Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Retrospective: Non-Player Character Records

With all the talk recently of the use and non-use of henchmen and hirelings in old school Dungeons & Dragons, my thoughts soon turned to this 1979 TSR product, the Non-Player Character Records. Plus, I'm a big fan of record sheets in general, making this product a fun subject for a post. Non-Player Character Records came shrink-wrapped and, if you look at the cover image, you'll see that it's three-hole punched on both sides. That's because the record sheets it contained were half-page in size, so each sheet contained two record sheets, one printed front-to-back and the other printed back-to-front.

The sheets were an ugly orange color, a hue no doubt chosen for its ability to foil the photocopiers of the day, thus ensuring that gamers would be forced to buy more packs of these sheets. I can tell you from personal experience, though, that the color wasn't very effective, even against "public" photocopiers of the sort you found in libraries. I photocopied these things without too much trouble. They were a little dark, true, but they were perfectly usable and paying 10 cents for one of these was a lot more cost effective paying whatever price it was for a pack ($5.00?).

The sheets themselves are quite interesting in my opinion. First, they're a terrific example of economy of space, being able to provide more than enough space to record ability scores and associated modifiers, hit points, weapons (with AC adjustments), spells, equipment, magic items, background information, and class-specific on the front and back of a half-sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper. They're not pretty, true, but they're very usable. On the other hand, I have a huge soft spot for the appearance of 1e record sheets, which showed every evidence of being designed by someone who actually played the game rather than a graphic artist who just went with what looked attractive to the eye. Would that more record sheets were designed that!

Among the information included on these sheets, near the very top, right next to the NPC's name, was a line for "employer." That suggests very strongly not only that one of the intended uses of these sheets was to keep track of henchmen and hirelings, but also that the use of such NPCs was considered a common practice in 1979, when this product was first released (a second printing was released in 1981 and I don't believe a similar product has been released for any edition of the game since). Later on, there's a section of the sheet entitled "employment record," which also strongly implies that a great many of the NPCs the referee is likely to keep track of in his campaign are going to be hirelings and the like.

I can say, from personal experience, that these sheets were used primarily for henchmen and hirelings, who were the main NPCs in our games with sufficient personality -- and, ironically, lifespan -- to justify writing down their game stats on a record sheet. This proves nothing about the wider world of gaming at the time, only that, in the circles in which I moved in the late 70s and early 80s, henchmen and hirelings were used and they weren't treated merely as human (or demihuman) sandbags who warranted neither names nor personalities. And I think the fact that TSR bothered to produce the Non-Player Character Records at all lends credence to the notion that the way we played back then was not some aberrant outlier but was instead reflective of a style of play recognized and endorsed by the game's creators. Clearly, this style largely disappeared over time, for a variety of reasons, but it was real and we enjoyed it.

Terrific reproductions of these sheets, in PDF form, are available for download over at the Mad Irishman's amazing website.

11 comments:

  1. I've noticed that, with a greater number of NPCs actually in the party, the opportunities for characterization-style role-playing increase wildly; these are characters your players will need to interact with on an on-going basis, after all, and not only as 'role-playing puzzles' or obstacles to be overcome and forgotten.

    I presume the sheets have places to write down ample notes about events and encounters, for the benefit of DMs with less-than-sterling memories. Although I like to think of myself as a pretty bright person, there's so many details I've lost about NPCs (including their very presence or existence) until my players remind me.

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  2. Definitely, this was a style of play that some players used. Of course, it taking nearly a decade before these sheets came out indicates it might not have been for everyone, in my opinion, unlike, say, the many rulebooks which came out much earlier and likely were more necessary to play.

    I started in Holmes, myself, and never even read Moldvay's explicit warning not to play that way (early on), but still didn't usually have groups of soldiers with me or in my groups.

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  3. Oddly enough, I obtained these sheets from a gamer-friend really early on in my RPG career, but we never actually used them. I still have the sheets sitting right here in my office, and some of them were clearly cut out to be used, but that must have been before my friend gave them to me.

    Our group never used hirelings and/or henchman back in the day. In fact, I think the only time I've ever used hirelings was in a very recent session that my friend ran. There were only three of us playing (a gnome paladin, a "spriggan" thief, and a human "fire-mage" who was technically a cleric with the fire domain but the player thought he was a mage) so we decided we needed to get some hirelings to help round out our party.

    Right in the first room of the dungeon, the hirelings decided to form a Union after one of them accidentally died. You can read more about it at my friend Wil's blog here:

    http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/wwdnbackup/2011/01/in-which-we-play-cal-d.html#comment-6a00d8341c59aa53ef0148c8459fe7970c

    Obviously you can tell it wasn't a very serious game, but it was kind of "old-school" in feel, despite our races and classes.

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  4. @amp108 A DM, especially one who likes to improvise, definitely needs to take notes. One of our DMs was notorious for having a bad memory, and not making note of anything he hadn't pre-planned. The players on the other hand took copious notes.

    From one week to the next the names of NPCs changed, town details changed, people even denied having talked to us. It wasn't unknown for entire business transactions to unravel and erase. People who hated us, though ... they still hated us.

    What made it worse was that this DM's worlds tended to the cynical, paranoid, and secretive anyway. As players we were never sure whether people were deliberately lying to us or whether it was just another case of DM Dementia. It certainly made for some Kafkaesque moments.

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  5. It's funny, our D&D games never once employed hirelings or henchmen of any kind. I feel like I missed out on a lot!

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  6. In the very first game I ever played in (1E), I chose to be a Magic-User. The people I was playing with were very strict about new characters starting at level 1, and most of the other players were of levels 5 to 9. Not knowing what to spend my money on, I asked if I could hire people to help me out. The DM didn't know what to do, but went to the hireling rules in the DMG, and I ended up with a few dozen mercenary soldiers.

    Remember, I was playing a first level Magic-User. The DM, cruel as he was, decided to run us through Tomb of Horrors. Mine was the only character to survive (and there were even a few of the mercenaries left, too!), simply because the DM wasn't sure how to handle large groups of hirelings, and I was able to let those soldiers take the brunt of the events.

    To this day, I am very much in favor of hirelings, and have a soft spot for rules that allow the players to control polities. One of my favorite games, as an idea (though not necessarily in execution as published) is Realms of the Unknown, a small-press game where the players played the leadership of independent cities, tribes, or bands of nomads.

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  7. Another intriguing product from the 'Glory Days', that I'll probably pick up. It does seem, however, that with NPC Sheets, Adventure Logs, Character Folders and Sheets, Minis, T-Shirts, etc... TSR is really tryin' to get your jack, though!(Wasn't there TSR graph/hex paper, too?)*Checks Acaeum* Yep, there was. A bit rare, however.

    @amp108:
    'I've noticed that, with a greater number of NPCs actually in the party, the opportunities for characterization-style role-playing increase wildly; these are characters your players will need to interact with on an on-going basis, after all, and not only as 'role-playing puzzles' or obstacles to be overcome and forgotten.':
    My sentiments exactly!

    @faoladh
    'The DM, cruel as he was, decided to run us through Tomb of Horrors. Mine was the only character to survive (and there were even a few of the mercenaries left, too!)':
    The ultimate illustration of the adage that no plan survives contact with the players! ;-)

    'and have a soft spot for rules that allow the players to control polities.':
    I'm always surprised when I read something like this! In our games, being a gang boss, running a kingdom, overseeing a guild, etc... never required any rules!(Perhaps you meant guidelines for 'running a domain'[to use a D&D-ism] to help with tracking resources, determining tax benefits, ajudicating the borders, etc?) I had players that began as nobility, tribal leaders, warlords, etc...(usually only one at a time in the group, though), and it was great fun. We didn't feel that the rules not mentioning something forbade it.(I don't think you're implying this, though...)

    Thanx!

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  8. I used these a lot in my early 1e campaigns. They were particularly useful for recurring characters. Minion types or one-time encounters I just added into the Adventure Log.

    In my 3-ring binders detailing various locales, I could add in the relevant NPCs, but the color and half-sheet design made it easy to find them. This is one of many early TSR game aids that I later duplicated myself with a C64 and a printer.

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  9. velaran: "Perhaps you meant guidelines for 'running a domain'[to use a D&D-ism] to help with tracking resources, determining tax benefits, ajudicating the borders, etc?"

    Yes, exactly so. It's one thing to say "you can do anything", but another to do so in a way that is both fun and bears some resemblance to the players' expectations (so that they can make reasonable plans). Rules guidelines can help with the more complex matters like running a domain, which are generally a set of related matters rather than just a simple issue, while they are less necessary for simple issues like figuring out a secret door. I mean, the GM should have some sort of guidelines to figure out, for instance, how many people immigrate and emigrate, births and deaths, resource exploitation, and so on. Many of those things are both inobvious and outside of the personal experience of most players and GMs.

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  10. @faoladh
    'Yes, exactly so. It's one thing to say "you can do anything", but another to do so in a way that is both fun and bears some resemblance to the players' expectations (so that they can make reasonable plans).':
    I thought you were probably of the 'rules are guidelines rather than absolute commandments' party. Trial and error house rules always seemed to do the trick, ime. Maybe I had understanding players.(I'd like to think I'm just that damn good, though ;-))

    'Many of those things are both inobvious and outside of the personal experience of most players and GMs.':
    True. Coming up with solutions for conundrums like this is part of the fun for me! But,of course, it's a YMMV thing, and there are those who would like assistance, especially from the professionals.

    'I mean, the GM should have some sort of guidelines to figure out, for instance, how many people immigrate and emigrate, births and deaths, resource exploitation, and so on.':
    Note however, that coverage of this sort is rarely to be found outside of wargames(and their electronic descendants) nowadays(and not even much back then, IIRC). Odd considering this is information somebody might want, and of course, prior precedent in the older games. But there are many who are not enthused about leading from the throne instead of at the front of the party from my observations.(I'm one of 'em mostdays :-))

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  11. I love the Example characters they put in the Character Sheet packs.

    The NPC one you show had a Doppelganger named Iskwit who was passing himself off as Thorvald the Fighter in the employ of a Wizard named Athelstan who he intended to take the place of at some point.

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