Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Complicated Answer To The Question of What Level Rube NPCs Should Be

The 5th-level PCs are burgling someone's shop in the dead of night.

One fails her move silently roll and so here comes a thoroughly typical constable.

Now: is this some 0-level schmuck? Or a genuine obstacle?

The Old School has no single answer to what level average joes should be. Some would say that the PCs and their usual foes are special, and above such run-of-the-mill locals, and that's what 0-levels are for. Others--the authors of City-State of the Invincible Overlord, for example--would say that if just surviving and accumulating cash should give you treasure, then everybody should have levels.

Basically, I'd say it depends on your subgenre--is your game a Weird Tale, or is it Noirish?

I'll explain:

I am helping James Raggi edit the Referee's Guide for his upcoming Weird Fantasy game.

Also, I'm in middle-america today. In a hotel room.

Most of Raggi's Referee Guide is simply solid Old School DMing advice, but there are peculiarities, places where I notice his specific sensibilities emerging. Specifically his rules for setting-design as they relate to promoting The Weird.

Most of this town I'm in (town? it starts with a sign on a highway "Welcome to..." and goes until you hit another sign. "Zone" seems more like the word I want.) is flat expanses of grass bisected by straight 4-lane roads. Roads, grass, and trees--typical midwestern trees. Green. Other than that it is--so far as I can tell--entirely malls. The malls are 90% chain stores. If you've ever driven cross-country in a car (or live in a place like this) you'll know I am not exaggerating.

Raggi's conception of The Weird is built on a basic horror or classic Surrealist model--life is banal and quiet, and then The Weird emerges into it, and that's, essentially, the plot. The Weird itself is unquantifiable (Raggi has no standardized monsters, and advises against them) and untamable (Raggi consistently militates against--in both his book and his published adventures--magic-as-technology).

What's Weird in this town in Ohio I'm in is not anything that might be part of the town's description or anything apparent from the air or from driving through it or anything, as they say, on paper. What's Weird is what's hidden and personal. For example, at the mega-sized antique mall: This vintage Art Deco whiskey bottle I found in among the tea cozies that's shaped like a penguin with a screw-off head and a pattern of gold Pollock-drizzle over its see-through stomach that plays "How Dry I Am" as soon as you pull it off the shelf is weird, the pair of King George tax-stamped pre-Revolutionary War bone d6s I almost bought (until I realized how tedious I'd sound constantly saying "these are genuine pre-Revolutionary-War d6's" every time I lost initiative with them) is weird, the number of Nazi daggers and swastika flags lying casually around the place is weird.

In other words, the DM of this town has read Raggi's game.

Who hasn't? I'll tell you: whoever thought up New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo. etc.

Now, things are not unweird in large cities, but not Weird--at least not the way Raggi means it. There, the default pulp literary form is not the Weird Tale, but the Noir. "Noir" not necessarily as in blondes and .45s but "noir" in the sense that the city itself is a character, not a backdrop. The underlying assumption of noir is: everything is weird. Or at least exotic. Everything is some new kind of strange--telephone booths where people always get shot, bribeable doormen who've seen appalling things in every door, hotels whose signs practically proclaim "nothing savory ever happens here". And: The characters must use this exoticism to survive. Sam Spade must bribe the doormen and consult the pimp and shadow the hotel detective. The noir city is romanticized and exoticized, like a jungle, and its inhabitants must, like a jungle tribe, learn to use it against itself.

Noiry ideas extend to many genres that are not necessarily crime stories set in 20th-century cities through the idea of accumulating a density of exotic details that the characters can manipulate. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar is noiry, but so is Jack Vance (each place runs on weird rules carried out by weird characters to weird ends), so is William Burroughs, and so are all esoteric urban fantasies where the exoticism of the story is an extension of-, or merely an examination of-, the exoticism of the locale.

Weird Tales draw you from the normal inexorably toward One Central Weirdness (and then, often, kill you--otherwise the effect is diluted, like when you create a Call of Cthulhu character that survives so many adventures it can say "Oh, never mind that, that's just Shub-Niggurath.") Noirish Tales, on the other hand, have different weirdnesses going off in all kinds of directions. (And the noir protagonist is often so used to the weirdness s/he's tired of it. And that tiredness is part of the story.)
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Point is: the Weird Tale as Raggi is writing it defines what's going to be exciting as forces opposing or alien to the human landscape the PCs normally inhabit, while the Noirish Tale defines the exciting as an exaggeration of the human landscape the PCs normally inhabit.

The Weird Tale is especially accomodating to: desolation, slow intimations of terror, sudden reversals.

The Noirish Tale is especially accomodating to: satire, expressionism, and post-modern confusions of all kinds.

(There are other options, of course. David Lynch and his imitators--and, I am told, Spanish writers of the esperpento school--frequently work a third position--one where everything in a seemingly familiar and detail-less landscape is a little strange. Twin Peaks would be weird even without Laura Palmer and Bob, Frank from Blue Velvet was just one of many freaks dotting Lumberton's landscape. The idea there was: what looks bland and calm is, not very far under the surface, all weird. In fact, its bland calmness is in itself weird. Unlike the Weird Tale, often this weirdness has nothing to do with the plot.)
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Anyway, back to our NPC constable--in a Weird Tale, this constable (and almost everyone else in the city) should be 0-level. And, not only that, but there should have been nothing worth stealing in that shop anyway. (Unless the GM has put The Central Weird in the shop, of course.) At any rate, it should all be over quickly so the PCs can get back to being slowly but inexorably sucked toward the Slumbering Central Weirdness.

If you prefer things to be Noirish, then the constable has levels--as does every bureaucrat, lunatic, and merchant in the city, and the PCs will have opened a can of worms by burgling that shop--no matter what level they're at. Because robbing shops and making getaways and hiding in alleys is the kind of thing they should be doing and spending time trying to figure how to do right, because the landscape itself is the enemy, and they are at war with it forever.

16 comments:

  1. Nice distinction between The Weird and Noir. I think there's a bit more in that Lynchian third path, though, which is a bit more obvious if you think of Lynch and the esperpentites as a sub-genre of the larger genre where surface reality is mundane, just below the surface is all kinds of mystery, magic, or other oddness, but most people don't notice or recognize the oddness either because they don't bother to look below the surface, or because those who inhabit the milieu below the surface deliberatlely hide it from those they see as 'unworthy'. Call it The Masquerade -- it covers why 'muggles' can't be told about magic, or even explains the presence of a Prime Directive.

    Of course, the problem with most tales of The Masquerade is that, the longer the story goes, and the cooler it is to be in The Masquerade (in the sense that being a wizard or vampire or what-have-you is simply more awesome than being a mundane human), the harder it becomes to limit the action to only those parts of the worls where the Masquerade can be acknowledged openly. This is why the Prime Directive eventually gets broken, and then broken so frequently that it might as well not exist; why no matter how secretively the protagonists hide their secret war with the werewolves, the climaz will be a full-on firefight on the Eiffel Tower in full view of the world.

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  2. Where do superheroes fit in? On the one hand the never-ending cascade of one-shot gimmick villains or crises seems to suggest Noir, every single person the protagonist meets is a potential rumble, but at the same time, in the overall narrative of Batman or Wolverine most of those guys don't matter; they were throw-away antagonists to fill the gaps between appearances by merchandisable characters. This seems to suggest Weird, with the standards of "the real world" suitably modified to include fistfights between earthbound gods in spandex.

    Interestingly, different superhero games take different stances on this question. Champions is Weird in that it pretty fundamentally separates the abilities of heroes from everyday people, whereas DC Heroes allows your constable to have the same multi-purpose Detective skill that Batman has, albeit at a lower level. In fact, pretty much everyone would have a skill for their profession, whether Trash Hauler or Politician (Marvel Superheroes falls somewhere in between).

    Therefore, we can conclude superheroes aren't specifically bound to be Weird or Noir, which means there's a Lynchian superhero game out there, waiting to be made...

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  3. i think most superheroes, at least originally, are their own thing, but a thing closer to the Weird Tale genre, kinda, or at least the Surreal. The point of superheroes is they're surrounded by normal people. The images are of superhumans fucking up trucks and grocery stores and other normal stuff.

    Once in a while there's an attempt to put superheroes in a permanently exotic environment--Legion of Superheroes, for example--but it generally works against the idea. Batman and Spider-Man have noiry atmospheres, but their cities are, in the end, there to be protected from worse and less human things.

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  4. I've been reading into the Warhammer40K RPG(s) recently, and I find it and the stories it lends itself to to be an odd mix off the two actually, where everything is weird and pretty close to the worst possible condition you can imagine, but that is the way it is supposed to be, and therefore very much Noir. Now on that overall weirdness The Even Weirder is trying to intrude, to make things even less appealing, and the characters try to prevent that from happening, and preferrably, for noone to notice anything.

    I've been wondering about whether to stress the Noir or the Weird part somewhat. How would you go about it?

    Semi-offtopic: Is the Weird game bound to be a railroad, considering that the characters basically only have the choice to Leave Without Answers or eventually come Face To Face With The Weird?

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  5. @Zak: Once again, you deliver! However I think that the best way out of the store situation would be a random roll determining what's going to happen. I generally think that mixing genres is the best solution for surprising the players and not letting them settle.

    @Baaaaarrrrtok!: I think that if a WoD chronicle ends with a world shattering openly epic action, then it means you're doing it wrong. This seems to be emphasized by mechanics, like the accumulation of Paradox in Mage.

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  6. For me, it all boils down to the rationale behind XP. If only adventuring and combat give you XP, then the adventurers and their fellow heroes are special, approached only by veterans of long and bloody service - and even then, if you have to kill 200 zero-level soldiers just to get to 2nd, vets with levels are going to be pretty rare.

    Then, there are high-level wizards. Under that rationale they pretty much have to be adventurers or homicidal maniacs.

    The alternative is to imagine that instead of gold pieces, puzzle solving or whatever, people from other walks of life gain non-combat experience from activities like solving crimes, governing capably, or studying arcane lore. The hit points and levels are a measure of the character's "fate heaviness" (as Moorcock once called it) in a world where important people do not easily die for trivial reasons.

    A noir campaign in the first kind of world could be run, but to be a challenge it would have to rely on werecreatures, dopplegangers, and some kind of adventuring gang running the show.

    A weird campaign can also be run under the second assumption, if you say (as a lot of modules do) that settled leveled rulers are too busy, proud or wary to go haring off into that abandoned ruin that no good can come out of.

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  7. Nice. very nice. this kind of critical thinking is why I love your blog, Zak.

    If I may, I also think oof it this way:
    High Fantasy makes the amazing, mundane.
    Noire makes the mundane, amazing. (also the lynch mode, although in a different way).
    Weird tales make the mundane, mundane and the amazing, extra amazing.

    It's like photography. You can photograph an everyday object, like a cup of tea, but with the right lighting and contrast and level of grain, make people see it in a new way, as if for the first time (noire).
    Or you can photograph an amazing event, the olympics or a warzone, but focus on the grittiness and every-day details that make people realise this is real life, too (high fantasy).
    Or you can create a huge clash between an extraordinary subject in a mundane backdrop(weird tales).

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  8. I like this very much.

    In a world where gp equals xp, the standard pay rates established in the PHB suggest that an average person of no particular skill can expect to earn a silver a day if they can find work, perhaps from the age of 13.

    It could take 30 years at that rate to attain 2nd level. A skilled hireling's rate of 3 sp per day would allow her to reach 3rd level in the same amount of time.

    Throw in xp for defeating a few drunken disorderlies over the years, and it seems quite reasonable for a veteran constable to be 4th or even 5th level.

    Thanks for the thought food.

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  9. "the mega-sized antique mall"?

    There's your motherfucking weird right there.

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  10. On a less complicated & philosophical level, I say the constable only has 1 level but he's sent his partner for back up, & the sheriff has enough levels to be a threat to the players.

    Though I realize that is sort of beside the point as it doesn't segue into a statement on genre. Other than revealing my own biases.

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  11. Some noir encounters can be with lower-leveled opponents, because there is a large class of people not as streetwise as the protagonists, and therefore contemptible.

    While the hotel detective may be a worthy adversary, the well-manicured guy at the desk is level 0, as you'll remind him with your fist if he gives you any lip.

    The local crime boss may be dangerous, but the two mooks he sent to rough you up are about as dangerous as a couple of schoolkids. And they're liable to get hurt if they don't stop waving around those pieces like they were playing cops and robbers.

    There are some NPCs that are guaranteed to be high-level and therefore a can of worms, though: other detectives, employers, and dames.

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  12. Wow, I usually read this blog for fun. But this post... well thanks for sharing your ideas. That was inspiring to read.

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  13. Nice post, although to the initial question I usually turn to the DMG as a baseline, which falls between your two options at the end. Gygax's ideas for typical inhabitants are contained in the Encounter Tables in Appendix C.

    "City watchman encounters are with squads of the watch (5 men plus a 1st-3rd level sergeant during daylight; double numbers, plus a 4th or 5th level lieutenant at night). These squads will always be accompanied by a cleric of 2nd to 5th level indentured to the city as magic-users are to the city guard (q.v.). They will generally act as do city guards, and at night these patrols will be ready to aid attacked persons and arrest lawbreakers." [DMG p. 191]

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  14. Interesting. Thanks for explaining the superhero thing, too.

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  15. I'd say that superhero stories are something like reverse noir. It is not a living, shadowy environment presenting danger to the protagonist at every turn, it is a familiar world, a reflection of the hero that is experienced on the hero's terms. Noir has The City, Batman has His City. The City of Noir is full of shadows within which the unknown may lurk, Gotham is dark because its scion is moody and Batman is the shadows. The noir villain is everything the protagonist hates about everyone else, the Batman villain is someone that he can never let himself become. A noir protagonist protects a damsel because having to protect dames sucks, innocents in Batman are in danger because he needs someone to protect or to serve as an object lesson for his personal moral dilemmas.

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