C: Regrettable disclaimer here: this one is almost going to be an essay from me since we’re focusing on the return of several major NPCs in my game.
A: I might have thoughts too. And I can introduce the characters, and say how they appeared from a player-perspective. In this session we re-met three NPCs whom we already knew, more or less. Firstly, there was the mayor of the town, whom we met last time we were here. Although ‘re-met’ might be a little strong—we saw him from a distance and then he got bottled and we were like, ‘Ah well.’ But we saw him; he remains a terrible person. We already hated him, but now we hate him more, and he’s possibly dead.
C: Yeah, it’s currently unclear if he survived the brick to his head because after that his carriage was driven away by Regan…
A: Who is Returning Character No.2. Regan was not a person I expected to see again. In-game we probably met this woman at a party a year ago; in the real world it’s been roughly two years since we met her. She danced with a player character and then burned her handprint into his chest before murdering some other people and peacing out.
C: There was a light commotion and she basically used that as an excuse to start combusting people.
A: But she was a really good dancer so the jury was still out as to whether she was a villain or not. Then in this session she Fireballed lots of people in this town and now it’s a little more clear-cut.
C: She was a good dancer though. Can a dancer truly be a villain?
A: Don’t confuse me. The final character we hadn’t actually met before, but they turned out to be from the backstory of a player character who’s currently not with us. So we had this weird connection with them because of Rhonna.
C: Yeah, she’d already visited the pub where you guys now are.
A: So there were these three really distinct throwbacks to previous campaigns and events. It was fun, especially because they were so different. It wouldn’t have been bad if they’d all been the same—we wouldn’t have been disappointed if we’d only met Grenton-characters because we’re back in the town of Grenton again, but it was super-exciting to be like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s Regan. She is still terrible and in love with fire. Like our other enemy, Larra.’
C: Whom Regan brutally maimed and mutilated.
A: And Larra blames us for that even though it wasn’t our fault. We did not start the fire. It had been burning since the world began.
C: Been turning.
A: Turning. Fine. I only listen to Ed Sheeran.
C: I have several things to say, one of which is pretentious.
A: Is it that we as a party should get better at the Create Water spell given our predilection for picking fights with people who love fire?
C: Fair, but no. So here’s what I think, Angela: introducing characters for a big arc in an opening situation like this is really useful. The fact that D&D is a storytelling medium unlike any other—the fact that it’s so interactive—means that it’s important to make players feel like they have a stake in the game. I reckon that’s especially true in this new arc we’re beginning in my campaign, where there’s a lot more freedom of movement, a lot more choice. Players can go through the town in any direction—
A: Sure we can go through the town in any direction, but as soon as we try to find someone for Farrar to make out with, oh look, there’s a riot.
C: Things still happen if you go to certain areas of town, like the riot in the centre. But I’m trying not to railroad you, to call back to one of our earlier conversations. You guys can decide where to roam and then things happen based on the decisions you make.
C: Players have lots of freedom in that regard, but I also want to make sure the arc has some structure. I had a bunch of important characters in this arc in one place at one time and gave you a glimpse of them in the hopes it’d solidify them in your minds as you explore. Because you have an existing character relationship with them, the story is coloured by that. It’s like the Whitestone arc in Critical Role—two of the core antagonists are introduced almost before the arc starts, they have a direct interaction with the party, and then you don’t really see them until the very end. But their presence gives the story a lot more oomph because we know the character dynamics going in and that motivates the party. I think having old NPCs show up is really useful because it gives players an immediate connection to their environment and the people in it, which they can then act off of and feel motivated by.
A: I think having the throwback characters there was a really nice way of engaging player characters who didn’t have any previous connection to them. I mean, half the party has been to Grenton before and they’re already pretty invested in the town. But the other half, who are, and I mean this as nicely as possibly, a little more…morally neutral, didn’t have any real incentive to help the townsfolk. But now, because of the actions of Regan, they’re like, ‘Goddammit, that person just set fire to my horse. She’s number one on my enemy list.’
C: Yeah, Rayén definitely doesn’t like Regan now. Angela, you raise an extremely good point.
A: I think I just stole your point, but thank you.
C: No, for real, I hadn’t really thought about it in context of this session, but it’s vital when you think about players joining the party later. DMs then have the question of—what if in the first episode of your campaign, you introduced a consistent ally or a big bad, some recurring character? If a player joins two years after you started the campaign, they don’t have a relationship with that character, so having consistent reminders and interactions with them to develop a dynamic relationship that everyone in the party can be a part of is really useful.
C: I had it before in my game with Emer, who joined after about a year. The rest of the party hated this character—one of the repeat antiheroes who shows up and causes trouble for them. They were constantly like, ‘Fuck this guy’, but she didn’t have that relationship with him. I had to think of a way that this character—
A: Just call him Tag. We know it’s Tag.
C: Okay, so how can Tag be as frustrating to Emer as he is to the rest of the party so that she can feel like part of the group? I wanted to build it into the narrative too. In the end I had him steal Emer’s spellbook; he would only give it back if the party helped him with this task. It fitted with the story and allowed Emer to feel like part of the team.
A: It was a very effective way of getting Emer to go from, ‘But why do you guys hate him so much?’ to being like, ‘I am first in the queue to murder Tag.’ Also, on a different note, I just want to pick up on the fact that you did not call him an antagonist. You called him ‘an antihero’.
A: Which makes me wonder—do you view us all as bit characters in your arc of Tag?
C: …Let’s move on. Basically, having previous characters come back is great for reminding initial players that these people still exist and you still don’t like them, and it allows new characters to be like, ‘Oh I now also understand the situation and I agree with you; this sucks and I want to help you end this person.’ It’s great for building up this teamwork dynamic.
A: We all definitely have the same goal now: make Regan pay.
C: But also, in a more immediate, less pretentious way about how do you do storytelling—it’s just fun. I have seven players in my campaign now, which is a lot. When you get the whole group feeling one emotion, when they’re all on the same page, when everyone’s jonesing to go—that’s a fucking fantastic feeling.
A: That’s true; it’s pretty exciting to see everyone invested in the story.
C: Goddamn I love D&D. Or Pathfinder, I guess. Or both really!