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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.
MONDAY NIGHT. It's the beginning of paragon tier. The player characters have just arrived in Io'galaroth, a major city hewn from a cluster of vast coastal grottos. The sheer number of adventure possibilities quickly overwhelms them, but one particular mystery proves especially alluring. A sea captain is murdered shortly after disbanding his crew, leaving his docked ship unattended. Rumor has it the captain was working for Sea King Senestrago, and Senestrago pays off the local magistrate to have the ship's secret cargo taken to a secure warehouse. Through their own investigations, the PCs learn that the Morkoth was transporting a clutch of catastrophic dragon eggs, which Senestrago and his genasi accomplice need for a devastating ritual that can sink an island.
The player characters don't know much about Sea King Senestrago or his supporters in Io'galaroth, so they turn to a frienda tiefling sexpot named Excellence. The PCs helped Excellence out of a scrape, and since then she's been their most reliable source of information. In fact, thanks in part to the DM and her well-traveled past, she knows a great deal about everything. You might say she's infallible, although her playfully conniving tiefling demeanor makes it somewhat difficult to take her at face value. When the PCs aren't sure how to proceed given what they've learned, Excellence tells the player characters that Senestrago's power has diminished of late, and he's losing ships to his rivals. Senestrago's ill fortune has bred discontent among his once faithful captains, as well as an unhealthy amount of animosity. Excellence's information spurs the player characters to investigate two local captains whose ships fly the Senestrago flag. It turns out that both captains have their eyes on Senestrago's secret cargo. The PCs decide to sow discord between the two crews and keep them distracted while they snatch the eggs from under Senestrago's nose.
There are many archetypal D&D characters, from the drunken dwarf fighter who doesn't get along with elves to the kleptomaniacal halfling rogue who picks the pockets of every merchant he meets. There are recurring archetypes for nonplayer characters as well. One of my favorites is the know-it-all.
I believe every campaign needs at least one know-it-all NPC, and the sooner the player characters make his or her acquaintance, the better. The know-it-all might possess clarity of mind that borders on omniscience, or the know-it-all might be a streetwise scoundrel with an unfailingly reliable information network. However the know-it-all comes by his or her knowledge, it is consistently "on the money." The know-it-all might be someone the PCs like and respect, or someone with whom the PCs deal with out of dire necessity. The important thing is that they have access to someone who knows more than they do about a great many things. The know-it-all helps keep the campaign moving forward when the PCs are floundering or otherwise lack direction. Here's someone the DM can use to communicate information he or she wants the players to knowinformation that isn't easily obtained by other means.
There might be limits to the know-it-all's knowledge, and the campaign can (over time) introduce different know-it-all NPCs possessing different fields of experience. The one characteristic they share, however, is reliability. If your campaign is anything like mine, it's layered with deception, and the players need at least one NPC whose word they can trust and who will serve as a light in muddy waters. That's not to say that the know-it-all is there to solve every mystery the campaign has to offer. Some know-it-alls are better at providing advice than useful information. However, if the player characters are stuck, the know-it-all serves to guide them true. The know-it-all might not know who murdered the town burgomaster, but he or she might advise the heroes to attend the funeral and pay close attention to those in attendance in case an important clue presents itself, or the know-it-all might "have it on good authority" that the burgomaster was investigating rumors of a thieves' guild moving into town. The know-it-all might not have the answer written in blood, but the know-it-all can help keep the players on track.
It's easy to imagine a situation in which lazy or befuddled players might become so dependent on their know-it-all NPC that they refuse to think for themselves. This has never been a problem for me because my players are smart, and they know the risk of "going back to the well too often." They also know it doesn't take much DM effort to make their beloved know-it-all NPC "disappear." You don't need to kill off the know-it-all at the first hint of player abuse. Perhaps the meeting is thwarted when the know-it-all is drawn away by some other minor crisis; the players should take that as a warning. The know-it-all isn't just sitting around waiting for the PCs to show up with another problem to solve. The sooner my players realize that the know-it-all serves me as much as it serves them, the better.
My tiefling know-it-all, Excellence, is a spirited minx who uses her tail to flirt with men under the table. Her sexual escapades and playful indiscretion conceal a tough adolescence growing up in a society that treats tieflings as criminals. With acutely honed perception and insight, she casts her sharp gaze around a tavern full of drunken brutes and finds the one assassin hiding in their midst. She also never forgets a face or a name. And if you need to contact someone in the Horned Alliance or need to find someone who might have an orb of dragonkind to sell, she'll point you in the right direction.
Your know-it-all might be a different sort of character, such as a retired assassin with friends in low places, a reticent sage who's terrified of his own shadow, a mad wizard's talking cat familiar, a sarcastic efreet whom the heroes can summon in times of great need, or whatever else you dream up. Regardless of the form your know-it-all takes, this font of information and sage advice must be effective in his or her role. In the same way that villains must do villainous things to preserve their "evil cred," the know-it-all must not fail to be reliable or insightful, lest the character lose his or her purpose and the players no longer seek the NPC's knowledge or advice in times of need.
Here, then, are my guiding rules for know-it-all NPCs:
- A know-it-all does a great service to your campaign by feeding the PCs truthful information or advice that keeps things moving forward.
- A know-it-all doesn't need to know everything about every single thing, just everything about many things.
- A know-it-all never steers the PCs wrong but has better things to do than follow the party around all day.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,