Welcome to the Hearty Dice Hearth: the start of a series where we gather round an imaginary internet fireplace and answer your questions in more detail, and perhaps in a more actually-useful way, than we do on our podcast. This week:
DJM ASKS: How do you include monsters as NPCs without the players getting all murder-y?
GRANT: You make them very, very hunky.
CHRIS: Or you humanise them, make the players actually want to find out more about your favorite monster.
GRANT: There’s nothing more human than a hunk. Imagine: a beautiful otyugh. Maybe he’s preppy. Button-up shirt. Glasses. Do they have eyes?
CHRIS: I’m fairly sure they have eyes, although they’re hidden beneath a rotting pile of filth. Just how hunky can you make a creature who literally lives in poop?
GRANT: Bad example, perhaps. I don’t think otyughs can talk, anyway, which kind of rules them out of being NPCs in the first place. I think NPCs have to be able to talk to the players in some way, so you’re looking at stuff with mouths, vocal chords, intelligence 5 or more… or maybe just powerfully telepathic shit that can mind link. Or mimics. What the fuck is going on with mimics? Can’t I just ask one what happened with their whole… deal?
CHRIS: I think mimics must have their own little communities. A mimic walks into a mimic party and it’s like the the most confusing fancy dress party going.
GRANT: Let’s try some of that advice. That’s why people are here. So: you hit on it earlier when you said that you need to humanise the monsters, right? That’s a core requirement. And I think the most human thing of all you can do, and pretty easily, is to give them a name.
CHRIS: Naming them is super important. Also give them a trait, some little physical or verbal action that sets them apart from the standard Illithid or Owlbear.
GRANT: What’s a good name for an owlbear? Asking for a friend.
CHRIS: You can go two ways: go noble and call them Ignatius or more traditional and call them Howlbeak.
GRANT: I was thinking Hoots McGinty but those are good too. I mean, either of those could be used as an actual name for an owlbear, so top work there. I think the name and trait thing applies to all NPCs in your game, even ones you want players to do a murder on, so: what’s the thing we can add that stops the knives coming out?
CHRIS: Illicit compassion. Whether that be pity, friendship or empathy it’s useful to have an NPC that isn’t looking like they will smash your face in given half a chance.
GRANT: If we look back to the roots of D&D, get back to the old school, there are reaction tables that determine a creature’s general mood when they meet the players – and what they want, too. (The Black Hack, an excellent short-form game, has a good one of these.) It’s boring, not to mention dangerous and unrealistic, to have everything want to kill the players the second they rock up. What do the monsters want? Once you determine that you can make them a lot more interesting. ALSO: give them kids.
CHRIS: You can also bake it into your setting. If the players are at a point where goblins cease to be a threat have them just flee when they see the party. One goblin stays and drops their weapon and tries to communicate.
GRANT: I like that; I like the idea of the players getting all I Am Legend on the monsters, you know? As in: they become a legendary threat, a terrifying thing, that the monsters talk of in hushed, feared tones. So maybe you find goblin wall art depicting their raids on the dungeons, you know? That’s kind of fun. There’s also a big difference between intelligent and unintelligent monsters, too. Like: do they have culture? Are they, for the want of a better word, people?
CHRIS: Even have the wall art depicting everyday life. Remind the players that these are more than just bags of hitpoints and loot. Keep the fact that they have lives outside of being murdered. When the players see how much care you put into the “monstrous” races then that can start to rub off on them.
GRANT: For sure. I think we should try and boil this down to a FIVE TOP TIPS thing. I’ve read those articles before. They seemed useful. Does that seem like the sort of thing you’d like to do, right here, with me, in front of everyone?
CHRIS: Yeah, let’s start with 1) Give your monster a name and trait.
GRANT: 2) Work out what your monster wants, and what the smartest way of them getting it is.
CHRIS: 3) Humanise the monster by giving examples of how it lives and interacts with the world and others of its kind.
GRANT: 4) A bit mercenary, but: give the players a good reason not to kill the monster – it offers them a deal, etc. And don’t have it turn on them, either! It might be fun the first time but you ruin future potential monster encounters.
CHRIS: 5) Remember that it is still a very different creature to the players. In their interactions it will act in a way that fits a member of its race: an owlbear’s instincts will lean towards being protective and tearing off arms, for example.
GRANT: Okay! That’s good. Also 6) Make them super, super hunky. Can’t stress that enough. Everyone wants to smooch the monsters; that’s the secret that the player’s handbook won’t tell you.
CHRIS: Never not hunky.
GRANT: Imagine a hunky beholder. Just try to imagine that.
CHRIS: Flexing its ripped eyestalks and posing for the party in speedos.
GRANT: Where do the speedos… go? Anyway. That’s probably enough for this question. I’ll be in my bunk. Bye everyone!
When you end up running games a lot, like I do, you can often end up in a rut – the same characters, the same scenarios, the same challenges, week after week. If you’ve been gamesmastering for a while and fancy a change, I came up with five challenges for you to take on to keep your hand in, and probably have more fun yourself in the process. I reckon you can do all of them in one session, too. Maybe even your next session, if you’re feeling brave.
ONE: Stop using accents, start using mannerisms.
I used to use accents a lot when I was voicing non-player characters. Like, a lot a lot. But the problem with those accents is that they weren’t very good, quite aside from being so bad that I probably wouldn’t dare to use them in front of someone who came from the country I was aiming for, they reduced the characters to cut-out stereotypes instead of… well, characters.
So last year I set myself a challenge to stop using accents completely and instead focus on mannerisms, posture, vocal tics and repeated turns of phrase. Where before I would have made a blacksmith northern and slapped on my best Sean Bean impression then carry on, now I had to think about what sort of voice he had. Was it gruff? Was he tired, after a long day in the forge? How old was he? How would he stand – broad-shouldered and proud, or hunched over with back pain? Was he confident, or unsure about dealing with the characters?
Just taking a few seconds to “find” a character’s voice and settle into it can make them a lot more fun to play than channelling a bad accent you already know. (Plus, it’s 100% less racist!)
TWO: Have your NPCs lie.
I never remember to do this – somewhere along the line I developed a routine in my head that says “NPCs can’t lie to the players,” and instead of having duplicitous bastards I have open, honest bastards who lay out precisely what they’re going to do to you instead of being sneaky and fibbing about it.
And yet: there is a sharp and fascinating sensation to being betrayed, because you put some of your trust in with the NPC and they used that trust as a weapon against you. So to make a more exciting game, have an NPC betray the players. Which means you have to have an NPC be nice to the players first, or at least give them something they want, even if that’s an excuse to show off their heroics.
Now the best part about this is that, because this is an improvised story that you and the players are telling, you don’t need to plan out these betrayals far in advance. You can just decide that an NPC was lying, and work out the motivations later – remember, nothing’s true until you say it is. (Even better, if your NPC gets confronted by the players and you’re not sure of their motivations, turn it around on them. “Well – why do YOU think that I lied?” Then just go with the second thing they say.)
THREE: Give up your NPCs to the players.
If you’ve got a scene with more than one NPC in it, ask if any of the players want to take on the role of the other NPC. And, similarly, if you’ve got a scene with only one PC in it, maybe give out NPCs to every other player.
You don’t have to hand over their reins of your longest-running, preciousest NPCs to the players, but if they’re just going to sit there and watch (or, more likely, get bored and zone out) while you talk to yourself in character… well, it doesn’t hurt to give them something to do.
If you or the player is worried about messing up the narrative of the game or saying something that doesn’t gel with the reality of the world, then a) don’t worry so much about that and b) you can always give them the role of an idiot who doesn’t know anything, or a boastful character who’s talking themselves up and is economical with the truth.
FOUR: Be open with your players.
There’s a strange idea in roleplaying circles that the GM and the PCs are opposing each other, and while I can certainly see why this would rise out of traditional roleplaying philosophies, there’s no need to carry it on into the present day. A lot of GMs complain when the player characters can’t be persuaded to stick with the plot – and a lot of player complain when they’re “railroaded” or forced into a particular set of events no matter what actions they take.
A lot of this comes from miscommunication, and the idea that players have to be tricked into following the plot as though their characters had free will. Next time, before you start a session proper, discuss what you’ve got planned out-of-character with your group. You don’t have to go into great detail and ruin all your surprises, but if you can say “Hey guys, I had a fun idea for a zombie horror story tonight, you all up for that?” then you’re briefing the players on what’s going to happen – and they can steer their characters appropriately.
FIVE: Just have everything work.
There’s a rule in improv that goes like this: Everything Works. If, for example, the story you’re telling is about going to the park, then it’s no fun to watch someone lose their car keys, so they can’t start the car… and then find them, but for the car to be broken, so they need to call a mechanic… but then the mechanic’s late, and so on and so forth. What we want is to see what happens in the park, and by introducing arbitrary problems, the actors are indicating that they’re nervous about pushing the scene forward.
Now, almost all of roleplaying is arbitrary problems, and our characters are ways to overcome those problems. But, next time you sit down to play, try this: things just work. Thieves can pick locks. Warriors can kick down doors. Scientists can identify compounds. Spaceship captains can get through asteroid fields with nary a scratch.
Because, and here’s the thing – interesting stuff happens when people interact with each other. (Even if it’s just fighting.) But if we make players roll to see if they can get to the interesting stuff, what’s the point in that? So power through, and see what happens.