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Love Letter to Ed Greenwood
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

MONDAY NIGHT. A woman walks into a tavern. She’s beautiful and voluptuous, wearing the finery of a noble and a devil-may-care smile. She prances around like she owns the place, flirts with the patrons, plays with her shoulder-length auburn curls, and finishes off a free tankard of mead in record time. A bard strums his lute, driving the free-spirited woman to dance, much to the delight of a dozen drooling admirers. When Kithvolar (played by Jeff Alvarez) slyly turns his head to admire her reflection on the nighttime glass of a nearby window, gone is the lady’s striking beauty. In her place, he sees a twirling, dancing skeleton with bones of polished bronze.

O ne thing that classic fantasy stories have in common, apart from a preponderance of fantasy tropes, is an exhaustive cast of characters. Scores of characters populate J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Brooks’s Shannara series, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. When one sets out to create a new world, it probably goes without saying that populating the world with fascinating characters is a priority. Few creative forces in the universe are better at this game than Ed Greenwood, whose stories are rich with timeless characters that totally belong in his world and yet never cease to surprise.

I’m in the third year of my Iomandra campaign. While my players joke about the “cast of thousands,” the actual number of unique NPCs that they’ve encountered so far is closer to 750—which, I suppose, means that the 1,000 mark isn’t beyond the realm of reason. Still, my list pales in comparison to Ed’s panoply of Forgotten Realms characters and NPCs, which he has created over many decades. And yet, every time Ed introduces a new personality to the Forgotten Realms setting, there’s always something about it that’s novel (no pun intended).

For example, in an upcoming Eye on the Realms article, Ed introduces us to a beholder named Uldeth, whose physical form was nearly obliterated. All that remains of the creature are ten disembodied eyestalks that hover in midair. That’s something I’ve never seen done before, and you can bet that I’m going to spirit his creation out of Faerûn and drop Uldeth into my home campaign at the first opportunity.

Many DMs I’ve talked to have trouble coming up with interesting new NPCs, and even the best of us can’t always conjure something out of thin air whenever a player character decides to stop some random schmo in the street and ask for his name and back story. But Ed can. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. He pulls names and hooks out of the ether. It’s the gift of a creative genius and an experienced storywriter to turn a faceless entity who didn’t exist two seconds ago into a fleshed-out character with more going on beneath the skin than the rest of us can imagine. Maybe “Joe Schmo” is actually Orvius Turlash, a necromancer in disguise, who’s on his way to broker a deal with a corrupt city official to acquire bones and body parts from the local cemetery. Or maybe it’s Griggly Muffinstock, a halfling adventurer who was ensorcelled by an archmage to always speak the truth, no matter how embarrassing or inappropriate. He might be looking for a way to rid himself of the “curse,” or he might be performing a service to gain the archmage’s favor. Granted, these are my ideas, not Ed’s, but if you’re familiar with Ed’s works, you’ll probably catch a whiff of Greenwood in these characterizations.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been following Ed’s career (in a not-creepy way) since I was ten years old—long before I got to know the man personally and work with him professionally. Without even trying, Ed taught me two things about NPC creation:

  • The character’s name can tell you a little something about the character and the setting.

  • Distinctive physical traits and personality quirks are great, but an NPC needs only one thing to be captivating: a SECRET.

I’ve already discussed names in an earlier article, and Ed is a master at conjuring them, but the second point is really the thrust of this week’s column. One secret to creating awesome NPCs is to give them secrets. Secrets invest your campaign with intrigue and invite roleplaying. A secret can make the player characters want to get to know your NPC creation better. How did Uldeth end up without a body? Why is Orvius Turlash giving the adventurers nervous looks? Could he be heading for a secret rendezvous? What secrets can we learn from the annoyingly forthright Griggly Muffinstock? What did the halfling do to deserve such a curse? And finally, what’s the deal with the dancing vixen whose true form Kithvolar glimpses in a window reflection?

Players who like to roleplay not only like to invest their own characters with secrets but also like to pry into the secrets of others, and I’ve found that a little mystery surrounding an NPC can fuel hours of tireless, unadulterated fun. At least, that’s what Ed taught me (that, and when to use the word “vixen”).

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Which of the following movie setups/payoffs is coolest?
Setup: A detective interviews a suspect about Keyser Soze. Payoff: The suspect IS Keyser Soze. (The Usual Suspects) 22.6%
Setup: A young boy sees dead people. Payoff: The boy's shrink is actually a ghost. (The Sixth Sense) 16.1%
Setup: Spock tells Kirk that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Payoff: Spock saves the Enterprise at the cost of his own life. (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) 15.1%
Setup: Harry Potter embarks on a quest to destroy Voldemort's horcruxes. Payoff: Harry realizes he's one of them. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) 13.6%
Setup: A swordsman swears vengeance against the six-fingered man who killed his father. Payoff: The swordsman finally confronts the six-fingered man. (The Princess Bride) 11.9%
Setup: Indiana Jones hates it when his father calls him 'Junior.' Payoff: We learn 'Indiana' was the name of the Jones family dog. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) 10.4%
Setup: Ripley proves that she can operate a power-loader. Payoff: She uses it to fight the alien queen. (Aliens) 7.4%
Setup: An assassin working for SPECTRE plans to kill James Bond with a garrote. Payoff: Bond strangles the assassin with his own weapon. (From Russia With Love) 1.5%
Setup: A young kid mocks farmers throughout the movie. Payoff: The kid becomes a farmer. (The Magnificent Seven) 1.3%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #35

 If you could have a real-live dinner date with one of the following NPCs, which would you choose?  
Drizzt Do’Urden
Raistlin Majere
Caramon Majere
Strahd von Zarovich
The Lady of Pain

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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