Why are some NPCs so amazingly irritating? (e.g. Khelben Blackstaff)

Why is it that some NPCs in some RPGs manage to be so viscerally irritating? Is it bad writing? Good writing? Personality clash? Rules violations? It's certainly not just me, because I hear the same complaints about the same NPCs from a wide variety of DMs.

This is particularly true in the Forgotten Realms setting for D&D, but I'm sure it's true of many other settings too.

I mean, it's been a while since I ran the Realms. I don't even really remember much about Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun. I do remember one thing - I hate him and would enjoy seeing how far I could kick his skull. I know I've somehow managed to get my players to feel the same way, without them directly interacting with him, I remember the sneers when his name is mentioned.

What setting NPCs do you hate? Do you remember why? Do you use them anyway, or replace them, or what?

I know that 90% of the FR NPCs I hate blatantly violate the rules in some serious way, often in a way that players would kill to do. I think part of it is that they're clearly the "pets" of writers and GMs who have little concern for how pampering said pet will negatively impact the setting, so maybe that's it.

I wonder if someone has thought about this more than I, and come up with a more rational and/or detailed explanation?
 

ShadowDenizen

Explorer
Not to start a flame war or anything... :heh:

But I personally find many of the FR characters to be amazingly annoying. For example, I'll agree with Blackstaff, and toss in Drizzt and ELminster. (Interstingly, the Realms has also produced one of my favorite characters, namely Cadderly from the Cleric Quintet.)

I think it's because, in my personal version of D+D, the focus should be on the PC's. They should be the impetus behind the major story-arcs, and stories should revolve arond them.
 
I can only speak for myself. The biggest Realms fan in our group has similar problems with the NPCs, though I won't go so far as to say that he will agree with everything that follows.

I have operated little in the Forgotten Realms, and it was over ten years ago, but the NPCs are indeed bywords for annoyingness. We played in Waterdeep, and the government of Waterdeep, to begin with, is whacked - the Masked Lord system is a paranoia-inducing one, perfect for secret cabals and corruption, yet the writers seem to think it's not subject to such flaws and could operate in a city cheek-by-jowl with an authority who's a paladin, and maintain authority over nobles and a rising bourgeousie, without generating significant conflict. Sorry, don't believe it. Also, sorry, neglecting a good source of adventuring for the intrigue-inclined. What terror of Undermountain can compare with the growing conviction that some of the Masked Lords have it in for you, and moreover pose a danger to your beloved city? A conviction you cannot prove...

A lot of the NPCs, when taken as written, don't act as real people would - their motives are obscure, contradictory, or laughably unrealistic, and the people explicitly commended by the authorial voice (whom few assume might be unreliable, but who I think is best read that way) are often acting either against their own best interest or in an inappropriate way for the setting.

Khelbhen specifically is annoying because he's simultaneously so powerful, so bossy, and so secretive. If he asks you to go somewhere and do something, you're not supposed to ask questions, and won't get good answers if you do, if he's played as written. You need dental implements to get information out of him - magical ones, at that.

Elminster's the one I really hate, though, because Greenwood uses him as a mouthpiece a lot, and, I'm sorry, Greenwood overwrites, with the result that Elminster is a blowhard of the first order. Read any speech of Elminster's at random. If this guy were sitting next to you on the bus, wouldn't you have to get off at the next stop to restrain yourself from slapping him as he droned on and on and on and on and on and on...His conveys useful information, sure, but sorting out the good information from the character bits is a full-time occupation. There's an art to doing infodump and characterization at the same time. Elminster is a good example of how not to do it.

Volo of the Volo's Guides has a similar problem. In fact, I have a hard time telling his voice from Elminster's. I won't go so far as to say that everybody in the Realms speaks with the same voice, but I will say that there's way too much overlap, and that attempts to create a distinctive voice often result in either an improbable and difficult-to-read accent, or an even more tedious variation of the baseline authorial voice. Greenwood does not do an adequate job of writing disparate individual voices, and authors who aren't Greenwood feel obliged to sound like him.

What everybody I've heard discuss the question agree, however, is that the major NPCs are just too powerful, and it's hard for the PCs to feel that there's any point in anything they do. If they fail, the gods can descend in their machine to fix it, and in fact, if they weren't going to give the PCs the information they needed to do a good job to begin with, they probably should have. Consequently, a DM has to either take great care, or go to great lengths, to create a challenge which doesn't seem trivial. Ours did it by picking on our characters as individuals. At one point, when my character was trying to become pregnant, I and my in-game husband cornered him and told him, in no uncertain terms, "No demon-babies!" 'Cause he would've done it, just to create a personal problem that we were the obvious people to deal with.

I think the strength of the Realms is its detail - all those maps, all those names, all the existing politics and trade routes and gossip and the sense that you can move in any direction inside an existing world. It has depth and breadth. But the characterization of the NPCs and the extravagance of some of that detail (just as in college towns you may need a degree to flip burgers, we joke that you need class levels to wait tables in Waterdeep) are a big weakness, and should be taken in hand by the DM early in the campaign process.

What happens to the Realms if you take the big guns out of it? What if you throw out the bits of character write-up that annoy you or make no sense? What if you take the bits that annoy you and say: "Okay, this NPC is annoying in this particular way, and instead of fawning all over him, the other NPCs treat him as a bore, or an obstacle, or an object or ridicule, or someone to fear rather than love, depending on the nature of that character flaw."?
 

Oryan77

Adventurer
Peni Griffin said:
as he droned on and on and on and on and on and on...His conveys useful information, sure, but sorting out the good information from the character bits is a full-time occupation. Elminster is a good example of how not to do it.
After reading this post it looks like you have a lot in common with Elminster, so I don't understand the hatred :p

My opinion is that anyone that actually has a problem with a famous NPC is jealous of the NPC more than anything. I can understand hatred if it's due to a DM running that NPC poorly & taking the spotlight away from the PCs...but then I wouldn't blame it on the character, I would blame the DM.

I've only played in a campaign where I met a famous NPC once, and it excited me. I had respect for that NPC. Then again, I'm never full of myself to the point where I expect to be the master of the universe, "What? How dare you have me cross paths with Drizzt! I'm supposed to be the coolest & most powerful dude to walk the lands in the game!"

I know in a lot of circles it's cool to hate what is popular....but what did those characters ever do to you? :p
 
Last edited:

MoogleEmpMog

Visitor
Personally, I like both Khelben (because the 'enigmatic powerful patron' type is one I always like as either a player or a GM, and because he was really cool in the intro to Eye of the Beholder 2) and Drizzt (because the Dark Elf trilogy were actually quite well done, and the rest of the trash written about the character hasn't completely tarnished my memory of him), though I'm not fond of Elminster.

In my opinion, most of the so-called 'pet' characters who violate the rules in a way 'the players would love to do' violate the rules... in exactly the way their creators WOULD allow players to do. I *know* this is the case with the Greyhawk uber-NPCs.

It's only a problem for GMs who wrinkle their noses at allowing their players to have their own unique and special snowflake characters.
 

jdrakeh

Adventurer
MoogleEmpMog said:
It's only a problem for GMs who wrinkle their noses at allowing their players to have their own unique and special snowflake characters.
Or GMs who use the rules as written ;)
 
What did those characters ever do to me? Lie to me, jerk me around, and bore me.

Y'know, Mr. 77, unfunny personal remarks don't get any funnier or less personal if you put a smiley after them. And attributing everybody's difference of opinion from yours to the same cause is bound to make you wrong in many cases.

I have no problem with anyone liking these characters or disagreeing with my assessments. It's all subjective, and the OP solicited the sort of input I gave. If it is useful to him, good. If it's not, I tried. If somebody else thinks it's cause to be unkind to a total stranger, shame on him.
 
The NPCs don't just break the rules (virtually always in a fashion that benefits them, rather than regular Joes or the villains), they break the rules of reality.

I still haven't come up with a good explanation for how Khelben knew a single drow was going to sneak into Waterdeep (yet couldn't figure out she wasn't evil) that doesn't involve using the Rhyme of the Chosen.

He must have maxed out Gather Information or something... apparently every master mage must have all the social skills maxed out.

Also, bad writing involving deities protecting their daughters and ex-boyfriends, etc. (I know the new Mystra doesn't have the same relation, but she's still pulling near-literal dei ex machinae to save them on a regular basis.
 
Last edited:

noretoc

Visitor
I really like Khelben. My only exposure to him is the Song and Silence series (With danilo) and I think Elaine Cunningham is a great writer. I never felt like Khelben was a bully. Only that he had lots of secret because of the harpers, and basically was stuck knowing more than anyone should. As for Elminster and the rest, yea... All of the seven sister are unbelievable, Shandril is crazy. I think the characters I actually like were all from the harper books. Very believable.
 

Korgoth

Visitor
Interesting idea for a campaign: The PCs are a squad of Warforged (yes, that's right, Warforged) gated into Forgotten Realms by an unknown agency. They are programmed to wipe out all the "named" NPCs of Faerun. The whole group starts out relatively high level (10th?) but don't have any equipment. They must arm themselves and start to kick tokhes. If any die, replacements will be warped in at the beginning of the next session (or whenever). Bonus XP will be awarded every time someone delivers a laugh line while impersonating Arnie.

"Are you Marysue Connor?"
"Actually, I am Ladylord Maxifliffle Bumblebutt, elven minstrel / archmage / katana master / performance artist / druid and democratically-elected representative of the eco-township of..."
ZORCH
 

Oryan77

Adventurer
Peni Griffin said:
Y'know, Mr. 77, unfunny personal remarks don't get any funnier or less personal if you put a smiley after them. If somebody else thinks it's cause to be unkind to a total stranger, shame on him.
My comment was meant as a social jabbing, ribbing, friendly teasing, ect ect. I thought it was actually pretty funny and yes, the smiley was supposed to show that it was friendly banter. Geez, rpgers online already have a hard enough time telling a joke when they see it without the smiley. So people always insist on seeing a smiley so their feelings don't get hurt. Now even the smiley doesn't get the point across? :confused:

I wasn't trying to be unkind. :\
 

Brazeku

Visitor
As a DM, I've always strongly disliked incorporating NPCs that someone else has written into my adventures; it always seems inauthentic. Using NPCs makes me feel like I'm writing fanfiction, which I'm allergic to. It makes me break out in suck.


But in dealing with FR NPCs, one thing immediately springs to mind.

There was an adventure where Elminster was walking around in a dungeon with a dog, while telling it to 'heel'. He was also holding a wand. A healing wand. A healing wand that would restore the party every time he said 'heel'.

I'm sure the writers thought that was very clever indeed.
 

ssampier

Visitor
Never thought about it like that.

As for FR, I blame the novels. The game products usually paint the NPCs in a positive light (unless you get me started on those Avatar modules).
 

MoogleEmpMog

Visitor
jdrakeh said:
Or GMs who use the rules as written ;)
In 1e, sure.

In 2e, sure at first, but with the number of kits + Skills and Powers available at the end, probably no longer true.

In 3e/d20 fantasy? With all the material out there? I would virtually guarantee that a casual browse through the Dragon archives or the Mongoose and AEG prestige class compendium type books could net a unique within the campaign world, thematically appropriate and mildly game-breaking power for each and every PC who reaches high levels. To say nothing of using ECL races or multiclassing between PrCs.
 
Peni Griffin said:
I have no problem with anyone liking these characters or disagreeing with my assessments. It's all subjective, and the OP solicited the sort of input I gave. If it is useful to him, good. If it's not, I tried. If somebody else thinks it's cause to be unkind to a total stranger, shame on him.
Yes, and it has been, so as the Colonel says, don't let the bastards grind you down, and thank you. That did clear up some of my thinking very nicely. Particularly as the last time I read a lot of the stuff in detail was years ago.

noretoc said:
I never felt like Khelben was a bully.
I can understand that, from those books, but in most FR fiction and in the setting books, he's written as something of egotistical bully (as you might expect an LN wizard who run an entire city with fascist secret police to be!), yet, confusingly, it's all clearly written as if we are to like and respect him, not think he is a dastardly villain.

Korgoth said:
Interesting idea for a campaign: The PCs are a squad of Warforged (yes, that's right, Warforged) gated into Forgotten Realms by an unknown agency. They are programmed to wipe out all the "named" NPCs of Faerun. The whole group starts out relatively high level (10th?) but don't have any equipment. They must arm themselves and start to kick tokhes. If any die, replacements will be warped in at the beginning of the next session (or whenever). Bonus XP will be awarded every time someone delivers a laugh line while impersonating Arnie.

"Are you Marysue Connor?"
"Actually, I am Ladylord Maxifliffle Bumblebutt, elven minstrel / archmage / katana master / performance artist / druid and democratically-elected representative of the eco-township of..."
ZORCH
YES PLEASE. Man, I'd pay money to play in the campaign (in person only, sadly).

ssampier said:
Never thought about it like that.

As for FR, I blame the novels. The game products usually paint the NPCs in a positive light (unless you get me started on those Avatar modules).
Well, my problem has always been partly because of that "positive light" - the products expect you to like the NPCs, no matter how horrible their behaviour, no matter how much the violate the rules of the game and reality (as noted by (Psi)SeveredHead), no matter how creepy, fascist and or unlikely a system of government/vigilantes etc. they command. I mean, I distinctly remember from 2E, mention of very non-good acts of angry violence from various (universally female) characters who were quite happily written up as NG or LG (I'm looking at you Seven Sisters). I liked in the 2E Cormyr sourcebook where it said adventurers in Cormyr had to spend 1000g on a charter or be declared illegal. Yeah, that's going to go down REAL WELL with the players, and make the NPC behind it, Vangerdhast, REAL POPULAR. They still talk about burning down Cormyr.

After saying all this, though, I will admit that I always liked Alias, and I never minded her straight 17s (after all, I saw a player roll better than that with no re-rolls with my own eyes), and I liked Giogi Wyvernspur a huuuuuge amount (though I hear they ruined him late). So my hate of FR NPCs was by no means universal.

MoogleEmpMog said:
In 3e/d20 fantasy? With all the material out there? I would virtually guarantee that a casual browse through the Dragon archives or the Mongoose and AEG prestige class compendium type books could net a unique within the campaign world, thematically appropriate and mildly game-breaking power for each and every PC who reaches high levels. To say nothing of using ECL races or multiclassing between PrCs.
I'm sure that's true, but I there are a lot of problems with that idea, not least that the vast majority of us don't have access to all those resources, nor does one feel that "breaking the game horribly" is a good solution to NPCs who break the rules horribly ;)

It's creative though.
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
Considering I've loathed FR since I first read through the 1E box set I can certainly agree with those who find much to be annoyed about in the FR NPCs.

I'm glad Korgoth brought up Marysue. (too true, too true.) And the Warforged Crusade. Sign me up! It'll be the first FR game I've ever enjoyed.

Can't help but notice nearly all the comment is on FR NPCs. How about some form other settings? Really only familiar with Greyhawk myself and I'll put Vecna up there on the Annoying List. OK so he's more of a god come super-villain than standard NPC but even so. Oh and Iuz too. This could be my main issue with FR. Too many god like beings wandering around. All with the power to go nuts but doing nothing.

In fact lets just leave the super heros/villains in the supers games.

Just my 2 cents.

Oh and Forgotten Realms is just too bloody twee.
 

jdrakeh

Adventurer
MoogleEmpMog said:
In 1e, sure.

In 2e, sure at first, but with the number of kits + Skills and Powers available at the end, probably no longer true.

In 3e/d20 fantasy? With all the material out there? I would virtually guarantee that a casual browse through the Dragon archives or the Mongoose and AEG prestige class compendium type books could net a unique within the campaign world, thematically appropriate and mildly game-breaking power for each and every PC who reaches high levels. To say nothing of using ECL races or multiclassing between PrCs.
"There are hundreds of supplements that you can use to create game-breaking PCs!" isn't any kind of defense for game designers creating game-breaking NPCs (especially when such NPCs aren't culled from those hundreds of supplements but are simply game-breaking by author fiat). Also, as somebody else said, deliberately creating game-breaking PCs to offset game-breaking NPCs isn't a very desireable solution for most people (for reasons that I think should be obvious).
 

Glyfair

Visitor
ShadowDenizen said:
I think it's because, in my personal version of D+D, the focus should be on the PC's. They should be the impetus behind the major story-arcs, and stories should revolve arond them.
At least one style of play favored by fans of the Forgotten Realms seems to be having the stories revolving around the PCs, without having the world revolve around them.

Of course, I've noticed a lot of the "our NPCs are more powerful than your NPCs" philosophy floating around while recently reading the 4E FR forum, as well. There were a murmurs of disbelief at a major plot element (specifically
the formation of an orc kingdom
) because the "the seven sisters could wipe them <an army of tens of thousands> in several hours."
 
IIRC the Simbul took on a huge army in hell, nearly outshining her own goddess' abilities. Of course, the Simbul was ticked (they kidnapped her ex-boyfriend); the Simbul could wipe out the orcs, but she doesn't have the motivation.
 
Ruin Explorer said:
Why is it that some NPCs in some RPGs manage to be so viscerally irritating? Is it bad writing? Good writing?
Yes, both of these, although generally not at the same time.

I get the impression from the FRCS that the Blackstaff is meant to be something of an arrogant windbag, who knows what's best for everyone and is going to do it. That he accuses Elminster of exactly the same things is really quite ironic.

On the other hand, I doubt Wesley Crusher, Jar Jar Binks, or Anakin Skywalker were meant to be so incredibly annoying... it just fell out that way.

(And, incidentally, there is almost no good reason why Jar Jar is loathed while Yoda is loved. On the face of it, the little green muppet with the screechy voice and the weird mannerisms should have fallen flat on his face. And yet, somehow, it works.)

The thing is, it's okay for some NPCs to be incredibly annoying. Settings should provide a range of characters both good and bad, likeable and annoying, quirky and dull. Indeed, if a character like the Blackstaff can be both incredibly annoying and yet at the same time right about about almost everything, that creates a depth to the character, and to the setting, which is all to the good. Do the PCs work with him for the betterment of all, or do they let their personal agendas get in the way?
 

Advertisement

Top