Review: On the NPC
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 15, 2013
Courtney Cambell, of Hack and Slash fame, recently published a new D&D supplement for dungeon masters, On the NPC. The book is essentially a look at two things: creating interesting non-player characters, and then managing the interactions between your players and those NPCs.
The later section of the book is probably the least likely to cause consternation from D&D fans. To start there are a plethora of random tables to help construct an NPC quickly, or help get the creative juices flowing. For example, Bulgar the Brave has large hands, thinks the gods are constantly watching him, and loves his pet excessively. I’m sure you can picture this fellow already. Once you have your ever so slightly fleshed out NPC ready to go, you then set up up some personality “locks and keys”: things the NPC will do or give the players based on their interactions with character. (i.e. if the players gamble with Bulgar he will tell them the location of his secret McGuffin.) Following that you can also set up a reaction track: things the NPC will do as their reaction to the players changes. This section of the book is about producing something you can use at the game table right away, that can be fleshed out more during play if required.
The discussion on interacting with NPCs is probably the more interesting of the two. The book opens with a look at the reaction roll: rolling 2d6 and adding a charisma modifier to determine how people and monsters the players encounter react to them. Courtney takes this idea and runs with it—very, very far.
Interactions with NPCs are governed by performing social actions, the number of actions determined by the number rolled on the initial reaction roll, which also determines a reaction modifier (as usual). The basic social action rule is as follows “Make a reaction (2d6) roll, modify by Charisma and current reaction.” The results are tabulated as follows depending on the roll: Failure, Rejection, Undecided (Counter-offer), Success, and Total Success. The GM can decide what these things mean in the context of their game and the action being attempted. If you are playing a version of D&D without more explicit skills, this seems like a good way to adjudicate situations you want to roll for.
These ideas are then further expanded upon to produce a more complex rule mechanic for social interaction. Various social actions (Drink, Grovel, Converse, etc.) are described in greater detail: each requires different rolls modified by different values to succeed or fail with varying results.1 A small one page table presents all the rules in one place. The specific details feel very much like something out of AD&D 1st Edition. That’s both a complaint and a compliment.
A PC might declare the action he in attempting to take explicitly, or a DM may map what a player describes his character is doing back to this set of social actions. The goal seems to be to turn an encounter with an NPC into any other puzzle that can be navigated through careful play—that doesn’t hinge on social skills of the player. You might know the thing to do in a given situation is bribe the guards and then lie to them, but you don’t know how to articulate that well. Instead a player could declare the actions she wants to take and see where the dice takes her.
I’m still not sure how I feel about resolving this aspect of the game mechanically. It feels a bit retrograde, but I’m having a hard time articulating what I don’t like about it. I don’t have any problem with someone saying “I hit it with my axe” in combat, so I don’t see why I should complain if someone simply wants to say no more than, “I grovel to the goblin,” outside of combat.
I’ve been playing a lot of 4th Edition D&D over the last few years, and it’s very common to see players reaching for dice in situations I personally feel they shouldn’t be. Everyone wants to use the skill on their character sheet their trained in. A part of me feels that itemizing the actions one can take is limiting, even if the goal is simply to highlight a sampling of the limitless things one can do. Sessions end up becoming a handful of dice rolls between long bouts of combat.2 I’d be curious to see if the rules presented here might actually encourage those sorts of players to do more when out of combat, or to treat what happens outside of combat as a first-class citizen in D&D. Adding this extra mechanical weight to the social side of the game might actually get people to treat it as important. A lot of people think D&D is a game about combat simply because the rules for combat are so fleshed out.3
One complaint I have is how the book is organized. The FAQ is in the middle of the book, and discusses stuff that comes after it. It probably should have been an appendix, perhaps the last one. Similarly, Appendix D is general advice which would probably have been better suited to be part of the actual contents of the book. There is a lot of good content that shows up after pages and pages of random tables. The overall format of the book is quite good, though. It’s a small A5 booklet. A lot of information in the book is summed up neatly in a handful of tables you can quickly reference.
The amount of dungeon mastering I do as my gaming approaches infinity is a big fat zero, so this is definitely a book I could do without. Nevertheless I picked it up because I enjoy Hack and Slash and buying the book seemed like a reasonable way to say, “good job on that blog”. More so, I’m always up for reading something interesting about Dungeons and Dragons. I haven’t actually sat down and used these rules in a game, so i’m not sure how qualified I am to say much of anything about this book. That hasn’t stopped me thus far. Buy this book: it’s full of interesting ideas, and who doesn’t love random tables?
To be fair, this is in part the nature of D&D encounters. The constraints on what you can do in a weekly drop in game are severe. ↩