As a writer, I find being the dungeon master of our local RPG sessions to be a challenging and rewarding experience. In a lot of ways, it’s like writing a novel.
Yeah, like writing. Heh. Like writing on the fly with a captive audience. Like writing where any lovingly-crafted character may be put to death by the “readers”. Like writing where no matter how many signs I put down saying GO RIGHT, the “readers” are still going to go left because, you know, there might be something cool over there.
It’s a lot of fun, and it keeps me on my toes. Every session the players do something I never expected, and so I have to think fast to make it entertaining. Otherwise people aren’t having fun and won’t come back. Also, let’s face it, the best part about being the DM is getting to mess with people, their expectations, and even their sympathies.
Player sympathy is a tricky proposition. How do I get the players to care about an NPC? After all, the same guy who portrays the NPC (namely me) also handles every nightmarish terror trying to shoot, maim, incinerate, or digest the party. Not the best grounds for a trusting relationship.
But I found a fast and easy workaround. So easy, I almost consider it cheating. Almost.
Allow me a moment to set the stage.
We play using a house-modified Pathfinder ruleset. The setting is science fiction spanning the whole solar system, but nothing too crazy. No shields or warp drive or artificial gravity. The party had just escaped captivity while on the Moon and were making their way north across a lunar city.
That’s when they met Pochi. He’s a talking dog.
Yep, I did it. I used a talking animal. I even gave him a Scooby Doo voice. Partly because everyone thought it was funny, and partly because it’s an easy voice for me to perform when sick.
Now, this wasn’t some cuddly, white-haired Maltese with big eyes and a cute, button nose.
No, this was a man-sized dog in power armor with a gun on his back and chainsaw teeth. Something more like this.
Yeah. Not exactly a dog you want jumping into your lap. The first time the party saw him, he ripped an enemy combatant’s throat out.
But they loved him all the same. At one point, Pochi helped the party fight off a group of four very nasty commandos and almost got himself killed. One of the commandos threw his smoldering, horribly-burned carcass off the roof. It landed in front of the party.
Oh, you should have seen their faces when I described the scene! Nobody messes with the dog! The party went after the commandos with reckless abandon and tore them a new one. It was awesome! The battle had emotional punch for them. They CARED. Afterward they discovered Pochi wasn’t quite dead and used most of their healing items to revive him.
Pochi is fine, by the way, just in case you were wondering.
Now, let’s compare this moment to one with a human NPC. In an earlier session, one of the players met a relative on the field of battle. A cousin by the name of Viter to be precise. I set it up so the players could, fairly easily, gain his trust and use his help during the coming battles. I had Viter join in near the end of a fight and help out, reinforcing the fact he was a potential ally. I even took one of the players aside and filled him in on the necessary backstory, stressing that he was on good terms with this NPC.
So what’s the first thing the players try to do? They try to STAB HIM IN THE BACK! I’m not kidding! They didn’t trust this heavily armed dude in front of them, and they wanted him out of the equation.
Let’s recap that, shall we?
Human NPC, just helped fight off an enemy, related to one of the players, ALMOST GETS A KNIFE IN THE BACK!
Talking dog NPC, just ripped a guy’s throat out, not related to anyone (obviously), gets saved by the party.
Huh. Well, whatever works. As long as we’re all having fun, right? And in this case, we are definitely having fun.