Friday, July 30, 2010

NPC Gallery: Shoes!

Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.
 - Jack Handey
This NPC gallery is devoted to, more than anything, those NPC features and ideas that most of us don't think about.  I don't discuss eyes or hairstyles not because they're not worth talking about, but because people already think about them (these features are often the first thing someone comes up with).  But when's the last time you noticed someone's shoes?  Ever played a D&D game where the DM noted what the barmaid wore on her feet?  Few people look down, few people notice, and that's a shame, as shoes tell us alot about a person.  They can tell you how much money he makes, what he believes in, what he cares about, where he's been.

Really, I could stop here.  Already, you're thinking about shoes, and that's all this article seeks to accomplish.  Still, an NPC gallery article should be longer than a single paragraph, and so I'd like to discuss some shoe specifics.  I won't touch on all shoes (there's far too many out there), and I'll focus entirely on modern shoes, leaving it up to the reader to ponder medieval or sci-fi shoes (and already, I can imagine one of my players pondering what G-Verse shoes look like.  You know who you are).


The ubiquitous sneaker, the iconic shoe of the modern American.  While common, the modern sneaker is far from low-profile.  As they're highly commercialized, they tend to have garish designs, often sporting more logos than a NASCAR.  Sneakers aren't just eye-catching, but ear-catching, for when their complex design fails, they often squeak.  One can hardly imagine an inner-city gangster without sporting some of the more absurd sneaker designs.  More conventional sneakers speak of athleticism... of faux-athleticism.  A man with bright white pants, sparklingly clean white sneakers and a too-broad smile probably only wears sneakers to give the impression of fitness, while some exhausted youth with well-worn, well-loved sneakers threatening to fall apart probably lives up to the promise of his excellent running shoes.

Canvas Sneakers
  Before the advent of the crazy, modern sneaker, we had these.  As a child, we often called these "basketball shoes."  Nowadays, they seem more strongly associated with the indie music movement and skater punks.  They provide an interesting contrast with sneakers: A player might wonder why you're bothering to point out that someone is wearing sneakers, but canvas shoes stand out, worthy of note.

To Americans, leather shoes speak of formality.  No business suit would be complete without a pair of well-shined loafers.  In contrast to squeaky sneakers, loafers make manly clicks whenever they take a step.  In Europe, I've found loafers to be far more common.  An American would not think to wear a pair of leather shoes with a pair of jeans, but Europeans do so commonly.  Such considerations might drive home to a player that he's in a different culture.

If the world were to name their favorite pair of shoes, heels would probably top the list.  These beautiful shoes look elegant on a woman's feet and shape her legs, thus forever associating them with profound sex appeal.  High heels also lift a woman up, bringing her eye to eye with taller men, and thus speaks of power.  Some women wear shoes that combine both, creating an imperiously enticing appearance.  However, high heels require practice to walk in and can hurt the feet if worn for too long; women who wear high heels sacrifice for their fashion.  Why would your NPC do that?  Something to consider.  And always remember the iconic "click" of a woman's heels as she walks.
Not everyone can or wants to wear heels, and flats represent a perfectly respectable alternative.  Because flats lack the complexity, challenge and the appeal of heels, they tend to suggest a humility, a simplicity, or a shyness.  A woman who wears flats is either practical, or doesn't believe she can pull off heels, or doesn't want to be seen as a sex symbol, but she's still a woman who believes in looking good, or in formality (after all, she could be wearing sneakers with that skirt, if she was truly casual).

Most shoes require at least some effort to wear.  Flip flops are slippers one can wear outside.  They protect the soles of the feet just enough to count as shoes, but they offer little in the way of comfort or fashion.  Thus, flip-flops (as opposed to sandals) tend to suggest a certain laziness or a desire to keep cool (like sandals).  Alternately, flip-flops and sandals can offer a somewhat practical way to show off bare feet, if your NPC is the kind that likes to wiggle her toes in public.

Boots vary wildly.  Heavy footwear like boots often suggest an enormous practicality.  A man wearing a pair of work boots wears them not because they look good or because they are comfortable, but because they protect his feet from injury or from exhaustion after long kikes.  Because the heaviness of boots shape the feet and lower leg, they can also support some heavy-duty fashion.  Heeled boots can have all the same appeal as high heels with none of their delicacy or girlishness, giving them a certain ferocity.

Some characters won't bother with shoes at all.  Shoes separate the wearer from the ground and they cage the feet.  While bare feet aren't very practical (stones can wound the soles), those who don't wear shoes embrace that very impracticality. They tend to be free souls who want to feel the wet grass between their toes.  On the other hand, poverty-stricken characters, or particularly poor characters (often both) won't wear shoes because they can't afford them or don't need them.  A bare-foot swordsman, for example, probably isn't a free spirit.

As I said before, there are many kinds of shoes: Slippers, moccasins, cowboy boots, combat boots, mules, walking shoes, fashion faux-pas, and stranger.  If you poke around, doubtlessly you can find something for your NPC.  Not every NPC needs highly detailed shoes, of course, but what a man wears says alot about him.  Consider mis-matching expectations: A businessman with an Italian suit and barefeet, or a girl with a mini-skirt and sneakers. Consider, too, that shoes impact several senses at once: Old shoes can smell musty, while new shoes can have a wonderful, leathery scent.  Heels tend to click, while sneakers tend to squeak.  A good pair of shoes feels wonderful on the feet, while a bad pair of shoes pinch and leave blisters.

So the next time you're pondering an NPC, ponder what they wear on their feet.  Let those shoes tell a story for them, and let those shoes announce their presence with the sound of their steps.  I think you'll find they add alot of character.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Sleazy Apprentice

I won't let you down, Don.
- Pete Campbell, Mad Men

I've been struggling with the surprisingly popular Mad Men, as it's slower and more introspective than most shows I really enjoy.  In particular, I've quickly established a love/hate relationship with Pete.  Initially, I felt his character existed to show us what a terrible time the 60s were, but as I've come to understand the show, I've come to understand that the character is simply a spectacular jerk, and that this is entirely the point of him.

Ostensibly, Pete works for Don Draper, hero of the series.  To Don's face, Pete offers compliments and servitude. Behind his back, Pete's ambition blooms in full, and he constantly seeks to undermine Don's position to that he may overtake it.  Rarely, when Don grasps for straws, Pete will openly undermine him, under the thin guise of "helping."  Pete's family once held a position of power and prestige in New York, but lost all their money during the Great Depression.  Thus, he has all the social graces of a princely aristocrat but none of the power, and his frustration with the lack of respect he receives constantly leaks to the surface.  He married his wife for her money, and slept with another woman on the night before his wedding.  He constantly serves himself and goes through the motions of working with others, but inwardly fails to grasp why Don Draper is his superior, coming as close to saying "Why doesn't anybody appreciate my genius" as one can in a sophisticated, mature television show like Mad Men.

Thus, Pete combines sycophant and rival into a single, unique character.  His constant and obvious attempts to undermine his superior and supplant him brings characters like Starscream instantly to mind, but unlike such characters, Pete constantly attempts to make himself useful, and never questions his superior to his superior's face, preferring back-room positioning and (inept) conspiratorial politicking.  Because he's ostensibly Draper's ally, Don can't simply remove him from the group (and, indeed, when he tries, the story concocts a reason to force Don to work with him, in this case the prestige of Peter's family), but because all of Peter's help is poisoned with ambition, Don can't afford to trust him either.

Games too seldom exploit the Master/Apprentice social dynamic, and when they do, they usually place the player in the role of apprentice.  The role of Master can be interesting too, especially for experienced characters.  Generally, when a flawed apprentice enters the picture, we tend to see the Resentful Apprentice, but Peter isn't that.  A Sleazy Apprentice kisses the player's ass.  He sings his praise in public while privately seething that the player doesn't see him as an equal, and conspires against him, though not necessarily in a way that betrays the party's goals, but in a way that seeks to replace the player: If the group seek to fight a dragon, the Sleazy Apprentice seeks to destroy the dragon in such a way that proves that the player is not necessary for the group, and that the group should discard him in favor of the Sleazy Apprentice, though he's likely to fail (due to his inexperience) and possibly fail in such a way that makes things worse for the group as a whole.  When the players seek to eliminate him from the group, the GM should have a reason in place that prevents him from being removed (and, in general, should keep him useful: he's a Sleazy Apprentice, not a Useless Apprentice).

The tension between his servility and his treachery should create an interesting dynamic for the players, as it instantly creates layers and complexity for the character, giving the players a chance to explore the character and providing fertile room for growth, should the character prove to be popular (as in, he brings alot to the story.  Doubtlessly, he'll be despised by the group)

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I've made a mistake.

The SJGames forums has a discussion on the Callous disadvantage, primarily on how its disadvantages seem highly situational while its advantages seem rather common.  In particular, the -1 it applies to reaction rolls only applies if people have suffered your cruelty before, or if they have Empathy.

In G-Verse, all Tennin, including their little Goblins, have some level of Empathy (even the Goblins are Sensitive).  I've had the Goblins, in particular, react well to Lieutenant Sam Abrams, but she's known for her Callousness.  Thus, they should probably react in a negative fashion to her.  I'll have to discuss this the next time she's in the game, and try to remember that Tennin should generally dislike Callous characters.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Funeral Director

You can pump him full of chemicals. You can put makeup on him. You can prop him up for a nap in the slumber room; but the fact remains, David, that the only father we're ever gonna have is gone! Forever …
- Nate Fisher, Six Feet Under 

I discovered Six Feet Under while enjoying some of the other works of Alan Ball, the series' creator.  I didn't find it a particularly engrossing series (far too slow for my tastes), but I found the subject matter, the running of a funeral home, fascinating.

I think people prefer not to think about death, and certainly not the fiddly details of what happens after death.  It's an unpleasant reality that happens, vaguely, at some point in the future, but in the meantime, we prefer to focus on less grim details of life.  Even so, many RPGs deal with death regularly.  Player characters die, player characters tend to slaughter NPCs in droves and, most importantly, death and its consequences are a major fixture of most horror games.  Funeral directors and undertakers feature in quite a few genres, like westerns, and I find it rather surprising that I've never seen one show up in a game.

A good funeral director understands death and he understands grief.  He eases the mourning for the family, helps them move on.  A wicked funeral director takes advantage of the families grief to strip them of their wealth and disrespects the dead.  While an evil, necromantic cemetery lord instantly springs to mind, imagine a horror game where a funeral director acts as a literal agent between death and life, listening to the concerns of ghosts and passing messages on to the living.  Or consider an undertaker working with vampires or against zombies, using his excellent knowledge of cadavers to help or hinder the undead.  Even in a more mundane game, he can represent death.  His presence can bring a grey pallor to the atmosphere or serve as an omen.  Conversely, a funeral director is a real person, rather than a symbol.  He may understand why people react to him the way they do, but that does not mean he doesn't still fall in love, need companionship, or grieve when those near him die.  By bringing a funeral director into a game, you can rivet the players' attention on the themes of death, and perhaps shape up some of their expectations.

NPC Gallery: The Regretful Ex

It's kind of hard to stay mad at Raylan
- Winona Hawkins, Justified

One of my players turned me on to an excellent series, Justified.  The entire series is worth your time for not just the drama but for the rich cast of character, though sadly the main character won't make it onto the Gallery: the stoic gun-fighter isn't exactly an uncommon character that needs highlighting.

I find his relationship with Winona Hawkins fascinating, however.  She's his ex-wife, but far from being a hateful harridan as ex-wives are often portrayed, her reasons for leaving seem sound enough, and while she expresses happiness at her current state of affairs, an undeniable spark remains between them.  Anyone who has broken up with a long time companion or seen such a break up knows how profoundly a couple can become tied together, and even if they are genuinely happier apart, it's so easy, so tempting, to fall back into old habits.

Justified plays with this dynamic very well, with the pair struggling to come to grips with their past and their present.  They fight, toss accusations about who left who, but they also linger and glance.  It makes for riveting watching.

How often does an ex-wife come up in a tabletop game?  In all my years of running games, I've never seen one, never even heard of one in another game.  Players, I think, prefer to see their character as free, so that (should they be interested in romance at all) they can pursue romance with a free conscience.  Once they fall in love, they typically imagine a happy ending, and all of the drama occurs when the two try to get together.  It never occurs once they are together.  But how many dramatic opportunities does this miss?  An Ex-wife fills so many roles at once: Companion, long-standing friend, rival, enemy, love and lost love.  She says something about your character's past and she offers the chance to find redemption and fall in love all over again.

I doubt players will think of this on their own, but it's the sort of thing that works well in a long-standing game.  Let a player fall in love, let him win his woman, let them marry, and then tear them apart, and then bring them back together.  It'll require working closely with the player (it'll be easy for him to simply hate the NPC for her "betrayal" unless you handle it very carefully), but it might be very rewarding if it works out.  The Ex doesn't have to be an Ex-Wife either: She can be an ex-girlfriend too (Or ex-husband, or ex-boyfriend), which can allow you to initiate a slightly less intimate version of this story a little faster.

The NPC Gallery: Freckles

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child. 

We artists, be we game-master or writer, tend to grab the ordinary and familiar.  We have soaked in tons of culture from TV, books, movies and video games, and we tend to repeat what we see.  We've all seen the brooding anti-hero, the blond femme fatale and the treacherous vizier.  They show up again and again, until our creations grow predictable.

But the world brims with interesting ideas ripe for the plucking, and that's what this gallery is.  Whenever I find some new character or some interesting idea, I think to myself "Why didn't I come up with that?" and I begin to study the concept, adding it to my games and my creations.  This takes time, though, and the process can be difficult as I tire and fall-back to familiar ground.  

Hence: the NPC Gallery.  Here, I shall place whatever interesting concepts I stumble across, partially for my own use, but also for those who read my blog and seek inspiration of their own.  And we start, today, with Freckles

 We're all familiar with the alabaster-skinned or olive-toned beauties from TV and Movies, but how often have we been enchanted by some freckled girl with wrinkled nose and sparkling eyes?  Freckles suggest an innocence (since they're more common in children than adults), a commonness typical of a "Girl Next Door," and sometimes, just a hint of magic (thanks to an association with those of Irish heritage).

Of course, freckles don't just have to be "cute," they can be sexy or beautiful as well.  They're rare, making freckles women exotic and unusual.  They naturally draw ones eyes to cheeks (which can blush) and eyes (which brim with emotion).  A friend once described her character with "her cheeks dusted with freckles;" what an enchanting turn of a phrase.

 I've described mostly freckled women so far, as the child-like innocence suggested by freckles works better for doe-eyed damsels than it does burly knights, but that's not to say freckles on a man is a bad idea.  It suggests youth and roguish charm.  Imagine a sandy-haired swashbuckler with a billowing shirt, a lop-sided grin and a light sprinkling of freckles.  As with women, its rareness makes it exotic.

So, the next time you're considering how to make a character unique, rather than pondering hair or eye color, race or creed, stop and consider the character's skin.  A few freckled characters might surprise and delight your players.

Monday, July 19, 2010

GURPS Andromeda Incident: After Action Report 3

My GURPS Military Space Opera continues, or rather, continued, as this took place several weeks ago and I'm only now getting around to posting about it.

The title for this chapter is "Cat and Mouse," which hints at the strategic, maneuver warfare I hope to elicit from the group in this arc.  It's a bit of an experiment, and we haven't actually gotten to that part, but hopefully, it'll work out well.

Instead, we ended up dealing a great deal with character development.  The story took place a few weeks after the initial landing, with the players regrouped at a supply point a few days journey (by IFV) from their destination.  While our beloved Lieutenant received the mission briefing, the players had a chance to reacquaint themselves with some of the NPCs.  As with the last session, I trimmed another "uninteresting NPC," this time the logistics officer ("Who?" asked one of the players "Exactly," I replied).  It's not that she was a bad character, it's that the players have fixated on others. 

In particular, this session turned around several NPCs and added depth.  Specifically, Mackenzie, our ladette, was joined by her loser brother, "Ducky," which drove her into a motherly panic.  I hope this doesn't mean Mackenzie loses some cool points, but at least Ducky's irritatingly rude manner has won over the entire party, giving them someone to kick around.  Interestingly, this means that Amy is no longer the most useless NPC, which is something I'll have to point out later (also the similarity between both wanting to prove themselves, but only Amy really making the effort necessary to do that). 

Doctor Emerson's romance with one of the players continues, but his suspicious nature has come completely to the fore, including connections with the black market, a "criminal past," and his proficiency in combat, which has made said player equally suspicious of him, adding a good dynamic to their relationship. 

Likewise, Sage Hackett's romance with a player continues to drift between warm fuzziness and raging anger, appropriate to a Tsundere, though I've begun to worry that her character lacks depth.  Why is she the way she is?  Where will things go from here?  Still, the players enjoyed her, fought to make sure she stayed with the unit, and the love/hate spat between her and the player earned some laughs.

Finally, we had Kobayashi, who didn't have a specific story, interacted with a few characters, and managed to make her mark on the players, which is important for the role she'll be playing later on.  Interestingly, while the lieutenant's player has decided she loves her ("Kobayashi can do anything!") at least one player (the player of the most naive character) has grown suspicious of her.  We'll have to see where that goes.

We ended with the players out in the wilderness, Amy telling another tall tale about her father, with one of the players ordering his recon squad to "establish a perimeter" (the smartest thing anyone did, incidentally) when the Quetazli ambush struck.  The players only had a chance to see smoke engulf the entire camp sight (artillery strike with EM smoke) and one of the recon players (the unlucky one) shot by a sniper (we're using the blow-through rolls from High Tech, so he "only" took 11 points of damage and -10 to all checks to stop bleeding), and then the curtain closed.

The session was so popular that people have been pushing for the next session, but there's a few things I'm worried about.  First, my plans for a strategic, rather than tactical, battle are so new I'm not sure how it'll fare.  I also hope to establish a rapport with some of the Quetzali enemies they face, and that's always difficult.  Finally, I get the impression that the players would like to spend much more time getting to know the NPCs and exploring relationships.  I've been keeping the story moving, due to tight time constraints and the desire to "leave them wanting more," but while this has been well-received, I still feel it's lacking something, a sense of depth, a certain |X-factor.  The NPCs from Frozen War felt like they had more depth, like they were more real, while the Andromeda characters feel either like caricatures or unexplored, like they have so much more potential than I can show.

Still, I shouldn't complain.  None of the players are.
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