Monday, September 17, 2012

Rival Adventurer Detail

I've written about rival adventuring parties several times in the past. I've come to believe that this is an aspect of old school play that was lost over the years. Whereas OD&D in its various forms and even AD&D 1e included lots of examples in their rulebooks and adventures to reinforce the notion that rival adventurers were a common "hazard" of dungeon exploration, I can't recall a single example of such a thing from 2e on, though I'm sure that those with better memories can (and will) correct me on this point. That's why, when I started the Dwimmermount campaign, I made a specific point of creating NPC adventurers whom the player characters could encounter. At least two parties of these NPCs had an impact on the development of the campaign.

Over the last little while, I've been writing up these rival adventuring parties, along with some new ones, and I've found myself wondering just how much information a referee needs to use an NPC adventuring party, which is admittedly part of a larger problem of just how much detail is needed for any element of an adventure module/setting. I myself require very little detail. My personal notes are usually quite spare -- mostly words or phrases intended to jog my memory. In fact, I make up a lot of details on the spot, since this saves time and gives me more flexibility in play. I can't begin to remember the number of times I've changed my mind about things because of the roll of the dice, player decision, or even just whimsy.

However, I realize that not every referee plays like me. So, I'm trying to strike a good balance between too much and too little detail in presenting NPC adventurers. Here's an example of one such party, written in a very minimalist style:
Party #2 (2,035 Experience Points): Typhon's Fists
Jehan of Typhon (Level 2 Lawful Male Cleric) AC: 4 HP: 8
STR 12 INT 12 WIS 14 CON 12 DEX 11 CHA 14
Spells: 1-Cure Light Wounds
Equipment: Chain Mail, Shield, War Hammer +1, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, Wooden Holy Symbol, 2 Small Sacks, 3 Stakes & Mallet, Steel Mirror

Ondart (Level 2 Lawful Male Fighter) AC: 1 HP: 12
STR 15 INT 14 WIS 12 CON 9 DEX 13 CHA 9
Equipment: Plate Mail, Shield, Sword, Dagger, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, Potion of Healing

Helouys (Level 2 Lawful Female Fighter) AC: 3 HP: 8
STR 16 INT 9 WIS 8 CON 11 DEX 12 CHA 11
Equipment: Plate Mail, Two-Handed Sword, 3 Daggers, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 50' Rope, 2 Flasks oil, Potion of Heroism

Genevote (Level 1 Neutral Female Magic-User) AC: 9 HP: 2
STR 11 INT 15 WIS 15 CON 9 DEX 9 CHA 8
Spells: 1-Magic Missile
Equipment: Dagger, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 50' Rope, Vial of Holy Water

Enjorran of Typhon (Level 2 Lawful Male Cleric) AC: 5 HP: 9
STR 14 INT 11 WIS 18 CON 10 DEX 6 CHA 5
Spells: 1-Protection from Evil
Equipment: Chain Mail, Shield, War Hammer, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, Wooden Holy Symbol, 2 Small Sacks, Scroll of Cure Light Wounds

Yurain (Level 2 Lawful Male Dwarf) AC: 1 HP: 8
STR 17 INT 9 WIS 10 CON 11 DEX 12 CHA 11
Equipment: Plate Mail, Shield +1, Sword, Light Crossbow, Case With 30 Quarrels, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole
As you can see, there's not much here beyond basic details. The NPCs have names but no descriptions, classes and equipment but no personalities or backgrounds. Likewise, the party itself has a name ("Typhon's Fists") but no details or agenda. Is that enough? For me, it is. The only things I  hate coming up with on the fly are game stats and, even then, it's not hard so much as something I don't enjoy, especially when you're dealing with mid to high-level NPCs. That's why I keep some pregenerated ability score arrays, names, spellbooks, etc, at hand in case I ever have to make up a NPC on the spot who requires more than a name and a vague personality. Other referees might feel differently, though, which is why I'm curious what these referees might add to this collection of game stats. What additional details are necessary to make these NPCs broadly useful should they be encountered as the result of a roll on the wandering monster chart?


  1. I pretty much write them up as you do. The rest I make up as I go along.

  2. I like to give them an agenda, evocative idea. I.e. - underworld thugs in search of big score or rich youth and paid retainers. Like are these "Fists" lawful fanatic straight out of the temple or are they relic hunters operating on a church comission?

  3. My feelings are similar to yours. I dislike trying to come up with spell lists, equipment, and stats on the fly. Yet to roleplay a fully fleshed personality I just need a name and a few words and I can pull it out of my head.

  4. A classic element taken to the farthest extreme in Judges Guild's, Glory Hole Dwarven Mine, which featured a dozen different rival adventuring parties. Because the DM isn't busy enough!

    When there's little information about NPC personalities and agendas, then I have a temptation to go fishing for small details that might suggest how to create them. Maybe some of them have descriptive surnames (here the priests are companions in a shared project, like Mormon missionaries with warhammers!), or have some peculiar item or another in their inventories. For example, this party above is obviously compensating for thief-lessness by carrying an assortment of 10-foot poles. That seems to suggest some interesting stories they could tell about surviving long enough to reach second level. And the MU looks like a recent recruit... maybe a replacement for a fallen thief? And Jehan looks prepped for a vampire!

    I like that method of communicating information, personally. It provides a little guidance to defining a history and an agenda, but makes the guidance less of an instruction manual and more of a riddle that can produce multiple solutions. Just make sure to give the groups a sufficiently unique set of names and inventory lists, and the rest takes care of itself.

  5. I'm also a fan. You have all the mechanical information needed to run the party when encountered. The fact the part is full of Lawful adventurers hints at how they should behave if they bump into another party. Not saying too much lets the DM make the adventure his own. One thing I really liked about Carcosa is that McKinney is so terse and stand-offish about saying too much about the world. There isn't a 'canon' version of Carcosa. Vornheim had a similar feel: Smith says just enough about the city to tell you what it's like, but not too much that you feel you could run it wrong if you don't have the book indexed.

  6. I think Gusty's idea is good: if I was a referee using this party I would like very much to have an agenda as described- this would help me a lot. A short sentence can give a good amount of detail too. Just enough to stimulate the imagination. I know many people could come up with that on the fly, but those couple of sentences make the party a proper, usable adventure resource rather than a list of empty stats. that anyone could come up with.

  7. I found myself immediately imagining another adventuring party, "The Fists of Typhon" who constantly dog the trail of "Typhon's Fists"... so yeah, I think it works.

  8. The WOTC 4E product Madness at Gardmore Abbey actually includes a rival adventuring party as one of the hazards, though that entire boxed set is very much in the style of an old-school, location-based campaign setting.

  9. Your post inspired me to revisit some thoughts on the declining frequency of NPC MUs over the early editions of D&D:

    Where did all the NPC MUs go?

  10. Amount of money carried by each person would be a nice addition to the equipment listed, that would still not make the descriptions bloated.

  11. Party Name (which you mention), an objective (i.e. explore level 3; full map of levels x-y, by any means; establish hideout) and retreat scenario (i.e. 1st party member killed; 1st contact, return for ambush; to the death, etc.) are important to me. Otherwise, I flounder for a while at first encounter.

  12. You should give them treasure related to the dungeon; annotated maps, keys, delicacy that will let them bypass the Ogre on level 2 for instance. Also, why no henchmen?!

  13. In largish dungeons i typically use npc rival parties. Sometimes they fight... Sometimes not..
    Its pretty fun to watch the pcs panic as they realize its not just a group of hobgoblins or the like.

  14. If you included both a loyalty score and a morale score, abilities specific to NPC's. These combined with alignment provide a strong triumvirate of determining the NPC's personality. example of your first cleric, Jehan. Lawful. loyalty, lets say 17 and morale of 2.

    "An upright cleric who keeps his word and becomes fiercely attached to those he considers friends, but has a yellow streak and often councils retreat in the face of danger. He has been known to cower in fear of fearsome monsters."

    Loyalty scores can actually be considered the, "7th stat". That tells you more about how a character will act than alignment! So what if the goblin is chaotic if he has a loyalty of 18 and a morale 12! He will stand, fight, and die by a friends side much better than a lawful npc with a low loyalty and morale. The 3 alignment system, specifically benefits from loyalty and morale much more than the 9 alignment system. As Chaotic Evil implies low loyalty all by itself compared to Lawful Evil for example. The more complex alignment system however seems to be more of a straight jacket than the triumvirate of align/loy/mor.

  15. I rolled up my first NPC parties on Sunday, so I've been thinking about the same thing.

    For me I'd also need the bonuses that apply based on Race, Class, or high/low stats (I'm using OSRIC), since there's no way I can remember all of them. I also include 1-3 personality traits for them as well, but those aren't strictly necessary. On the other hand I don't bother with mundane items and only list weapons, armour, and special/magic items.

    Here's an example Cleric (with really lousy str and dex) using my stat blocks:
    Raganhard; Human Male Cleric lvl2; 10HP; AC: 7
    Stats: str 6, int 10, wis 12, dex 5, con 13, cha 10
    Bonuses: -1 to hit, -1 surprise, -1 missile to hit, +2 AC
    Equip: Heavy Mace (1d6+1/1d6); Chainmail;
    Spells: Sanctuary, Light;
    Personality: N, fanciful, disrespectful, indulgent

    I use the OSRIC recommended party size of 1d4+1 adventurers, and enough hirelings to make up to 9 total members in the party. Hirelings use a stat block like the following:
    Wivin; female Human labourer/porter; 2HP; Club (1d4/1d3,10ft); no armour (AC10); CG, typical, flexible
    Eurynome; female Elf man-at-arms; 5HP; Heavy Mace (1d6+1/1d6); Studded Leather Armour (AC7) and Large Shield (AC-1); CN, imperial

  16. "...
    I've found myself wondering just how much information a referee needs to use an NPC adventuring party, which is admittedly part of a larger problem of just how much detail is needed for anyelement of an adventure module/setting."

    There should be enough info on hand so that the NPC's can be killed.

    Once I played with a great GM. He'd whip up interesting NPC's on the fly and throw them at our party. Always good fun. Except when our party wanted to kill the NPC's for what ever reason. I and many of my friends gamed with this guy for six or more years. After losing more than a couple charaters (as did my cohort) to these seat 'o pants created NPC's I began to ask questions of our GM. It took a couple years, and interviewing my fellow players, but our GM's deal was this: If he'd made detailed notes on the NPC's they could be killed, if he hadn't why then it's was really a challenge to snuff a NPC with no HP total.

    Ever after this insight, the most common question for our GM from our party upon encountering an intersting, new NPC: "Ah, um, have you written them up yet?"

    There were times when we would not continue play until he took a few moments to jot down stats.

    Was rather funny, and all in good fun.

  17. You've given me pretty much everything I'd need mechanically, but with no flavor text, it's not as useful to me personally as I would like. I would want a sentence description of each -- I need to be able to describe what/who the PCs see when they encounter them -- and if they are to interact with the NPCs to any extent other than trying to kill them, a one or two-sentence description of personality, motivation, and how they would likely react to the PCs.

  18. I think that might be just the right amount of info when making NPC's for such use, it is easier to improvize during game than keeping track of details. Also sometimes it is easier to listen players, for example if they think their rivals are some sort of hardcore dungeon bastard mercenaries it might be good idea to make them so or if they voice suspicions that their rivals are rank amateurs it might good too.

  19. i, too, need stats like you've provided. But, like several readers, I also like a couple of words of description. I tend to use adjectives or short descriptors, not full sentences - if I'm systematic I try to have one physical descriptor, one personality descriptor, and one goal/motivation per NPC. I like, and will steal, the ideas of having loyalty scores, a goal for the group, and a retreat strategy. Good post and discussion!

  20. I like TimP's example with a couple personality tags. Reminds me of the very fruitful system for describing worlds in Stars Without Number.

  21. The old computer game Baldurs Gate II featured at least one rival party, so it's a trope with a long reach.

  22. I agree w/ Daniel -- goal statement and morale are key -- frankly more important than a full list of ability scores.

    Just out of curiosity, what method was used to generate these stats?

  23. They were all generated via 3d6 in order.