The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. And if you’re in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn’t be reading it.
Way back in 2001, Atlas Games published In the Belly of the Beast, a D20 adventure by Mike Mearls. This was a roleplaying-intense adventure featuring multiple factions trapped inside the belly of an immense demon. In and of itself, it’s a pretty awesome adventure.
But In the Belly of the Beast is particularly notable, for me, because of the format Mearls used for presenting the roleplaying information for his NPCs. As noted, the adventure is a complex roleplaying scenario with multiple factions each comprised of multiple characters. And yet, due to the utilitarian format Mearls pioneered, the adventure runs smooth as silk: I was able to pick up an NPC, quickly identify what the character’s goals and personality were, and then slide straight into character.
Basically, all Mearls did was break the NPC information down into six sections: Key Information, Quote, Background, Appearance, Roleplaying Notes, and Goals.
Like most good ideas, it seems simple enough… it’s just that nobody had done it before. So instead of trying to parse several paragraphs of dense text summarizing every NPC, you could immediately find exactly what you needed.
I promptly absconded with it, and have been using the format to great success ever since. For NPCs, I generally simplify it down to: Quote, Background, Appearance, and Roleplaying Notes.
(I ditched Key Information because it generally just duplicates information found elsewhere. The Goal section reappears when needed and often in different forms. For example, it doesn’t appear at all in my City Supplements because the NPCs aren’t part of any particular adventure. On the other hand, in my personal campaign, I recently ran a high society party where everyone had a Notes section just to bullet-point out particular interactions I wanted to make sure I hit. In the case of Keep on the Shadowfell, as you’ll see below, it manifests itself as Plot Points/Information, which is, once again, just a bullet-pointed list to make sure I hit particularly important details.)
In my experience, the format not only helps me when it comes to running NPCs, it also helps me to prepare only the information I need to prepare for a given NPC.
QUOTE: “Welcome to Winterhaven. I wish that you might have come at a more auspicious time.”
BACKGROUND: The Lord of Winterhaven, descended from a noble family that ruled this area under edict of the old empire. Folks around Winterhaven were happy with Lord Padraig’s father’s authority, and they have found answering to the rules of the new lord no more arduous. On the other hand, Padraig doesn’t have absolute power. For instance, he has been unable to raise a force from among the villagers to deal with the kobold problem.
APPEARANCE: Lord Padraig is a man of medium height and middling years. His brown hair is thinning, but he still cuts a trim and handsome figure in clothes of rural finery. His face is open and friendly.
ROLEPLAYING NOTES: Padraig is amenable to meeting with anyone, and if he knows the PCs are rune-marked he will greet them as heroes and potential allies. If he doesn’t know they are rune-marked, he will assume they are dignitaries from another village or possibly merchants scouting trade routes.
He remains friendly and open unless he believes the PCs to be mere treasure hunters or opportunistic mercenaries. In that case, his respect diminishes (although in his desperation he may still seek to secure their help).
- Ask them their business in Winterhaven (potentially leading to finding the heir). During the time that Sir Caliban would have arrived, Lord Padraig would have been in Fallcrest attending to his education.
- Will offer a bounty for hunting kobolds; 5 gp for each right hand.
- Pays a reward of 50 gp for the location of the kobold lair; would pay 200 gp if someone were to wipe out the kobold threat.
QUOTE: “You young ones ought to bear a wary eye. You may have many fine weapons and the like, but the roads have grown dangerous of late.”
BACKGROUND: When he was a young man, Bairwin left Winterhaven and “traveled the world”. He didn’t get any farther than visiting the dwarves in Hammerfast a hundred miles to the east, but that does make him more widely traveled than anyone else in the village (including Lord Padraig).
When Sir Caliban died in the village, Bairwin took in his infant son (Perrien) and raised him as his own.
APPEARANCE: This weather-worn man has a deep scar running down his left cheek. His brown hair and beard are giving way to salted white, but there’s still a lively twinkle in his blue eyes.
ROLEPLAYING NOTES: Bairwin has a rough exterior, but a heart of gold. He is slow to anger, but once that anger has been roused it burns as a quick rage.
- Bairwin took in Sir Caliban’s son, Perrien, after the knight died.
EILIAN THE OLD
QUOTE: “These troubles are not as bad as you might think. I remember back in ’72, when I was still just a wee lad and Padraig’s father was still lord here. We had an ettin come down out of the Stonemarch and go hiking up and down the length of the valley. We eventually managed to rouse the southern farms and we hunted that creature down to its cave.”
BACKGROUND: This old farmer is a regular customer at Wrafton’s. Every night, Eilian takes a seat at a table in the corner. He has a farm just a half mile outside the city’s walls. Eilian has an interest in Winterhaven’s history.
APPEARANCE: A crooked back, a wisp of white hair, and cheeks made rosy with age.
ROLEPLAYING NOTES: Eilian loves to talk.
QUOTE: “No offense, but I don’t trust outsiders. Particularly at a time like this. How are we supposed to know that you aren’t in league with the cultists?”
BACKGROUND: An elf hunter. Ninaran arrived in town about six months ago. Now she serves as Kalarel’s agent in Winterhaven and reports back to him about happenings in the village.
APPEARANCE: Gaunt-faced with chocolate-brown hair tied back in a long pony-tail down to her waist.
ROLEPLAYING NOTES: Ninaran drinks alone and has little interest in conversation. Stiff and bitter in demeanor.
- Ninaran will tell them that she saw a “half dozen kobolds or so” by a waterfall to the southeast of town. She can draw them a very detailed map. (Her goal is to lure the PCs there and have Irontooth kill them.)