Monsters or Men, Part Two: No one slays like Gaston — the enduring appeal of villains who monologue

A: Okay, we recently looked at the positives in using monsters, but how about reasons why NPCs are awesome?

C: This might be a topic for you to take the lead on—I mean, you’ve got an entire town which is essentially full of NPCs, and you utilise them more than you do monsters. How have you found that? A lot of things to be built, obviously.

A: Yeah. And as I mentioned in Part One, sometimes it can be frustrating when you build the perfect villain and then the party destroys them in seconds. But, despite that early setback, I really like using NPCs. There’s something so appealing for me to have these over-the-top antagonists who can really interact with player characters.

C: I think people can still develop relationships with monsters. It’s definitely easier with characters but I think it is possible with monsters; in my game you guys have moments where you think, ‘oh, this fucking monster’.

A: Like Slytherin Gretch? Small, treacherous goblin and would-be assassin of our wizard Emer. Just thinking about him makes my blood boil.

C: That wasn’t his name, but yes.

A: On the one hand, yes. Farrar, as a gnome, gets hatred against goblinoid creatures as a racial trait, but it wasn’t until she met Slytherin Gretch that I really felt that hate.

C: Still not his name, but I get where you’re coming from.

A: But I’d argue that he was more NPC than monster, in terms of having class levels and the intelligence to seek revenge on us.

C: True.

A: And, like, yes, you can build up feelings towards particular types of monsters, but I think the best recurring enemies are NPCs. And I think having recurring antagonists really helps players have a stake in the game.

C: That’s a really good point. And once you’ve built your antagonists to a certain level when you’re creating them, they’re then pretty easy to level up. You guys have a nemesis group in my campaign who sort of levels with you over the course of the campaign; you encounter them every now and again Star Wolf style, and those meetings are quite cool and interesting.

A: Also, recurring antagonists can be super useful. I think that there are times when you really have to chivvy players into doing something—or sit back and let them go off-piste—so it’s reassuring to know that, if there’s something you really need them to do, you can have those antagonists show up and act like a red rag to the party. I think if you guys saw the villainous de Leon sisters vanish into the sketchiest of alleys, most of you would go straight after them without hesitation, and that’s good for me to know.

C: There may also be something to be said for having enemies we recognise; knowing what class an enemy is, and their likely powers, can be a useful. There are a lot of witches in your campaign, and now we know what some witch powers are, and we know more how they fit into your world.

A: Yeah–it means you don’t feel cheated by the actions of a new witch, because you’ve probably seen someone else do a version of that spell before. Also, a big reason I like NPC enemies is because I can be a smart DM. When you guys faced kelpies, I kept wanting to strategise, but I felt like these water-horse creatures wouldn’t think smart.

C: Yeah, I get what you mean.

A: And that’s annoying. I like forcing you guys to think more and to use spells or each other’s skills inventively; I think you start to do more stuff, and it makes it more interesting in terms of how you play your characters. And I think that’s more likely to happen if your enemies are also strategising.

C: I see what you mean. And I want to pick up on something you just said, which was about players feeling cheated by an enemy.

A: Yeah, I think some of the monster ‘special attacks’ can feel unfair when you don’t know about them in advance. Like, to return to the Rot Grubs, they get poison, which feels quite powerful given that they also have grab and gnaw. It would be easy to get annoyed at that. Whereas with NPCs, if they can do something cool—like Isilt and the two crossbows—the players are more like, ‘oh, you sunk three feats into your NPC to make them be able to do this one cool move’.

C: True, and most NPCs aren’t going to dispatch a player character in a single hit, which stops the game feeling unfair. Players can learn from their mistakes rather than being instantly killed by them. And then it’s their fault when they mess up in a very emphatic way. That eases my conscience a little as I throw all these enemies at you.

A: And I think, for me, sure NPCs take a lot of prep time, but I understand their skills and abilities much more, which makes things quicker in game. I like having witches as antagonists—I know what hexes they can use; I know what they can and will do in combat. Well, I say this—I forgot what they could do last campaign and everything went horribly wrong for my de Leon witches, but in general, it works. And I’m not going to mess up in a way which accidentally over-powers my enemies by thinking they can do things they can’t do. So that’s good.

C: I get your point. A lot of the time in D&D you end up improvising; having reliable enemies you can fall back on is helpful.

A: And making NPCs who match your players’ race or class can be useful.

C: Yeah, it creates a fun parallel.

A: Fun, but also a good learning tool for me as a DM; I understand the classes and races so much more. Which is good because then I can get better at utilising the fun quirks which each race/class has, like the fact you play a dwarf and dwarves get a stone-sense or whatever.

C: Stonecunning. Yeah, I automatically get a check to look for weird stone.

A: Exactly, and since that’s a Weyrholm-specific thing, I should try to work it in more often, the same way as I should work in Delphi’s Travel Domain abilities. I mean, you picked skills and talents for a reason, and I should make them relevant.

C: I get what you mean. Though it’s also fallible—I’ve done campaigns which I’ve planned around certain characters’ abilities or backstories, and then their players weren’t able to make it, and there were things which didn’t make sense to everyone else because I’d been so character-specific when designing them. In my desire to create content which felt accessible to them, I ended up making it less enjoyable for other people.

A: That’s true, one doesn’t want to base an entire campaign around one quirk. In an entirely unrelated topic, I really hope Weyrholm doesn’t die soon because there are some things which won’t make much sense to the other SJWs. But I think so long as one isn’t obsessive, having a few nice touches of character-stuff works well.

C: Definitely.

A: Though I often forget. Like, I forget that humans can’t see in the dark, and it’s not until I design a character and I’m like ‘that’s their weakness’ that I remember to work it into the plot. That’s just one example, picked entirely at random; as a sidenote, you are the only character with darkvision in my campaign. I’m not saying that will be important ever, but you are the eyes and ears of the party.

C: I’m going to try and not overthink that comment right now… Focusing on enemies, I’d like to suggest that actually using monsters and using NPCs is less different than you might think. On the monster side, as I’ve mentioned, I sometimes add a few class levels onto something picked from the bestiary. I’ve done this a few times, where I’ll create a level 2 orc which may in part be from the bestiary and in part be from classes. There’s some intermingling, and over time I may build that in to specific NPCs or I might build that into a stronger orc for a particular encounter.

A: Yeah, we keep meeting gnoll warpriests in your game.

C: Right. And on the NPC side, you have the de Leon sisters who all had levels in witch and who all had at least one shared witch ability, which is flight; so I think at some point you probably built them with comparisons. Even if you didn’t make a basic template off which you built each individual one, there was probably some continuity between them, which maybe helped you use NPCs monstrously, right?

A: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that aspect is definitely there. On the character sheets, I have one witch written out in full, and then on the others, a lot is copied or written in shorthand. And I guess using recurring villains, whether they’re my witch sisters–or if Isilt comes back to finish his speech–that’s sort of like going through my own private bestiary of villains and selecting from my already-made characters.

C: I think that that might be the sweet spot. You can use your NPCs like monsters, and I like turning some of the bestiary entries—hobgoblins and things like that—to later game enemies through tweaking, which really operates more like building an NPC. A game shouldn’t be made up of just monsters or just NPCs; the intermingling of them can be quite fun and interesting, and there’s lessons to be learned from either side.

A: Yeah, I should stop thinking of it as either monster or NPC and do a little more mix-and-match with my antagonists. Time for some incredibly powerful rot grub witches.

C: What have I done?

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