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7/30/2013

Mentally Digesting Campbell's "On the NPC"


Not long ago, Courtney Campbell of Hack & Slash released his latest in a series of Dungeon Master Aids, On the NON-PLAYER CHARACTER [OtNPC]. Like the previous volumes in this series -- Interesting Treasure Generation and Tricks, Empty Rooms and Basic Trap Design -- OtNPC is a thoughtfully presented refinement/expansion of a pre-existing facet of the D&D game. OtNPC is fifty-eight pages and can be had in a soft-cover digest-sized version via Lulu (check out the link above). Old school illustrations by the author are sprinkled throughout the single-columned text and tables. Overall the interior of the booklet is faithful to an AD&D 1st Edition design aesthetic that is easy to read and evocative of that system.

OtNPC addresses an aspect of D&D that is usually left mechanically undefined: PC/NPC encounters and relations and how to objectively adjudicate them.

Rules-wary DMs take note: OtNPC utilizes known and standard systems to accomplish its ends. Morale, reaction rolls and attack throws are the essential backbone of OtNPC's innovations. Most usefully perhaps is how Campbell breaks down all PC/NPC relations into neat categories he calls Social Actions. In OtNPC the player character's bonds with NPCs can increase or decrease according to choices the players make in play.

Does it create more work for the DM? Well, if you're not one who "tracks" PC/NPC developments from session to session, then you will likely find the mechanical aspects of OtNPC to be a chore. Really what it all amounts to are 
  • a few key words that quantify an NPC's behavior
  • a notation reflecting the NPC's precise relationship to the PCs (eg. acquaintance
Does it create more fuss at the table? An extra table ("Social Action Reference") that you might want to clip to your screen. Your players might want to look over these rules, but it's not necessary. They could be entirely in the dark regarding the contents of OtNPC and the system would still function just fine, though they might notice that their actions have logical social consequences if that hadn't been the norm beforehand.

Does it make role-playing too mechanical? NO. It translates player choices into an objective framework in much the same way that ALL the other systems under D&D's hood do. But it does force the players to play well in an area of the game that is traditionally dominated by the DM's whimsy. Campbell apparently believes that NPCs should operate according to their unique personae rather than simply serve some story-based interest of the DM, and I have to agree. The DM's job should be to set out the pieces and adjudicate the actions of the players. It's all about the emergent narrative.

Is it system-specific? Nope. These rules could be applied to any version of D&D or its various retro-clones. 

I think this booklet is remarkable. It offers definition to an important area of D&D that (IMO) was asking for development. I'm anxious to test these rules out ASAP -- not only to make NPC encounters more interesting, but also to watch how OtNPC affects the overall flow of the campaign.


3 comments:

  1. Campbell apparently believes that NPCs should operate according to their unique personae rather than simply serve some story-based interest of the DM, and I have to agree.

    I think a lot of DMs agree. How does that necessitate an extra set of rules, though?

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    Replies
    1. The rules systematize elements of the game that would otherwise be confined to DM fudgery and subjectivity.

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    2. That's very accurate.

      It's not just a bunch of new rules. It's closer to a mediation on the reaction roll, and a set of concrete tools for turning encounters into something objective, rather than something dependent on subjective interactions.

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