Monsters are People, too - Edward E. Simbalist

One of the most fundamental rules of proper fantasy role playing is that the Players develop their characters so that the PCs generally behave in character as fantasy personalities in their own right, not as mere extensions of the Players' real selves. By definition, role playing is pretending to be someone you are not. It is a deliberate entering into a role, much like an actor on stage, to develop an alternate personality and to depict the character's words and actions in the light of his own personality and motivations. Many players go to great lengths to create detailed personalities for their characters, complete with descriptive names, comprehensive personal histories, a wide range of personal idiosyncrasies, likes, dislikes, personal goals, etc.

Unfortunately, some Game-Masters overlook the simple fact that they are not exempted from the role playing activity. Their characters are literally everyone else besides the player characters. This has profound implications for the quality and the general conduct of any fantasy role playing adventure or campaign. For the character play of the Game-Master (or the lack of it) determines what the Players will be encouraged to do or discouraged from doing with their own characters.

It is useless for a Player to try to portray his character as a meticulously drawn person in his own right if the Game-Master fails to reciprocate by playing all of his Non-Player Characters as individuals too. Role playing is interaction between personalities. Much of the real action involves no dice rolling and no consultation of results tables. The action should largely proceed through the spoken interactions between PCs and NPCs and through the descriptive commentary and the spoken responses of the Players as they reply with explanations of what their characters are doing. Common sense and a firm awareness of what is reasonable, realistic, or possible should govern the outcome of such interactions.

If everyone is behaving "in character", it is possible for the Players to predict the various responses of NPCs to certain actions or proposals made by the Player Characters. Similarly, if the PCs behave "in character", the Game-Master can anticipate PC reactions to what his NPCs are saying and doing, or to the ongoing flow of events surrounding the PCs. All of this should be self-evident. But it is easy to lose sight of the real nature of role playing. If the Game-Master thinks it unimportant to enter his own NPC roles effectively, the entire activity rapidly degenerates rapidly into mechanical dice rolling and mechanical application of tables of randomized "outcomes" which have little real bearing on what should or what might reasonably happen in the given situation. Ultimately, a continual conflict situation is created, an eternal "dungeon crawl" in which every hand/fang/claw is turned against the ever embattled adventurers.

Even worse, those Players who do role play are unfairly penalized whenever their PCs behave in character. That is, the Game-Master may set up a situation loaded against staying in character if any survival, let alone success, is desired. He thereby demands that the Players abandon their characterizations entirely and act merely as wargamers computing the statistical odds (this is called "mini-maxing") for and against the success of a given action or response. And "mini-maxing" takes all the role playing out of fantasy role playing. Every character is reduced to a cardboard mask behind which the Player sits and acts just like himself. All the atmospheric effects of a fantasy world become unimportant. The background of the character is made irrelevant. The whole thing is an exercise in game mechanics.

Put bluntly, it becomes boring to anyone with any imagination and creativity.

Let us consider the situation faced by the Knight of a romantic legend when he comes upon a damsel in distress. This is a classical motif. The Knight, if he is to remain true to his vows of Knighthood, will do the chivalric thing and attempt a rescue. That is eminently predictable if the PC is acting in character.

Now, let us consider the "clever" referee who delights in trapping PCs with cute tricks. Knowing that the Player will have his Knight behave in character, he "arranges" for the "lady" to be a vicious little vixen who will deal treacherously with the Knight the first chance she gets. The nature of the treachery is not important, for the moment. What is important is that she will certainly behave treacherously. That is the sole reason for her being there. The referee, preying on the Player's fitting concern about playing his PC in character, uses that concern to bushwhack the PC. But as for his "lady", he feels little concern that she is not acting in character. Rescued damsels tend to show a warm regard for their rescuers. We have innumerable authorities to establish that as a fact. But, instead, the "lady" of this adventure sandbags the hero when he is sleeping, steals his purse and horse, and slips away - or whatever! It's plain cheap gaming.

If the lady were to act in character, she could provide plenty of "excitement" while remaining supportive and adoring. For instance, the damsel will be very ready to volunteer that her Lord can whip anyone else in the place and, hands on shapely hips, will glare defiantly at any fighting men present, daring them to prove her wrong! That is always good for a nasty joust or two. Or she may have extraordinary expensive tastes and, once an inn has been found, will proceed to order a veritable banquet and then eats like a bird. She will become weary at the most inopportune times and will refuse to go any farther until she has rested. She will demand that her Lord's squire fetch and carry and wait on her every whim, driving the poor lad to distraction. She can, in short, make life a real trial for her rescuer - and all perfectly in character. For his part, the Knight will be torn between utter frustration and a growing infatuation with his Lady, who is invariably beautiful and well-born and has a rich, influential father who just might further his interests if he can only get her home safe and sound. That "home" is a hundred leagues away, across hostile territory, is another insignificant complication. Such are the beauties of honest role playing. Players can be driven close to the brink of insanity without a single "tricksy" move on the part of the Game-Master.

From this point of view, the damsel in distress can prove to be a proper "monster" - a worthy adversary for the PC. At the same time, she will be entirely on his side so long as he proves worthy of her and shows conventional devotion to her needs.

If monsters are people, too, then people can also be monsters in their own way

Let us consider a situation in which a conventional encounter can be opened up into a wide range of possibilities. It can also be forced into a highly restricted combat response if the Game-Master ignores his own role playing duties.

A party of adventurers are sitting around their campfire. It is somewhat after sundown, the region is a wilderness known to be filled with dangerous animals and roving bands of goblins and other creatures of their ilk, and the party is somewhat jittery because of the unusual night noises. They killed a deer late in the afternoon, and several fine haunches of venison are roasting on wooden spits over the fire. The meat is almost done to a luscious bark brown. The aroma of the roasting flesh is wafting on the night breeze. The men in the party wait expectantly as the cook leans forward to test the meat...

This is an ideal time for an "encounter". There is a sound of bushes rustling, the snap of a twig underfoot, and a band of goblins stumbles out of the undergrowth. They number perhaps three times the party. The adventurers, somewhat forewarned, have leapt to their feet and are reaching for the nearest weapons close to hand.

At this point, the stereotyped response is immediate battle. The goblins charge and the adventurers meet the attack. The non-role playing referee regards all goblins as always having it all together. They know exactly where they are, have completely scouted the adventurers, are agreed on their tactics, and always will be the nasty bad guys who attack without warning or mercy. To be blunt, the referee regards the monsters as nothing more than the fantasy equivalent of unthinking, unfeeling cannon fodder to be hurled at the adventurers without any thought about what the monsters themselves want. They are the monsters, right? Everyone knows that monsters always attack first and talk later - provided that they bother to take prisoners.

On the other hand, good character play asks a number of questions that do not readily occur to the referee who automatically assumes that all monsters are ravening automatons.

First, what are the goblins doing here? They could be a "patrol" - the usual function of goblins in some fantasy campaigns. But suppose, instead, that they are a lost patrol: lost, bewildered, and terribly hungry because no one in the group knows much about hunting, and they haven't been able to bag so much as a single cottontail since their rations ran out three days ago. They are bitten by mosquitoes, plagued by clouds of black flies, scratched by thorns and brambles, and generally exhausted and fed up from days of wandering aimlessly in circles. Now here they are in a clearing, with two lovely legs of venison roasting over a fire and seven rather tough and well armed men in possession of it. And nobody seems very "surprised" or overawed, either.

Sure, the goblins might fight. But - just perhaps there is another way. Put yourself in the shoes of the goblin leader. Your men are exhausted and weakened from hunger and the ordeals suffered over the last days. Worse, they are demoralized and beginning to show a serious disrespect for discipline and your leadership - which hasn't been very good of late. Besides, you are just as tired and demoralized, yourself, and you would much rather eat than fight, come to think of it. Even if you fight and win, a good number of the troops are going to end up dead. And your chieftain does not like that, unless there is a good deal of loot involved. This bunch seems fairly well outfitted, but there is no show of obvious wealth. All they have for sure is that pair of lovely legs of roasting venison, and your chief simply won't understand how important and valuable that venison is right now.

Question, Mr. Game-Master: What do you do as the goblin leader? Also, to complicate your decision a little more, pretend for the moment that your goblin leader is the only character you are going to play for the rest of the session. If you lose him, you are out of the action for the rest of the time today. Of course, being Game-Master, that is not really the case. But if you were only a Player, you would likely be facing that possibility. Consider that your reactions are a lot different if you have strictly limited resources, character-wise, than if you have an unlimited supply to fool around with.

That difference is the difference between monsters being people and otherwise just a pack of faceless, mindless sets of gaming statistics to roll dice around! That is also the difference between inspired role playing and mindless dependence upon appearance tables and reaction outcomes.

Maybe - just maybe you can swing a little deal here. Try talking first. It won't hurt. If you get lucky, you might end up with a full belly and avoid a fight. After all, you could always trail the party later and hit them in a proper ambush when your troops have both their spirits and strength up. Or you could use the few minutes spent in parley so that the troops can edge into better position for an attack. For that matter, you wouldn't be in this miserable spot in the first place if Snogg didn't have it in for you and stuck your troop with the rotten missions in the first place! Come to think of it, you and your boys haven't even seen any silver for the last two moons, and that's made this a really raw deal.

"Hey, youse guys, don' shoot! Boy! Is we glad to see youse guys! We been trampin' 'bout these blankety-blank hills for days, now, and we-us-well, we got us kind of lost, you know. Uh, any of youse fellas know the way to Thunder Mountain, huh? Say - is that roast deer you got there? Sure smells good."

It's all up to the PCs now. The Players are going to name the game, not the Game-Master. This is role play - interaction time. The goblins are pretty much in position to make a fight of it, but it might not come to that if the Players are quick on the uptake. Some very strong lines of alternate play have been built into the situation because the Game-Master has settled in his own mind the psychological state of mind prevailing among his monsters. Just about anything can happen, depending on the Players and their own wit in handling the situation.

Let us suppose that the PCs decide to be wary and watchful. They decide that they could probably win the scrap - the goblins do look a sorry sight now that they've had a moment to study them. A little handout might be preferred to a fight, though, because the adventurers still have a long way to go through hostile territory and a truly hair-raising raid to perform at the end. A leg of venison is sacrificed in the interests of studying on the problem a bit longer.

As the ravenous goblins dig into their victuals, one of them is overheard muttering to a companion that "This be the only good luck we had lately, Goraab. Firs' we gets that new chief and all his stupid blankety-blank rules and spit 'n polish inspections. Then there's no pay comin' for more 'n two moons. We draw day guard duty for a full month just 'cause a few of the guys snuck some beer on that route march. An' finally this here dumb patrol. So what happens? We go and get us lost, that's what I'm tellin' youse, Goraab, we got no luck at all. We should've stood at home in bed. Gee, this here deer's real good! Wunner iff'n we can get any more . . .?"

It takes a really stupid bunch of Players not to pick up on the drift of this little conversation. This is a platoon of very irate goblins, ready to chuck their former employment if anyone makes them an offer they can't refuse. Right now, that would come to a handful of silver, regular meals, and a firm promise of a good scrap and loot later on.

This is only one of a core of possible lines of play that can develop. A lot depends upon the Game-Master, though. He has to decide what his monsters' are up to in the first place. To a degree, this argues strongly for planned encounters. Randomized encounters have a definite place in role play, but a deliberately pre-arranged encounter can be thought out a bit in advance. The motivations of the monsters can be settled on, and their reactions can be prepared for in advance. This permits the Game-Master to enter into the role playing proper, which is the most enjoyable part of many adventures, after all. Direct interaction between monsters and players also develops the Players skills in this area, so that they do not lapse into that boring habit of drawing weapons and wading into every stranger they meet out of an entrenched feeling of paranoia.

Never forget that monsters are people, tool They have their own personalities and their own personal histories, their own ambitions and fears, weaknesses and strengths, enemies and axes to grind, etc. If these are kept in mind even a little bit, a campaign becomes greatly enriched by often hugely enjoyable role play interactions. The Game-Master, through his characterizations, can cross mental swords with the Players in an entirely different form of "combat" in which NPC or PC can reasonably and believably turn a situation to advantage. ("I just don't know what went wrong, Farley. That Goraab seemed a real sucker for a game of craps. You think maybe he palmed the dice and switched a pair of loaded ones on me? Naw-he's too stupid for that!")

The guiding principle to follow when gauging the conduct of most NPCs, monsters, and beasts is to decide what you would do if you were such an individual in the same situation. This sometimes requires a bit of careful role playing to get oneself in the proper frame of mind.

Let us consider a pack of savage timber wolves who have encountered a party of three hunters deep in the woods. The men seemed easy prey at first, but those long wooden pointy things the two-legged ones are grasping in their paws are sharp and nasty! Old Growler's down already and bleeding badly, Dear Stalker's clearly dead, and you and several others in the pack have been painfully nicked. Time has come, Grey Leader, to decide whether these two-legged creatures are as tasty as they looked at first. Sure, you're the mighty leader of a strong pack. But a few more minutes of this and you won't have much of a pack to lead.

Wolves aren't at all stupid, and pack leaders are the smartest of a canny breed. A pack leader knows when to cut his losses. There is plenty of easier prey in the forest. So why wait for a morale check? The wolves are bugging out-now!

Why is it that the enemy-whatever it is-in some fantasy campaigns are oblivious to personal danger and keep coming right down to the last man or goblin or wolf or troll or green slug or whatever? The answer is simple. The referee is guilty of not thinking out the reasons behind the NPCs' conduct. The motivations animating the NPC are very important. Such considerations like the ones illustrated above will be totally beyond the ability of any game mechanics to handle properly. No random dice results can be devised to provide appropriate and realistic reactions to ongoing events. A great deal depends upon the Game-Master's personal judgement. By starting with the insight that monsters are people, too, the Game-Master will be more able and willing to climb right inside their skins and see through their eyes. The results are worth it. The very best Game-Masters in the business tend to do that as a matter of routine. The result is a gaming session filled with excitement, tension, and laughs.

Best of all, it gives the Game-Master a chance to get in on the fun of role playing which his Players are enjoying.

The development of a rounded personality for an NPC is never more important than in the case of a major NPC who will accompany a party for a considerable period of time, or who will play a major and influential role in determining the course of action for a good portion of the campaign. A powerful wizard who is in opposition to the PCs, for instance, needs to be drawn in some detail - at least in the Game-Master's mind. What kind of a person is he? How does he affect subordinates? How does he lay his plans against foes he clearly regards as inferior worms? Sauron, in the Lord of the Rings, is not really encountered until the very end of the trilogy. However, we know him well from the actions of his minions. Orcs under his command, for instance, are petrified with terror of Sauron and his Nazgul lieutenants - so much so that they maintain a rigid discipline even when removed from their direct scrutiny and supervision. On the other hand, it is clear that the Orcs will be more lax and prone to commit breaches in discipline when their leaders are less powerful.

Taken along another line, the new C&S contains a section on the mental set of Demons. Very powerful Demons will have an arrogance and a sense of power that often blinds them to the chance that a seemingly weak opponent can still stalemate them or even defeat them. This is the fatal weakness, the Achilles Heel, that renders them open to failure. Every NPC, human or otherwise, must have such a fatal flaw, and it often is related to a quirk of personality. Without role play, such weaknesses become quite irrelevant. Even mighty Demons like Lucifer are people, tool They make mistakes. They can be fooled. They can overreach themselves. They can be corrupted or bought. They can be too clever for their own good. They can be surprised, baffled, shocked, and bewildered when faced by the unexpected. But only if the Game-Master abandons his all-knowing position as referee and descends into the arena to enter into their skins and act as they would likely act in the situation.

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