Backstory NPCs are an important resource for a PC, especially if you happen to be a drama wizard type player. They can be threatened, killed off, rescued dramatically, or used for pen pal purposes when it comes time to write up in-character campaign logs. For some character concepts though, coming up with suitable NPCs is easier said than done. This has to do with campaign theme.

Bear with me. Ima explain.

For the vast majority of fantasy games, themes of good and evil dominate play. There’s always a Dark Lord threatening to lay siege to a White City, and the do-gooders of the multiverse are always there to man the walls.  Next comes law and chaos conflicts, with courageous bands of Rebels set up to resist tyrannical Empires. For some reason, this kind of conflict seems more common in sci-fi games. Finally, sitting right in the middle of the alignment chart is druid/ranger territory. The natural world suggests conflicts of predator and prey, civilization and wilderness, and life versus death. These conflicts tend to be less popular though, serving as side quests rather than full campaign arcs. The aforementioned alignment chart is a possible explanation here, raising the silly Zen koan of “what is the opposite of neutral?” Because the correct answer is “uhhhh…” gray-side conflicts wind up taking a back seat.

What does this have to do with Ma and Pa Wolf? Consider the purpose of backstory NPCs. Like every other element of backstory, they’re there to inform the PC. Bilbo’s struggle against the One Ring foreshadows Frodo’s temptation. Obi-Wan’s act of self-sacrifice foreshadow’s Luke’s showdown with the Emperor. And if you’re trying to evoke a “champion of the wilds” theme, your background NPCs need to suggest that conflict. Maybe it’s my own failure of imagination, but I don’t think that leaves you with too many options. You’ve got the crazy hermit, the fey foundling, and Ranger’s Mowgli shtick. These background NPCs are annoyingly shallow, removed from the world by virtue of their isolation in nature. In consequence, the PC is left with a fish out of water story, a wild child trying to learn the ways of civilization. Tying that conflict to a BBEG is possible, but it’s not popular. That means your typical eco-warrior winds up a supporting character rather than a protagonist. That’s great if you’re an ensemble player, but I’m a prima-freaking-donna over here. Give me my Hexxus, dammit!

I dunno. Maybe I’m just trying to articulate why I have a hard time rolling up druids. What do you guys think? How do you make your nature-aligned characters more compelling than “Radagast, but with a bow?” Have you ever seen one of those gray-side conflicts take center stage in a campaign? Help me out here, because I feel like there’s untapped potential hovering around my own games.


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