Monday, November 23, 2020

More on NPC encounters, and a (merely semi-grim) micro-setting.

In my spare time, I continue to type away at a growing list of interactive NPC encounters to add color to journeys along dark, forested highways, or to season the overnight stays at taverns along the route (as I recently described here). My list has more than doubled in size, and I'm envisioning a d4 x d6 or even d6 x d6 table of 36 encounters that I'll hope to have available...sometime soon. 

Here are a pair of further examples (not yet edited much, I should note; these will need some trimming):

Cannoneer – a team of oxen has been pulling a heavy wheeled cannon, but their cargo is swathed in cloth that mostly obscures it. The cannon has been sent from the distant fief of an ally to the Von Liebegg family, who sense that a local war with their neighbors may be in the offing soon. However, one of the cannon’s heavy wheels has broken and the whole team is now standing idly by the roadside while a few armed men stand about chatting. Pacing back and forth anxiously is the lead drover, a well-dressed man whose face is lined with worry. As the PCs approach, he hails them and asks them if they know how long it should take someone to reach the next settlement and return, on foot (he has sent someone for help and is worried that they are taking too long). Looking about nervously, he tries to convince the PCs to stay to help guard their cargo ‘in case of bandits,’ but he also vigorously tries to prevent and PCs from approaching the cargo or identifying it. 

At a tavern: the cannoneer and his men have stopped here for the night. The cannoneer-drover is inside eating and resting, but his men are outside with the animals, guarding the shrouded cannon. Several times an hour, the drover hurries outside to make sure that nobody has tried to interfere with the cargo. His men are getting thoroughly sick of this. 

Kennelmeister – this dog trainer is leading his charges to the nearest settlement. PCs will first see a swarm of 14 dogs – some large and muscular, others merely small but vicious – charge down the road, baying at them. Moments later, a whistle will sound, the dogs will retreat, and the Kennelmeister will come into view around a corner in the road. He is a polite but no-nonsense man, quite willing to help anyone with legitimate pressing needs, but otherwise wanting to be left to his journey. 

At a tavern: the din of over a dozen canines barking from the rear of the tavern is fierce and astonishing. The innkeeper has rented barn-shelter and food scraps for the night to the Kennelmeister, who will diligently sleep with his dogs. But the noise is terrible. The harried innkeeper quietly approaches the party and asks them to ‘make the Kennelmeister move along’ (the innkeeper intends to keep the dog-trainer’s money, and will even share half of it with the PCs if they help him). Obviously, the PCs are free to help the Kennelmeister instead if they wish. 

While working on these, I've been torn between keeping them pretty generic, and thus useful for many settings, or letting them reflect a specific setting. I've decided to flesh them out a bit with a micro-setting, envisioning something very compact that could accompany the list - something to ground the encounters and give them real color, but nothing so specific that it couldn't be modified easily for someone else's table. 

In fact, I think a fun approach would be a short guide to a 'Highwaycrawl.' Offer up a very short micro-setting with a pointcrawl map of highway segments, settlements, and taverns - along with some known wilderness trails. Give some system-neutral procedures for generating encounters along the road. Then - here's the key pitch - set up the party as newly-hired Road Wardens tasked with keeping the roads safe and open, so they have a real reason to move around encountering these folks. Finally, keep the map open and vague enough to allow GMs to dump their favored dungeons onto the map if desired. 

For the micro-setting, I decided to embrace an old idea of mine from one of my first blog posts: build a campaign around PCs who are unusually mobile, and provide story hooks directly relating to the ways that other people depend on or want to exploit that mobility. Here, however, I'm not looking at a really big setting (a faux-Bronze Age Mediterranean) but a relatively tiny setting (one dark, forested Duchy on the edge of a late-medieval Empire). 

Here's the postage-stamp version of the micro-setting idea. Does it sound like a fun place to game?

The Wulfmarch should be prosperous, given its silver mine and location along an important trade-route, but the locals are held back by an ancient curse: when the men of the Wolf-Horde failed to seize the region eight centuries ago, the dying Wolf Khan swore that if he couldn't have the land, then no-one would. Today, any native-born man, woman or child out after dark in these woods is hunted by the terrible Ghost Wolves, dire beasts that come and go like shadows, but whose terrible fangs are all too corporeal. As a result, the people of the Wulfmarch huddle closely together in central, walled settlements near the highway, and refuse to take any journey without a secure haven within a day's easy walk or ride. 

Thanks to extensive sub-infeudation by the Prince-Elector's vassals, the Duchy is now a patchwork of petty noble holdings. Most of these lords don't even live here; they send non-native agents to exploit the lands and take away the profits to other estates up north. The Miners' Guild, staffed by Outsiders, pays well enough to maintain almost total control over the region's silver production, which rarely enriches any native-born household. Because of the Wolf-Curse, even the Wardens who keep open the highway must be Outsiders, capable of chasing quarries or investigating problems...that might keep them out after dark. 

And there are certainly problems for the Wardens to investigate. The petty lords are caught in an escalating web of insults and feuding; the common folk (some say) have had nearly enough, and begin to talk openly of revolt; and - here and there - even the respectable suggest that a few prayers or sacrifices offered to the Ghost Wolves might be an acceptable price for safety...But the price is high. Some Wolf Cultists (the wise shudder to say) became the beastmen who roam the woods...while others, who so far have only sold their humanity on the inside, might be willing to open the gates that protect isolated settlements from the hungry darkness...

I've got a few design motifs in mind here:

+ For some reason, lately I've been thinking a lot about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I've always had a thing for Warhammer's Old World - but I'm less into the level of grimdark often associated with it. I really like the mundane, darkly humorous setting, but I'd like it even more with a bit more room for hope (keep in mind that GW officially blew up the entire setting, eventually...). 

+ One of my favorite blogs is Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City. One of his classic posts has provided inspiration for me here. I'm trying to write a little setting - and rich character encounters to match - that provide a truly gritty stage, but one in which "love matters" - people are valuable, even when they're awful, and there just might be a way to fight for a better status quo. To quote ATWC directly

Let me put it like this: the Wicked City represents a failure state. It is meant to communicate an idea of what can happen when, under conditions of extreme social stress, the failure of human beings to love one another reaches epidemic proportions. ... The symptom of this inhumanity, this failure to love, is dehumanisation ... so to be against the Wicked City is to be against all that, against this miserable grinding system of oppression which keeps turning people into literal and figurative monsters. In a more traditional fantasy game the assumption would be to make a long list of all the bad people, and then kill them ... You can totally play it like that if you want to ... I've tried to keep open the possibility of approaching these as social problems, requiring social solutions. 

+ In the moments when I tolerate my delusions of grandeur, I would like my little list of interactive encounters to be really well-suited for something like that. There are plenty of monsters to kill, but there is also a whole horde of grubby people just trying to live their lives, often at each others' expense, and maybe the PCs' efforts can do something to make it all a little brighter. Or, you know, just go kill monsters. 

Thanks for reading. 


  1. I really like this setting concept! I've always tried to give my games a flavor more akin to Old Warhammer than Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk or whatever and your ideas for this region really capture that spirit in a great way.

  2. not crazy about the fact that "road wardens" are basically cops. wouldn't play well at my table for sure...

    1. Thanks. I appreciate the feedback, even if it's critical. I hear you, too, and will simply note that much of the idea here is to present the attendant power imbalances *explicitly* as something this kind of setting lets you talk about critically. That is to say, as imagined here, the PCs aren't 'cops' exactly, but they are patrolling anti-bandit and anti-beast forces...and various groups in society will want to leverage the privileges that go with that role in various ways. Some of them are patently unjust, and the PCs get to decide how they want to respond to that sort of thing.

      In other words, you can basically play this just as another Witcher clone (show up, kill the monster threatening the village/tavern, get paid, repeat) or you can turn it into a more thoughtful interrogation of justice and violence.

      All that aside, some folks will want nothing to do with this premise. I can respect that. #BlackLivesMatter.

    2. One other thought: I'm riffing in this micro-setting off some concepts embedded in Warhammer Fantasy. Two of that game's classic careers include "Road Warden" and "Herrimault" (basically a Robin Hood forest vigilante). I actually considered both approaches here and think the setting could work well for either party concept, but the 'highwaycrawl' focus on NPC encounters along the road seemed to call for more of a road-connected concept. Any thoughts on alternate frameworks that might use the same material well?

  3. Hi Gundobad and Captain Crowbar,
    If the PC’s would not like Road Wardens, how about a group of travelling entertainers, with an agenda on the side.

    1) Possibly as advanced spies for a group of thieves / Bandits that they could play on the next session.
    2) A group of Religious Order of monks transporting a Relic / Taxes to another area. (Who else might want the relic or want the Order to suffer?)

    Another idea could be a gang of Eco-warriors transporting a monster -

    1)Out of harm’s way / to a wilderness area.
    2) From / To a battle, where it can attack / defend a location.
    3) To a holding / breeding area.
    4) To a local Wizard / Castle.
    The locals may not be too keen to see you /It /Them especially if it escapes.


    Ivor Cogdell

    1. Thanks, Ivor, I quite like those options!
      In the end I chose to de-couple my NPC accessory from any specific party or campaign concept, since (as you've both illustrated) different groups will have very different desires for using such a resource. These are all great ways one could incorporate those tools.


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