As GMs, we’re called upon to portray every monster and every nonplayer character – which is part of the fun, of course.
Superficially, that means dictating their actions in combat and providing their dialog when they are addressed directly.
But in a dungeon environment – the setting for many adventures –Â is there a little more to it?
I mean, as a sane person, I can’t envision what mental impetus would drive a wizard, evil priest or warlord to establish their base in a maze of underground caverns and populate it with monstrous creatures – which they must, for the sake of the game– but it must be a dark thinking process to begin with.
For their minions, the motivations must be equally dark, and thus, manifest themselves in some strange ways.
Take the issue of doors.
Are NPCs and monstrous humanoids leaving them open? After hours spent in darkness in stuffy, claustrophobic small rooms, wouldn’t the inhabitants spill out into the corridors, their doors left ajar, as they yearn desperately for any hint of fresh air? What’s the mindset of NPCs who are tired of being cooped up in such cramped quarters? Is it akin to the lethargy found in high-rise apartment building dwellers who seek the fire escapes and front stoops during a heat wave?
Or, do NPCs shut themselves up in their rooms, not only closing the doors, but finding ways to bar and reinforce the entrances? (I find that PCs, when resting in the dungeon, go to great pains to secure their hidey-holes. Wouldn’t the same be true for most everyone else?) There’s a lot of wicked and cruel things in dungeons, so for peace of mind, or eventually, out of abject fear, wouldn’t a dungeon’s inhabitants lock themselves away as much as possible? What’s the mindset of NPCs who dwell in dark places and whose only solace they won’t be eaten is that wood door to their cubby is stout enough to keep things out?
And who thrives in these underground environments? Is it the bold? Is it the brash? Or is it the quiet ones, the secret ones, the ones who strain not to be noticed?
And what about those who employ guards and magic wards to secure their abodes? Do mad wizards and their commanders use fear to their advantage to coerce and manipulate, or must they rely on intimidation to motivate the weary? How often must the truly insane be put down? What qualifies for trustworthiness among those who plot and scheme in the dark?
I think the lesson for GMs is that “yes,” you might have all types inhabit your underground lairs. What sorts leave their doors open and which ones cower behind closed ones?
Those hobgoblins sprawled out in the corridor, they might just let you pass. They’ve had it, after all, with the setup. “Go on, stupid adventurers. We won’t stop you. There’s only darkness, death and bigger things than us ahead. We’re quitting this place anyway. You’re welcome to it.”
On the other hand, another group of hobgoblins barricaded behind a metal banded reinforced door are poised out of fear and loathing to lash out with their upraised pikes at anything that attempts to break through. They’ll fight in a fearful frenzy and won’t distinguish between friend and foe, for all intruders have to be beaten back with ferocity.
Then there’s the smart ones who’ve lit torches in all the halls and imposed some sort of order, creating an environment where everyone is pretty much on equal footing. The evil wizard is building an army down here, and that requires cooperation and common purpose. Those hobgoblins are on alert, disciplined as soldiers, but keeping their wits.
Next time you key and stock your dungeons, keep these things in mind. Open and closed doorways are entrances to the mindset of your dungeon inhabitants. Portray them accordingly.
And if you have any different experiences with portraying NPCs in dungeons, please feel free to share them here.
I try to have some idea of what life is like in the dungeons that I create. Are there sections that the denizens won’t enter? Are they on alert? Do they get along with each other? Hadn’t really thought of having them ‘lounging’ in the corridor before, will have to try that one.
Let us know how it works out.
I like this. I admit that I tended to end my thought process after making sure the monsters made sense in a common ecosystem–but the psychology in your examples does a lot to bring it to life. I’ll have to work emotional reactions for my dungeon dwellers in going forward.
I love the sprawled Hobgoblins, fed up with the place. That’s almost worth having a dungeon adventure just for that scene.
Besides how they treat their doors, there is the question of what do they eat? And how do they feel about that?
“Mmm, shrieker pies. I don’t know how the surface dwellers do without.”
“Yellow mold stew again? Next time the guard falls asleep, we eat the cook.”
“This #?!//# spell makes us stand here at guard duty but it doesn’t fill our bellies. We’re starving. I think I know what happened to them skeletal folk.”
The more jam packed with beasties a dungeon is, the more food becomes a problem. Nobody wondered where the goblins in Moria got their grub, maybe they raided the surface at night. But that place was huge, bigger than some cities. A whole underdark populated by one balrog, one cave troll, and enough goblins that even the Fellowship had to run.
Old school dungeons can be more densely populated than Calcutta. Players expect danger around every corner, so they move at a cautious crawl. For some reason, hand waving hours or days travel on the surface doesn’t translate to “the dungeon.” Let’s check for traps every ten feet. Twice.
Doors and dinner are great windows into the minds of dungeon denizens, but the real question is “Where is the drama? Why should the players care?”
Drama. Care. That’s why psychology of dungeon denizens is a secondary thing. But it can inform motivations. But I’d never sacrifice drama for this approach. Still, I think it can inform the drama. Monsters can be as determined, motivation, resolute as the psychology dictates. That helps define the encounter, the drama of the moment.
Whether the creatures/men within the darkling depths embrace the choking black or rail against is an excellent thing to consider.
An online friend of mine did a write up for a tongue-in-cheek dungeon storyline following the adventures of a solo game he ran as GM about a goblin PC trapsetter working for a dungeon operated as a commercial enterprise. While intentionally humourous, the idea of underground races leasing several levels of an existing dungeon from the power players at the lowest levels (who own the dungeon) and setting up shop – placing traps, placing some treasure (their own investment), contracting intelligent dungeon dwellers, purchasing less intelligent dungeon denezins from trainers and so on, with the hopes of luring in adventures to kill them and take their stuff. It had the ring of merit. Thus being underground races who are actually afraid of life on the surface would not get claustrophobic down there…
Interestingly, Adventurer Conqueror King has a unique explanation for the ‘dungeon filled with terrible beasties’ situation. As a mage, players get to a point where they can create their own dungeon, stock it with treasure, and the results are creatures venturing into the dungeon to take the treasure… they die, and the mage gets free reagents. A group of minotaurs delving the dungeon to steal the riches within turns into free minotaur horns for our friendly neighborhood mage.
I like to think that some of these evildoers are really just high level pc’s looking for reagents!