I’ve been playing a lot of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning lately. I’m convinced the entire game is nothing but a plot by R.A. Salvatore to convince the world that faeries aren’t actually lame after all. The jury is still out. At the very least, the Summer Fae in the game give me a headache with their stubbornness, their cryptic words and their being “stuck in time in a condescending way”. To be honest, they remind me of a lot of certain people that used to call in when I was still doing Internet tech support. That being said, I find myself trying to put myself in their shoes. Maybe it’s because I find people less annoying when I empathize with them. Everyone has their own unique point of view. Even if it’s annoying.
Questioning The People You See Before You
Since I started being a DM for our group, I don’t get to roleplay as much as I did as a player. At least, not as deeply as I might with a PC I play for weeks on end. My primary sense of satisfaction when DMing comes from when I can get a good old fashioned par-lay going.
I usually try to roleplay NPCs as I think they would act in a given situation (with perhaps a bullet point or two they need to cover somewhere in there). The problem is, sometimes putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is difficult if they’re the size of your house. Or if that individual doesn’t have feet. Or metaphors. Point is, the people and creatures you put in your PCs’ way are very likely going to come from a much different place (in several senses of the word) than the party. Figuring out what those places are can be a big step toward making memorable encounters.
With an NPC that’s a playable PC race (human, elf, dwarf, what have you), figuring this out takes a few layers of thinking, but it’s generally mostly palatable to most brains – especially in established or popular settings. If you want to paint with an easy, broad brush, you can go with a well-known stereotype. You know dwarves don’t like elves or magic very much. You know elves are aloof and kind of condescending. You probably also know (or can easily discover) the locations you can find the type of people you want to use for an NPC. That probably also means you can read up on the culture of the place. You don’t need to go all Tolkien and be able to recite the lineage of the Kings of Cormyr, but ask yourself if the people have known hardship and hunger. Is their government is kind to them? Some cultures like strangers better than others. What about this one?
Based on all these factors, how will they feel when a bunch of people armed to the teeth and covered in monster blood show up?
And if that’s not enough, in many cases the PCs will be there in a time of crisis. Emotions are high, fear is running wild. How would a villager react? A town guardsman? The mayor?
Frequently, I find that a good way to generate a concept for almost anything is to start with a vague idea and keep asking myself questions until I get an interesting answer. The 6 W’s (who, what, when, where, why, and how) are your bestest friend here. Who are these people? What is the major industry in the town? Where is the town located? Sooner or later, you start asking more specific questions. What kind of person is the mayor? How large is the town’s militia? Eventually, you’re going to get a sense for the people of the area.
If you’re building an NPC, and you get to know his people, you can judge better what his reactions might be to the strange things happening around him. Most NPCs I make will have a personality of some kind and might not be an exact cookie cutter of every other person in a community, but I have a base to fall back on if the two or three bullet points I had written down for a particular guy aren’t sufficient. In addition to giving the NPC more flavor, this kind of information is very useful when my players throw me a curveball. I might not have an detailed response right off the cuff, but the more at ease with the character’s background I am, the less likely it is that my players are going to know that I’m making things up as I go along. Just remember to write this stuff down. Your players will be.
Questioning The Events Happening Before Your Eyes
You can also ask yourself questions to generate encounters or even entire adventures. If you know your setting, you will know what will really ruin its inhabitants’ day. Conflict has a way of making story ideas sprout, and sometimes it’s easier to go from effect to cause if you want to make a story. What would happen if [INSERT UNFORTUNATE CIRCUMSTANCE HERE]? Did the town’s water supply get cut off? What’s that, Lassie? Demons are eating everyone? It really sucks to be this town. Then I can decide who or what is causing the ruckus — did some kid stumble on an unfortunate magical artifact, or does an angry wizard wants to annex their land for real estate purposes, or — well, you get the idea.
You’ve got the idea for your adventure now, so you can populate it with all the poor bastards you mean to inflict this stuff upon. Put yourself in their shoes. Were they pretty comfortable before, and now they’re worried about their next meal or seeing another sunrise? Do they know what’s happening? Are they going to collectively be more prone to call for help or shun outsiders?
Here’s where you throw the PC’s in. Once you answer all these questions, now ask yourself how these people are going to react to the aforementioned bunch of teeth-armed adventurers tromping in looking for wine, food, and/or premium sexual companionship. You may find the answer is more complicated than you expected. Which is awesome.
Questioning Your Very Surroundings
Sure, this takes a little work, but you don’t have to write a novel to get a good concept. Here’s an example of how to make up a small setting for adventures using similar methods as above.
Some people, myself included, get a little restless among more conventional fantasy settings, so sometimes it’s good to change a variable around here and there. You could go completely opposite and have cave-dwelling elves that dig stonework, and tree-hugger dwarves that try desperately to figure out how their inability to be knocked prone factors in to vine-swinging.
Sometimes, though, you want to nudge something just enough where it’s interesting. What if your dwarf NPC came from a tribe of druids? A dwarven druid isn’t unheard of, but a community of them might furrow a few thoughtful brows at the gaming table. They could have some more traditionally dwarf-y traits than a tribe of druidic humans or elves might. I see a place like this being founded a few generations back by a dwarf who, for reasons unknown, liked the forest better than the mountain and talked some friends and family into coming along. They’d be recognizable, but a diversion from the old “works stone, hoards gold” model. I’d imagine their hobbit holes would be of superior quality. Another good question is “what kind of druids are these dwarves”? I think in this case, maybe not the kind of druids who use magic, people with that title are just leaders.
These folks are just living their normal, everyday lives in harmony with nature. Or, rather, trying to – maybe something has gone wrong. I don’t know yet, and maybe they don’t either. What makes them think something is wrong? Evidence of gruesome, even unnatural attacks by what may be animals? Withering plant life? OK, both of those. Now there’s a bunch of scared people. Some of them might want to reach out to civilization (maybe their mountainous brethren) for help. Others might want to trust only in what they know — and want to shut all outsiders out. Now would be a good time to figure out the pros and cons for these choices, and that involves filling in some more blanks. Is this tribe peaceful or warlike? Did the tribe leave the mountains, or were they exiled? Do they have relationships with nearby communities, and if so how peaceful are they? Are they nomads?
Questioning Why You Just Read This Article?
Of course, I’m just firing off ideas. Just in a couple paragraphs I’ve laid enough seeds to come up with enough for several nights of adventuring and I don’t even have a solid plot yet. The point is, you can also ask yourself “what’s different” and “what’s the same” relative to an existing group and then expand there with more questions until it feels interesting to you. Or, you can come up with something completely different and ask yourself questions about that — about anything from a single NPC all the way up to your game world itself.
Imagination is a wonderful tool, and it works even better when you give it some tools to work with too. If you have any, please share!