Recently I’ve been devouring the contents of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and some of its contents (NO SPOILERS) have inspired me to do a little ranting. The good kind.
Dungeon Masters love to go online and wail about rampant Murder-Hoboism in their group. There are a plethora of Youtube videos, articles, and forums discussing this “issue” at length. Usually I see that the discussions often focus around the Players and what they may or may not being doing. Categorizing problem players or bad habits. But it takes two to role-play a tango and the faults of the DM are too frequently overlooked. In my opinion it is a cardinal Dungeon Master sin to present players with 2D, boring NPCs. If you want your players to not murder everything with a pulse, you need to give them a reason to care. Make interesting NPCs and their first thought won’t be “I wonder how much gold he has and whether I can kill him before the guards find out.”
In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist the writers/designers have done their due diligence in presenting interesting, memorable, and complicated NPCs. I’ve not yet read the whole book but by only Chapter 2 I am delighted with the role-playing possibilities it will afford me and our group. I will give one such example, without too much context, to illustrate my point.
Embric and Avi. A married couple in the city of Waterdeep. Embric is a male Fire Genasi, and Avi is a male Water Genasi. Together they operate an armorer and blacksmith shop. Their descriptions are very simple and to the point. Embric is descended from the efreet of Calimshan and is prone to mood swings. Avi worships Eldath, God of Peace, is laid back, and speaks plainly. And that’s about all that the book has to say about Embric and Avi. But immediately after reading these succinct paragraphs I was overwhelmingly inspired to role-play these characters. Inspired enough to make a blogpost about it. It also reminding me of an antidote to Murder-Hoboism.
Embric and Avi are interesting. I immediately have questions about them. How did they meet? How long have they been married? What does an argument look like between the two of them and what do they agree on? What does it look like when a Fire Genasi and a Water Genasi kiss? Are they very private when in their shop or do they show public affection? Do some patrons give them a wide berth and refuse to go to them? Do they play elemental pranks on one another? Wouldn’t their shop be incredibly steamy, what with all the moisture and warmth?
The fact that I have all these questions is a great indication that 1) I will enjoy role-playing them, and 2) my players will at least remember them if not fall in love with them. These are NPCs with gravitas, and with only 252 words the module has set me up nicely to almost completely rule out the possibility of a Murder-Hobo situation. Why?
Because the inclusion of diversity and complex social situations force players to play the game in a more “realistic” way. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier when NPCs are three dimensional. The Grognard might say “oh well that’s ridiculous a Water Genasi and a Fire Genasi would never fall in love.” and to them I would say your fantasy is painfully wrong. I would also say the cliche’ “Opposites Attract” and I would also ask them if they have ever been in a real human relationship.
Humans and relationships are messy, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. We say “I’m going on a diet” and then crumble at the sight of a red velvet cake. We say “I’m not going to call her.” and then we do in a moment of weakness. We do and say things that make no logical sense, spurred on by emotional undercurrents that are years in the making and sometimes can only notice their ripples in hindsight. Human interactions are varied, include subtext, and are almost never simply what they may appear to be. Why, as a DM, would you rob your players of the rich experience of meeting an NPC they actually care about?
Let’s talk about Panda for a moment.
Panda is a Giff gunsmith savant I created for my Spelljammer campaign. He is loud, boisterous, and has zero social tact. He always says the most obvious things at the most inopportune times. My players grew to love him and he made several repeat appearances. Later in the campaign, I had established our world as having “multiple timelines” existing concurrently and they could be glimpsed in weird ways. I hinted that in an alternate timeline Panda had joined forces with the heroes to thwart a great evil, and he had solo piloted a ship rigged with smokepowder into an enemy armada. He sacrificed his life in order to save them from an unwinnable scenario. My beautiful wife, playing two characters in the campaign, immediately wept in real life. She wailed “We don’t deserve him!” and continued to cry. Somehow I had stumbled upon a character that was real in our minds and we gave a shit whether he lived or died. We care about Panda on a very real and emotional level. That’s because he’s not “The Gunsmith.” He’s Panda. He is real in our minds because he has a past, he has hopes and dreams, and he has his faults and failings.
Next time you’re tempted to use a placeholder NPC with zero personality, probe deeper and try to figure out what makes them tick. There’s plenty of techniques to flesh out characters, but here’s four quick questions that might help you:
1) What do they want badly and are having trouble getting?
2) What’s a quirk or habit specific to them?
3) What’s one thing they want everyone to know?
4) What’s one thing they want nobody to ever know?