Game: GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
Review Dated: 13th, August 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 10
Average Score: 5.00
NPC Essentials carries the d20 logo; whereas I appreciate the marketing strategy there I have to say that it doesn’t do justice to the sheer universal scope of the guide. The advice for GMs on running NPCs can be applied to any game, any setting and at any time. The use of the d20 logo is justified though since sample mechanics and attributes are all for that system and there’s an intelligent study on Challenge Ratings too.
Prices change but at the time of writing this issue of GM Mastery costs $8.95 from RPGNow and although that’s a bit more expensive than the discounted ~$5.00 products on sale there, GM Mastery is still very much cheaper than traditional dead tree products and at 84 pages in length its also at the large end of the scale in the PDF range. There’s also some rather well known names attached to it. The author’s Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips and Dragon Magazine fame. The online publishers are RPGObjects and they set out to get the very best from the possibilities of PDFs by giving free versioning updates to those customers who have already bought the product. That means if they fix typos, add more examples or more pictures then you don’t loose out, you download the update for free. The association with RPGObjects also goes a long way to explaining the presence, appearance and technical panache of www.gmmastery.com.
Yes, yes, yes – I can hear you think in a frustrated way – that’s all very well but is NPC Essentials any good? To which I can reply; yes, yes, yes!
NPC Essentials really is a wonderful product. It’s an essential product – and even if you’re a GM with dozens of years of experience I still think you’ll benefit from NPC Essentials.
The meat of the download starts at chapter two; chapter one being given over to describing what you can expect from NPC Essentials and where you can find it. Chapter two starts in the sensible place and looks at NPC design. An NPC begins life in a number of different way; as a GM you need to be aware of how much time you have to create her. The guide looks at possible ways to put together an engaging NPC before looking at game mechanics. If you thought “NPC Design” was the politically correct term for min-maxing your NPCs then you’d be wrong. There are eight pages of useful tips, tricks and discussion before there’s any look at attributes or skills. You’re not necessarily creating a villain or key plot figure either, you might be creating a walk on character or even some unfortunate evil flunky who’s likely to come to a sticky end in almost no time at all. The chapter covers everything through the NPCs name and gender, to his allies and enemies, to his appearance, secrets, wealth, alignment, background, religious conviction and even his motivation.
Once you’ve created such a richly flavoured NPC you’ll want to roleplay him well enough to bring him to life. Following this logic the next chapter provides a similar range of topics on NPC roleplaying. The tips in chapter three can be classified in two broad topics: suggestions on how to roleplay the NPC well and suggestions on how to make the best use of the NPC for your game. Playing the NPC well gives rise to sections on how to use different accents or mannerisms for NPCs, using your body language to suggest things, how to keep the small talk coming and then offers advise on how to avoid “GM Schizophrenia”. The sort of discussion on how to get the best use out of favourite (those NPCs your players love to hate) NPC are more along the lines of “He Who Runs Away Lives To Fight Another Day”.
Chapter Four covers everything you need to know on managing an entire campaign of NPCs. I think some of the work suggested here really begins to mount up and if you did absolutely everything suggested it would be like having a second job (or running a hungry website! Ahem) but one of the many strengths of NPC Essentials is that you don’t have to accept everything and do everything suggested or run the risk of being locked out of some “npc management system”. You pick what you like and you use it. Here in chapter four we’re given tips on how to keep track of the wealth of NPCs that might appear to the players over a course of a campaign. Tips include keeping a stash of business cards with mini character sheets scribbled on the back but also mention such all to often overlooked points such as remembering to award NPCs with experience points. One of the strongest sections in this chapter, I thought, was the information on how to introduce NPCs. The phrase “the law of awe” really sticks in the mind and covers the time delay introduction – when the players, for example, discover a gnome they met ages ago is actually the secret enemy who’s been thwarting the whole time.
Some of this hard work is put together for chapter five. NPC archetypes (stereotypes?) are a really valuable GM tool. The ones discussed in NPC Essentials are; craftsman, merchant, servant, upper nobility, soldier, artist / entertainer, politico / minor nobility, guild leader, clergy and a beggar. Those are just the main categories though and each one divides up into cunning twists or takes on the archetype. The servant section, for example, suggests monstrous servants, the servant who’s actually in control or the one who’s helping himself to a little of the business. For each of these archetypes there’s a list of possible plot hooks.
I was rather caught out by chapter six. Strangely, it’s a mini-adventure! I think it’s presented there so those of us who get all enthused over new ideas and strategies for presenting NPCs have access to an adventure quickly so we can put these new ideas to test. The adventure, “When We Practise To Deceive” is in the d20 system and although heavy on the social interaction it suggests that the action parts may be rather tough for a party of 3rd level characters and may need toughening up if the group is generally at 5th level. It’s actually no token adventure! It’s rather good! The numerous maps come in full colour, there are hooks for sliding this adventure into your current game and there’s plenty of advice for GMs. Writing the adventure so it’s not for start up, brand new, level 1 characters was a wise move.
Chapter Seven brings the download to a close with twenty-three pages of charts, tables and character sheets. These tables provide quick access to succinct information and are clearly there to be used in game by a busy GM. On the other hand, some of the tables are a little hard to work out, whether it is because the text becomes just a little distorted or because the meaning or the legend is a little hard to follow. Tables include lists of names – always awkward for thinking up on the fly – presented by genre (modern, fantasy, etc) and by first or last. The name tables actually spell out some of the not-so-secret tricks behind online name generators; bringing together either phonetic or actual name components generates original names. There’s more than just names though, the tables provided can suggest quick backgrounds, families, appearance (in part; hair, eyes, skin tone, etc), personality, 1000 quirks, 100 secrets and events. If you weren’t so taken with the idea of using the backs of business cards to store your NPCs then you’ll probably relish the vast number of different styles and sizes of character sheets.
The appearance of the download is nearly as good as the content. NPC Essentials is light on illustration but those images common do appear are both high quality and refreshing in style. The problem with PDFs that are light on illustration is that as you scroll down them they become a sea of text in which its easy to loose your place but NPC Essentials escapes this because it makes extensive use of bullet point lists. These lists open up the flow of text and help to ensure that the scrolling product is easier on the eyes. Another winning design key is the careful use of bookmarks. Even the most basic PDF document should come with bookmarks but NPC Essentials goes to the extra length of expanding bookmarks so that so much more of the product can be indexed. For example, you can click on the “Chapter Four” bookmark and below it will expand a list of a dozen or more sections in that chapter you can jump straight too.
As I said at the start, NPC Essentials is an essential product. Even if you don’t agree with some of the suggestions in the download you’ll still likely to enjoy confirmation of your own strategies and you’re likely to be able to use the tables and character sheets in the back.