Monday, July 20, 2015

Leadership I

Setting war aside, we move onto the next subject in the fighter's repertoire.  For me and for most anyone I've known, there are great problems where it comes to the acquisition and management of non-player characters, both for the player and for the DM.  While the latter has always had to put up with parties that see men-at-arms as little more than cardboard obstacles designed to slow the enemy up for a round or two, players have had to accept an endless parade of conveniently skilled, story-driven hireling backstabbers.  NPCs are foils for both sides.  Where is the trust?

Because even a long term friend and hireling will turncoat on a dime as the DM runs his or her latest Josh Whedon plot line, players on the whole learn to do without them.  Because they're not 'real,' there's nothing to stop us from squeezing out of each NPC all the juice we can get, as far as the DM will allow . . . and since most hireling sacrifices take place underground, far from the eyes of others, it is hard to argue that more can't be obtained with sufficient capital.  It seems the only option the DM has is to have a random hireling bite back . . . but that only results in a total distrust of all hirelings, effectively eliminating the option from the game.

Gygax wasted four pages of the DMG making up interaction rules for henchmen and hirelings - gawd knows if he tried to play those rules himself.  I wasted a couple of months trying to evolve interaction rules for players and everyone else.  Player-NPC interactive mechanics are an unequivocal, unavoidable shit pile.  As I step into it again, the reader can bet I am going to do so carefully.

For a long time, I have been running henchmen as additional, obstensibly fanatic characters whom the players "meet" and then run exactly like typical player characters.  These henchmen appear when the character reaches a certain level, supposedly because the character has gathered a reputation or acted in some way publicly that the henchman has approached, in awe, begging to follow the original player character eternally until death.

Recently, my players have begun hitting name-level, acquiring followers.  These are not henchmen (they have a mind of their own), but they are completely loyal and willing to perform most any action the player asks of them.  During the campaign, the player again runs these people - but I reserve the right to veto any act the player would have them perform.  I hardly ever need to.  Players understand that they're not going to replace these followers easily and for the most part, the followers' entry into combat is more or less designed by the player to keep them alive.

I have a theory that IF the player is allowed to play the NPC (even a hireling or a servant) without the DM interfering, the player is far, far less likely to sacrifice that character - particularly if it is made clear to the player that advancement for the NPC is a possibility.  Even an munchkin gets that a weakling NPC who might someday be a 5th level helper will tend to keep the NPC safe.  I believe that the willingness to sacrifice NPCs willy-nilly begins with the DM insisting on controlling every single action of that character.  By not allowing the player to co-opt the NPC, the DM greatly downgrades the character's worth to the players. Why not burn off those men-at-arms?  We have no power over them anyway.

I challenge any DM reading this to hand over any NPCs running with the party in their present campaign to the party!  Simply give the party all their stats and tell the party, "I'm going to let you manage these guys so that I have more time to run.  Jim, you can run the two bowmen, Janie, go ahead and direct the heavy footman and John, you've got the sapper.  Here are their hit points and stats.  I'll call nix if you have them do anything really stupid but for the most part, they're yours."

I began doing this within a year of running my first games and it has never gone sour.  If the players get too entitled, then I will just have the NPCs fade into the darkness; "You look around and the NPCs have deserted you."  Players are always chattering among themselves anyway, it is easy to argue that for five minutes, no one has so much as mentioned an NPC so it was easy for them to slink away.

I only need to do this, however, with new players fresh to my world, those who have learned bad habits under other DMs.  My players cherish their NPCs because its a harsh, brutal world and they recognize every friend they can get will help keep them alive.  It helps that in eight years of the present campaign (offline), I've never had a hireling or follower go turncoat.  The same is true, I suppose, of the online campaign.  An NPC they meet, who they haven't built an association with, might turn out to be an enemy, but never a friend.  NEVER a friend.

Why ditch that potential story option?  Because it's trite, it's overused, it's arbitrary (oh, so very arbitrary) and it builds bad blood between a DM and a player.  Fuck all that.  There are other plotlines, other stories, other ways to build up tension.  I don't use that cheesy option because I don't need it.

Seriously.  Ditch it.  When your head goes there and you think, "Woah, that will be cool, they'll never see that coming," smack yourself in the face.

Think instead, "Woah, that's me being a fucking turncoat to my players by arbitrarily deciding to be a dick.  Maybe I shouldn't."

Well, that was a digression.  I was talking about henchmen and followers.

Hirelings are people the players buy, who have no particular loyalty to the players' prestige or personas.  Over time, they might develop some.  For my world, I use a very simple system, morale.  The link explains the principle.  On the whole, it lets the players run the hireling and then puts a die roll between having the hireling enter or remain in combat (or any other danger) based upon what sort of experience the hireling has.  Not all hirelings work on a wage principle.  I consider anyone adventuring with the party and getting a share of the treasure to be a hireling (or 'ally').

I keep meaning to write some rules on how much wages/treasure a hireling expects to get but I haven't yet.  Probably have to this winter to support the leadership rules I plan to add to my campaign.

Friends are people who are working with the party but who have not committed themselves to anything.  Friends are not always easy to identify and usually there is a period during which the players aren't sure if such and such is a friend or foe.  Here I can play with loyalties and trust where it comes to interaction, because no agreements have been made, no assurances given.  Any friend might in fact not be a friend, so people freely lie to the party or are believed to have lied because the party knows not to trust anyone who is merely a friend.

Thus, a friend might give the party a gift that turns out to be something else; the party knows this is a possibility because, apart from the gift, there's no proof of any other commitment.  Parties, knowing this (and knowing me), recognize very well that these relationships can go either way.  They are not, therefore, angered or resentful when a 'friend' goes the other way.  Not like they would be if a hireling or a follower did.  There is a line.

Most friends in my world, however, really are friends.  On Saturday, my party met a Wyth; a humanoid creature resembling a razorbacked hog, frightening to look at and blessed with obvious thieving abilities.  These abilities were recognized by the party's 7th level thief (Olie) - so the party was reasonably unsure.  Moreover, the Wyth would not speak, only shake its head or nod.  It ate raw meat from a oiled bag and that seemed disturbing.  Without any sort of surety between them, the Wyth headed off and so did the party.

In a town, the players were told that Wyths are dangerous and that they will follow a party until they can gather together enough of their band to launch an assault.  When the party moved on, descending through a canyon to the plain below, Olie caught glimpses that showed they were being followed.  Olie slipped back, found the Wyth and confronted it, 25 feet apart.  Olie threatened; the Wyth did not speak.  It pulled out a piece of raw meat and offered it to Olie.  Olie refused it.  Olie managed to scare the Wyth away and then returned to the party.

Didn't work.  The Wyth continued to follow.  That night, it approached another player on guard, Maze the cleric, moving to the edge of the firelight.  From that distance, it again offered the meat.  Maze also refused.  When Maze moved to wake up the others in the party, the Wyth disappeared.  The next day, the party descended into the plain and they didn't see the Wyth again.

The worst thing was that the Wyth wouldn't speak; this had the party confused and threatened.  When they reached a city on the plain, they asked again about the Wyth.  Here they were told a different story; that people in the hills don't trust the Wyths but that they're harmless.  And the meat?  Apparently, Wyths won't talk to anyone they haven't shared food with.  It was trying to get the party to eat so they could talk together.

This had a terrific effect on the party, as they realized their distrust had cost them a possible friend.  To this I added by saying, "It had things to tell you."  That went through the party's head like a bomb.  Naturally, they did not see the Wyth again.

Making friends is difficult.

This is where Leadership as a skill comes in.  How to change a stranger to a friend, how to make a friend a hireling (or ally) and how to turn hirelings into followers.  In turn, how to acquire people in a campaign that a player can personally manage or run.  I'll write more on this next.


Jomo Rising said...

I was contemplating doing something to the players. My face has been sufficiently smacked. Thanks.

Maliloki said...

Looking forward to more on this topic

Discord said...

This is (unsurprisingly, because it's coming from you) brilliant. The gradations make perfect sense, they don't seem to be forced.

I have a young male NPC who's been trotting along with the party for several sessions. He's supposed to be star-struck by them and want to be an adventurer. But he really hasn't had any effect on the story at all. I think I'll stat him up and turn him over to the party to see what happens.