You’ve decided you want your next Torchbearer character to be all mysterious and edgy, so you’ve chosen to be a loner, tough and cool. No friends, no parents, no mentor. But you do have an enemy that has it in for you. Oops.
As I mentioned last week, the world of Torchbearer is a cold and lonely place. Trying to navigate it without friends and family who have your back is so much harder. Being a loner might seem romantic, but you may feel differently when you’re dead broke, hurt, sick, and in desperate need of a hot meal and a safe place to sleep.
If you’re a magician, the lack of a mentor can feel especially punishing. Every character can benefit from access to a teacher to guide them in the right direction from time to time, but magicians, especially, benefit from a mentor who can teach them new spells for their first few levels.
But now you’re stuck. What’s a taciturn, saturnine adventurer to do?
I recommend allowing yourself to be a bit more vulnerable. Make a point of turning that grim existence around and strive to make new friends in every town and settlement. Whether you get one friend or none in character creation, you can get more in play!
Chat up the townsfolk on guard duty when you’re passing through the gates. Go to the tavern and tell tales (if you have The Secret Vault of the Queen of Thieves, we provide more in-depth rules for telling tales in the appendix; there are some nice benefits to be had!). Look for work.
I’m not saying that you should turn the town phase into a long, tedious affair, but some short, snappy interactions can really enliven the experience. When you meet NPCs, take note of their names. If they share their problems with you, consider what you might be able to do to share or eliminate their burdens.
You can meet people in the adventure phase too. Helping out folks in a certain wayhouse that’s been overrun by kobolds could win you friends for life. Some of those friends might even be in a position to offer you meals and a nice room for free whenever you pass through.
I like to think of adventurers as similar to the “A-team.” Society at large might have no use for them, or even actively despise them, but the people who they help along the way become part of a network of supporters that could provide aid in the future.
The Digging for Leads rules (page 92) can be a great way to find NPCs that you could later convert into friends.
Seeking a master was a staple on the Shaw Brothers films that I ate up as part of Kung Fu Theatre on Saturday mornings as a kid. You can go that route!
Use the Asking Around rules or Doing Research rules (both on page 92) to locate someone who can teach what you want, then travel to their location (perhaps a Wizard’s Tower or Religious Bastion) to seek an audience (Personal Business, page 91).
They might require payment, a service or a quest before agreeing to take you on. Or, if you want to be more direct, you can try to find a teacher wherever you happen to be: Use the Searching for Someone rules on page 91 (factors are on page 135 — finding a mentor starts around Ob 4).
Most adventurers are naturals at this already. I suspect you can rely on your native talents here.
If players do their part as described above, it’s your obligation, as a GM, to meet them halfway. Put potential friends, mentors and enemies in their path. You don’t have to force anything, but be receptive to the characters establishing relationships in the course of play. Don’t be afraid to tell your players that they can write an NPC into the Allies and Additional Enemies section of their character sheet.
Remember that if a player seeks out a mentor, blocking them is the least interesting choice you can generally make as the result of a failed test. If you’re going to use a twist, make it something truly memorable. For instance, when the magician flubbs a Circles test to find a mentor, go with a twist and give them an enemy! It’s a powerful magician who agrees to teach them (and does!) but they’re slowly preparing the PC to participate in some nefarious ritual. You could get several adventures out of it as the villainous wizard sends the PC and companions out on quests to recover materials or bathe in eldritch energies. Or maybe the potential mentor has been trapped in some spell gone wrong, or is being blackmailed. They need the PC’s help before they can teach the PC.
This applies to all twists, really, not just ones involving NPCs — strive to lean into what the players are going for, then use twists to create a kink in the situation that drives the action forward. A twist that leads to a dead end isn’t a good twist.
Making NPCs Memorable
Whenever I introduce an NPC into any game, one of the most important things I consider is what they want from the PCs. They want you to take their side. They want you to perform a service. They want you to stand up for something. They want you to smash the status quo in some way. For antagonists, this is especially important. If the only desire I can think of is “the PCs’ deaths” I go back to the drawing board.
All of the truly great villains of literature and cinema want something of the protagonists. It is the moment when Darth Vader leans in to Luke Skywalker, extends his hand, and says, “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son!” that catapults Vader into the ranks of the all-time great movie villains. He is revealing his desire to Luke and presenting Luke with a choice. It’s the same with Magneto. He doesn’t want to destroy the X-Men; he wants the X-Men to agree with him, to take up his cause as their own. If he has to kill them, he will. But that’s not his first option.
The best choices have some sort of moral weight and up-end the status quo in some way. Whatever choice Luke makes, the conflict between him and his father, between his father and the emperor, cannot remain the same afterwards. Things have changed.
This is a trick you can use with all your NPCs — friendly, antagonistic or indifferent — to make them pop and encourage the players to take an interest in them. The more difficult the choices and the more far-reaching the consequences of making those choices, the more the players will generally love or hate the NPCs that present them.
And look, that’s not to say that you need to come up with deep backgrounds and motivations for every character you introduce into the game. You can keep things simple at first: “I want the PCs to make Rollo pay me. I want the PCs to rescue my boyfriend from the ogre. I want the PCs to stay in my house so I can rob them while they’re sleeping.” Think of it a bit like a PC’s goal. Between sessions, if you’ve taken an interest in the character or the players have taken an interest in the character, develop them further. Give them a deeper goal. Give them a belief. Think about how they can use a PC to disrupt the status quo and get what they want.
I don’t want to spoil In the Shadow of the Horns, the adventure in Middarmark, but I think it’s an excellent example of these principles in action. If you own it, take a look at the Where to Go From Here section on page 99. It lays out the desires of several NPCs and presents some ideas for how they might want to use the PCs for their own ends.
How do you use NPCs in your games? Do you have any tricks for making them engaging to the players? I want to hear them.