you thinking of introducing a gut wrenching emotional choice into your next session? Tell me about it, because I’d love to hear it.
And always remember to reach across the screen.
*Not to trash on that video game genre, but really it exists to scratch that itch so that tabletop doesn’t have to.
** And not every encounter, but really most of them. There is never an excuse for making a mundane boss fight, for instance.