Are your NPCs ubiquitous and ignored?

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This is a guest post by Ben McFarland. He is an occasional contributor to Kobold Quarterly, and one of the contributing authors of the Ennie-winning Tales of Zobeck, which was recently released for public consumption. You can also find his contributions in Wrath of the River King and Halls of the Mountain King. He aspires to one day gather his own army of dedicated minions.

Ubitiquous and ignored

That’s how most players and characters treat the servants in their games—be it the Baron’s castellan, the waitstaff at their dark and smoky inn, or the clerks and employees of the local merchant’s warehouse.

Dismissed as unimportant, as if that’s what the “N” and “P” stood for in NPC: uNimPortant Character. Players might think them nothing more than background dressing, worthless fodder for cleave or fireball, annoyances that either need to be saved or sidestepped before that giant comes crashing down the street. They’re just around to handle the mundane details adventurers can’t be bothered with before the next expedition into the dank and dark Cave of Doom!

But what if they weren’t? What if the collective group of laborers in your game was something more? What if they were organized and working toward the villain’s goal or even their own cross-purpose? Now their shadowy presence takes on a new significance…

But how do you pull it off so that it not only makes sense, but does so with style? Consider the race of haffuns, a variety of blend-into-the-background halflings described in John Wick’s article in Kobold Quarterly #10. Tailor made for just such a purpose, you simply need to properly work them into the fabric of the campaign and I’m going to tell you can do it.

The New Campaign

Adding haffuns into the New Campaign is easiest, because you’re establishing the environment and the world, and so haffuns become just an offhand comment, a minor point left to fester and grow as you expand your story. Player halflings are either from a distant and unrelated clan or, if your player can be trusted with the secrets behind the screen, even one of the haffuns secretly driving part of the plotline. This option is tough because it requires a very skilled player and it increases the number of people who know the secret—this always increases the chance that there could be an accidental slip. There are few disappointments as frustrating as taking several months to build up a big surprise only to have your party rogue casually and absentmindedly mention how “his people” probably won’t be thrilled about the party’s latest decision. Even trusted companions will likely turn on the character in a heartbeat—leaving the player with the option of spilling the beans and becoming a traitor or somehow finding a way to talk his way clear, but probably never really eliminating suspicion. In either instance, the reveal doesn’t happen by design. With that said, groups capable of handling such a deception and who find that sort of trickery novel will probably get a kick out of the infiltrator.

The Old Campaign

With an established Old Campaign, haffuns can still be easily incorporated as refugees, mass migrations, travelling communities or disaster survivors. These newcomers then integrate themselves throughout society on equal parts merit and fad—everyone wants to employ them because they’re so efficient, energetic and novel. They might have new dishes or drinks, special traditions or cultural taboos that better suit them in the role of servant. Whatever reasoning you make, you don’t want their arrival to come with fanfare or blatant attention—that’s not the haffun way. Better to have a group of emissaries arrive during a large harvest celebration, or the first rites of spring, perhaps the Count’s Tournament or popular religious holiday. Then players focus on all of the other activities while a small group of short people meeting with the local lord between performers is quickly lost within the chatter. Afterwards, you can start to incorporate the addition of crafts and structures designed for smaller frames, the plates of food that appear when the fighter isn’t looking, the nicely laundered cloaks and polished boots that await on piles of crisply folded laundry when the group awakens. Most parties won’t think twice about such perks, and that’s just what you want them to do. “What’s that?” asks the innkeeper. “’Hoo polish’d ye boots? Why that’s me good ‘elp, it was. Makes this place run like a waterclock, they do! And keep ta themselves, too!”

Don’t Call Them Dobby

The three varieties of haffun put a good edge on a race intended to fade into the background. The yffur provide nearly feral gangs of devoted street toughs who work to exploit the vices and weaknesses of their new “hires.” Their unwillingness to call someone their “master,” but rather their “hire,” underlines the strong haffun sense of independence. The wipla totally exemplify this freedom, seeking employment as scouts, hunters, spies and adventurers—whisking through the shadows to pilfer secrets and pass unseen, and many times with tacit permission. Groups may not realize they have a wipla tailing them between manors or a group of yffur shadowing them from the tavern until you decide to make their presence known. Consider creeping out parties with random objects left in their path, or strange items found in their packs and saddlebags.

But What Is It You Say You Do Here?

Okay, so you’ve gone to all this effort to bring the haffuns into the campaign, but what’s their focus? What drives them? The KQ article makes a mysterious implication suggesting the haffuns escaped from some enemy. This is great, because it is so vague which makes it easy to customize. Two options spring to mind:

1. They serve themselves, seeking permanent liberation from their ancestral oppressor. The haffuns think the party can somehow further or complete this goal.

Why this is good: This is great because it provides a hidden struggle that you can grow or conclude as necessary. The party caught your other BigBad on the road and demonstrated the latest in creative spellcasting with him as the target? No problem. Now you can bring the haffun issue into active play. Do you have a published adventure you’d like to run, but can’t seem to shoehorn the events into your primary storyline? Relax! The objectives of that prepared module are exactly what the haffun elders need done for the next step in their plans. One of the adventurers clumsily wandered into a bugbear lair and fell on a morningstar a dozen times while shaving? Easily solved! The haffuns are always willing to be owed a favor, and volunteer the costs in exchange for a vow for future assistance. This last option works especially well with the Death Feat campaign start discussed in August, as the mysterious figure whom killed the party might also be the same one the haffuns fled.

In this situation, the haffuns act as a secret network of contacts, supporters and allies. They appear when the party least expects it and have the ability to provide nearly any sort of goods or service through the resources of their innumerable hires. The distributed nature of their people means that you don’t need to worry about maintaining a single point of contact with the party unless you want to, shifting from one random messenger to the next and making it seem cool along the way.

2. The haffuns serve the campaign’s BigBadEvilGuy, acting as his spies, his special forces and secret police. They watch from the shadows with a subtle malice and practiced restraint.

Why this is good: Suddenly, all those freshly laundered shirts and polished boots feel so much more dirty when the party realizes the situation. It’s disconcerting to think that the people who bring them their food, clean up their rooms, and take away their garbage are the same enemies watching them sleep and biding their time before plunging a knife into their throats. Do the players seem complacent when they deal with NPCs? Have a poisoned bowl of milk delivered to the wizard’s cat familiar. Are they confrontational? Maybe those saddle straps break on a bad Ride check, sabotaged by the haffun groom. Is their attitude callous? Leave a couple of notes and a chalk mark or souvenir to prove that the haffuns can get close to the party when they want. All of this stalker-like taunting helps build their reputation as the unrecognized evil, hiding in plain sight. Drawing from the Death Feat campaign previously suggested, the haffuns might be the keepers of each party member’s physical token—the skull, scalp, or glass-encased eye that came from the hero’s original body. The haffuns’ smaller frames and trusted positions mean that you can secret those momentos in the homes of people who have absolutely no association with your BBEG, creating false connections and red herrings while taking advantage of hidden places where the haffuns’ stature becomes an advantage. How does the burly fighter explain to the Spice Merchant’s guards why he’s rummaging around in the chimney in the wee hours of the morning? And why is he carrying that skull?

In this way, you can use the servants in your game as something more than just nameless, faceless NPCs glossed over as the party goes to meet the Baron. Players love to stereotype and pidgeonhole the charaters they encounter over the course of an adventure and you use that to your advantage. By taking an aspect of the setting usually ignored and spinning it into a shadowy distributed organization you gain another set of tools to further your plotlines, inject variety, or create a sinister atmosphere with the potential to make your players’ skin crawl. Your servants become the secret eyes and ears or the knife hidden behind a smile, all while being invited into the halls of power through the service entrance. And with help like that, who wants a mint on their pillow?

This was a guest post by Ben McFarland. He is an occasional contributor to Kobold Quarterly, and one of the contributing authors of the Ennie-winning Tales of Zobeck, which was recently released for public consumption. You can also find his contributions in Wrath of the River King and Halls of the Mountain King. He aspires to one day gather his own army of dedicated minions.

4 thoughts on “Are your NPCs ubiquitous and ignored?”

  1. Don’t like the headline. My expectation: an article about how to individualize your NPC’s. What I got: an article that i slowly realized was about haffuns and only haffuns — no general advice at all. It would have been a fine article under the title “Are your servants ubiquitous and ignored?”

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