I think I’ve skirted around the edges of out-and-out saying that when you roll the dice, you’re not playing, and when you’re playing, you’re probably not rolling the dice. Games are about making choices; dice are about random chance. You might be making a choice that affects how the dice are rolled, or making choices based on what the dice have dictated. But, as in craps, the playing part comes before and after the dice do their thing. Sailing, after all, isn’t windspeed and waves; it’s what you do with the sails and rudder.
And, as Oddysey enjoys pointing out, I really like playing with social aspects and confrontations in my games. Whenever the PCs are back in town, or when they encounter an especially dangerous monster, there are usually opportunities for conversation, making deals, and learning more about the world around them. Most modern games have mechanics to handle this sort of thing, either via social combat or influence rolls or the like. I play neo-classical games like Labyrinth Lord, so I don’t have those mechanics…
Well, actually, I do. Those old games came with some very simple reaction tables that could be used to dictate how creatures encountered reacted to the PCs. It’s fairly simple stuff, but most folks I knew way back when ignored them, just like they ignored the morale rules. They’re probably too basic for most folks who enjoy that sort of thing, but combined with the morale rules and a multi-racial dungeon like the Caves of Chaos, they can create a lot of interesting situations to play with.
But again, those sorts of things leave me cold, and I think that’s due to how I build my NPCs. My battlecry after college was “situations, not plot” but what I think I was really getting at was the central importance of conflict to my style of play.
In a nutshell, all my NPCs are in conflict with someone or something. They all have something they want and obstacles that prevent the satisfaction of their desires. This can be something as simple as finding their next meal or as complex as winning passage of a new piece of legislation. The best NPCs, of course, have multiple (and sometimes competing or contradictory) goals. Regardless of their goals, the best way to win a NPCs heart (or, at least, their cooperation) is through their self-interest.
Deciding what my NPCs want is usually fairly straightforward. Some are simply functions of who and what they are: the merchant wants to make a sale, the thief is looking for the big score, the knight wishes to win renown and cover himself in glory, the suitor wishes to win the hand and heart of his intended. Some characters can get more complex. Is the slave’s duty to his master stronger than his desire for revenge against those who reduced him to such a state? Is the goblin’s greed stronger than her loyalty to her tribe? I use my themes to answer those questions. Chatty would probably invoke the “Rule of Cool” while Raggi might decide based on the mood he’s trying to create.
The real fun, however, comes in trying to learn what will motivate an NPC. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is warned in advance how to handle Circe. Sometimes my PCs are that lucky, and they can find someone who will tell them. Sometimes, they have to learn through observing the NPC or learning obliquely of their desires through their habits, past actions, or allies and enemies.
And that’s how our adventures grow: the players need to get past Verdinashet, the Dragon of the Forest. They can’t hope to defeat her in combat (not at 2nd level, anyway). The old campaigner at the Oarsman’s Rest can tell them about her love for beautiful musical instruments. The elven glassblower in town can make them a crystal harp, but he’ll need certain rare elements to make the strings, and they may not have the coin on hand to commission the harp yet. But he’s pining in love for a priestess at Uban’s temple…
Art by Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel.