In HP Lovecraft's tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth , the protagonist, while visiting the town, has conversations with two NPC's: the grocery boy at the First National and Zadok Adams, the ancient town drunk. I bring these up as examples of two types of NPCs characters can interact with and of the information that can be gathered from each.
While visiting the nation's capital after Labor Day, I was working on a way to model NPC interactions for solo play. Traditionally, the party needs to ask the correct questions of the DM in order to gain information. In solo play, the option is either the proverbial Chinese Wall inside your head or develop a way to model asking the questions. Naturally, I chose to try to model it. I wasted a lot of time building random tables based on my solo play milieu, Castle of the Mad Archmage before I realized that not only are there only six questions, but there are two types of
The six questions, as we should have learned in about fourth grade or at least in Journalism 101, are Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Obviously, these six basic questions have a near infinite number of permutations, but they can be used to categorize the type of information the NPC imparts.
Who - Personal information, such as the true name of the wizard.
What - Consequences. What happens if I assemble the Puzzle Door?
Where - Location, for example, of the temple of Orcus.
When - Time of occurance
Why - History of an object, location or person hat explains their existence or motivation.
How - Activation words for wands or methods to get past three headed dogs.
Modeling a conversation isn't just about which of the questions can be answered, unless of course, the part has captured an NPC and are interrogating them. Instead both sides have agendas, or topics that they want to discuss. For the party, it is getting answers to the questions, but the NPCs are usually interested in other things. And this leads into categorizing NPCs.
Two Kinds of NPCs
Broadly and with an acknowledged overlap in definitions, NPCs either reside in the dungeon or outside of it. Having said that, NPCs are by nature mobile and where the encounter occurs does not necessarily dictate the kind of NPC encountered.
NPCs living inside the dungeon (iNPCs) can usually answer more of the questions and in greater detail than those living outside the dungeon. When the party interacts with an iNPC for the first time, the iNPC's primary agenda is almost always getting rid of these heavily armed intruders who just showed up to chat. That's not saying that they're going to make the party's attempt to get information easy, the iNPCs will always present their knowledge to protect themselves and if possible harm their rivals. One group of orcs might tell the party truthfully that they can access the next level down a certain way, but not volunteer that they'll be traversing another group's territory. After all a fight between the party and the other orcs will at least soften up the rival group.
NPCs living outside the dungeon, or to borrow a term from the Army, Rear Echelon NPCs (RENPCs) tend to possess less detailed information and their main concerns have nothing to do with the dungeon. Examples of RENPCs are innkeepers, clerics and merchants the party obtains goods and services from. They may have gained incidental information from other groups of adventurers, but it's not central to their lives.
Talking to Zadok
To illustrate these concepts, lets go back to Zadok and the Grocery Boy in Innsmouth. The dungeon is the town of Innsmouth, which observant readers will note is where both of the NPCs are encountered. Yet the Grocery Boy is a RENPC, as I said the categories are broad and location does not determine the kind of NPC encountered. The first thing the protagonist learns from the Grocery Boy is the topic the Grocery Boy feels is most important. He's not from Innsmouth, he rooms with a family from Ipswich and he only lives there because of the job. Afterward he imparts information the protagonist actually wants.
Where - a sketch map of the town and locations to be avoided.
Who - Zadok Adams, the 94 year old town drunk can give more detailed information
How - get Zadok liquored up and he'll talk
Old Zadok is an iNPC, having grown up in Innsmouth and witnessed it's transformation to a place of horror. As he's a counter-culture rebel within the town, (and the protagonist is only armed with bootleg whisky) he's not trying to get rid of the protagonist right away. After a couple of blown Gather Information skill checks on the part of the protagonist, Zadok finally provides a lot of information.
Who - Obed Marsh, sea captain and wizard
What - Summoned and made a pact with the Deep Ones that ended up with half the town being killed off.
Where - Devil's Reef, visible at the mouth of the harbor is where human sacrifices take place
When - Obed encountered the Deep Ones in the Pacific in the 1830's and took over the town in 1844.
Why - To obtain gold for himself and good fishing for the town initially. Later for the promise of immortality for his descendants.
How - Throwing a carved lead tablet into the deep waters off of Devils Reef summoned the Deep Ones
Obviously, having a single NPC that could provide the entire back story was a plot device for HPL, but this still illustrates the difference in the breadth and depth of knowledge available to NPCs. In my next post I'll detail the system, based on Mythic , which I will be using for solo play.