Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Handling Human Encounters

Humans, it would seem, would be the easiest sort of encounter to handle. Certainly, everyone who plays D&D with any real capability is at least human in some regard, feykin and furries included, if it's that sort of group. I mention folks like fey and furries because I want to illustrate that humanity has a great range of people. Any characteristic of a dwarf could be that of a human. The same goes for elven, fairy, halfling, pixie, draconian, and just about any other racial or animalistic characteristic outside of physical ones. Humans are generally the only race in most settings that are described in any way other than a monoculture, and I look at that as a statement towards the variety they are capable of.

Thus, human encounters can be a great deal more difficult to handle than, for instance, dwarves. When a PC approaches a dwarf, he has a general idea in his mind about how the dwarf will act. A dwarf is a dwarf in most settings, after all. He is probably a stoneworker of some variety, and if he isn't, he is probably a metalworker. He is probably either drinking now or waiting until his next drink. He's probably a bit gruff, but trustworthy in general. Avoiding such monocultures might be another post.

Now, when a PC approaches a human, what can he assume? Basically, a PC expecting to talk to a human in a D&D setting can expect that the human speaks common. That's about it. Humans don't tend towards law, or towards chaos. Towards good or evil. They don't favor one class over another. They can be abject liars, sociopathic killers, saintly priests, or demonic servants. They don't necessarily favor living in any particular environment, aside from the concerns of comfort and survivability. One human may cherish the natural beauty of the forest, while another may look at that same forest and see nothing but thousands of gold worth of logging to be done. In OD&D, humans are also the only race capable of the highest levels of power and advancement. Humans are always shown as adaptable as well, thus meaning that the same human might not act anywhere near the same way from encounter to encounter.

How then to handle them realistically? Be a human. Don't just be yourself though, but become the NPC. Think about his or her circumstances. Think about his or her history, even if it's only fleshed out so much as "A farmer born near Woodvale." What does a farmer, used to defending his home against bandits and raiders in these troubled times, think when he sees five heavily armed adventurers approaching, backed with a dozen hired mercenaries/porters? I'll tell you what he's likely to do. He'll shout to his family to get into the house and lock the door, and he'll run off to ring the town bell. If an alarm system is too far away or not present at all, he'll pick up his father's old sword and ready it. He will be tense at least.

What if, instead of a farmer, you have a nobleman? Well, put yourself in the nobleman's shoes. He probably defines himself by his title. Let's say this guy is a Count, currently being visited by the PCs in his estate. A Count holds a very prestigious title, and a great deal of land. He was almost certainly, by necessity of his rank, born into his nobility. This man has never done a day of work in his life. He dismisses peasants and other callers as unworthy of his presence. When told that his vassals have no bread, he suggests they eat cake instead. What then when a group of commoners, having the gall to call themselves adventurers, approach his estate for a meeting? Well, if they aren't called for, they won't even be allowed in. If they are called for, they won't be allowed in with weaponry of any sort, and not in armor either. They must show proper respect, to the point of not speaking unless spoken to, keeping their head and eyes lowered, kneeling in respect before being told to rise, and other such humilities. The Count will likely speak with a haughty, apathetic tone, and be extremely incensed at what might be considered a very minor faux pas to those of lesser station. By no means would he allow contradictions of his statements by commoners visiting his hall. Secondly, he holds awareness that if he had his guards kill all of the visitors, no one would ever question his word that they had caused the fight in the first place. To the players' advantage, he might respond well to obsequiousness, or perhaps respond even more so to a commoner with a knife at his throat. Deprived of guards that are able to save him, he will likely be very compliant with attackers, as he has no capability of defending himself.

What about a foreigner? A stranger in a strange land? Perhaps he would identify in a way with the adventurers, as both of them are outsiders to the common people around him. Perhaps he speaks common with an accent, or a heavy dialect that makes him difficult to understand. Perhaps the lingua franca in his land is Orcish, due to centuries of oppression. Maybe his society puts less emphasis on personal liberties and the accumulation of wealth, and he finds the adventurers' "be mercenaries; kill and loot" policy to be completely abominable. Maybe in his culture, people go to great lengths not to show any of their flesh aside from their eyes, and he is extremely uncomfortable with the women parading about in their pauper skirts that are little more than rags. He may think little of lying for personal gain, or he may see it as tantamount to murder in severity. It's possible that in his country, carrying weapons in full view in the middle of a metropolis is common practice, and he is unnerved by having his sword taken from him at the gates. Perhaps his nation is at war, or has a history of war, with the nation he is now visiting. A PC approaching an obviously foreign-born NPC has no idea what to expect, and that can be an important part of the encounter.

An interesting peculiarity to human encounters is that they may not be human at all. Humans are by far the standard, most populous race in most fantasy worlds, as well as the most naive. If a doppelganger, changeling, were-whatever, dragon, angel, demon, or any other sort of camoflagable race were to fake being a particular core race, it would probably be human. How can one non-magically sort demons or dragons faking being a foreigner from a violent society from the actual humans? One might not be able to, which allows for even more variety for 'human' encounters.

So give some thought to how humans react in your games. They shouldn't be blasé, mechanically helpful, or generally bland and boring. Every human is an entire person, with his own hopes, dreams, culture, upbringing, moral core, and dozens of other characteristics. Make each person a person, and your world will feel more true and alive.

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