March 20, 2024

Ride Easy

Your mileage may vary, but when I first started playing D&D, it was a bit of a thrill when things got to the point wealth-wise when any of my characters could afford a horse. Owning an imaginary horse always felt really cool to me, because horses in fantasy games are fun. Having friends who play fantasy games who are really into horses and can tell you what type of IRL horse your character should ride makes it even more fun, as is those friends’ ability to point out how bad the rules for horses are in most games. But that’s incidental to the current topic.

The addition of mounts to the game cuts down travel time, allows for the easy outrunning of less nimble monsters, lets the characters dramatically storm into town in a cloud of dust, and ties into all other kinds of archetypes from the medieval/Wild West-hero playbook. But horses and other mounts can introduce a particular logistical issue with the story of a campaign — a problem unrelated to the actual rules for running mounts — that’s worth thinking about.

An armored paladin rides a warhorse in full barding.
Art by Darlene from the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

Don’t Hurt the Horse!

Animals becoming endangered in a story is a huge trauma trigger for many people, and for pretty obvious reasons. A lot of us generate intense amounts of emotional attachment to the animals we make part of our lives, and the experience of loving and being loved by a furry friend can be life changing. Many folks easily develop emotional attachments to animals in fiction for the same reason. And because RPGs connect our real lives and our engagement with stories in extraordinarily powerful ways, it’s not a surprise that when characters’ mounts are threatened in the game, it can easily mess with the fun.

Talking about animal welfare in the game is an excellent topic for session 0. During the preamble to a new campaign, players discussing their expectations for play can note how comfortable they are with violence directed toward animals, whether mounts, companion creatures, or animals acting as threats in the game. Some might want the campaign to avoid the topic entirely. Others might be fine with having animals as threats fighting against the player characters, while wanting to avoid threats to the characters’ mounts and companions. Other others might be fine with threats against the characters’ four-legged friends as long as the GM doesn’t arbitrarily target them for no reason.

In the event that the topic doesn’t come up in session 0, all players should understand that they can bring it up during a game session. If a story goes into narrative territory that’s making them uncomfortable, players should say so, whether that’s harm befalling a character’s companion, mount, or pet, or the party being expected to mow through non-evil animal threats with no options for noncombat resolution to the conflict.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A problem that comes up more often with mounts than animal companions (most of whom are either kitted out for combat themselves or small enough to hide during a fight) is worrying about what happens to them if they’re left on their own. Especially for characters traveling the uninhabited frontier that’s typical of many fantasy campaigns, it can be especially advantageous for a party to be able to roll up to the dungeon on horseback. But it can be equally easy for the players to then worry about what might happen when the party’s horses are left alone in the monster-haunted wilderness while the characters delve into the nearby ruins.

A house rule I came up with long before I’d even heard of the concept of session 0 is to go all meta and establish ahead of time that the GM isn’t going to mess with the character’s mounts as long as the characters do their level best to keep their mounts out of danger. If the horses are left hidden in the forest while the characters head off on their dungeon long weekend, they’ll fend for themselves and be right as rain when the party makes it back into the light. During a random encounter on the road, if the mounts are quickly hopped off and ordered away from the fight, they’ll steer clear of danger while the characters finish dealing with it. This approach will definitely stretch realism from time to time, but that stretch is more than worth the players not having to worry about a trusty mount ending up as part of a wandering dire wolf buffet.

A Horse of a Different Color

Although horses are the typical mount in most fantasy campaigns, the fun of obtaining a mount for the first time can be made even more enjoyable with an unusual mount. Griffons and hippogriffs are apex-cool flying mounts, carrying an enormous amount of predator gravitas, while giant dragonflies make equally great aerial steeds for Small characters. In a subterranean-focused campaign, giant spiders and cave lizards make excellent mount choices — especially when fitted with saddles that allow a rider to stay on board while their mount clambers upside down along ceilings. Axe beaks and polar bears make formidable mounts in arctic climes. And in a plane-hopping campaign, a phase spider makes a most iconic ride.

Moreover, the best part about obtaining an unusual mount often isn’t the mount themself — it’s the story setting up how your character and that mount got together. Did you earn a creature’s trust after saving their life? Were they a mount trained by someone else and offered to you as a reward for service, or who you rescued from an abusive owner? Being able to afford a mount is a nice milestone for a starting character. But being able to say you truly earned a mount is even better.


March 6, 2024

NPCs Who Go Both Ways

No, not like that. Though I think we can all agree that the best NPCs… well, let’s save that for another post.

What I want to talk about today are nonplayer characters who can serve double duty in terms of the part they play in a fantasy campaign, because you as GM have set them up to be useful allies to the characters, or to be sinister foes for the characters — and you don’t get to decide which path they take or who they ultimately are.

I make the following point a lot, so if you’ve heard it before, please bear with me. For me, RPGs are the most fun when unexpected things happen, but as GMs, we don’t get to deal with as much of the unexpected as the players do. Every new encounter, every dungeon door opened, every conversation with a mysterious hermit or suspicious barkeep kicks the game forward on a moment of uncertainty that hooks the players in because they want to know what happens next. But because the GM ostensibly knows what happens next almost all of the time, the fun of not knowing is largely denied us during the game. 

Loving that feel of uncertainty in the game is why I love things like wandering monsters done right, or rolling for random magic items and seeing what the players and characters do with them. It’s why I love the idea of dropping NPCs into a campaign without knowing what their true goals and personality are, or how well those things might or might not line up with what the player characters are doing. Because when I set up those NPCs, I know that I’m going to let the players decide those things, without them even realizing it.

First Impressions

When the characters first interact with an NPC, they might be drawn in by an empathetic reaction to whatever problem that NPC is going through. They might be instinctively suspicious because of circumstances, or because they’re aware that their enemies are plotting against them and they don’t know who they can trust. They might be indifferent, warily trusting but wanting to learn more information before engaging fully. And all those options are fine — unless you break out your NPCs with a clear and singular sense of who they’re meant to be. Because when you do that, you’ll eventually end up with the player characters loving NPCs you’d explicitly expected them to hate, or suspicious of NPCs who are there to lend them important aid, or indifferent to NPCs who you needed the characters to engage with in order to advance the story.

Every GM has had these sorts of experiences. Quest givers who the characters ignore, people needing help who the players assume are villains, villains who the characters get chummy with because their setup as NPCs makes them feel more nuanced than you’d ever intended, and on and on. But if you set up your NPCs instead as a kind of weathervane that can spin freely as the player characters engage with them, you can let the players easily and safely decide who those NPCs are, why they’re there, and what part they’re meant to play in the game.

Enter, Stage Left

I present to you here a few examples of the kinds of NPC setups I’m talking about, taken from an actual game — a three-year homebrew CORE20 campaign I ran a few years ago called “The Serpent and the Rose,” whose main villains were a lycanthrope order unimaginatively known as the Pack. The players in that campaign don’t actually know some of what’s expressed here in terms of the potential these NPCs might have had versus the way they turned out — because the way they turned out was driven entirely by the players’ collective reaction to the NPCs, and the relationships their characters ultimately forged with them as a result.

Hopcyn Raonull (Sheriff of Raharnwyd)

  • Scrupulously lawful, has a reputation for turning a blind eye for honest mistakes. He enjoys exchanging favors with others, understanding the long-term bond that creates. 
  • Secretly corrupt. He has a terminal condition that responds to remove disease, but not permanently. Has been quietly selling off stolen goods and magic confiscated by the militia for years to pay for magical healing. The Pack will discover this and turn him to their service in exchange for making him a lycanthrope, helping prolong his life.

Maili Mairald (Sage/Historian)

  • An absent-minded retired scholar. She pays for rumors, tales, legends, stories, and verifiable history with a seemingly endless supply of coin. (Rumors that she has a permanent everfull purse hidden somewhere on the premises.)
  • When the stories she collects have connections to the lore the Pack seeks, she sells that lore freely. The Pack’s fascination with the past promises her a place among them as their control spreads, and she’ll use that to protect herself when the bloodshed starts.

Conor Amastacia (Animyst Healer)

  • A retired healer who keeps to himself. A reputation as an old-school type who never cast a spell for anyone who didn’t pay in advance. In secret, he gives free healing to anyone who can’t afford it by taking promises of labor or installment payments that he then never calls in.
  • A secret dabbler in fell mind control magic. Working for the Pack, who use that magic to secretly bind local leaders to their control.

Brodrick Rathaill (Militia Captain)

  • Talented weapon master and trainer. Can appear overbearing when trying to encourage others to succeed. Dedicated to defending Raharnwyd to the point of needing to be convinced that problems in the wider area are important.
  • Driven entirely by ego. Has a problem with anyone except gentry-born like him in positions of militia leadership. Will embrace the influence of the Pack if it helps him get ahead.

The Path Not Taken

With this Schrodinger’s NPCs setup, a character can be both good and evil, both an ally and an enemy, until the players make a decision about who that NPC truly is and the game takes shape around that. Talking about the examples above, the players gravitated toward Sheriff Hopcyn Raonull so fast that I swear I heard an audible “Woosh!” during the game. They became fast friends right from the start, and that was great. In my notes, I dropped his potential for corruption even as I respun the narrative of him needing magical healing for secret reasons a couple of times to make it work within the context of a trusted ally. But in the end, even that got set aside when I realized it wasn’t necessary anymore. Because the players and characters had already forged the bond with Hopcyn that I had wanted that detail to catalyze.

Likewise, the absent-minded Maili Mairald became someone the players and characters felt responsible for and began watching over. Working off that, her corruption angle got replaced by a magical secret she held that could feed the characters important information — and which would make gaining that information always feel earned because of the players’ love for the character.

Conor Amastacia and Brodrick Rathaill, by contrast, were distrusted from the moment the characters set eyes on them. The story driven by that antipathy subsequently unfolded in legendary fashion, because it was built on a foundation of the players freely and honestly deciding how to react to an NPC, then having that reaction pay off. But there’s a never-played alternative version of the campaign out there in the multiverse somewhere where the healer and the militia captain became the party’s two strongest allies, while the corrupt sheriff and the conniving lorist became enemies who would have actively tried to take the characters down. And in either version of the campaign, the strength of the bond between the players, the characters, and the NPCs has been decided by the players, letting me as GM build on that unexpected outcome either way.