On the Talkative Tavernmaster

The problem with providing any sort of advice on DMing is that inevitably you’ll come across something that can’t be explained in a thousands words via a blog. I would love to give tons of information on how to actually design and run a session on the fly, or bring NPCs to life, or make interesting monsters, but a lot of things are going to be DM- and group-specific. A great idea for one set of people may not work for a second and may not even make sense to a third. Even if I can say something sufficiently universal, what’s the best way to explain it given the limitations of the medium?

It’s not that I’m not trying, of course. It’s just that for every good way I can think of to explain something or provide suggestions to budding DMs, I can think of ten bad ways to do the same.

Take, for example, last week’s Forging the Realms.* The blurb on the front page was this:

Creating a quick cast of nonplayer characters is something DMs have to do from time to time. This week, Ed [Greenwood] provides you with a way to do this that allows you to add more flavor to your campaign—and he does so with an extended example that you can immediately use in your game.

Try reading that extended example. I dare you.

I get that DMing is hard. The Haste Podcast talked about it just last week. Anytime Wizards, or really anybody, can come up with a way to help DMs present an interesting world and story to their players, it’s a welcome bit of information to new and experienced gamers alike.

But you know what’s not the way to do it? By telling players that the best way to flesh out a village is by writing a sixteen-paragraph, 2800-word essay and reading it to them verbatim.

First, it’s way too long. Players don’t like sitting around while a story is presented to them. They like interacting with the story and being part of it, and this includes interrupting NPCs if it looks like they’re going to rant for a while. There’s a reason that the huge, grey-backed, italicized text for room descriptions has fallen out of vogue, and it’s because it’s deeply boring. Part of the reason I can’t stand published campaign settings is because they’re impersonal, resistant to modification, and occasionally nonsensical, and this this all of the same bullet points. Give the players some direction or landmarks or leads, then let them ask questions and explore things at their own pace. A fleshed-out setting is great, but the campaign is about the PCs.

Second, it’s way too detailed. There is a part in the essay (because that’s what it is, an essay framed in the context of a conversation with monologue from a tavernmaster) where the speaker describes the floor of local church, not because it holds treasure but because he’s describing things like the players are viewing them. At another point he describes the wagonmaster, as though the characters really want to talk to a wagonmaster but it didn’t occur to them to ask for one specifically. It’s less of an introduction and more like a rambling tourist’s guidebook. There’s no conceivable way that a player can retain all of that information, and there’s barely a chance that the DM can when it comes up later.

Third, it takes way too long to write. This isn’t a problem if you use the “extended example” Wizards provides (and it means that most of the town and its significant NPCs were designed by somebody else, so if that’s your thing, good for you), but if you’re making one for your own town then you’re in for a long bit of work. Not all DMs are authors at heart and they won’t enjoy feeling that good DMs have to put everything into one long speech. I am an author at heart, and I have a campaign wiki exactly so I can put this information into logical, linked places instead of giving it out all at once. If people could pound out 2800 words of session preparation whenever they wanted, NaNoWriMo wouldn’t be a thing.

And this is all for a “tiny wayside hamlet”. Imagine a town with an actual government, or a city with competing groups and a criminal element. I would imagine that larger settlements need multiple like essays, each describing a different culture. A tavernmaster could spend sixteen paragraphs just talking about the people, places, and relations in the dwarven district. Factor in that players are well within their rights to walk ten minutes in another direction and get a similar speech with completely different information from a merchant district, and things quickly go bananas.

It’s Wizards’ job to get people interested in the products they sell, and that includes making even the little roadside stops in Forgotten Realms into the launching point for a mini-campaign’s worth of adventures. I get that. But the way to do that is not by telling DMs to create a boring, complicated, one-and-done dissertation on each hamlet their players could visit. It will, as the article suggests, help DMs to make NPC into “real people”, but there’s no universe in which Wizards could actually expect that it will work “in a hurry”. The better way to do it is to create all of this as notes beforehand, then let the DM disseminate that information as the players ask and discover it.

I realize that it doesn’t do much good to lambast somebody else’s town-generation strategy when I haven’t produced one myself. Mine is usually “play the NPCs as they come and hope real hard that it’s interesting”, but that’s not exactly useful advice. I’m working on putting together something quick and easy to use now.

* — I need you to understand exactly how sparse D&D news is that I find myself commenting on *shudder* an official campaign setting. Seriously, the only information we got last week on 5th Edition was that subclasses exist, which would be news if they weren’t already in Pathfinder (as archetypes), and both previous editions of D&D (as [alternate] class features). Decade-old information isn’t really news.

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6 Responses to On the Talkative Tavernmaster

  1. Dave says:

    The only reasonable way to generate the sort of detail you need to flesh out a small town (never mind a large city) is to start with a vague sketch and work out specifics only as they’re needed. Even planning out the important figures too much in advance could be a waste of time if the players never actually interact with them, or decide someone else is more important. You can prep the entire power structure of a settlement, but there’s a diminishing return on time spent vs. percentage of material that will actually get used in game.

    I find the easiest thing to do is to create NPCs only as they’re needed. That effectively makes all NPCs “Schrödinger’s NPCs” in the sense that they don’t really exist until the players observe them. But since they don’t exist to the players until the players see them (or hear about them) for the first time, the only one who knows the difference is you.

    This is one of the reasons I backed Short Order Heroes on Kickstarter. Need a unique NPC? Draw a card or two from the deck and you’ve got an instant personality. Pair that with a name generator or list, and you’re good to go – you can have an NPC on hand any time you need one with nearly zero effort.

  2. Yanni says:

    This is totes an area I need to improve on. I’ve read and thought about all sorts of great ways to make NPCs interesting and memorable, but feel like I do a terrible job internalizing them. I really need to work on my accents, but I always forget. I’ve heard tell that changing your “stance” when you are playing different NPCs can affect how you play them (“Lean forward when you’re Bob, sit up straight when you’re Alice, lounge when you’re Chris”) but that is also hard to remember to do. Just remembering that Harmony is supposed to be sarcastic, and Teshan is eager can be difficult.

    • Dave says:

      As a minor aside, this absolutely works, and you can write your performance notes next to each NPC’s name – that’s what I did when I ran AW. Even something as simple as how you sit or how you breathe can completely change how a character reads to the other players.

  3. Dave says:

    And of course I focused on NPCs there, but that applies to nearly everything. Why prepare the floorplan of the tavern (or the city hall) if it’s not relevant yet? There’s a whole city, and you can come up with it building-by-building as you need it without ruining the continuity of the fiction.

    Really, the by-the-seat-of-your-pants world creation (or “pantsing” as someone I met at Forge Midwest likes to call it) is the way to go. Even in the Savannah Greyhawk campaign, where I had detailed dungeon maps, I pantsed the vast majority of the building layout. I really should have pantsed most of the NPCs, but didn’t, because I didn’t realize you could do that yet; I was still stuck in the mindset of the Wizards article linked above.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      This is one of the nice things about running a game at a table, with humans. I’ve found that my prep time increases dramatically when I’m running Via Maptool, which means I have to drag tiles around to build maps instead of just drawing shapes on a board. And even running at a table needs a bit more prep when I use some sort of software that gives NPCs portraits.

      Don’t even get me started on monsters and their custom macros. I’m 90% convinced to overhaul the entire combat system we use just to make spontaneous monster design a bit quicker.

      • Dave says:

        I wondered about that (time taken getting portraits ready) because while I’ve played in a bunch of games that used DMHelper/Live GameScreen, I’ve never actually used it as a DM. It seems like since you and Blake both have well-organized libraries of character photos, you can just pull one as you need it for each new NPC, in true pantsing fashion.

        I can see the problem with monsters, though. You almost have to know ahead of time what sorts of monsters you’ll need in a session, whether you’re using LGS or Maptool.

        But even when I’m running Dungeon World, which is entirely pantsed by design, I tend to form an idea ahead of time what kinds of monsters the players might face in a session, if only so I can pull up their entries in the book.

        One of the advantages of having a palette of monsters for a session (or series of sessions) is that I’ve found players like to fight the same kinds of monsters a few times, to get a feel for them – strengths, weaknesses, tactics, etc. It’s also satisfying when you fight the same monsters after leveling up a few times and you can see how much stronger your characters have gotten.

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