Game: GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
Review Dated: 29th, May 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
The contents page is a bit of a mess. It’s nice and thorough – that’s good. The page entries are out by about four – that’s bad. Subtract four from the apparent page number in the table of contents and you’ll be much closer to where the entry actually is.
It would be entirely wrong, it would be a roleplaying crime, to judge GM Mastery (book one) – NPC Essentials by the mismatched page numbers in the table of contents. The first appearance of this GM Mastery book was as a PDF offering from RPGObjects and Johnn Four, it really was a must-have product. This incarnation is the very same book except its on paper and that’ll make very many people happy. The book is the right size. It’s half size. Lay two NPC Essentials down beside one another and you’ll be covering the same surface area as a typical RPG supplement. It’s not a skimpy book though; about 190 pages, thick-enough covers and a strong spine. NPC Essentials is the sort of book you’ll want to toss into your bag before going off to GM at your friends house or for after classes. NPC Essentials is the sort of book that’ll survive being tossed into your bag and then being hiked out when you run in to trouble GMing in your friend’s house.
Staying out of trouble and avoiding frantic searches for supporting material is what NPC Essentials is all about though. The goal of the book is to get design and the roleplaying of solid and believable NPCs exactly right. NPC Essentials breaks everything down into a manageable step-by-step approach. The book is full of bullet point lists and bite-sized paragraphs and clear headings. It is incredibly easy to follow the advice. Just as importantly, it is easy to see why the advice is being given in the first place. For example, below a bullet point list on crafting stories from an NPCs’ power base, “Scalable power bases naturally impact the game world in significant ways and spawn interesting stories all by themselves. Watch how your NPC wields his power base, and maintains, grows, and defends it. Every choice affects your campaign environment and sows a seed for a new adventure.” There’s an example right afterwards. That paragraph is a good example of how the content is NPC Essentials isn’t dumbed down. The book is written to assist new GMs but it’s not written for the weakest link and so GMs of any level of experience will find useful titbits in it. The charts and tables at the end of the book will be something experienced GMs may use again and again and even carry NPC Essentials around for.
The action begins at chapter two. Here the book concentrates on designing the right NPC, if the groundwork is right then the rest will be so much easier. Simple things such as the NPC’s name are given as much attention as more complex issues. These extra details include such things as the NPC’s personality, their fears, goals, ambitions and even relationships. How’s it possible to consider NPC naming on a similar level as working out the character’s personality? It’s not just a matter of having a paragraph remind you to think of a name for the NPC. There is discussion on the merits of naming the NPC before working out their stats, during or afterwards. Are you going to take a name from history, from an atlas, a baby book or make something up yourself? Will one name suffice or will you have a first and surname? Middle names? A prefix? A suffice? Mr Charles Hammer-Smirth III. Gark, Elf Slayer. Will the NPC’s name hold a clue to the game, will it add to the atmosphere or will it be a common name that occurs throughout the land?
The next chapter offers similar style help on the roleplaying of the NPC. It’s here that the book considers using different accents or even body postures to portray different NPCs. There’s less “artsy” advice to, notes on how to handle a NPC in a fight, tips on keeping the mood and why its important not too cheat the players and yet how to tweak the NPCs strengths appropriately. The blend of strategy and tactics with theatre and props doesn’t come across as surreal at all. The various aspects of running a NPC combine logically and naturally.
Chapter four scales things up. It’s here that you’ll find tips and tricks on how to mature your NPCs over the course of a campaign, how to foreshadow the introduction of a NPC and how to cope when the group of players are significantly more powerful or weaker than the NPC. There’s even a roadmap on how to quickly create an entire cast of NPCs.
Chapters five and six aren’t my favourite but I can quite easily see them being the strong points in the book for other readers. The fifth chapter runs through common archetypes; craftsmen, merchants, servants, upper nobility, soldiers, artists/entertainers, minor nobles, guild leaders, clergy and beggars and does a thorough case study of each. The book addresses common aspects of these archetypes such as motivations and plot twists. As you read through each section – which carefully dances around the dread word “class” despite the d20 logo appearing on the book – you’ll get a good idea of just what sort of NPC for the archetype that you fancy running. Each section finishes with a bullet point list of plot hooks and that’s a great kicker. Why isn’t it my favourite offering in the book? I simply prefer the more generic advise found earlier on. The archetypes are the good among the great. Not so the pre-written mini scenario. I’m just not fond of pre-written adventures, especially not ones thrown in unexpectedly. That said; I easily imagine that many readers will be chomping at the bit to try out their new and improved GMing style and will genuinely appreciate the adventure being there.
There are nearly 40 pages of cleanly presented tables at the end of the book. The first (d100) provides columns of fantasy names; male and female and the second (d100) does the same with modern names. The next d100 table has three columns and rolling on it puts together typically cheesy fantasy names, bias to either good or bad; compare “Brightaxe” to “Fellaxe” for example. If you’re more interested in names than just fun fantasy then the phonetic last name generator will leap off the page at you. There are too many tables to get into but consider similar detail for personality, background, appearance, wealth, quirks, secrets and more.
This print version of GM Mastery is under twice the price of the PDF. I liked the PDF because it was so easy just to print off those tables and reminders that interested you but the old fashioned book remains vastly more popular than the electronic document. Without a doubt, NPC Essentials, in any format, will suit GMs of any experience. If you’re looking for the sort of RPG accessory that’ll last longer than the current fashionable race or magic style then GM Mastery is a serious contender.