Monday, January 13, 2020

Somebody Who Knows You (A DM Tool For Moving The Plot Along)

At this point, most of us have heard of the "I Know A Guy" strategy. If you haven't come across it before I covered in The "I Know A Guy" Strategy For Adding NPCs to Your Game, but the short version is that whenever the party is stumped about where to go, or they need a little help, someone can declare, "I know a guy," and bring in an NPC from their backstory. Maybe it's an old contact they ran with when they were still a thief, a favorite uncle who's a respected wizard, or a friend who has a knack for finding certain kinds of information. This helps fill out the NPC roster, and it makes the PCs' stories the focus of the game (though most sensible DMs limit players to a few uses of this rule so as not to allow them to weaponize their backstories too much).

"Somebody Who Knows You," by contrast, is a tool used by the DM to help move the plot along instead of the players. However, while the person who knows you might be useful, they are always going to be a complication.

When Your Reputation Precedes You

Unless adventurers purposefully keep a low profile and ensure no one knows who they are, you're bound to be recognized eventually... for good or ill. This is where The Small Legend about who a character is and what they've done comes in particularly handy for the DM, as it can provide some fertile ground for adding difficulties that move the plot along.

Difficulties, you say?
As an example, say your party needs to figure out a way to get into the duke's ball. They're coming up short on ideas, when an excitable drunk stumbles over, gushing about what an honor it is to meet them. He's heard all about Borontus the Bold, and even without the huge sword Dragonsbane he'd know that scar along the huge warrior's neck anywhere thanks to the periodicals with his portrait on them. As the party shushes the drunk admirer before he lets the whole city know who they are and that they're in town, he lets it slip that his cousin is the head of the duke's household... he's sure he could get their names onto that list. For just a small favor; or maybe to bring him along on one of their adventures!

On the one hand, this complication has provided a way to get the party where they need to be. Unfortunately, it comes with strings attached... but that's the trade off.

The somebodies who know the party can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, catered to fit the current needs of the adventure and what the PCs have done (both as individuals, and as a group). For example, the somebody in question might be a member of a local gang who's willing to scratch the party's back if they scratch his... nothing too deplorable, but it's a job no one in his crew really has the skills to pull off. Perhaps the party is in dire straits, and the barbarian is about to be killed, when an arrow comes out of the darkness. A bounty hunter's been on the party's trail, but if Tolasha Grimtooth is dead, then there's no reward for her. Perhaps having her life saved means she's now indebted to the hunter according to the honor code of her people, and now the party have to defend her against the crime she's being turned in for (and it's possible said bounty hunter could become an ally or an enemy in the future, depending on the party's actions). Perhaps the party is cornered at the inn, about to be cut down, when a gang of hobgoblins rushes in; the war band has been on the party's trail for months, and they're not going to let a bunch of militia pink skins steal their kill!

And so on, and so forth.

Keep The Theme, Offer Opportunities

While the examples above are all characters from the DM's side of the table, you should feel free to ask your players if they would allow you to add NPCs to fit certain parts of their backstory when using this mechanic. For example, if a character is a runaway noble, make sure the player is going to be okay with you introducing one of his old swordmasters, or a rival baron's son who knows him from before he left home. Especially if you're using both the "I Know A Guy" and "Somebody Who Knows You" strategies at the same time.

You don't want to step on your players' potential flourishes by beating them to the punch, after all.

Come on, Dervish. Boss has been wanting to talk to you for a while, now.
The key thing to remember with "Somebody Who Knows You" is that it should solve the problem, but present an extra hurdle, or separate task to be completed. The bard gets recognized by an old criminal contact he owes a favor, and sure he can get them on the guest list, but the bard's got to lift some papers from the lord's study... then they're square. The sorcerer needs to get somebody out of Black Gate prison, when someone offers to tell them about a secret way in... if they'll get a friend of theirs out, too. The sheriff's deputies have been following the rogue, comparing his face to wanted posters... it means they're on-hand when a gang of cutthroats jumps the party in an alley, but it also means the party now has the law on their backs as an added difficulty for whatever they plan to accomplish.

You get the idea.

The biggest piece of advice I want to drive home to my fellow DMs with this strategy is that it should emphasize the characters' reputations, and dip into their backstories. Make them feel like this is a direct result of who their characters are, and they will bite it much harder than it you just gave them a generic plot hook.

And if you're looking for some NPCs to keep on hand as the "Somebody Who Knows You" character, you might find the following supplements to be helpful:

- 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern: My biggest seller to date it's got travelers, sages, muscle for hire, bouncers, brawlers, gang lords, and gamblers... a mixed bag to fit all sorts of situations.

- 100 Random Bandits To Meet: Because sometimes you get recognized for entirely the wrong reasons, by entirely the wrong sort of people. And for those running a more nautical-themed game, you should check out 100 Pirates to Encounter as well!

- 100 Merchants to Encounter: Whether they're big fans, or you move in the same black market circles they do, there's all sorts of dealers in this one from the mundane to the magical.

- 100 Nobles to Encounter: Perhaps they want to rub shoulders with real adventurers, or they need bodyguards for the evening, sometimes it's good to have admirers (and even enemies) in high places.

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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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