Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stupi Educated NPC Tricks

To say that I'm overjoyed by Oddysey's reaction to last Thursday's game would be an understatement. What DM wouldn't be? The thrill of exploring the unknown, of daring its challenges and emerging (mostly) intact is very much at the core of most D&D, whatever the edition. Or, at least, that's the way it's always been for me.

What follows was already discussed in the game or emails, so my players should feel free to read on if they wish. No spoilers here, though a few more details are fleshed out.

The group is currently on the trail of some murderous elves. That trail has led them to the villa of the Poyma family, on the outskirts of the ruined elven city of Krybol. The city and villa were abandoned hastily at the beginning of the Third War Against the Monsters. It was occupied briefly by an orcish army. Being far from the coast, however, it was ill suited to the plans of the nagpa who led their armies to the coast where great barges were constructed to carry the armies of Tiamat across the Turquoise Sea.

Krybol didn't figure much in the rest of the war. Even when the combined armies of the elves, lizardfolk, gods, and titans besieged the island in the closing months of the war, Krybol was mostly ignored. In the intervening 700 or so years, it's been the haunt of this or that tribe of humanoids. Most lately, a tribe of orcs called it home, but these were driven out by an army of human mercenaries and freebooters, financed and led by priests of Uban, eager to plunder the city of its mysteries, and willing to let their army plunder whatever gold or jewels they might find.

Back in its heyday, Krybol was a distant outpost of the Elven Empire, a refuge for free thinkers, deviant artists, and those who sought to revolutionize the mystical and natural sciences. The Poyma were a powerful family in the city. They exercised influence over the Tower of Stars, a center for research and learning. They were also rather wealthy, and loaned money to those they felt worthy of credit, or who would give them additional influence in the community. The villa was the seat of their power, and was designed to be a display of their wealth and influence, an administrative center for their political and financial dealings, and a fortress in time of need.

Which is all well and good, and certainly was a big help when it came to designing the layout of the villa. But handing your players a giant chunk of exposition before or after a game is hardly the way to put everyone in that adventuring frame of mind. Even George Lucas was pushing it with those long crawls at the beginning of the Star Wars movies. In the early days of B sci-fi movies, exposition would be handled by one character turning to another and starting a long speech with the phrase, “As you already know...” This has since been deemed unbearably clunky, and writers have found more elegant ways to handle exposition. In Dr. Who, for example, the Doctor's companion, who generally knows less about the universe than the Doctor, can always ask for the audience, “Hey, what is this giant slime monster chewing on my leg?” Later, shows like Star Trek and Stargate: SG1 would have the commander of the team ask the science expert to explain what it was they were encountering.

This latter was the tack I chose, made easier when Rukmini decided to hire a retainer and specifically set out to find a cleric of Uban. The one she got was something of an expert on the elves that settled on Dreng Bdan. So when they found the villa, he was able to fill in these details as they encountered things or questions were asked:

Rukmini: I go over to the door to the east. What's it look like?

Trollsmyth: Nicer than the rest. You think it once held some gilding and carvings of winged serpents, but somebody defaced the carvings when they pried off the gilding. Still, 700 years isn't good for any wooden door, and this one is in pretty bad shape like the others.

Rukmini: I push it open. "Navan, why are there snakes all over the doors? Is that an elf thing, or something specific to this family?"

Trollsmyth: "Both, I think. In elven myth, snakes were said to slither between worlds, and to dance between our world and the Elemental Planes. The shrike was on the family coat-of-arms, but it was the serpent that later generations adopted as their totem, because of that myth." The room beyond appears to have once been a comfortable sitting room...

This gives the players who enjoy exploration a whole new level of mystery to pick at. Not only do they get to explore the physical rooms and corridors of the dungeon, but also the temporal dimensions as well, the many layers of history that happened to the location. A DM can use this information to hint at where the PCs are more likely to find whatever goal they seek, or warn them of dangers they might face elsewhere in the dungeon.

And, if you're a history/anthropology/archeology nerd like me, it allows you to wallow in all that “useless” information you've got crammed between your ears. ;)


Oddysey said...

And have you noticed that O'Neill got stupider (at least about science stuff) as the show went on? (I'm on Season 3 right now, been watching the DVDs for about a year.)

I'll also add that it's a habit that makes Navan incredibly endearing to a geek with a habit of going off on lectures about obscure details myself.

trollsmyth said...

Yeah, O'Neill does kinda go from MacGyver to "Ugh! Me bang rocks together, make fire!" ;p

And yes, Navan kinda styles himself the adventerous type, but he will always have the heart and soul of a tenured prof. I look forward to seeing where he ends up.