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The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

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.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. I don’t like it when NPCs steal the heroes’ thunder, but if there’s one NPC who could give the party a run for its money, it’s Nyrrska. He’s a retired dragonborn assassin who used to serve Tiamat, meting out vengeance in the name of his Dark Queen. At some point in his nefarious career, he miraculously survived a life-ending slash to the throat. A servant of Bahamut saved his life, and in the wake of this near-death experience, Nyrrska had an epiphany and repented. He forsook Tiamat and retired to the Temple of Bahamut, becoming a lowly acolyte. When the PCs showed up at the temple seeking refuge from Tiamat’s assassins, Nyrrska took it upon himself to help them survive, at the risk of alienating his former associates. When the temple’s high priest decided that the heroes were a worthwhile investment, he assigned Nyrrska to accompany them as Bahamut’s emissary. His assassin skills were rarely put to use, but when the PCs finally won themselves a ship, Nyrrska’s intimidating presence and raspy voice made him a great choice to keep the crew in line.

When the PCs made an enemy of Vantajar, the one-eyed dragonborn pirate warlord, Nyrrska understood why Bahamut had chosen HIM to watch over them. In one of those “too cool for skool” moments of the campaign, it was revealed that Nyrrska had tried to kill Vantajar once. That encounter left Vantajar short one eye and Nyrrska with a slashed throat.

L ast week I talked about making nonplayer characters (NPCs) more interesting by giving them secrets, and at the risk of boring the masses, I'd like to continue exploring the topic of NPCs a bit more. It'll give me a chance to do something I haven't done very often: hearken back to some earlier columns and demonstrate how the pieces fit together.

Not every DM invents his or her own monsters, but all DMs invent their own NPCs. There's no way around it. Generic, nameless NPCs are easy enough to plunder, but they are inherently less compelling than campaign-flavored ones. Specific "named" NPCs have a lot more going for them, but the more hard-coded they are to a particular campaign world, the harder it becomes to transplant them. Yeah, I could file off Drizzt's name and include a scimitar-wielding drow ranger in my home campaign, but my players would think I'd finally run out of ideas. By the same token, the NPCs in my campaign aren't likely to fit well into someone else's campaign. Maybe it's just me, but there's just something awkward and uncomfortable about using someone else's NPCs. It's kind of like using someone else's dice or wearing someone else's socks. As a DM, I'm far more comfortable stealing and modifying a stat block than I am stealing another DM's concept for an NPC.

Fortunately, NPC creation doesn't have to be a chore. When I create an NPC on the fly (and let's be honest, most of mine are created this way), first comes the name, then the secret, then the stats, then the voice, and finally the layers.


Here's where I flash back to earlier articles . . .

Name: The hardest part, IMO. It takes a sharp DM to concoct appropriate and memorable names on the fly, and no, "Wizzy McWizard" and "Thundarr Super-He Man" don't qualify. If you've been reading this column week after week, you already know my tricks for coming up with names.

Secret: Campaigns are built on secrets. Without them, players have little incentive to explore the world and uncover its mysteries. And as we discussed last week, NPCs need secrets, too.

Stats: I rarely have time to create NPC stat blocks from scratch. Once I know the NPC's level, I can use the D&D Compendium or the "Monsters By Level" appendices in the various Monster Manuals to find an appropriate stat block which I can customize using various cheap tricks.

Voice: The NPC's voice is your voice, with or without a twist. You might add an accent or a throaty rasp, change the tempo or pitch, or use any one of a number of other simple tricks, or you might decide it's not worth the effort. Not every NPC needs a unique voice.

And the last piece of the puzzle . . .

Layers: That's layers, not lairs! (Sometimes NPCs need lairs too, but that's a topic for another week.) If all you need is a faceless NPC to remind your players that the world has other people in it, don't worry about adding layers. Layers are what you need to turn a "cardboard cutout" into a fleshed-out NPC as real and three-dimensional as the heroes.

At last, we arrive at the crux of this week's article—what I like to call "the 3D NPC." You've created an NPC and given him or her a name, a stat block, a secret, and a voice. The NPC is all dressed up and ready to go! As he or she begins interacting with the player characters, you'll see opportunities to start adding layers to the NPC. Layers are great because (1) you don't need to add them right away and (2) you don't need to add them all at once.

Most layers have zero impact on the events of the campaign. They exist simply to add a touch of realism or complexity to an NPC. To be effective, a layer needs to paint the NPC in a different light, revealing a side or aspect of the character that's in some way surprising or unexpected. Here's a random table of layers that you can use for NPCs of any level, alignment, disposition, and importance:

d20 The NPC . . .
1 doesn’t like children because they’re reminders of an unfortunate childhood.
2 owns a collection of ukuleles, fiddles, and violins and plays them all beautifully.
3 used to be a sword swallower in a traveling circus or freak show.
4 has a “thing” for members of a particular race (such as elves or gnomes).
5 stutters when he or she lies.
6 knows everything there is to know about demonology and the Abyss.
7 is a hopeless romantic and matchmaker.
8 is obsessed with immortality and wants to be a vampire.
9 fakes an injury to gain sympathy or advantage.
10 talks in his or her sleep.
11 is sickened by the sight of blood.
12 claims to be of royal descent but hails from a common bloodline.
13 was raised by orcs, goliaths, or treants and picked up some odd habits.
14 visits the grave of a deceased loved one regularly.
15 looks after an ailing parent or elderly mentor.
16 makes dolls or carves wooden figurines, and gives them away as gifts.
17 is afraid of cats, heights, water, or the dark.
18 raises a child but isn’t very good at it.
19 writes poetry.
20 is a kleptomaniac.

Lessons Learned

I learned the importance of layers by watching serialized television dramas such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lost, True Blood, Mad Men, Leverage, and Firefly. Layers tend to show up in television series more often than in feature films because the writers, producers, and actors have more time to explore the various facets of the characters and revel in the complexity of their relationships.

Let's use Firefly for this week's example. In the first episode, we learn that Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is a self-serving bandit with a chip on his shoulder because he fought a war and ended up on the losing side. He bucks authority and doesn't like it when people stick their nose in his business. He shies away from personal attachments, and the harsh frontier of space has turned his heart to ice. And yet, as the series unfolds, we discover his relationships are infinitely more complex and that he's both smarter and dumber than we initially surmised, depending on the situation and the circumstances. We see him at his best and worst. And then there's the character of Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a gun-toting halfwit who takes orders from Reynolds but has zero loyalty. Who could've guessed he'd turn out to be a pompom hat-wearing momma's boy?

In the context of a D&D campaign, a layer is something you add that casts your NPC in a new light. In some cases, the new layer invites players to adjust their opinions of the NPC. An evil brigand surrenders to the party to avoid being killed and turns out to be a friendly and sympathetic jokester while in custody. A half-orc innkeeper who's nothing but kind to wealthy adventurers shows little regard for his employees and bilks them out of their earnings. You get the idea.

Back to Iomandra . . .

You've already met Nyrrska, the dragonborn assassin who lurks in the shadows of the Wednesday night party. Now allow me to introduce you to another NPC from my Wednesday night campaign.

Tyranny (a.k.a. "Tyra") was introduced at the start of epic tier as a foil for Deimos, a tiefling sorcerer and ship captain played by Chris Youngs. After Deimos's ship was sunk, he forged a pact with Dispater to have the vessel returned to him. As part of the agreement, Deimos was forced to take Tyra, one of Dispater's consorts, as a concubine and swear to protect her against all harm. Tyra appeared in Deimos's bed one night as a voluptuous tiefling, although her "big secret" is that she's a polymorphed succubus. (For her stat block, I used the level 9 succubus advanced to level 25.)

Tyra's arrival set the other characters (and players) on edge, for Deimos had not consulted with them prior to cutting his deal with Dispater. There were some personality conflicts, but a deal is a deal—the heroes couldn't risk throwing Tyra overboard or killing her. And so, she became a necessary evil.

Tyra's mission is to find some way to resurrect the dead tiefling empire of Bael Turath, but that's a fairly long-term goal. The first layer I added to her was an unflinching lawfulness. She learns the game and always plays by the rules. She needed to prove to her detractors that she was a valuable addition to the crew but couldn't magically charm or dominate them without breaking Dispater's contract. These shackles forced her to rely on her natural charms rather than her fiendish ones. She was blunt when it paid to be honest, quiet when it paid to be demure. Whenever the PCs reached an impasse and weren't certain how to proceed, Tyra would step forward and offer a carefully considered insight that could only come from an NPC gifted with a shred of the DM's prescience. Honesty isn't what the players expected from her at all. That, and the fact that she likes to take her clothes off and walk around in the nude (don't we all).

When it comes to adding new layers, the DM doesn't have to do all the work. Sometimes a player will find a way to add layers to an NPC by way of association. In Tyra's case, another layer was added after two party members died. Chris Champagne decided he wanted his next character to be a Prince of Hell named Kosh, and so he concocted a background that suggested he and Tyranny were old acquaintances. To bring Chris's new character into the fold, I had Tyranny summon him from the Nine Hells. Afraid that the party was no longer strong enough to survive the trials and tribulations ahead, she convinced Deimos to let her cast the summoning ritual using drops of mortal blood taken from various willing crewmembers. I never expected her to have a history with a character other than Deimos. When your players take to an NPC in this way, you know you're doing something right. It's icing on the cake.

Despite the fact that she's a succubus in disguise, Tyranny has become genuinely fond and protective of the PCs—even the ones who don't trust her. Over the course of the epic tier, she's proven adept at spotting enemy deceptions (she is, after all, a master of deceit). This penchant coupled with her unwillingness to deceive the party elevates her from a mere companion to an equal. Having been stifled by the tyrannical hierarchy of the Nine Hells, she doesn't take her newfound equality lightly, but in her heart, she's still a succubus. She could've summoned any Prince of Hell, but she chose Kosh for a reason. He's her ticket to restoring Bael Turath and fulfilling the terms of her agreement with Dispater. No matter how many layers she has, she must remain true to her essence.

While layers add new depth or dimension to a character, underneath all those layers the character must remain recognizable and true to its core. Malcolm Reynolds would not be Malcolm Reynolds without that chip on his shoulder, and Jayne would not be Jayne if he stopped being a dumbass. Similarly, the ex-assassin Nyrrska would lose his gravity if he burst into tears every time someone hurt his feelings. The next time you want to add a new layer to an NPC, remember: A layer is just icing. You can put tar on the cake instead of icing, but no one's gonna buy it.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

If you could have a real-live dinner date with one of the following NPCs, which would you choose?
Elminster 423 20.3%
Mordenkainen 347 16.6%
The Lady of Pain 310 14.9%
Drizzt Do'Urden 242 11.6%
Raistlin Majere 234 11.2%
Lolth 188 9.0%
Strahd von Zarovich 136 6.5%
Caramon Majere 103 4.9%
Asmodeus 102 4.9%
Total 2085 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #36A

 Do you like it when we includes NPCs in our monster books, as was done in Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale?  
Don't really care

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #36B

 Hey DMs: How often to you "borrow" NPCs, in whole or in part, from other campaign settings?  
Once in a blue moon (i.e., rarely)

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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