Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to deal with Elminster and other powerful "Good Guy" NPCs

Many settings have powerful NPCs that are more or less supposed to be "on the same side" as the player characters, or at least not outright Bad Guys that are supposed to be defeated. The Forgotten Realms is especially well-known for this - Elminster, Khelben Arunson, the Simbul and many others - but they are hardly the only ones. Aberrant has Divis Mal and Caestus Pax, Trinity has the Proxies, and the old World of Darkness also had its share of extremely powerful NPCs.

Many players - and quite a few GMs - worry that these NPCs will constantly overshadow the PCs and "steal their thunder", solving every problem for them and showing the player characters how useless they are.

But that doesn't need to be the case. Properly handled, these NPCs will not harm the campaign and instead be a useful asset to the game.

I've formed these opinions after (a) reading David Rothkopf's book Superclass, which describes the livestyles of the 5,000 most powerful and influential people on the planet and (b) the past three years of my work life - I am now working as a project manager, and this certainly has given me quite a lot of insight into power hierarchies.

First of all, you need to realize that the more powerful and influential people are, the more busy they tend to be - and the most powerful people are incredibly busy. The scarce free time is highly cherished, and they go to extreme measures to make sure they aren't bothered about inconsequential stuff. This means that they will have flunkies - also called "gatekeepers" - who do little else than make sure they aren't bothered for trivial reasons. This is even canon with Elminster, whose scribe Lhaeo takes perverse delight into making visitors fill out obscure forms in triplicate!

In other words, for low-level or inexperienced parties, such powerful people should be figures that are almost never seen, only occasionally glimpsed from afar. Even a short appearance should add importance to a scene, but they will soon be gone again and leave the PCs to their own affairs - in other words, the PCs remain the protagonists of their own story.

Of course, sometimes the PCs do stumble across extremely dangerous threats where it is entirely reasonable to notify the most powerful people they can find, and where it is entirely reasonable that said people would take an immediate interest in intervening.

In that case, let them meet with the powerful NPC. And let the NPC take them seriously.

"All right, you have convinced me. I will look into this and take care of it."

But... look at this from the POV of the NPC:

"Okay, these are obviously resourceful people, to have stumbled across this problem and survived to tell me about it. I have... uses for resourceful people like that."

So after that, the NPC tells them:

"By the way, there is a small problem I can't spare the time for right now. Would you mind looking into it?"

This is not presented as a trade - the NPC will help with the first problem no matter what. There is no obligation on the part of the playercharacters. Rather, this is a test of character - and the possible start of a mutually beneficial relationship.

If the PCs say "No", then it's that - the NPC will deal with the immediate problem (though inevitably there will be a few loose ends), but he won't show them any special favors later on. If they do say "Yes", and resolve the second problem to the NPCs satisfaction, then they have just joined his informal "network". He won't be constantly there to hold their hands, but he will pass useful information to them from time to time (especially when that information is about a mutual foe) and introduce them to all sorts of useful people. Of course, he will also continue to ask the PCs for all sorts of "minor favors" - dealing with problems which he doesn't have the time for. If the PCs attempt to get too much out of their relationship, he will become more distant again - only helping out with a genuine emergency.

What the PCs gain out of this is primarily a wealth of information - and if the PCs have a problem that is outside of their own expertise, the powerful NPCs might be willing to hand it to some of their other flunkies. The PCs should always feel that they are getting a lot out of this exchange of favors - and the GM can use this to hand out the next adventure seed.

Of course, if the PCs ask for more material assistance, then that's also an option.

"Okay, let me think - there is this magic sword that I don't have any personal use for, but I think you might find it useful.

Oh, and if you find any really oddball magical stuff, be sure to show it to me, hmmm?"

Again the PCs are given a favor in advance, with hints that the NPC would like to see some favors in return in the future. If they refuse to participate, future favors will start drying up, but if they do return the favor, the trades will likely work out beneficially for both of them.

If it's money they are after:

"Hmmm... what do you need all that money for?"

If they hint that the costs of living in the area are too expensive:

"Oh, that's no problem. I have a friend in the town who would probably allow to live in one of her building practically for free if I asked her! In fact, she would be happy to do so if you helped her with a little problem..."

And now the GM has another adventure to throw at the PCs - and if they go along, they will get something useful at a vastly cheaper price than otherwise.

A party member needs to be raised? Again, another contact of the NPC - a priest this time - will come to the rescue and do it for free, but he, too, will expect a favor.

Do they want a noble title? A "unfortunate misunderstanding with the authorities" cleared up? That, too, the NPC can arrange - by simply dropping the right word with the right people that the PCs are just the right adventurers for some highly specific jobs.

The PCs get what they want - not for free, but considerably easier than if they didn't remain in the good graces with the powerful NPC. The NPC gets what he wants - all sorts of little problems solved that he doesn't have to deal with any more, and thus can focus on other things. And all the contacts of the NPC also get useful contacts in the form of the player characters...

Eventually, as the PCs become stronger, the relationship becomes less one of patronage than one between peers. Then the PCs might meet not only with their former patron, but invited to meetings with other powerful people. By this time, the PCs probably have developed expertise with a particular "problem", and these powerful NPCs will only be too happy to hand any pertinent information about this problem to the PCs so that they don't have to deal with it - "It's a drow problem, let's hand it to these guys". The PCs, in the meantime, can try to foist dangling problems that they can't deal with themselves over to them. But ultimately, they have some of the most powerful people in the setting as peers and allies - and be counted as peers and allies by the great and powerful in return.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Where I read the Bible for Gaming Inspiration - Genesis 2:18-25

Continued from here.

"[18] And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
[19] And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
[20] And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him."

I am not sure what to do about the "out of the ground" phrase - perhaps the aboleth bio-factories I mentioned also seeded the land with animal life? However, this "naming of every beast" business strikes me a lot like a grand biological survey of all life forms on the planet. The aboleth presumably didn't have to survey the planet since they created all the life forms in the first place (unless they stuck around for long enough that evolution became a serious factor). So let's make the survey the work of a later civilization - in particular, the mythical Oreanor which is also called the First City. As they were masters of magical biotechnology, searching the world for life that might be useful for their research seems appropriate. Perhaps there are still some hidden repositories with samples somewhere in the world... such as in the Cold Frontier, where the First City certainly had active outposts.

"[21] And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
[22] And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
[23] And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man."

When I read that women were designed later - and as "help meets" to boot - I am immediately reminded that the First City basically created all the nonhuman races with their bio-magics as helpers (except for the elves, who were an experiment in genetic transhumanism). But it would be fun if a garbled account of this process survived somewhere in mythology. But garbled to what degree, and in whose deity's mythology?

Let's pick the deity Ouneiros, who is basically a demigod worshiped only in the ancient city-state of Ouneirotur in the Lake of Dreams region - which just happens to be the same city that the First City was allegedly in (though nobody has identified its precise location). Let's go with this idea:

Ouneiros was also the patron deity of the First City (or so he claims). And after the people of the First City "took stock" of all the animals in the world, they begged him for helpers that could help them in a way that the beasts could not. So Ouneiros took various body parts from various human inhabitants of the city and turned them into various nonhumans:
  • Elves (role as "companions"): Hair from the fairest maiden.
  • Halflings (role as "domestic servants"): A foot from the most good-natured household slave.
  • Gnome (role as "artisants"): An eye from the best artist.
  • Dwarf (role as "laborer"): Testicles from the most hard-working worker.
But then, in their hubris, the people of the First City attempted to create further servant people and combined humans with animals (for example, orcs with wild boars), which of course went terribly wrong. This was one of the reasons why Ouneiros turned his back from the First City, cursed it, and went to build a new city-state with his few loyal followers elsewhere before the First City suffered its inevitable doom.

At least, this is what his Book of the First City claims - one of the few texts describing Oreanor, which is why it is of so much interest to scholars, despite its often dubious contents. Ouneiros rules his city still, as he has done for millenia, and the city remains unchanging. Elves, halflings, gnomes, and dwarves are the only nonhuman races allowed to exist in the city, and they fulfill their ancient roles as servants - though since many of them object to this subservient role and flee, slavers occasionally capture members of these races from elsewhere and sell them here.

"[24] Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
[25] And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

My key phrase here is "shall be one flesh". Perhaps the First City also dabbled in combining men and women into hybrid critters? Whether this is something as simple as a hermaphrodite or as complex as an artificial intelligence formed out of multiple brains, Ouneiros probably disapproved either way. Though the latter are probably more interesting if the PCs encounter them in a long-abandoned First City lab...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Azoth Refinery, Treaty Stone, Ghost Boat, and Star Tower

In the heart of this volcano, the First City colonists built a refinery which used the heat of the magma to create azoth - pure, distilled magic in liquid form, which serves as "universal ingredient" for most magical rituals and whose production in nexus towers serves as the cornerstone of the economy of the Flannish Cities. The refinery is heavily damaged, and will only produce one drop of azoth every 36 hours. If fully repaired - which would be quite expensive and require importing a number of experts on magical engineering from the homeland - the refinery could produce as much as 1 drop per hour. Possibly more important, in the process said engineers could learn how to apply these principles for building future refineries, turning volcanoes into a new power source. Unfortunately, the structure and its environs are swarming with thoqqua and similar creatures of fire coming from the depths of the planet below - they would have to be kept away during both the repairs and the refinery's operation.

Near where the rivers meet, a (now fallen) monolith has been enchanted against the ravages of time, which makes its inscriptions still readable. The top side shows the script of the Old Native people, which has largely vanished from modern-day usage. The down side, now buried in the Earth, displays the same text but in the language of the now-vanished Naxal Empire of the Far Coast. If translated magically, the text says:

"We affirm the eternal brotherhood between the Naxal Empire and the Tribes of the North, pledging to stand firm against the monstrous brood of the Chasm of Filth and any other enemies of our people."

This refers to the war against the would-be god who attempted to reactivate the God Chamber at the center of the continent and who released hordes of alien creatures in order to fight the Old Native civilization.

Downriver of the Canyon of Faces there is a ruined cliffside settlement. One of the few recognizable remnants is an old, crumbling stone pier. During the day, sensitive people approaching it might sense an otherworldly presence. During the night, while the moon is shining, a large ghostly boat (capable of housing up to six passengers) with an equally ghostly navigator will appear. The navigator will be clad in native garb and will not speak, for while he has eyes, he has neither mouth nor nose. If spoken to, he will carry passengers to other parts of the river system, at a speed of 10 miles per hour - but he is unstable, and there is a cumulative 1:6 chance per hex that he will suddenly disappear, dumping his passengers and their cargo into the river.

South of the Bird Lakes, a half-ruined stone tower is covered with grass and shrubs. The tower is approximately 10 yards high and constructed in a conical shape, with a spiral ramp leading to the top. If examined closely, various star constellations can be seen chiseled in the wall, and somehow protected against the decay of the rest of the tower. Interacting with them via magic or other mystical means threatens to summon abominable creatures from beyond the stars. However, if the tower were to be restored, the proper rites could also create powerful wards against such creatures or help with banishing them.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.