It has been many a long year since last we spoke of dependent NPCs. Like we said at the time, there’s a reason you see so many orphans joining adventuring parties. Loved ones are nothing but trouble. You might think you’re fleshing out your guy with an interesting backstory, but your GM sees only archery butts. It’s exactly the plot that Wizard just encountered with her sister, offering a ready-made hook for an adventure about wicked uncles and royal succession. It’s not hard to understand why a GM might want to use that.

Compelling games, after all, are made out of conflict. GMs target the important people in your character’s life because it guarantees drama. By inventing them, you’ve declared that your dependent NPCs are something you care about, and avenging / threatening / investigating the deaths of beloved NPCs is creating conflict 101. If you were lucky enough to run across u/jimbaby’s excellent Knife Theory post from a few years back, then you understand what I’m talking about:

When writing a character’s backstory, it’s important to include a certain number of “knives”. Knives are essentially anything that the DM can use to raise the stakes of a situation for your character. Anything that can make a conflict personal, like a threatened loved one or the appearance of a sudden enemy. They’re called “knives” because the players lovingly forge them and present them to the DM so that the DM can use them to stab the player over and over again.

Of course, there’s a reason that today’s comic features our vigilante Horsepower. Superheroes know how important it is to keep their loved ones safe, and they take the unusual step of adopting a secret identity precisely because they want to minimize their “knives.” In consequence, whenever a GM bends the rules of narrative plausibility in order to twist a knife (player precautions and secret identities be damned!), it’s possible to feel unfairly targeted. It’s all down to the individual player’s attitude, and figuring out the difference between engaging drama and needless character cruelty.

So for our question of the day, what do you say we talk about the differences at work here? Do you like when GMs use your “knives” against you? Or do you find that watching all the important things in your fictional life get turned against you gets old fast? As a GM, how do you know whether a player wants to experience a bit of dramatic masochism or just wants their sidekick left alive and unspoiled? Let’s hear all about your best (and worst) knife wounds down in the comments!


ADD SOME NSFW TO YOUR FANTASY! If you’ve ever been curious about that Handbook of Erotic Fantasy banner down at the bottom of the page, then you should check out the “Quest Giver” reward level over on The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. Twice a month you’ll get to see what the Handbook cast get up to when the lights go out. Adults only, 18+ years of age, etc. etc.