Recurring villains are fun inclusions to any Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Villains represent the anti-hero, the antagonist, the players’ nemesis who are always out to ruin the other's day. They are the Joker to your party of Batmen. They are the Loki to your army of Thors. Are you seeing a trend here? In D&D there are often four or five superheroes, and only one villain.
Can you imagine what would happen if a team of five Batmen took on the Joker? Can you even envisage how quickly five Thors could take down Loki in a combat encounter? Dungeons and Dragons sure has some dangerous and diabolical villains, but they are often horribly outnumbered by the heroic characters. Naturally, it's not uncommon for a villain to be absolutely destroyed in a head-on encounter with the players. Unless you stat-pad them to the moon and back... But where's the fun in that?
Let's make villains a challenging threat for the players without only buffing their stats, but first let's start with a quick look at some of the problems that typical recurring villains in RPGs can have:
1) The villains are often easy to overpower in a head-on encounter against the entire party.
2) Often the villains will die in the same encounter where they first meet the party. Sometimes, the villains will survive the first meeting with the party (no combat) but will die in the first combat that they face the party.
3) DMs often have all these hopes and dreams about what the villain will do in the campaign over a long time period; if the players take him out of the fray early, then it throws a huge spanner in the works.
4) Villains who are built to survive that first combat encounter, are often made far too powerful for the players to defeat. More on this later.
5) Villains who spend most the campaign hidden behind curtains and sheltered to avoid interaction and encounters with the characters are often not renown enough to the characters for the players to truly hate them, or even remember them.
This isn't a very good setup for having dramatic, recurring villains. We are missing some huge key points that comics, movies, TV shows, games, etc. use to make those recurring villains successful antagonists.
As a dungeon master, you should instill in your players the understanding that a mission failure doesn't mean "you lose at D&D." Losing to a villain should be a chip on your shoulder that drives your character to be better next time. However, this isn't really something that can be said just once at the table and have the players understand and follow those values.
Most D&D players have played hack-and-slash games or other open world RPG video games like Skyrim, Baldur's Gate, Diablo, and Torchlight. In those kind of games, winning combat is usually the only option. I mean, retreat is sometimes an option in some games but things like surrendering, getting mugged, or getting imprisoned aren't as present in those games. Many players have similar preconceptions about D&D as they do about video games, and that is where this kind of thinking derives from.
Anyway, I could write a whole article about "losing a fight doesn't mean you lose the game", but this is the villain article. In summary: If your players are aware that there are other alternatives to "winning" and "death", you will find a lot of the recurring villain plots are able to work much more often and to greater effect.
These are some solutions that I have found to make villains more effective at terrorising the world, being hated by your players, and still staying alive long enough to make a difference. Per the theme of these entries, we will not be stat-padding the villains either.
1) Have the Players on the Clock
If the players are on a time limit, standing toe-to-toe with the villain is not the primary goal of the encounter. Maybe they have to stop a portal from opening, interrupt a ritual, steal an artifact before the dungeon collapses, or perhaps there are hostages in the next room about to be executed. If the players focus on killing the villain, they may very well fail their main objective. This will hurt their reputation in town, especially if it was townsfolk that were the executed hostages. Mechanically, they’ll also be missing out on mission XP and other boons.
Sometimes it's not even the villain themself that must be stopped, but their scheme that’s already in place. The Joker might waltz right up to Batman and tell him that he has 15 minutes to save innocent people or they will die. Usually the Joker does this in a way where the Batman can do it in about 14 minutes, so that it's a tight and exciting finish for the sociopath to enjoy. If Batman simply spent a minute or two beating the Joker to death, he would likely miss out on saving those innocent people.
2) Include Non-Combat Encounters
If you haven't used a vignette in your campaign, I’d definitely recommend look at researching what they are and how they can be used effectively in RPGs. I use them a fair bit now, usually once every three to five sessions, and with good success.
Other good encounters that are non-combat with a villain might be at a public event like the king's feast or a jousting tournament. This stuff really works well if you're doing a political intrigue kind of campaign as opposed to a door kicking one, but it works either way. Basically you will need ways for your players to interact with the villain knowing who he is without combat being an option. If you can do this, the villain gets more screen time, and the players harbour more hatred!
3) Give the Players a Reason to Keep the Villain Alive
This could be something as simple as moral codes/quandaries, to something like a direct order from the mage guild to bring back the rogue wizard alive! What if this wizard was the only person who could stop another BBEG? Perhaps only this villain knows how to stop the apocalypse that's already begun.
There are also many of other factors that you can pull into play here too. The moral code, for example: Batman doesn't kill gratuitously as it's against his moral code. This also has the amazing side effect of permanently recurring villains. Sure, they can get thrown in a prison or locked in an asylum, but one day they will come out to play again. Usually the circumstances of this escape are very cool and dramatic too! These unique story moments can really make players enjoy a recurring villain, as they think “Ahhh no, he’s at it again!”. Be sure not to overuse this though; if every villain the party spares from execution escapes, and returns to evil again in the future, the PCs will likely revert to murderhobo mode.
Note that in the essence of steps we can take to prolong a villain's lifespan, this is one of the softer ones. It's more something to include as a guideline and always to have as an option for the players. Maybe they'll overlook this in their rage. Don't give the villain plot armour just because he's needed later. Let the players know this, and then have them make their own actions from there.
4) Mix it up with some variety!
If all of your villains are recurring, your players will be pulling their hair out, and feeling like they never really accomplish or complete anything. While it's great that the Batman always beats the joker but never rids of him for good, it can get frustrating for your players if they can never actually finish off a villain. It's more about closure as opposed to anything else.
I put this in the list because if you have a mix of recurring and non-recurring villains, the recurring ones are more likely to be left alive. My rule of thumb for my villain variety is that I split my villains into roughly 3 even piles.
Pile 1 - Recurring Villains: The ones this article focuses on
Pile 2 - Big notable villains: Powerful or renowned villains who your players have heard of/known/met but are probably only meant to have one encounter with them.
Pile 3 - Episodic Villains: Villains who are introduced and dealt with in the same session, or in the subsequent session. A good example of this guy is the players travel to a new town, which is being manipulated by some sort of gang lead by an episodic villain. This gives the characters a mini break from the end of the world storyline and let's them help out the little folk to get a small task started and finished in one night. Feels good!
5) A Supernatural Means of Recurring
Very cliche, but also very effective. However, make sure that you do not overuse this. It's fine to have multiple villains with this trait, but make sure that they don't all coexist in the same story arc, as it's incredibly frustrating for players. Easy versions of this include using undead creatures as villains or using a living villain who turns undead upon his demise. You could even have recurring villains that are all just clones of a single great wizard, or twin wizards who give off the illusion that it's just the same guy who's back again.
Make sure that there's a way for the PCs to stop this villain from coming back; even if this path involves going to a dungeon or area they wouldn't otherwise go to (hello, nonlinear plot hook!), and even if this path is half a dozen sessions away. Obvious examples are destroying a lich's phylactery, driving a stake through a vampire in his own coffin, etc.
You could even get more creative, for example:
Kruul the Eternal is a demon who keeps coming back again and again to torment the party. In order to get rid of him forever, the party must do the following:
Recurring villains are one of the pillars that lay the foundation for a truly memorable campaign. Just follow these tips above, and you can ensure that these villains are etched into your player's memories for a long time to come!
Peter is an avid dungeon master, role-player, and story teller. When he's not running homebrew campaigns, he is creating new worlds, or he is reading and writing fantasy stories, forever immersing himself in the gaping black-hole known as the fantasy genre.
The World of Darkness books are filled with great NPC ideas. Sometimes though, you want just the shard of a concept to help build your own. Here is a list of concepts for you to flesh out. Some are serious, some are ridiculous. Run with what works for you.
1) Clinton Perry: Ragabash Red Talon
Clinton was born in the National Zoo. He was freed by a pack of Bone Gnawers. His deed name is “Breaks All the Shit.” Clinton wants to travel far away from home. Something is calling to him.
2) Jung-Ho Park: Ventrue 13th Gen
Madame Park was embraced during the Korean War by a Ventrue who had attached himself to the US military operation. Park is frustrated by her lack of blood power (generation).
3) Miles Morales: Ananasi Hatar
Miles is from Queens. He ate his parents during his change and now struggles with a reduced emotional connection to that act of horror. He pretends to be a superhero to assuage his dwindling conscience.
4) Professor Jazz: Troll
Prof. Jazz is a blues man by nature, and a jazz drummer because it pays the bills. He gets his glamour from watching people watching his videos on their phones.
5) Keshia Jackson: Salubri Antitribu
Keshia was embraced less than a year ago, but she's made the most out of that time. She is encouraging the Salubri to drop the anti label and declare themselves the 3rd Sabbat pillar Clan. Both the clan, and the Panders are listening.
6) Mary Tandy Moore: Unknown
Mary finds themself caught dealing with drug dealers and college professors fighting over a plot of land which holds value to each side. They want nothing to do with it, but they can't stop being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are looking for help from multiple sources.
7) Joaquin Scheder: Sidhe
Joaquin is way out of his element. He doesn't understand why he can see the world the way it is. A dragon is stalking him, and he doesn't know if it is friend or foe.
8) Casper: Haunter
Casper was killed as a child. He really wants to play with the other children, but they run when he shows up. He is particularly fond of Little Mike.
9) Lupus: Black Fury Gangrel Abomination
She doesn't remember who or what she is. She knows she needs blood, and she cries when she sees the moon. A pack of Sabbat and a pack of Werewolves are stalking her.
10) Charles Maddox: Arcanum Scholar:
Maddox is a strange character. He's been a member of the Arcanum for 10 years, and he claims he's onto a major breakthrough related to the Disparate Alliance. Whatever that is…
So there you are 10 basic character sketches that can get you started. What would you like to add?
With 18 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He recently launched,www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a player in Underground Theatre LARPs and is running a Mage game and a D&D 5th Edition campaign. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
Image Source: John van Fleet
Thank you for your timely intervention on behalf of the people of Dowen-upon-Waite. Without your assistance, I doubt that there would have been anyone in the village remaining. None that could be called human, at any rate.
I do wonder how such a cancer began. It's a shame that we weren't able to learn more. Amongst many philosophers, the subject of evil is an oft-discussed (or argued) one, but more often than not the kinds of malevolent secrets which you uncovered have their roots in something far more innocuous. Something benevolent, even useful, which carries so small a price as to be nearly negligible. These objects often set the stage for the gradual descent to a point where the once-noble aspirant finds himself waist deep in atrocities he would never have considered before embarking on his path of damnation.
Having felt the malignant caress of the Dark Powers myself, I have made a careful study of the things that can lead to such darkness. Since you were inquisitive enough to contact me regarding the genesis of the most recent problem, I thought I would share a few of my own private notes with you in the hopes that you might see how these sorts of tumors begin to grow.
1) Wine of Ages
My compatriots and I recovered this particular item from a tomb we cleansed of undead in the mountains of Lamordia. To the eye, it is merely a mundane bottle of green glass, with a name imprinted upon the bottom: Herzhen Yards. There is no such vineyard that we were ever able to uncover, although the tomb appeared to be of Outlander origin, and its plundered contents appeared to come from a range of different cultures. This unassuming little malignance was stolen from me by a Rajian thief, and I have not seen either since.
The bottle is empty, save for an ashen grey haze that can be poured forth from the neck as though it were a true liquid. This vapor, which carries the odor of gently rotting loam, is harmless to the living. If poured into the mouth of the deceased, it grants the corpse the ability to converse with the living, albeit in a limited fashion.
Please note that although this ability seems mundane, it is an abomination. It encourages a callous disregard for the dead, driving the user to treat corpses as mere investigative tools, and leads its wielder to see nothing wrong with compelling the spirit (or a semblance thereof) back to the realm of the living for mere convenience.
The Wine of Ages allows its bearer to converse with a humanoid or monstrous humanoid corpse up to three times per day. Each corpse may be conversed with only once, but the condition of the body is irrelevant--it can still speak even if rot or injury would normally make it incapable. The effect lasts for up to one minute per HD of the dead body. The spirit is much less committed than they were in life (shift alignment one step towards N), but can still make a saving throw (Will DC 17, Wis DC 15) in order to lie freely. Using the Wine of Ages is cause for a 3% Dark Powers check.
2) Oubliette Dust
This nasty little alchemical concoction is a creation of the Kargatane, I believe. I was unfortunate enough to discover it while attempting to apprehend several spies that had infiltrated Drifthome. One of the thieves, when confronted, threw a black powder in my face. I was immediately reminded of the last time I had smelt such a powder: when I was the 'guest' of the Kargat, tortured repeatedly for several weeks. So horrific were the memories, I was unable to prevent the thieves from fleeing.
As my daughter was good enough to remind me later, after I had recovered, I have never been tortured by the Kargat. The memories induced by the dust are merely lies. Still, their effects linger, and I often find myself waking in the middle from dreams of Darkonian dungeons.
Those who sell the Oubliette Dust market it as a 'stunning powder,' and indeed it does exactly that. However, the memories it 'awakens' are so horrific and they stay with the victim for weeks, even months, after the fact.
Oubliette Powder can be thrown in a cloud at any victim within 5 feet. If the victim fails their save (Fort DC 17, Con DC 15) they are unable to act for 2d6 rounds. If they are attacked this effect breaks immediately. The terror on the victims' faces is self-evident; using the powder is cause for a 1% Dark Powers check. This rises to 3% if the user knows the full extent of the trauma they are inflicting on their enemy.
3) Granny Lady Bracelet
Last year, a cult of witches was uncovered in the Mordentish countryside. Although a great deal of their magical prowess was merely smoke and mirrors, they did possess a number of unnatural abilities that Tasha and I were forced to contend with. Most infuriatingly, their leader seemed to be able to anticipate our arrival, and it was only through the utmost diligence that we were able to confront her.
One of her magical talismans was what the Souragne practitioners refer to as a gris-gris. A small, twisted length of sinew and hair, strung with a variety of horrific trophies, including finger bones, teeth, and dried flesh, and is typically worn around the wrist.
Tasha wore the talisman for several weeks, and reported that it gave her brief glimpses into the future, but after reading through the granny lady's journal, I became convinced that inheriting the device from her own mentor is what began the corruption of the witch that had plagued us, and I convinced Tasha to put the device aside for her own good. Currently, the foul thing resides in a locked trunk in my safe room.
Anyone wearing the Granny Lady Bracelet may roll 2d20 at the beginning of the day. During the course of the day, they may replace any d20 roll (theirs or anyone within line of sight) with one of the Bracelet's rolls. This does not stack with the ability of a Divination specialist, instead they receive one extra d20 for their Portent ability. Using the Granny Lady Bracelet is sufficient cause for a 1% Dark Powers check every week it is owned.
4) Breathstealer Arrow
I encountered this device on an assassin from Tepest.The Inquisitor I worked with to apprehend the fiend claimed this weapon was a gift to the killer, in recompense for selling his services to the fae. Although I am normally loathe to heed their dogmatic fanaticism, in this case there may be a seed of truth to it.
In truth, the magical component is a stone arrowhead, which can be affixed to any mundane bolt or arrow. Once it hits its target, it breaks loose and begins twisting its way towards the target's lungs, causing the poor soul to choke and gasp as their air is magically expelled from their body. If it isn't cut out swiftly (a supremely difficult task, I can attest, since the infernal thing avoids all attempts at capture) it will eventually kill its victim, even if the original user is dead.
Inquisitor Cormec took the cursed thing with him after we apprehended the murderer, although I spared the assassin the cruelty of a Tepestani imprisonment and execution. I sat in judgment over him myself, and I'm sure he found the noose far less painful than whatever Cormec had in store for him.
A target hit with a Breathstealer Arrow cannot breathe. (This means they cannot speak, cast spells, or activate command words.) Beginning in the round they are hit, the victim suffers the normal effects of suffocation (treat the victim as if they had already held their breath the maximum length of time). It can be removed with a Heal check (DC 20), causing 1d4 damage for every round it was embedded. Using such an arrow is an act of torture, invoking a 4% Dark Powers check when used against a monster or evil NPC, 7% if used against a stranger or neutral NPC, and an automatic failure if used against a good NPC or friend. The arrowhead can be recovered after the target's death, and can be removed by the firer with no check.
5) Witchbane Codex
When several Halan witches in and around my area were found murdered, I at first suspected the presence of a rogue Tepestani inquisitor. Although there was a man involved who used such a title, he was an Outlander. After his capture (or defiant last stand, in truth), this slim volume was discovered on his person.
It appears to be written in Tepestani, although it contains far more arcane knowledge than the Inquisition would be comfortable committing to paper. Inside, there is detailed information on common practices, rites, beliefs, and identifying traits of witches and infernal cults. After reading it, I found myself revolted by the unnatural lore contained within. Although Tasha has asked to read it, I have sent the book to my friend Kelly, as he has proven more than capable of resisting the temptations of such arcana.
Reading the Witchbane Codex (which takes six hours) immediately costs the reader a point of Wisdom (which can never be recovered) but imbues them with an additional point of Intelligence. While the book is in their possession, they may consult it to gain a +2 on any appropriate skill check (such as Arcana, Religion, Knowledge: Arcana, or Knowledge: Religion). Even lightly reading the book instantly causes the user to make a Sanity check, if those rules are being used, and also causes the loss of Innocence. Completing the book is cause for a 2% Dark Powers check. The user should also be assessed for a 1% Dark Powers check for every month they have the book in their possession. Willingly giving it to another person to read is cause for a 5% Dark Powers check, 10% if they are unaware of the nature of the book, and is an automatic failure if they are an Innocent.
As you can see, the road to Hell can indeed be paved with the most innocuous of cobbles. The wise adventurer would do well to resist such temptations. Too often, what appears to merely offer power or expediency comes at the cost of our very soul. Should you find such a wicked item among your travels, do not hesitate to contact me if you wish assistance in confining or destroying it. Your actions have spoken volumes for your righteousness, and I consider myself
Joram Mournesworth, Lord Mayor of Drifthome
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Keep on the Heathlands. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
I recently introduced a girlfriend of mine to Pathfinder for the very first time. Not only was it her first time with Pathfinder, but also her very first pen-and-paper RPG. So far, she’s enjoying it, but the question of how to get more ladies involved in the gaming world is one that is frequently bubbling beneath the frothy surface of our subculture.
I have DM’ed in the past, but I decided to approach this more from the perspective of a female player who wants to get her friends involved in the madness. Guys have frequently asked “how can I get my girlfriend/wife involved in role-playing?” and gamer girls frequently discuss this between ourselves, so I polled a few of my crew and came up with the following points.
So a girl has expressed an interest in joining your group, or one of your crew has said that his ladyfriend/sister/roommate/platonic life partner has asked what precisely the hell it IS you do around a table at a friend’s place for ten hours on a Saturday night. Here’s what you can do to increase the chances that everyone involved will have a good time.
0- Point Zero:
Make sure we know we are welcome and not just tolerated. We understand that with Gamergate and all the negativity that swirls around the Internet between the various gender factions, it can be a bit intimidating for a guy to invite a girl to a game, especially if he knows she’s likely to be the only one present at the table. When in doubt, let us know that a seat has our name on it, and let us take it from there.
1- Point One:
Curate (in a non-hipster way) your gaming crew. A handy definition of curate: to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation.
Take a good hard look at your players and think if they would be good for a new player or a new-to-the-group player. Do you have a bunch of hardcore lore-junkie grognards that are roughly as crunchy as a bowl of aquarium gravel and take great joy in nitpicking the rules to death and second-guessing the DM? Probably not the best group for a new player - and honestly, why do YOU play with people like that? Carrying on...
Do you play with a group of stereotypes? Be honest here. Are they the basement-dwelling, Doritos-dusted neckbearded types who have the social awareness of a potato? Again, probably not the best group for a new player. That being said, our friends are our friends. It might be a good solid gaming group, but not the best fit for someone just getting into this facet of the hobby.
Let’s say that you have some relatively well adjusted* gamers around your table, the type who indulge in hygiene and jobs and don’t break out in stammers and sweats when girls are around. Ideally, one or more of them will be in a relationship of some kind that involves a romantic component, so they are used to communication and compromise. This is a good place for a completely new player to come in - and even better if the one who invited the new player is actually excited about having her join.
*Well adjusted = medium-to-high-functioning in the mundane aspects of day to day life. Can likely be trusted not to do to the wink wink nudge nudge type of inappropriate behavior until they understand where the lines are with the new player. Also not likely to see a new female face at the table and immediately assume that she is interested in an out-of-character entanglement - or an in-character one for that matter.
Explain to your crew that you are going to be having a new player join the table, and give them the chance to possibly bow out for that session if they like. It goes without saying that it is rarely a good idea to introduce a complete neophyte to a well-oiled and functioning party past the first few games of a campaign, so perhaps you can add the new player at a natural break point or offer to invite her when you begin a new campaign. (Author’s note: You can also take the road traveled by my husband, which is: New player? Let me cram another game into my weekly schedule! I do not endorse this path, but perhaps you have learned how to practice chronomancy OR are in possession of a Time-Turner. If so, please contact me privately.)
You, as a DM, and your players, as members of the community of gamers, owe it to new players and to the continuation of our shared hobby to give them a fair and welcoming chance to dip their toes in the ocean of tabletop gaming. New gamers are the lifeblood of the industry.
2- Point Two:
Pick your setting carefully. For a first-time gamer, Pathfinder or D&D, with its hoary tomes trailing back into the Gygaxian caverns of yore, might be a touch intimidating. When in doubt, offer something with a good, well-known canon to draw from. My very first RPG was Star Wars - I didn’t even know that polyhedral dice existed, but I, like most kids of the late 70s/early 80s, knew about Darth Vader and the farmboy from Tattooine.
When I introduced my friend to Pathfinder, she looked a little lost until she was able to identify and work among the classic literary high-fantasy tropes that are inherent to the system. After she found her reference point, she jumped in with both feet. This leads me into point three.
3- Point Three:
Ask your new (and old!) players a TON of questions. What experience does she have? She may have never played Pathfinder, but she might have LARPed before, or played World of Warcraft or EVE or Skyrim, or she might write Harry Potter fanfic. Don’t make it seem like a job interview (because THOSE are fun) but explain that you are trying to figure out what her experience is, because you don’t want to waste her time with stuff she’s already familiar with. That shows respect for her time and her opinion, which will score you good-person points.
Disclaimer: Most of my female friends are also my writer friends, which means we can spot tropes from a mile away. Sometimes this is irritating, but it also allows our DMs to use that knowledge both to our benefit and to his own nefarious ends. Your mileage will, of course, vary.
Ask your players if there are any types of content they want to avoid. I’m not a huge fan of militaristic campaigns; some people don’t like Lovecraftian horror in their high fantasy, others might be perfectly fine with blood on the ceilings and torture by the hour, but can’t handle settings involving slavery or overtly sexual themes (think succubi/incubi or interrogation via seduction or the Book of Erotic Fantasy for D&D 3.5.)
4- Point Four:
Don’t make assumptions. Some of my girlfriends are just as crunchy as the grognards, and that’s okay. I remember a friend of mine recently posting on Facebook that her half-elf barbarian just did 109 damage in one turn, to which one of her friends replied that her tiefling just gored a dwarf’s eyes out with her horns when he tried to put her in a headlock. One of the more experienced lady gamers I know loves to tell the story of back in the Dark Ages when she started to play, she would shock guys by sitting down at the table, opening her dice bag, and asking them what their THAC0 was.
We might not have played the game, or might not have played that particular edition, but don’t assume we are completely uninformed unless we tell you we are. Ladies, it’s not a sign of weakness to admit you don’t know something, or to ask players to explain an unfamiliar acronym. It’s how you learn, after all. Guys: Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons is not a good role model. Don’t do it. Just don’t. Protip: Let the DM do the explaining, and only contribute as necessary. Otherwise, button your yaps.
Oh, and because it needs saying: We don’t all want to play healers or druids. There, I said it. This is 2017, for the love of spice. We are all well beyond the stage of “hey we need a healer, get your girlfriend to play one”. If you need a healer, go get yourself right with your god(s), Father Cleric.
5- Point Five:
Create a welcoming environment to play in. I’m not saying you need to go out and invest in doilies and tea cozies, but at least make the room presentable enough that you wouldn’t mind your sister or daughter seeing it. Alternatively, have your meet-and-greet/initial session at your local game store - everyone should be okay there. Bonus tip: if you ARE playing at your home, take ten minutes before the group arrives and tidy up a little bit. Nothing Martha Stewart, but rinsing stray hairs out of the sink and putting away your dirty socks will do wonders in making a good impression.
The comfortable environment extends to the table as well. Asking a player (of any gender) what their character looks like is perfectly okay; extended discussion about what bra size the female characters wear is not. In all fairness, I have busted my female players about this as well when they get a little too...enthusiastic...about what the barbarian has under his kilt.
5.5- Point Five and a Half:
Do NOT fall into the trap of female player = female character = oh look romantic/sexual plot point. Don't shoehorn that plot in just because you think we want it. Chances are, we don’t, especially with complete or near-complete strangers. It may evolve over time, but it might not. Let it happen organically or after discussion out-of-character.
6- Point Six:
Be an adult. Treat people decently, regardless of gender. Remember, we are all representatives of our shared hobby and one bad experience will travel the winds much further than a fantastic one. We ladies don’t need to be treated with kid gloves - we need to be treated like valued members of the community. Call out bad behavior wherever you see it. Ask if there are misunderstandings, and strive to fix them. Do a post-mortem with each player and a separate one with the group - see if there are any areas of concern or room for improvement or anything that was really amazing that people want to see more. Understand that it will likely take several sessions for a group to really gel and learn to trust each other, and ask your players to give each other a chance.
Ladies, gentlemen, and smizmars, the people you play with are human (presumably) and they WILL make mistakes, misspeak, or occasionally say inappropriate things out of ignorance. Don't ascribe malice to something that can be written off as ignorance or human error. If something bothers you, say something - but keep in mind that the best resolution should, as a rule, allow all parties to keep playing. If you as a lady gamer don't want to be treated like a fine crystal vial full of nitroglycerin, show your tolerance and willingness to make friends to the guys inviting you to the table. Guys, treat us like people, because we are people. Normal people...or as normal as gamers get.
In the end, it's all just a game. Let us hope the Lady*
is on our side.
In loving memory of Sir Terry Pratchett, taken from us two years ago and twenty years too soon,
* "The Lady", also known as; "She-who-shall-not-be-named, The 'Million-to-One' Chance (and all of the other chances as well) The One who will desert you when you need Her the most - and sometimes She might not..." is none other than the Anthropomorphic personification of Luck, as well as the single most powerful goddess on the Discworld, all for the simple reason that (although She has no worshippers and the only temple ever erected to Her was destroyed purely by chance) everybody hopes and prays that She exists and that She'll smile on them. Her suitors can be distinguished by their distinctive repetitive prayer; "please-oh-please-oh-please-oh-please."
Accents were the first way I learned to differentiate my NPCs. My Scottish barkeep was a hit! Unfortunately all my barkeeps were Scottish for a very long time. So were all my Dwarves. Stereotypical accent reliance be gone! Here are five vocal and speech dynamics to build character and differentiate NPCs, even those who share the same cultural upbringing. Use these tips to not only shake up your voice options, but to communicate the world view and personalities of your characters.
1. Word Choice / Sentence Structure
World view differences have a huge bearing on word choices. What does it say about a character who always uses words like "interpersonal conflict", instead of a words like "argument", or "row?"
How lengthy are their sentences or thoughts? Try on "Given the absence of any evidence to the contrary, and that there are no other persons with plausible motives, I expect you'll find it reasonable for me to bring you in for questioning," or "You're the only suspect. You'd best come quietly." How a character speaks is related to how a character thinks. They might be curt, direct, and to the point. They might view a character as beneath them, and use long sentences, multiple clauses, and big words to accentuate differences in education or perceived intelligence.
2. Pitch & Melody
Where does the character’s speaking voice sit in pitch, compared to yours? Simply picking higher or lower pitched voices can start to differentiate a character, and is a quick and dirty way to offer clues about gender and age. We can deepen the understanding of a character by imagining what range of pitches they use in their average speaking voice. Do they have a Clint Eastwood monotone, or a a Maria von Trapp sing song vast speaking range? This can tell us a lot about what a character thinks about the world, and how safe they are to express themselves emotionally. Guarded characters will guard their pitch range.
Do they have a repetitive melody in their voice? They may have an upward inflection at the end of most sentences. If they sound like every time they make a statement, it comes across as a question, we are communicating something about their confidence. In my family, all of the older generation have a very peculiar rainbow pattern to their speech. Every sentences starts in mid range, arcs into a higher pitch, then finishes down on a low note. Once I first heard it I couldn't unhear how regularly they all do it. One can really get a sense of those old farm kids’ earthiness when hearing them chat about the weather and hockey with the same 5 note melody to every statement.
A character skilled in rhetoric may use many more variations in melody and pitch as they alternate between threatening, cajoling, and flattering your characters.
The pacing of someone's speech is a huge clue to their personality. Do they feel they have the time and attention of their audience to reveal their thoughts over time? Do they feel no one is really listening so they spit everything out without breath to make sure they are heard before they are interrupted? Very rapid speech could indicate a busy person with no time for anything but action, or nervousness. Slow speech could indicate someone perfectly comfortable in their environment who feels entirely unthreatened, or someone who has difficulty coming up with the right words. Try varying the tempo of speech to reveal different traits.
4. Silences And Filler Words
Do you have that friend who when asked a question, makes no immediate vocal response, and you can’t tell if they are thinking about a response, haven’t heard you, or are ignoring you? A character who is comfortable letting silences hang is very different than one who fills gaps immediately with “umms,” “uuhs,” and “well…” What sort of filler words might your NPCs use when they don’t have the exact turn of phrase they are looking for? Is their speech littered with “like,” or do they finish every list with “ and stuff like that?”
5. Aperture or Mouth Tension
Try speaking a few lines (or reading part of this article aloud) two times. The first time, keep your teeth firmly together. The second time, imagine having a pencil oriented vertical inside your mouth wedging your jaws as open as possible, and speak while keeping this openness as much as you can. There are two things I am hoping you’ll notice. First, the voices sound different. The quality of your vowels will be greatly affected by the openness of your mouth. Second, it feels different emotionally to speak these two different ways. The tension of keeping your teeth together produces a tension in character, a grittiness. The looseness of the open aperture recommends itself to a more open minded, or curious type of character, or one well versed in the flexibility of mind required to be a master manipulator.
Let’s imagine two brothers. One brother is a golden boy: gets great grades and is optimistic about the world. The other is in his shadow, constantly fighting for attention.
We’ll make the first brother’s voice have an easy pacing, and a relaxed melodic tune. He uses lengthy composite sentences (to show off his facility with language), and usually ends on a firm and confident low/middle note, a tonic.
The second brother’s voice is spoken with a tight mouth, pitched higher but with less modulation in tone. He speaks louder than is appropriate for the context, in simple short sentences, but with lots of thoughts in a row. He speaks quickly without taking breaths: "and this, and this, and this..." He usually has to be interrupted instead of finishing thoughts on his own. He inflects upwards at the end of sentences as if statements are actually questions.
Here you have two totally different characters, with very different voices, but with the very same heritage and the very same accent.
Darren has a background in theatre performance, and if he’s not exactly aiming for the Tony’s anymore, he’s delighted to strut the boards as often as possible at the gaming table. He makes his home in Edmonton, Alberta with his encouraging wife and their tiny thunder Goddess. Find him on twitter @dsteelegm
Some of my favorite movies are set in high schools. Part of the appeal is the neat categories people get divided into. There are the bookish, the jocks, the rebels, the beauties, & the outcasts (Of course, depending on your region, there may be other variants of these).
[The Sorting Hat put me in ‘House of Usher’… WTF … Vincent Price? ]
Depending on your position on the actuarial table, chances are you have been influenced by the classics: Grease, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Clueless, American Pie, Mean Girls, High School Musical, 21 Jump Street, Monster High, amongst others (feel free to comment).
[I had such a crush on Alicia Silverstone; what happened to you Alicia?]
Most readers will recognize a name or all on that list, and some of those movies probably sent nostalgia gremlins digging through your memories. Wouldn’t it be nice to create those same feelings in the players at your table? Making memorable Non Player Characters (NPCs) is kind of like figuring out what makes a person stay popular in high school. On behalf of players everywhere, here is the 2016 definitive guide to:“5 Ways to Make Your NPCs More Memorable”
1. G’day Mate: Accents = Instant Popularity
Remember that boy/girl in high school with an accent? It was like they walked on rainbows the way people gravitated to them. I’m ashamed to say I had a crush on a voice in grade 11- South African to be exact. And you know why I had a crush on that voice? Well, besides the fact it belonged to a beautiful redhead who actually wore rainbow-colored shoes, it was because the voice stood out from the rest.
Now, I know, my industrious Game Masters (GMs), that you already have enough on your plate creating endless scenarios that we, the players, will undoubtedly turn our noses up at; but hear me out. Voices make a big difference. We’re not expecting Mel Gibson in Braveheart here, but a little twinge of accent for your NPCs- even if you slip in and out of it- automatically sets them apart as noteworthy. Accents create associations for players with things in the real world. Use these associations to help create depth in your fantasy one.
[It’s the difference between shouting: FREEDOM! , or (with a burr) FRRRREEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOOOM]
2- Hang Out With The Hotties or: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
As mentioned in my blog last week, it’s important to “Find a Muse”. This does not have to translate into a lot of work. In the case of NPC development, you can use what you’ve “learned” as a couch potato over the years, and create a template for a type of character. To do this, find characters or actors (I’m looking at you Liam Neeson) that you like, or think would be interesting to try to play, and watch/remember how they deliver their lines. Copy and paste into your imagination. Repeat.
[Remember Chandler from 'Friends’? “Could I be wearing any more armor”?]
I harp on using inspiration from movies, books and video games, because it encourages you to develop a means of expression of yourself. Think of a favorite character from a movie you like- now deconstruct them into pieces, and find out what it is you like/ don’t like about them. A jigsaw puzzle picture of who you are as a person lies in those pieces of likes & dislikes. It’s important to know what these pieces are- otherwise, how can you use them?
[Unfortunately, life’s puzzle doesn’t have a picture on the front of the box]
3 – Speak up, Speak your Mind
Please, please, please tell us your NPC’s opinions on things. You might think having passive NPCs are what we want, but it actually gets boring after a while. Have them speak up on an issue important to the party. I’m not saying that you start going all Leo Tolstoy on the group (well, maybe sometimes). But when an NPC tells us their opinions on things as varied as the quality of the sword we just gave her, or where we made him sleep last night, it makes us sit up and take notice.
Too many times, NPCs are little more than second-class citizens subject to the whims of the main characters. Cannon fodder, trap sense, poison testers and monster bait are some of the uses I’ve seen (though I’m sure there are many more- feel free to comment). But just doing those things shrinks the uses that this tool can possibly have for you. I know that you want the players to tell the story (and they should), but that doesn’t mean you can’t have opinionated NPCs.
4 - What’s Your Deal?
Everybody has a context, real world or imaginary. If you can create an NPC that is something more than a one-dimensional, quest-giving pylon, then you may (briefly, mind you) have our attention. Are their political or religious opinions pressuring them? Do they have family in peril? Is the farmhouse that the Player Characters (PCs) are making a stand in, an NPC family’s only place to live? Let the players feel those moral questions.
Another thing to think about, especially if it’s a recurring NPC, is giving them a motivator outside of the party. It could be a drive for fame, to get back home, or to avenge their brother’s death. If you’re feeling nefarious, perhaps they are feeling the twinge of that base human corruption: greed. It can be skimming off the top, straight up robbing them, or something subtler, such as selling information about the players, or trying to split up the party.
[Bear in mind that some parties don’t need assistance to self-destruct]
5 – Don’t Wear the Uniform
Vary your characters! I don’t care if you have a Jerry Maguire-like performance for your bartender NPC. If I see the same damn barkeep in every town I go to, sorry, I’m tuning out. Mix the soft with the hard, the loud with the quiet. Different accents, cultures, religions, and motivations scratch our neoteric itch. For example, it’s a contrast between light and darkness, which makes the light seem brighter, and the darkness blacker.
Likewise, some DMs struggle with playing characters of the opposite gender they are. I sympathize with you…to a point. You don’t have to turn into Barbie or Ken to sell the fact that your NPC is male or female. But you can use your words to describe their actions, just like Sir David Attenborough does for the BBC. If you’re a woman playing a male NPC, you don’t have to lumberjack each line. Save trees. Likewise, if you’re a man playing a female, you don’t have to turn every woman the party comes across into a ‘Girls Gone Wild’ audition. Trust me, it will help you be able to maintain eye contact with your friends afterwards. This also would have the benefit of breathing some much-needed life into women’s roles in fantasy role-playing.
In conclusion, what will make your NPCs memorable, like staying popular in high school, is more than just the way they look or the cool things they can do. It’s something esoteric, something associative, and something deeper. Think about what you want your next NPC’s ‘something’ to be.
In the meantime, I gotta get back to work
Dustinopolis, Devourer of Cheese, is an 11th level dreamer who has been rolling dice and playing roles off and on for over ten years. He currently “works” as Assistant to the Evening Custodian at the High Level Gaming Company, who “pay” him “regularly”. He prides himself on writing (*most) blogs fully clothed. If you can’t wait until next week’s post, you can follow him on Twitter @devourcheese for more questionable insights.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.