Gaming Mobs Better Quick Tips For Making Mobs More Interesting
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #376
- Gaming Mobs Better Quick Tips For Making Mobs More Interesting
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Gaming Mobs Better Quick Tips For Making Mobs More Interesting
From Johnn Four
One of the daunting things my group faces in the current part of our campaign, now that they’ve entered the villain’s lair, is the vast hordes of underlings, also known as minions, flunkies, rank and file, or mobs.
The biggest challenge of mobs is they grind things down: you, the players, the characters, and the game. They tend to be faceless, so not exciting to GM or fight against. If fought, they often require long battles. When it’s the GM’s turn in combat, the mob takes a long time to work through their actions and results.
I like mobs. Villains should make good use of their ability to organize, mobilize, and dominate groups to do their evil bidding. Mobs pose cheap challenges for PCs as obstacles, if not direct opposition. Mobs can spring up quickly as a result of PC actions to give your world realism. “Hey, strangers just burned up the bar. Let’s get ’em!”
Unless you’ve put in a lot of preparation, you’ve cloned most of the mob’s members from one or more designs or templates. This creates repetition that turns initially exciting encounters into tedious gameplay.
Pondering solutions for my own campaign’s needs formed the idea for this article. I had posted a request thread at ENWorld, but it didn’t bear the fruit I wanted, which was my fault for providing a poorly worded question.
I’ve given it more thought this week, and following are a few tips to help you make mobs fun and interesting when unleashed in your games and mine.
Make Individuals Interesting With On-The-Fly Add-Ons
Crafting unique NPCs within a mob could take a lot of preparation time – time better spent planning other aspects of your campaign. The solution is to create a list or table of ideas to pull from while GMing so you can customize mob members on-the-fly.
You don’t need to do a lot of customization. Chances are each member is about to be bypassed or mowed down. Therefore, the goal is to pick a few individuals out from the crowd as you GM and give them a single feature that sets them apart.
Giving several mob members an identical feature brings us back to our initial problem: boredom through repetition. To fix this, create a few charts that provide different types of customization. Save these charts so you can reuse them for future mobs and NPC groups.
Just prior to the encounter, or as you GM it, roll or pick from your lists and assign features to select members. A great method is to wait until NPCs naturally stand out from the crowd in some way. You leap upon those opportunities and give those NPCs a cool aspect, ability, or feature. This saves you time customizing NPCs that just get fireballed, hit with artillery, or avoided somehow before they reveal their uniqueness.
With on-the-fly customization, you don’t want to add something that would have made a huge impact on the mob before the confrontation began. For example, if you give a member a tank half-way through a fight, it doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t the mob lead with the tank and use it for protection. Where was the tank hiding at the start of the battle? And so on.
Defeated mobs also mean piles of loot. You don’t want to upset campaign balance by giving mob members treasure that you know will soon fall into the hands of the PCs. The unique aspects you give to select mob members need to be cheap and part of a balanced meal for victorious characters.
Here are a few on-the-fly customization ideas:
Assign a name or nickname to any NPC who stands out in a mob as gameplay progresses. Keep a list of random names handy just for this purpose. Be sure to reveal the name in play, because an unknown name is useless.
- Have fellow mob members call the NPC by name
- Have the mob leader instruct the NPC by name
- The NPC declares his own name, perhaps as part of a battle yell
- The NPC’s name is stitched into his clothes, tabard, or armor
- The NPC’s name is tattooed, perhaps on his forearm or knuckles
In fantasy games, these are awesome NPC customization devices. They are one-shot add-ons with a large range of possible effects. Once the potion is in the belly of an enemy, the PCs won’t get it as treasure.
Here’s the list I created for my D&D campaign:
- Acid Arrow
- Acid Breath
- Balor Nimbus
- Belker Claws
- Bite of the Wererat
- Bite of the Werewolf
- Body of the Sun
- Bull’s Strength
- Burning Hands
- Charge of the Triceratops
- Chill Touch
- Color Spray
- Death Armor
- Deeper Darkness
- Enlarge Person
- Entropic Shield
- Expeditious Retreat
- Fangs of the Vampire King
- Fog Cloud
- Frost Breath
- Gaseous Form
- Ghoul Touch
- Girallon’s Blessing
- Hamatula Barbs
- Meld Into Stone
- Mirror Image
- Nauseating Breath
- Obscuring Mist
- Primal Form
- Ring of Blades
- Shocking Grasp
- Shadow Phase
- Sound Burst
- Spider Climb
- Thunderous Roar
- True Strike
In picking those potions, even though some are expensive, I opted for ones that had any of the following options:
- Creates effects I can do cool descriptions for, to make the mob, NPC, and encounter interesting.
- Uses touch attacks, as the PCs have high armor classes and touch attacks, this make them easier to hit.
- Provides the NPC concealment, so that PCs always have a miss chance despite their attack modifiersAllows potentially interesting encounter situations, such as an NPC who can hide in stone and leap out to attack from time to time, or an NPC who can flee fast
I avoid potions that just supply a bonus to hit or improved armor class, as those benefits are largely invisible and not nearly as interesting as, say, a farmer flying around stabbing with his pitchfork from the air.
Magic items with charges that are nearly depleted give NPCs a couple of shots, and they don’t leave loose cannons for the PCs to pick up after the battle. I can also see interesting story possibilities where NPCs have inherited items depleted by ancestors, or commanders who’ve passed down old items in favor of new, fully charged ones. Not that I’m afraid story will break out during mob scenes. 🙂
Special equipment is possible in all game genres. Grenades, nets, caltrops, acid, flame throwers, jet packs, and so on.
Spellcaster or other type of buffer in the background. Before the confrontation, or perhaps during, a caster lurks behind the scenes to give certain mob members special abilities.
Perhaps all members drank the Kool-Aid at the meeting hall before confronting the PCs, and the beverage was dosed with a psychotic agent that makes imbibers stronger and crazier. Maybe the beverage contained nanobots that infused mob members with speed and agility.
Create a list of traits to slap onto mob members that emerge as significant or individuals while on the field.
Here are 50 traits from my NPC Essentials book:
Craft A Leader For Each Unit
Build a leader for each mob, or mob sub-unit. This creates a special target for the PCs to pick out, gives the PCs more tactical goals, and perhaps gives the mob new abilities or increases the difficulty of the encounter.
Even better, the leader might create a roleplaying opportunity or two before or during combat. Perhaps the leader presses for peace to avoid a fight, he goads the PCs on, or he tries some trick, such as stalling for time while hidden or invisible mob members get into flanking positions.
If possible, clearly identify the leader, and do this early on. Once the PCs know there’s a leader type around, the encounter will become much more interesting, and mob members can take on support roles for the leader (i.e. block access to leader, aid another actions on leader, supply leader with ammo) which makes actions and tactics within the encounter more interesting, even if the rest of the mob has identical stats and equipment.
In addition, have the leader do leader-type things, such as directing from the rear, trying tricks, seeking parley, getting intel, issuing challenges. Even if the leader has the same stats as other mob members, his presence and actions will spruce up any mob encounter.
Use Hit Point Piles
Here’s a great idea from the Ars Ludi blog. Use hit point piles to simplify wound tracking for mob members:
“Track the total damage done to similar creatures as one big pile. Ignore which particular creature was hit. Just keep adding up the damage, and when the total is enough to kill one, the one that just got hit dies. Set the pile to zero and start over again (excess damage is lost).”
Here’s the full article: d20 Hit Point Piles
Identifying Minis With Stickers
A player in my group, Jeff, came up with this one last session. I have pages of tiny stickers from the dollar store. I’ve placed one sticker per miniature for a set that I’ll use for mob battles. You could use army men, beads, cardboard tokens, or whatever. Each sticker is unique.
I’ve created an Excel sheet where each sticker is labelled at the top of a column. As special effects (such as from drinking a potion), special statuses (cursed, slowed, whatever), and wounds are applied, I’ll track them in the spreadsheet. You could use paper just as easily.
This makes tracking each mob member much easier, especially as miniatures move about the map and the scene gets chaotic.
Create Mob Challenges
Not every mob encounter needs to be toe to toe dice mashing. Try to come up with interesting encounter objectives that require the PCs to think, strategies, or otherwise break out of hack ‘n slash mode.
Capture the flag
The mob is just a barrier to the real prize. While killing every member of the mob would result in a victory, it’s a slow and painful one, hopefully with a bit of risk. With a specific objective, the PCs can focus just on that and the encounter mercifully ends once the flag is in the PCs’ hands and they’ve escaped the howling horde.
In my campaign, the PCs are crawling a dungeon that’s organized. As soon as a warning bell is sounded in an area, tougher foes and reinforcements arrive or plan ahead for ambushes and whatnot.
You might have members of a mob opt to flee (out of terror or with purpose) to give warning to their allies and other nearby PC foes. Try to make the PCs aware of this threat so they have a new encounter complication to wrangle.
Focus on one PC
Focusing firepower is a good tactic most of the time anyway, but if a mob concentrates its frenetic anger on one PC, the nature of the encounter changes. This makes things a bit more interesting for the PCs, especially the player of the targeted character.
Mob needs to capture the PC’s flag
Whatever or whoever has whipped the mob into a frenzy, they’ve also managed to direct the group to achieve a specific objective.
A villain will gladly discard the lives within a mob if but a single member returns with an item that gave the PCs power, for example. Maybe the mob has been convinced the cleric is the source of all evil and their instruction is to return with the cleric’s holy symbol – and corpse, if possible. With the holy symbol gone, the villain can then unleash his zombie units or worry less about holy spells for awhile.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Thanks For The Contest Entries
The 5 Room Dungeon Contest is over – thanks to everyone who entered. I’ll be contacting winners in the next week. Once entries are edited and formatted, you will be able to download them all for use in your campaigns. No estimated delivery date for this, but stay tuned to this section of the e-zine for an announcement.
Have a game-full week.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Character Creation, or Assassination?
From Ryan McHargue
A lot has been written on character creation, but it all seems to overlook one important part of a character…theplayer.
I have found there are three parts to how a character is played. First, you have the character sheet/traits and such that has been developed pre-game. Second, you have the GM and other players and how they imagine and react to the player/character. Third is the player, and how they can actually play the character out. There really are four areas, but the energy of the initial introduction is not something we as players and GMs have any control over.
In my experience, each player only has a certain range of playable traits. For example, the guy in the group who can’t seem to not tell a joke. He is going to always have a form of humor when playing his character, whereas the guy who sits there pondering, plotting, planning, and generally not talking until he lays out his master plan isn’t going to be able to play a fast-talking swindler.
We all drift towards a certain set of default traits, and when gaming, these become our character. Some players have a wider range than others, but all of us have a range. Think back through all your characters, and pick out the common traits. I am that guy who has trouble not telling a joke, or beating up the stuttering NPC just for taking too much time spitting it out. I tend to be more impulsive and don’t fully think out my plans. I’m just impatient. I also like to be in charge and will end up bullying my way into a leadership role, usually with some hilarious consequences. These are the traits that I as a player will always play to some degree.
Once you have listed your common traits you will want to incorporate them into your new character. If you are like me and play an impulsive bully that tells jokes, then you would want use these traits to work best for the character type you are playing. You don’t have to play a prideful rogue every time; you can also play an intelligent guy who has a hard time in social situations and uses humor to cope with his nervousness. The impulsiveness and bullying could be that he is impatient and a perfectionist, so he tends to take projects over because he thinks he can do them better.
You can use any reasons to explain your traits, and no matter what the reason for the trait, you will play it. So, it is best to plan for it rather than hating your new dark assassin who has a hatred of the human race, when you just want to laugh and tell jokes.
I also mentioned the group you play with has a part in how your character turns out. As one of my fellow players has found out, this has a large impact on the character. He has had two or three characters with above average intelligence but, because of some group jokes about his character being stupid, the character became thought of as stupid, and this didn’t just effect that character, it also influenced the next couple characters after until the joke dissipated. The group will have a reaction partially based on you as a player and on what they know of your character.
A note on backgrounds, it is best to keep your shared background down to a small summary or interesting paragraph that gives the other players a good idea of how you want the character thought of. I like to put down a single sentence that describes my character. I have found my group is more interested in how you play the character then the huge back story you spent days writing.
In summary, you can only play what you know how to play, so craft your character within your range of playability. Game On!
Structure Your Campaign And Adventures Like A TV Series
From Isengart The Fiendish
I once ran a Star-Trek, The Next Generation type campaign where I based single adventures on the structure of the TV shows so the group could play them in just one evening.
This worked out pretty well, and the players were astonished and pleased that a single adventure had not been broken apart by having to play it over two evenings (where there’s always the risk it would have never been completed or that some of the players couldn’t show up and would never have the chance to complete the adventure).
They also said it did work out rather nicely, but only with a setting like this with the players being part of the same organization, where there was somebody in the position of telling them what to do. Otherwise, the players would have been arguing why and if they would go for the adventure hook, making it impossible to finish the one adventure on one single evening.
To give it a time-fitting structure, I looked carefully at a few of the TV shows, analyzing carefully and then structuring an adventure that was following the TV shows’ schemes.
I also made up the structure of the characters’ organization in advance, and gave players handouts of what they should know before the game-evening, so they would already know how this organization would work (as we normally would learn that from watching the series episodes).
Plan Your Group’s Seating Arrangements
From Stephanie Justice
Sometimes our group cannot stay focused: the people who bother each other yet sit next to each other all the time, the person who talks constantly to their partner, the person who is not involved as often.
My tip is to assign seating arrangements. People who are partners, separate them away from each other. People who do not get involved often, put them to the right or left of the GM. People who bother each other, or talk, are separated.
Seating assignments work very well, and have worked in all the groups that have had a hard time focusing. I just did this in my last group and I was amazed how well it works.
Going Right from the GM:
Seat 1: Guy who doesn’t get involved
Seat 2: Responsible Guy
Seat 3: Partner Dude
Seat 4: Guy who likes to get into it with another guy
Seat 5: Focused Guy
Seat 6: Partner Gal – yet is focused too
Seat 7: Guy who likes to bother “Guy who likes to get into it with another guy”
Now we get at least 2 more hours out of gaming. With seating arrangements, we actually got Guy who doesn’t get involved to actually come out of his shell and give up some great ideas that really helped the group.
How To Get Your Players To Roleplay More: Let Them GM
From Crazy Nedri
This is a common topic that has plagued GMs ages. When my campaign got a little ragged, one of my players (one who wasn’t roleplaying) stumbled along a very good way all on his own.
The method is simple: don’t be the GM. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s what I’m here for.” And “That’s all I want to do!”
Let me explain. Most of us think it is pretty boring to GM a group that only hacks and slashes everything they see. Well, let them see that too. My one PC went camping and I wasn’t there to run the game, so he took matters into his own hands and ran the game himself. He came back realizing that, without an interesting party, he wasn’t enjoying himself. So, now he has become a roleplayer and an active member of the party.
On a side note, if you are in the game that your player runs, take one of your NPCs to roleplay to help show your players how to roleplay a character. Also, when you take over GMing again, the players will get more of the NPC’s personality.