Friday, September 10, 2010

Evil Unnumbered

Pekka and Reesk, a couple of kobold Dragonshields, did not wake up this morning to die. They woke up this morning, like every morning, to live. To survive another day. They grew up in their den close to one another, brothers, and so watched over one another as best they could. They are not humans and so insight into their relationships with the rest of their clutch or clan or pod, and how they view the world, and what they think when one of their young dies, are all difficult to assess. But they did not grow up carefully following the Evil Handbook of Evil for Evil Doers to fulfill a role of being worth 25 XP apiece to someone. They have their own ambitions, their own wants, even if these seem limited and unimaginative to the civilized races. Most importantly to our purposes here: they do not act, smell, look, dress, move or talk the exact same way any more than cats, people or old cars do.

In short, they have no idea that they are a collection of numbers designed to be a temporary obstacle to the winning team.

Karl the evil cleric was once a little boy with his own family and his own dreams. Somewhere along the way – maybe at a young age, maybe recently – he turned to the world of necrotic energies and demons. But he has a history, a narrative. He has good days and bad ones. He has laughed without malice, cried for someone other than himself, felt the range of human emotion. He is intelligent, and like the brothers above does not want to die. He is also unaware that he is a collection of numbers from a grid.

Skaarna Elezinst Ssythindrir Atta’ask has been alive for centuries, has seen more from soaring above ice caps and forests, castles and fields, than most every creature on her world. An ancient white dragon, she exudes vast power to match her intellect, her lifespan, her unknowable ambitions. Yes, her overweening confidence has brought her low before, but she does not get herself killed because she is too smart for that. Like Karl and the kobolds*, she has a history, a name, a story.

They are the opponents our parties strive against when we unpack our dice. To some players, they are the groups of numbers that their characters’ numbers must defeat so that they can get a hold of better numbers. But this isn’t a video game, those closed worlds of pixels where everything is fixed – plot, monsters, NPCs, environments, even your own character – all static, all coded. Choices are there illusory and extremely limited. But the graphics are cool, the sounds are pretty, and occasionally the story – unalterable as it is – is compelling.

The worlds of FRPs are something else, though. They are living entities where anything can happen. Picture an encounter with, say, a pack of goblins. In a video game, they have assigned roles, hit points, programmed strategies. It is a throw-away fight for treasure and XP. Perhaps the battle is fun but it is the enjoyment of reflexes, not imagination. Six goblins up; six down, each with identical tactics, hit points, appearance, weapons and behavior.

But what if each one had a quirk, like facing north at all costs during a fight or listening to a bird claw he kept in his off hand for combat advice or had a peg leg or peed on the character while battling or just really really did not want to die? What if each goblin had a slightly different reason for being there? What if each one had a name?

Then you don't have a group of people fiddling with numbers all evening. What you have there is a story.

And that is, I think, what it’s all about.

Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom.

Cranky Druid, a.k.a.
Verdre Aspianne, CEO
Dead Stay Dead, Inc.

Stamp out mediocrity: DM intelligently.

* “Karl and the Kobolds” would make a GREAT band name.


  1. Certainly Karl and the Kobolds will be the new enemies in my campaign. A bard and his loyal kobold servants!

    Now, about your number X story lineup, if the players get to a group of bandits in a road and simply kill them, they won't get too much story. So I prefer to pick some little "story" for these not so critical encounters only if there is a survivor.

  2. There is no guarantee that the players will ever ask or care about the little living, breathing stories that every kobold, evil necro cleric, or whatever has. Are we to endlessly copy Dragonball Z and have our enemies go into endless background talking while we trade ultimate attacks?

    What you suggest is interesting for the DM as a creative exercise and not particularly useful to the course of the game 85% of the time. Like the commenter above, I would suggest focusing your advice on the mid boss and big boss creatures.

    PS Karl and the Kobolds will be performing in my PCs favorite bar as soon as I can swing it