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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. As the campaign draws to a close, the epic-level adventurers still have a lot of unfinished quests. Fortunately, they have a pretty good idea who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and where the bad guys are hiding. In fact, there isn't a lot of investigation left. The characters are powerful and wealthy enough to sustain a veritable network of underlings, including spies and well-connected information gatherers. One of their finest is a doppelganger NPC named Leshiv, who used to work for one of the campaign villains until the party realized that his loyalty could be bought.
The party first "acquired" Leshiv in the middle of paragon tier, but it took a while for Leshiv to demonstrate his trustworthiness and discretion. I basically use him to feed reliable information to the PCs, particularly when the players are at their wits' end or distracted by other concerns. Recently, he's even joined the party as an NPC companion, putting his shapechanging talents to good use. Now that the party trusts Leshiv, I'm not about to betray that trust.
Trust is a hard thing to come by in most seasoned adventuring parties. ("Seasoned" is a polite way of saying groups with more than ten collective years of D&D gaming experience.) Putting aside those backstabbing, self-serving PCs who like to stir up inter-party conflict with their crap (something which most seasoned groups barely tolerate), there's also a profound lack of trust in the NPCs. Why? Because DMs can't resist the urge to stage encounters or build adventures around an NPC's betrayal. Some DMs do it because the theme of betrayal is nearly irresistible; others want to see how characters react when the party's trust is violated. I'm guilty of planting seeds of betrayal myself, so I'm not casting any stones. Heck, I'm not even saying it's a bad thing, particularly given how prevalent the theme of betrayal appears in fiction and real-world history. But in the D&D game, NPCs betraying PCs creates trust issues, and this can sour players on the campaign and adversely affect their treatment of NPCs thereafter.
The truth is, my campaign has three kinds of NPCs:
- Those who are clearly and consistently trustworthy
- Those who are clearly and consistently untrustworthy
- Those whose trustworthiness cannot be easily or reliably ascertained
One could apply this same schema to real-life humans, by the way. I've met people who are so plainly untrustworthy that I won't leave them alone in a room that contains anything I deem of value. There are others I trust implicitly and have no reason to believe will ever betray that trust. And then there's the other 98% of the world's population who are closer to being actual human beings, capable of being both trustworthy and untrustworthy depending on the circumstances.
My D&D campaign weighs the percentages more equally. I have a higher percentage of clearly trustworthy NPCs and clearly untrustworthy NPCs, mostly because I believe players get tired of psychoanalyzing every NPC they meet. They don't want to be concerned about some nameless dude who just sold them a horse to replace Kikkers McHoofenstein, the paladin's trusty mount that was devoured by a bulette in the last adventure. They don't want to cast detect poison on every flagon of ale they get from the tight-lipped half-orc proprietor of the Fat Fanny Tavern, either. And last but not least, they'd rather not have to do a background check on every hapless sod that pitches them a new quest. The flipside of the coin is that players like crossing paths with NPCs who are so blatantly untrustworthy that they practically have the words LYIN and SCUM tattooed on their fingers. It makes the NPC predictable and easy to deal with.
In my campaign, I aim for equal percentages of obviously trustworthy NPCs, obviously untrustworthy NPCs, and everyone else. That way, my players know (or if not "know" at least have a sense) that one-third of the NPCs they encounter are wearing their trustworthiness on their proverbial sleeves. This is oddly reassuring. After all, the percentage is clearly higher than what players typically experience in the real world, making my campaign a less stressful place to hang out. (Granted, the chances of being eaten alive by monsters on 21st century Earth is much lower than 8th century Iomandra, although one must still be wary of sharks, lunatics, drunk morons, bureaucrats, water moccasins, muggers, Muggles, and other potential threats.)
Wholly trustworthy NPCs are worth their weight in gold. They remind your players that the campaign world is worth saving, and they often come with a built-in sympathy and appreciation for the characters and all that they do to make the world a safer place for civilized folk. In my Monday night campaign, there's a blind tiefling rogue NPC named Kzandro Kazanaar. The party saved his life and furnished him with a robe of eyes so that he can see, and so now he serves them as a "field agent," doing the sorts of investigative work and mystery-solving the epic-level PCs might have done back in heroic and paragon tier. He's similar in many respects to the Wednesday night group's doppelganger spy, Leshiv. Were Kzandro to suddenly betray the party, my players would never forgive me (nor should they) because it's a clear misrepresentation of Kzandro's character. He's earned and deserves the party's trust.
On the other side of the "trust scale," we have Zaidi Arychosa, a tiefling soprano with known ties to the Horned Alliance, a guild of tiefling assassins and spies. Zaidi entertains the guild's influential business associates and spends much of her time with the guildmaster, Zaibon Krinvazh, who collects and bleaches the bones of his enemies. Everything about Zaidi (and Zaibon) screams "Untrustworthy!"
And then there are NPCs such as Lorelei Kalas, a savvy sea merchant who commands hundreds of loyal ship captains. She's demonstrated over and over that she wants to be the most powerful Sea King in the world, but is she trustworthy? Well, that depends. When faced with a clear and present danger to her fleet, she can be trusted to act against it. But can the characters trust her enough to form an alliance against a common enemy? Well . . . there's no easy answer. The heroes have been Sea King Kalas's rivals in the past, but right now their fleet is smaller than hers, and they're doing more good than harm, so she leaves them well enough alone. And if they were to ask her for help, there's a decent chance she would provide it. But there's also the risk that something might cause her to turn against the party, and so they are duly cautious in their dealings with her.
As much as I hate falling back on color metaphors, every campaign needs white, black, and shades of gray. Just as in film and fiction, there are supporting characters who are easy to read and others who aren't. One example that springs to mind is True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by the late, great Tony Scott. This film is an object lesson in the importance of creating a world that contains supporting characters that fall into all three categories of trustworthiness.
The Trustworthy: Dennis Hopper plays Clifford Worley, the film's likeable father figure â€” clearly trustworthy (which is doubly impressive given Hopper's history of untrustworthy character portrayals). Ditto for Christian Slater's goofy sidekick, Dick Ritchie, played by Michael Rapaport. (Incidentally, Rapaport has made a career playing this kind of character. In the less memorable shark film Deep Blue Sea, his goofy sidekick actually utters the line, "Trust me. Why? Because I'm trust-WORTHY." And we believe it because it's true.)
The Untrustworthy: Gary Oldman plays Drexl Spivey, a white drug dealer who thinks he's black; he's probably the most blatantly untrustworthy character in the film. We also have Bronson Pinchot's cocaine-snorting weasel, Elliot Blitzer. And let's not forget Christopher Walken, who, with Dennis Hopper, delivers what many film aficionados consider one of the best scenes in modern cinema. Is Walken's character, Sicilian mob enforcer Vincenzo Coccotti, trustworthy? Walken tells you within his first minute of screen time when he says, "Sicilians are great liars. The best in the world."
The Uncertain: Brad Pitt plays a couch-potato pothead named Floyd. We're not too sure about his trustworthiness. Ditto for the film's two bullying cops, played by Tom Sizemore and the late Chris Penn. Their trustworthiness seems to vacillate depending on the scene and the circumstances. The same is true of Saul Rubinek's egocentric, stick-to-his-guns film producer character, Lee Donowitz.
If you haven't seen the film, you are missing a sublime story . . . not to mention cameos by Val Kilmer and James Gandolfini â€” two brilliant bits of casting that represent polar opposites on the trustworthiness scale.
What True Romance reinforces in my mind is the audience's need to quickly identify characters they can trust, characters they can't trust, and characters they're not sure can be trusted. The same rule (which might be too strong a word, but I'll use it anyway) applies to supporting characters in a D&D campaign. I think it's a mistake to flood your campaign with potentially trustworthy or untrustworthy NPCs. It creates too much uncertainty. The players need a larger group of supporting characters they can trust and who won't willingly betray that trust . . . and not just no-names who run the local taverns and plow the fields but also important "named" NPCs whom the party can rely on to accomplish tasks on their behalf. They also need some readily identifiable untrustworthy NPCs to spurn.
The "third rule" works well for me:
- One-third of my NPCs are identifiably and unfailingly trustworthy
- One-third of my NPCs are identifiably and unfailingly untrustworthy
- One-third of my NPCs fall somewhere in between these extremes on the "trust scale"
My players don't fuss over an NPC's betrayal because they're either expecting it or they know they're dealing with a member of that last third of the campaign's NPC population. Usually if there are "trust issues" to be worked out, it's within the party itself. If you want to read more about the Wednesday night group's inter-party trust issues, click here.
And for the record, there isn't a horse named Kikkers McHoofenstein or a drinking hole called the Fat Fanny Tavern in the Iomandra campaign, although if you ask my Wednesday night players, they'll say there probably should be.
Until the next encounter!
â€”Dungeon Master for Life,