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This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The Sea Kings are powerful merchant lords who rule oceanic trade throughout the Dragovar Empire, and the party has two of them: Sea King Impstinger (a.k.a. Deimos), played by Chris Youngs, and Sea King Silvereye (a.k.a. Vargas), played by Rodney Thompson. For Deimos, becoming a Sea King represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, whereas Vargas never wanted to be a Sea King. As a champion of the Raven Queen, he won support among captains of similar faith, and they ultimately elevated him to his position of leadership. Such is the burden of the epic-level hero.
Recuperating from their harrowing exploits in the Frostfell, the heroes withdraw to their sanctuary on the island of Damandaros, where Sea King Silvereye keeps a warehouse. Vargas has some private matters to attend to, so he separates himself from the party, albeit briefly. (Never a good idea.) To no one's surprise, he's attacked in his own warehouse by evil mercenaries working for one of the party's many enemies. Although things look grim for Sea King Silvereye, at least he's on his own turf. He turns invisible, hides, alerts his companions using a sending stone, and anxiously awaits their arrival.
As weapons clash and spells explode in the Silvereye warehouse, two young children (a human and a dragonborn) are drawn to the ruckus like moths to a flame. Through an open doorway, they watch the battle unfold, mouths agape with astonishment. Occasionally, one of the player characters takes note of the young ones, urging them to stand back. When the battle concludes and the villains have been subdued, Deimos dusts off his large captain's hat, winks at the awestruck children, and says with deadpan charm, "Stay in school." Speechless with fright, the children dart away.
Heroes are extraordinary individuals in my world, as they are, I expect, in many D&D campaigns. They don't act like ordinary folk, they don't dress like ordinary folk, and they have little in common with ordinary folk. The world orbits around them, and wherever they go, the campaign follows. Because their characters operate at a much higher level, players easily forget that most people who populate the campaign world are plain, simple folks. Every so often, I like to remind my players that their characters live in a remarkable world of unremarkable people. When dealing with threats to the entire world, it's too easy for the heroes to forget what they're fighting for.
My campaign world is full of extras nameless common folk who have little or no impact on the lives of the heroes. And yet, every time a villain threatens to sink an island or run roughshod over a city, the heroes are supposed to care about what happens to these poor sods. Why should they? I mean, who cares if a bunch of nameless nobodies get wiped off the campaign map? D&D is all about finding treasure and gaining XP, isn't it?
Well, there is a kind of D&D game that's all about treasure and XP, but for the Iomandra campaign to resonate with my players, it needs to do more than make the characters more powerful. It needs to feel like a real place, where the party's antics have real, tangible effects on the people around them. The battle in the Silvereye warehouse was a fun battle with the usual mixture of combat tactics and witty repartee. However, I think the inclusion of the children as innocent spectators added a level of realism to the proceedings. Suddenly, the session is more than just an epic-level throw-down between the forces of evil and not-so-evil. Because on some level we're seeing events unfold through the children's eyes, their presence alters the tenor of the battle ever so slightly. Some of the heroes are concerned that the children might be drawn into the fray. Others seem more interested in showing off for the kids' amusement. These nameless, inconsequential NPCs outshone the villains of the encounter without ever uttering a word, and that is extraordinary.
It's been my experience that when it comes to NPCs, most DMs focus on the ones that either want to kill the PCs or want something else from the PCs. It can be easy to forget the multitude of other NPCs who want nothing whatsoever; they exist simply to exist. Hundreds if not thousands of NPCs populate the average D&D campaign, and most of these ordinary folks have no dialogue and never interact with the heroes in any meaningful way. Thus, it can be surprising (in a good way) when they do.
Inconsequential NPCs add texture to any campaign world. Their actions, however innocent or banal, serve to remind the player characters that there's more to the world than dungeons, monsters, and treasure. It reinforces the notion that people actually live in your world, and most of them aren't out to get the heroes and want nothing from them, either. I use ordinary extras to make my player characters feel like the world is worth saving; consequently, they tend to be nice, honest people with no ulterior motives and no secrets to be laid bare.
If you're unaccustomed to using ordinary extras in your games, here are seven simple examples you might try throwing in as opportunity allows:
Example #1: A young girl selling kittens offers to give one to the player characters for free, out of simple kindness or thanks. (A new party mascot, perhaps?)
Example #2: A simple farmer apprehends a criminal who tried and failed to pick the pocket of one of the player characters. (Sometimes, even heroes need a helping hand.)
Example #3: A pair of bickering lumberjacks offers to share their fire with the player characters, or point them in the right direction through the woods. ("Odd couples" provide lots of great roleplaying fodder.)
Example #4: An old woman commends the heroes for who they are, then prattles on about her dead husband who fancied himself a "slayer of evil" like them. (Perhaps the heroes have heard of him.)
Example #5: A street magician spots the player characters as they move through the market and calls one of them up on his small stage to participate in a simple parlor trick, much to the joy of a small crowd. (How often do the PCs receive cheers from a crowd?)
Example #6: A town guard, whose wife just gave birth to a healthy baby girl, hands each of the player characters a cigar. (PCs are more inclined to save the world if they care about the people in it.)
Example #7: A tavern regular challenges a character to a friendly arm wrestling challenge (opposed Strength check) or drinking contest (opposed Endurance check). (Win or lose, the NPC is gracious and speaks well of his competitor. The world needs such nice people.)
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,