My Favorite NPC Lived, Thanks To System Mechanics

Last time, I talked about an NPC I fell in love with (Anneliese), and hoped the PCs wouldn’t kill. They didn’t kill her. Amusingly, they didn’t kill *anyone*, although they did beat a lot of people up quite significantly. The others escaped, but they left Anneliese behind because she was hobbled and the intelligence agent didn’t like her anyway.

So… the PCs gave her a ride back to town to get healing. Seriously. Now, obviously, the players themselves get credit for making fun RP decisions instead of killing everyone in sight. But, it’s not just them…

The System Itself Helped

This is where the fact that we were playing Fate Core and not D&D helped. One of the fundamental differences is that combat is a heavy focus of D&D, and lethal combat is the norm. You have to actively take steps to avoid killing your target, unless you just get lucky on damage rolls and put them into the disabled/bleeding out state (and with my Cleric slinging around Save or Die spells… yeah).

In Fate Core, killing people is not the norm. You “take them out” of combat, and it takes an active action after the fact to kill them. If people concede, typically they won’t die in that scene (otherwise they probably won’t concede). The difference between it being an extra step to kill, as opposed to an extra step to not kill. That distinction seems small, but the subtle change makes a major difference in how players approach it.

Another way the system helped is by shifting the focus. I had a player remark at the end of the night that Fate was quite good at encouraging storytelling out of the session. Storytelling tends to flow better if you’re not murdering everyone you meet, and this NPC had lots to say. We had a rather silly exchange on the way back to town after the fight, when two PCs were arguing over who to bring the crate they retrieved back to (one NPC wanted it back unopened, the other wanted to study it before returning it). Anneliese kept interjecting herself into this conversation, because she could, and it fueled things along really well. Can’t do that if she’s dead.

That exchange between the PCs ended in them having a contest of wills (rather than one of stabbing), and the player who lost it remarked afterward that she was okay with the outcome because it felt fair, and that she got to play her character out really well, so the outcome had some kind of narrative sense to it. That meant a lot to me, as the DM.

One of the reasons we get that storytelling focus is that the mechanics are much simpler, and don’t get in the way of telling a good story. In fact, one of Fate’s key rules literally is “Never let the rules get in the way of a good narrative.”

When Systems Hinder

One of the things that D&D does really well is give you that dungeon crashing heroic experience. What doesn’t it do well? Lots of other things.

D&D is a complex game, and 3.5 (the preferred version around here) is especially so (5e is a positive step away from excessive complexity). There’s rules and mechanics for almost everything you can do in combat. There’s tons of modifiers to things. Figuring out what you can do at high level and keeping track of all the math gets complicated, and it sucks up time and brain cycles.

Calculating attack at high level
You forgot the modifiers from Prayer, Shaken, Giantsbane, partial concealment, Fatigue, and Enlarge Person.

That weight tends to be a hindrance to simple storytelling, because I keep having to go look up exactly how grapples work to see if I can pin someone and put them into an arm bar, instead of just saying “I try to wrestle this guy down and put him into an arm bar” and doing the roll.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly possible to do a narrative heavy game in D&D, it’s just harder. The system is not helping you with the crushing weight of rules it’s got, and doing it is making your job harder as opposed to a game designed for it.

Would I Use Fate Over D&D Again?

Short answer? Yes.

Long answer? It depends on the players. Some players really like the complexity in D&D and they feel they’re losing something in Fate, so they wouldn’t be as happy. If I’m DMing for that group, I’d use D&D.

Other players, especially the ones who don’t game a lot and/or have difficulties with math, LOVED the simplified mechanics and focus change that Fate brought. They were happier and more eager to do stuff, because they had an easier time translating what they wanted to do into game actions and understanding their likelihood of success.

We’re still trying to nail down exactly how we want magic to work in Fate (as Fate Core has no magic system built in, and magic is pretty key to the setting I’m using), but I think we’re pretty close there after trying a couple of different things. Overall it was a very positive experience, and I can definitely see mixing some Fate campaigns in between our D&D campaigns.

Uh Oh, I Got Attached To An NPC…

This weekend, I’m running another night in my “mini-campaign”. This is a bridging plot between my D&D campaign that ended last year, and the next one I’m hoping to run in the future. The mini-campaign happens when our Sunday DM can’t run his campaign, but people still want to play something.

As is normally the case when developing a storyline, I created some NPCs. Then… I got attached to one of them.

Rule 1: Don’t Get Attached

Getting attached to your NPCs is dangerous, because in a lot of games, the PCs can at any moment turn into murderhobos.

Your only hope is to be worth no XP and pray they don't get angry about it.
Your only hope is to be worth no XP and pray they don’t get angry about it.

For those who don’t play a lot of D&D, a “murderhobo” is a homeless vagrant who wanders the world solving problems by murdering everything in their path, usually collecting loot along the way. This describes a shockingly large number of characters, although admittedly part of that is because the system itself focuses heavily on combat.

That means, lots of NPCs will die. Lots, and lots of NPCs. Sometimes, they’re meant specifically for that purpose (mooks, villains). With the fun ones, you inject some personality and details in them in the hope the PCs find those things out and maybe have a recurring plot dealing with that NPC, to make the final fight more interesting. But, you never know when a lucky crit or a failed save will end things earlier than you planned. So, you never get attached to those ones.

Background and friendly NPCs are a bit different, but even then, you don’t know what will happen to them. Maybe the PCs accidentally (or deliberately, given the evil/selfish nature of our regular Sunday night party) set loose something that wipes a town out, or they cause someone important to get killed. Bad things happen to good NPCs.

The World Shouldn’t React To Your Attachments

Here’s the thing. When the PCs are doing stuff, the world should react to what they do. That’s what makes a fun campaign. But, that should happen if the DM cares about the NPC or not. If they kill most of my other NPCs? I can handle it in a detached way, because they were disposable.

This one, though? If this NPC gets killed, I’ll be pretty unhappy. It’ll take some extra effort to not let that cloud how the game progresses, because I certainly don’t want to punish the PCs just because they killed someone I like as opposed to someone I don’t.

My mistake here is that when I was adding details to this NPC, I inadvertently made a character that I wanted to play as a PC myself. I love what I came up with too much. That was an accident, but you know.

(You might also note that I’m being deliberately vague about this NPC. I don’t want to tip the PCs off as to which one it is, because I don’t want them to react differently in case any of them read this.)

It’s Happened Before

This has happened to me before, in the last campaign. Meet Lylandria, star prodigy and assistant librarian of the Arcane College (sadly I can’t remember where I found this image, because I’d love to credit the artist).

Any similarity to Twilight Sparkle is entirely deliberate.

Lylandria started off the last campaign being a resource for the PCs, because she’s usually in the library and has access to lots of information. When they need to know something about an obscure monster or legend, she can help them find it.  As the game went on, she got involved more often, at one point helping cast a spell for the PCs to resolve a plot line.

Towards the end, the PCs had a door they couldn’t open in the dungeon, and reason to believe she could. So, she came with them. Her mentor gave her an Archmage’s Runestaff so she could defend herself in there.

The PCs then found out there was a battle in this area of the dungeon between three Undead Lords, all trying to wake up and control some ancient evil thing. They ended up siding with a Lich in that battle. When it turned out nobody could conrol the ancient evil thing and it was going to kill everyone, the Lich offered a deal: I’ll help you stop it, if you give me the girl’s staff.

Lylandria, naturally, declined. The PCs argued about it for a while, and looked like they weren’t going to do it. Then the party Rogue simply attacked her, took the staff, and handed it over. Everyone else ended up going along with that, and poor Lylandria has never been the same.

I mean, at least she survived it, but between that and being used to open the door (which helped an evil NPC ascend to godhood), she’s been rather traumatized.

Technically, part of the blame for all those events lies on me as the DM, for playing the Lich and the other evil NPC who set the whole thing up, but the PCs didn’t have to go along with it. It took me a while to forgive them for beating up my poor teenage librarian NPC. 😉