NPC Decks for 2020

I have been hard at work on more NPC decks for Inkwell Ideas. Now there is a preview so you can take a look at what they’ll be like, with a number of samples. The three decks for the base project include adventurers in one, hirelings and henchmen in another, and people who live in a fantasy coastal town in a third.

We are also working on some great stretch goal decks. These decks are all great for coming up with plot ideas. One way to use them is to take 3 characters then think it over and figure out what sort of situation might connect them that generates motivation out of their needs and abilities.

I’ll use the NPC Portraits Deck, Fantasy 2 as an example. Here’s a random draw of 3 characters. Now, because I’m not trying to integrate with an existing setting, and because I think I’m amazing (and possibly cocky) I went random; I would expect normally a GM would sift through the cards and pick out ones that were most interesting or seemed to fit the current storyline (though trying out a random draw for maybe one of them is a good challenge to your creativity.)

An elf, a half-elf, and a sea elf walk into a scenario. Pretty good setup. After looking over the card art and reading the back thoughtfully, here’s what I plan to use as focal points for the plot.

  • We have two big evil forces.
    • First, the Breathing Cloud, a threat from under the sea, “a powerful and evil force ancient beyond reckoning” that overpowered Nulurius’ mind and is using him to unfold part of its larger scheme.
    • Second, the mighty demon Sorluaek, bound in the living flesh of the Seleel family (and Liasandra is desperately trying to figure out how to destroy it before it escapes.)
  • Harlowis brings the suggested setting.
    • He runs the “misfit” garrison in a “run-down border settlement.”

With three flavors of elf and a border settlement, I figure it’s a coastal trade outpost where sea elves connect to the larger elven nation, bordering a human kingdom. I’ll aim for a town size, we’ll call it Surzul. It has been traded between the elves and humans through war and peace, and ended up a fairly mixed town that both countries view with distaste.

The central question to drive the plot for this setup: is the Breathing Cloud trying to free Sorluaek, or keep him bound, or are they different names for the same force (like the Breathing Cloud needs Sorluaek as the final piece to become whole)? Well, you put it like that, it’s easy; the Breathing Cloud wants to keep Sorluaek bound. That way I’ve got the good guys getting help and making friends, without knowing there’s an evil force behind the assistance, so we can string this out past the first story. Bake in those plot twists early, that’s what I say.

The description of the Breathing Cloud is deliberately vague so you can make it whatever you want it to be, but we’ll go with the implied creature–an aboleth. (Get it? Okay, go look up “aboleth” and come back. Now we’re up to speed.) The mind control effect is extended over distance and cemented in place because there’s an underwater variant of a mind flayer that’s the “court vizier” for the Breathing Cloud that learned a ritual to deepen the control and ignore distance constraints. (I just made that part up, rule of cool.)

What about Sorluaek? Well, the sahuagin are fun opponents, and in past editions were called “sea devils” and they have shark buddies; their wicked and cruel culture could totally worship a mighty demon that elves would struggle to bind. (This also gives me some stab-able foes.)

Now it’s time to actually make a gameable scenario out of it. First, the situation.

  • The town of Surzul bustles with trade but isn’t in any immediate threat, so the mayor is irritated with Captain Harlowis because he’s asking for funds to better equip the town guard. Harlowis is also pushing the guards to train harder, and that’s provoking complaints, especially as there is no danger right now. This new captain isn’t working out.
  • The Breathing Cloud captured scouts from the Shark Tribe of sahuagin and discovered they are massing to swarm into Surzul from the high tide and finally slay the last of the Demonguard, Liasandra Seleel, to free Sorluaek. Adding a powerful demon to the Shark Tribe would unbalance the undersea ecology, so the Breathing Cloud managed to capture Nulurius on his way to Surzul and subverted him. His mission is now to protect Seleel from the attack and bring her to the Breathing Cloud to use as leverage.
  • Liasandra Seleel is the last of the Demonguard, and her whole life she has been ducking Shark Tribe assassins and agents. Her defenses have been whittled away, she has lost all her family and friends one at a time or in groups. These relentless attacks have gone on for centuries, elven generations before she was born. But now she’s discovered an important location that has the answer for how to destroy the demon for good. That location, unfortunately, is near a coast by the Shark Tribe, so her trip must be secret and fast, a giant risk. She is about to find out the Shark Tribe has located her and is going to end their master’s captivity once and for all.

Second, involving the characters. We don’t want to assume they’ll bite any particular plot hook, so I want some broad-band challenges that will pull them in, and some more specific points of alliance or antagonism to potentially motivate them. I want them to meet the three key NPCs, so they can decide how to react to them. Here are some possibilities. Some may stack.

  • Seleel was attacked on the road, and the last of her defenders was slain; they bought her time to escape, and she’s grieving and angry and frightened, all alone and running low on funds; she needs to hire an escort to get to the site with the answers, and the PCs are handy. She tells them she’s in danger, needs an escort, and will pay half now and half upon arrival.
  • Nulurius is being bullied in a tavern because he’s a sea elf; he is trying to find a woman, an elven wizard, but he’s jeered things look like they might escalate. However it goes, even if they don’t help, he takes some lumps but ends the encounter with bullies and continues looking for help to find this elven woman.
  • Harlowis trained one or more of the characters when he worked for the baron, maybe led them in the siege. He’s called for them to join him in his new posting and help whip the garrison into shape.
  • If they have a female elven wizard, a case of mistaken identity could provoke a Shark Tribe attack. Or, they could travel with some innocent merchant mistaken for Seleel by the assassins; to the sahaguin, all elves kind of look alike.
  • The site with the information on how to end the curse finds out, one way or another, that the last of the Demonguard is coming, and hires or deploys the characters to help her make it to their door.
  • If they have a renowned (or at least skilled) warrior/commander, the mayor heard of them and quietly invited them to come interview to take over the captain of the guard; the current guy isn’t working out.

The focus of the action for this scenario is the Shark Tribe attack on Surzul. Using one or several of the character entry points, the party arrives in Surzul. There is some local color and positioning, then at night the Shark Tribe attacks. (If they leave, they are still attacked by a Shark Tribe assault force [which is raiding all up and down the coast], and either they see the town on fire if they’re still close enough, or a messenger sent to get help informs them the town was hit and is desperately holding out for reinforcements.) If the players are determined to not interact with this setup, then yeah, have a side quest on hand for an alternative adventure. (More on that at the end.)

Regardless how they make it into Surzul, some local color will help give them interesting choices before the assault hits. Here are some examples.

  • Guards griping about the new captain and his drills.
  • Conflict as one guard is shaking down a local businessman as usual and another guard nervously insists the new captain doesn’t allow that.
  • If they are with Nulurius, he needs a saltwater bath but isn’t willing to go to the bathhouse that caters to sea elves in town; can they help him set something up? The surf is too gross this near town.
  • If they are NOT with Nulurius, some local sea elves are getting concerned that Nulurius has not showed up yet; the Sea King was supposed to send him as the new diplomat and it’s worrying how late he is. Maybe they could help find him. Why wouldn’t he check in, if he was in town? One of the diplomat staff in town knew him from before and looks forward to meeting him again, has his favorite drink, looks forward to sharing stories and catching up. (Maybe even a romantic interest, or one of his children.)
  • If they are meeting Harlowis, he feasts them and they can reminisce a bit, but he’s really struggling as the permanent outsider (half elven, it’s a problem) carrying the stigma of his failure from the siege. The mayor drops in to meet the new people and isn’t very subtle about considering them as replacements for Harlowis. Harlowis might also ask them to help out in drilling the guard, showcasing their misfit nature. (Get a name list, maybe some NPC traits, to round out a few fast.)
  • If there are scoundrels in the party, they may find that some of the seedy underbelly of town is packing up and getting out of the way; the Shark Tribe may have some rough sorts who are going to sabotage defenses, but others they deal with got wind of the coming attack and scoot. Maybe stroll in as they are packing.

As for the attack itself, some ideas to make it interesting.

  • The Shark Tribe has a hydra, they fixed platforms on each head for riders with javelins, the back has an armored saddle fort. The hydra will wreck a dock area, pounding into the town, streaming warriors, holding the town’s attention.
  • Raiding teams will head for the town gates, locking the exits.
  • Elite teams of gleaming black-scaled assassins (like the ones that have hunted Seleel all her life) will scour the town in teams of six, looking for her, using magic gear and serrated bone weapons. Each team has a shaman with infernal casting powers.
  • Townsfolk will withdraw into the lighthouse keep, but scoundrels working with the Shark Tribe opened up an entry point in the keep’s foundation to let in a couple assassin teams to kill all elven women–just in case the Demonguard is in disguise.

My default plan is to herd the characters into the keep ( locals know the Shark Tribe attacks sometimes, but after doing mayhem, they retreat. Taking them on is less tactical than letting them have their fun and then rebuilding.) Hit them with assassins inside, with more to come. They are sitting ducks in here if they have Seleel–she’ll be desperate to escape. If they don’t have her, or if she escapes on her own and they need to save her, be prepared to hit Harlowis with a dilemma; they want to leave a siege and counter-attack, and that resonates uncomfortably with his recent shame. (I don’t know what the PCs will do, what position they’ll be in by now, but if they’re close to him or must persuade him to let them out this is a useful conflict to have ready.)

There are lots of ways this could go. I’ve got plenty here for a 3 hour game and maybe an initial arc, generated from the interplay between some NPC cards and a background of fantasy gaming. Now that I have an establishing frame, I could add an NPC from the deck now and then to add wrinkles I would not have thought of otherwise, to help keep it fresh.

But what if they totally avoid all those plot hooks, and are determined not to get involved? That happens sometimes. That’s where having “Encounter Decks 1” at hand may help; riffling through, I picked out 3 possible low-prep frameworks I could pull in if the characters pass on what I set up for them.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this look at how you can make adventure out of NPC cards.

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