Monday, 28 November 2011

So what's in this room?

I managed to fracture my wrist while painting my brother's apartment, which was very clever of me. I oughtn't to have been doing it and I doubt he'll be pleased with the result, but it had to get done. He's away for a month in Thailand (far, far away) and he asked me to look after his place (and his cat) while he was gone.

The man lives like a troll. I had no idea it was as bad as this. He hadn't cleaned the floor, or anything else, in five years. Piles of crap were everywhere. You had to pick your way through to the bedroom with a ten foot pole, for fear of traps. He left me four day's washing up in the sink. Roaches roamed wild and free throughout the kitchen, even during the day. The fridge was a biological weapons testing zone. All his clothes were on the floor in the bedroom, and by the look of things had been there for some time. Every cupboard, nook and cranny was crammed with tat, and he kept four or five suitcases (remember he flew to Thailand, so he has at least two other bags) to put more stuff in. Some of it was valuable; he had a preorder special edition of Battlefield 3 worth about $600, and a boxed set of Lost Girls going to mould under a pile of clothes in the bedroom. Some of it was worthless, like the Stephen King that had turned to black sludge after months if not years of sitting in a small, damp space, or the plastic bags with old candy bars in them that he'd probably bought at an airport somewhere and never eaten, lying under the clothing mountain in the bedroom.

I've spent the last few weeks getting the place in order, which is code for throwing out a lot of shit and cleaning the rest, as well as repainting. Pity about the fall, but c'est la vie; at least it happened at the end of the job and not the beginning.

I realized, as I set fire to the rubble, that if someone was interested they could put together a pretty accurate history of my brother if they analyzed the debris. He kept everything. His PC from college (with the 3 1/2 inch floppy drive) gathered dust in one of the cupboards. His old military gear was bundled up in several seperate piles throughout the house, as was his collection of knives and cigarette lighters. Every single shirt he ever bought or had bought for him, old presents that he'd lost in the confusion still in their wrapping paper. The list goes on, but you get the point: if he had it, it was there.

Which brings me to roleplay material, and a thought about NPCs.

As a player you may have noticed (or as a Keeper you may have dreaded) the natural impulse to poke your nose around every in-game location. For some reason as soon as a player character enters the room the need to search every nook and cranny is overwhelming. Even so, there's very little there. Most scenarios don't go into great detail; 'it's a laboratory/dining room/old stately home/ghetto flophouse' covers a lot of ground, but doesn't say much about the contents. It's as though, as with so many computer games, the background can't be interacted with and therefore doesn't exist. Rather like the mounds of gold coins in the map room of Uldaman, they're there to be looked at, not looted.

Yet that hardly seems reasonable, so I offer this suggestion to Keepers who want a little set dressing but don't want to go overboard.

Look at your NPC first. That person has a backstory. It may not be much, but it could be interesting. Then, from that backstory, pick four elements that will be useful.

Say the NPC is Stanley David Fentiman. Well, we know from his plot function what his goals are, and we know a little about his previous history. He's an ex-Oxford don, which suggests a conventional middle class upbringing and years of dedicated scholarship. It also suggests a certain amount of travel abroad, because to do the kind of work he would have done requires first-hand research, and that can't be done without going to museums, archives, possibly archaelogical sites (depending on his subject) and so on. As he's ex-Oxford there must have been a scandal of some kind. I don't know quite what you have to do in order to get chucked out of an academic post, but I'm betting it's nothing so trivial as pinching the spoons.

So the four things are: middle class background, years of scholarship, travel, and scandal.

For each point you can come up with ideas for items related to that point, things Fentiman might own and which might be found in his apartment, things that will add a bit of colour to the furnishings. The players are free to make as much or as little of them as they like.

So, for example, middle class background: good quality clothes, photographs, jewelry (cuff links, watch), cricket ball, bat, old jersey (from his days on the team when he was at prep school), letters to relatives, bank statements. Or years of scholarship: battered notebooks filled with crabbed handwriting and sketches, expensively bound published monographs, letters to colleagues, tickets to various archives and libraries.  Travel:  battered suitcases, ticket stubs, odd foreign coins, clothes obviously meant for a radically different climate, photographs. Scandal: odd notations or withdrawals recorded on his bank statements, blackmail letters, photographs, newspaper clippings.

Naturally you don't have to chuck all this in every room, but if the players search around they should be allowed to find them. None of this has to be plot relevant. What matters is they speak to character; they give the players a better idea of who this NPC is. They may even get so caught up in the NPCs backstory (so who's blackmailing Fentiman and does he know something useful?) that they lead themselves astray. That's no bad thing in itself. Let them chase false leads, or even create genuine leads from their speculation. The room furnishings can be part of the ongoing plot, with some preparation.

So long as it doesn't get like my brother's place . . .