Sunday, August 07, 2005

List of the Week, 8/6: World of Darkness NPCs

(Listening to: The Essential Bob Dylan)

So, I play role-playing games. The table-top RPGs, I mean: you know -- sit around a table, roll some dice, act out imaginary characters. Such behavior is generally shunned by popular society, of course, and you can just imagine how much I care about that.

Even though I play these games, I don't swing with that Dungeons & Dragons crowd -- too much math, not enough fun in my experience. (Yes: not only do I play the games, I'm a snob about them, too. Discuss.) I've played a lot of games, but the finest, without question, have been those published by White Wolf in their World of Darkness series. Vampire: The Masquerade, Hunter: The Reckoning, Mage: The Ascension. Last year, they ended that series and started anew with Vampire: The Requiem, which has been just has fun as the old stuff.

And since Mage: The Awakening comes out this month, we celebrate my RPG experiences with our list of the week: My Favorite (and Least-Favorite) Non-Player Characters. See, when I've played, I've been the Storyteller almost exclusively -- no player characters for me. And while I know my players have their own personal favorites, I don't think I've ever shared mine. Not to mention those NPCs I've dreaded playing.

So let's get started.

(But before we do, I should point out that several of these characters came in groups and pairs, so they're obviously listed together. You may see this as cheating, to stick more than five characters into a top-five list. I can't disagree. And while I'm in this parenthetical, thanks to Rene for helping me come up with an idea for this week's list.)

The Best

1. Duncan Forrest. (Vampire: The Masquerade; Vampire: The Requiem) Never has one of my characters displayed quite the frantic arc as this poor Ventrue did in En Prise, my final V:tM chronicle. From smug businessman, to ostracized villain, to avenging angel behind a shotgun, to caretaker for a sire-less young vampire, Duncan remained a blast for me. (Hehe: shotgun. Blast. Ha! ...Ahem.) Of course, the arc wasn't just all over the place for no reason: the unlucky bastard had ghosts haunting him and screwing with this mind. And the guilt he carried around with him for his evil deeds -- both those at the urging of the spirits and those he committed of his own volition -- rounded him out and prevented from being just an unpredictable wacko. (Though he was that, at times.) But the most gratifying moment came when I tried to finish him off: I set up the events that would lead to his demise, only to watch as the players ruined everything with a desperate (and successful) attempt to save his life. "There's no way we were going to let Duncan die," I was told. I can't believe I tried it, either.

And surprisingly enough, Duncan didn't lose much in his transition to the world of Vampire: The Requiem -- a sometimes frustrating mix of the political schemer and the guilt-ridden saint, Duncan led the charge against the corrupt vampiric government of Bazemore. Of course, his methods of leadership put him at odds with almost everyone he attempted to lead, but he stayed the course and kept up the fight until the most unlikely possible thing happened: he won. (And they say I don't know the meaning of the word "hope.") But the ghosts still won't leave him alone.

Speaking of ghosts....

2. Alice Johnson. (V:tR) Talk about having it bad. At age eighteen, Alice was brutally murdered in her sleep by a crazed vampire (for reasons too complex to get into here). But instead of passing on, she found herself stuck in our world as a ghost...and unable to leave her apartment. She remained there for nearly two decades -- she was eventually discovered by another vampire, Natasha, but this Kindred was unable (or unwilling) to help her escape. Instead, Alice became a weapon in Natasha's schemes: the ghost somehow caught occasional brief glimpses of the future. Still stuck, Alice contented herself with flexing her supernatural muscles, learning other "powers" and such over the years; she became fascinated with her limited ability to alter the temperature in her apartment (a habit which resulted in the space staying vacant for all those years). But Alice wasn't without hope: help came in the form of Natasha's childe, Benjamin. Unlike Natasha, who saw her as a tool, Ben helped her not only to develop those powers of hers, but eventually found a way to get her out of her apartment and allow her to roam the world as a free spirit.

Man, Alice is just plain fun to play -- she's been eighteen for about forty years now, and even as her power increases, she still straddles that teenaged line between invulnerable cockiness and tormented insecurity. Stubbornly sticking by Benjamin through his own personal travesties, she alternately assists him on his quests and prods him with shiny verbal spears. (Ben once described their feuding relationship as "hate-hate." Alice's response: "Hey, fuck you!") She generally carries herself with a "Who, me?" kind of laid-back attitude...until the shit hits the fan. And what's not to like about a character who is blasting zombies with telekinesis one minute and practically blushing at the clumsy advances of a naive college boy the next? (Another fun aspect to Alice: putting on cleats and stomping all over White Wolf's canon as regards ghosts. I've never taken their it's-your-game-do-what-you-want ethos as far as I have with her.) Add in her fascination/loathing with modern society, her big-sister relationship with Ben's son, her snobbish appreciation/disdain for popular music, and the vast expanse of unspoken emotional territory between Ben and herself, and I could practically write a book about her.

Speaking of practically writing books...

3. Mr. Clarke and Jenkins. (Hunter: the Reckoning) Sure, most mages would want to keep as far away as possible from supernaturally-imbued demon-slayers, especially those as well-armed as the ones in this game. But Mr. Clarke and his vigilant assistant, Jenkins, were not most mages. These two fit into a pretty typical NPC mold -- the questgiver -- but it was their priceless interaction with each other and with the hunters that made them memorable. Mr. Clarke's habit of falling in love with the sound of his voice (talking forever without seeming to say anything) went perfectly with Jenkins, whose main job seemed to be taking notes -- of everything. Jenkins was never armed without his handy notepad, and his pen never stopped moving. It wasn't quite sure what these notes would ever be used for, but that didn't stop Jenkins from writing, nor did it stop Clarke from frequently imploring Jenkins: "Write this down!" I've never enjoyed the obligatory here-is-your-mission scenes as much as I did with these two clowns. Our Hunter game went to shit (literally, and you do not want to hear that story, trust me), but I loved these two guys.

Speaking, fuck it:

4. Harry and Tom. (Mage: The Ascension) Man oh man: the fucking cats.

Harry -- the black one -- was the familiar for adolescent mage Jack Flagg; his nemesis, Tom -- the white one -- hounded Jack as a pesky gremlin. Jack was a good guy, though, so he took care of both cats. Even when Tom was displaying his evil side by...breaking his potted plants?

Credit where credit is due: these guys weren't my idea. But they were some kind of awesome when they got going. The best part, really, was that despite being ancient spirits with a eternal grudge against one another, they were still cats -- talking cats, mystical cats, but cats nevertheless. It's hard to torment your mortal enemy when there's so much napping to do, after all. And I can't forget the hilarious image of Harry, tucked in Jack's pocket, getting a buzz at the local Node. And the good news: they're coming back for our next Mage game. Yeah!

5. Steve, the Drunken Redneck. (Everywhere) Sometimes, you can't plan what will work. And Steve-o started life as nothing more than a random victim: a vampire needed a car, and fast, so Steve got carjacked. But something about him was somehow intriguing, and so Steve showed up again. And again. Traumatized by his experiences, Steve has popped up in every game I've run since, getting more and more wigged out (and more and more drunk) with each appearance. His best moments were probably those in V:tM, with his paranoid ramblings about the secret war between vampires and aliens from outer space. But he never stops being funny. And Steve will never go away.

Tied for sixth: every single other NPC I've used in Vampire: The Requiem. Every single one. Even Malice the dog. Especially Malice the dog. I love that city.

The Worst

1. Jan Pieterzoon. (V:tM) I've never been good at working with other people's creations (the cats notwithstanding). And it was probably a bad idea to trot out this White Wolf signature character for little reason other than, "Hey, he's cool." (Really, his presence was ridiculous.) I'm pretty sure he didn't show up more than once or twice...but someone like Pieterzoon should emanate dignity, should ooze it from the very bottom of his silk suit, and he was nothing more than empty space in my hands. Easily the most disappointing NPC I've ever used. (I later used him again when I ran a Gehenna chronicle, and while it was an improvement, I still never quite got a handle on him. Oh, well. Live and learn.)

2. Fortunado. (V:tM) Dammit: he was made to be interesting. One of the aforementioned ghosts that was mucking with Duncan's brain, Fortunado was a brash, joyous guy that was dead and loved every second of least, when he was in my head. In the game, though, he never seemed to take off. He was supposed to be used for a Wraith chronicle, but when that game went nowhere, I brought him into Vampire with lackluster results. And it didn't help that his arc by that point was as a pretty obvious shock villain -- his "surprise" evil turn was greeted with no reaction at all by the players, and they later selected this as the worst plot twist in the otherwise magnificent En Prise. I'm much better at ghosts nowadays, but this one haunts me. (Hehe: haunts. Ghost. Ha! ...Ahem.)

3. Augustus Giovanni. (V:tM) See entry 1 as far as using White Wolf signature characters. I've had my share of anticlimactic moments in my games, but none can rival this dramatic battle from my Gehenna chronicle. Augustus Giovanni, third-generation progenitor of the Giovanni clan, super-powerful master of Necromancy, slain in a matter of moments by a handful of Kindred far, far weaker than he. That was embarrassing.

4. The other Antediluvians in that same Gehenna game. (V:tM) See entry 3, only multiply by six and replace the embarrassing fighting with lots of talking. Lots of talking. The most dreadful ending to any game I've ever run. Ever. (Of course, it wasn't entirely my fault -- I as running that game right out of the book. But I should have at least tried to make those bastards interesting. I failed to do so.)

5. The entire cast of the infamous "Green Goo" game. (V:tM) Honestly, I can't remember a single character from this mess, the worst chronicle I've ever run. But I can remember how awkward they felt, how they felt like crude cut-outs or imitations of earlier, more successful characters. Actually, I take that back: I remember the idiotic Tremere interrogator with his syringe full of that awful green goo. I was watching way too much X-Files back then, and didn't use any of that influence in a good way. Though I've tried to put this horrible game behind me (thankfully, it ground itself to a shuddering, screeching halt after only three or four sessions), my friends will never let me forget it. Ever.

That's that. You may comment below -- suggestions for next week's list are welcome.

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