Check for Traps
Worlds in Motion

Alexander Macris | 3 Aug 2010 21:00
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Sometimes Trouble Finds You

The second technique for putting your world in motion is to place some of your major static NPCs into the wandering encounter charts for the setting. The exact nature and reason for the NPC's presence on the wandering chart should be kept loosely defined, because if and when these encounters occur, you will interpret the NPC's reasons for appearing and behavior upon appearance in light of the party's past deeds. As the Book of Five Rings says, "It is very difficult to understand this merely by reading, but you will soon understand with a little practice." As an example, in my campaign, an ancient green dragon ruled the humanoids of the Istrith Forest. The party had been leading a band of mercenaries to attack the humanoids. While the mercenary band was camped out, the party had the misfortune of suffering a random encounter with the ancient green dragon. I interpreted this to mean that the dragon had roused itself to deal with the raiders in its territory, and staged the encounter as an attack on the party's campsite! This was pretty brutal, and they lost several characters and most of their mercenary band (50+) before the dragon used up its breath weapons and left.

The "wandering NPC" system gives a sense that the enemy can strike back but it avoids you having to run the campaign as a wargame where you actually work out every detail of the NPCs' moves. They are off "doing other stuff" unless a random encounter says otherwise, but when a random encounter says so, you can interpret the results as smartly as possible.

That said, there are occasions when you should work out every detail of a particular NPCs' moves. If the party's deeds place them in active confrontation with a major antagonist, it makes sense to develop some hand-crafted content in response to the party's actions. I generally do this in perhaps 1 in 4 sessions, mostly when I think the party is trying to "game" the system, i.e. acting in ways that only make sense if you assume the NPCs are static and stupid. You need to hand-craft enough content in response to their deeds to persuade the party that they are better off assuming the entire world is a smoothly running simulation and every NPC is fully fleshed out and intelligent. A simple example from my home campaign: The party poked a red dragon's nest and then ran back to town without killing the dragon, so I ruled that the dragon followed them back and attempted to burn the town to the ground.

The final technique, random events, is a beloved mainstay of old school gaming. Random events are similar to wandering monsters, but whereas a wandering monster is usually a simple fight-and-forget encounter, random events can be used as seeds to deepen the campaign experience. The key is to interpret the random event in the context of what's come before it. This is, again, something of an art that comes from practice. In my home campaign, I use a set of charts available in the Judges Guild Ready Reference guide that include town crier rumors, proclamations, boons and duties, and so on. Whenever the party loiters in a settlement, I roll on these charts, and then interpret the results according to things that are going on in the game. Sometimes this results in a quick battle - such as a "call to arms - town is under attack" result that I interpreted to be a counter-attack by an orc tribe the party had recently raided. Occasionally these random events can trigger an entire session's worth of play, such as when a "pestilence" event led the party's cleric to travel from town to town trying to stop an outbreak of black death.

Some of you will no doubt ask, of course, "Why can't you just have all this occur as a result of GM fiat?" In other words, why can't the gamemaster just hand craft when and where all events occur using his best judgment, rather than rely on triggers and random encounters at all? The most lucid answer to this question comes from James Maliszewski, one of our Days of High Adventure columnists. His detailed answer is that the embrace of events beyond your control is an integral part of the gaming experience for the referee. Roll the dice.

While normally I like to end on a point of game philosophy, I hope it will not upset any of you if I give you free content instead. Rob Conley, a leading old school sandbox designer whom I referenced in my last column, contacted me last week to offer a free PDF sandbox for Check for Traps readers. It's called "Southland," and it's from the Points of Light supplement. I "borrowed" a substantial amount of material from Points of Light in my home campaign, and I offer it with my highest recommendation. If you like Southland, you can find a complete copy of Points of Light on Amazon and RPGNow.

Click here to download Southland.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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