Whenever I run a campaign for my troupe, I like to sprinkle in companions from time to time – NPCs who will help the players during their mission, or journey with them for a while. Some GameMasters do this because they want to also be a player in the story they’ve envisioned, others do it because they want to put some sort of safety valve into their game to keep things from going too far off track. I do it because I believe it feels cinematic and helps bring the setting to life.
So of course, my players give me as much grief as they can whenever one of these companions fails to live up to their potential. Maybe the dice were against them and they couldn’t land a single attack. Maybe in my focus to keep the game moving, I forgot about them for a scene or two, or a few rounds of combat and they effectively stood there and did nothing when the party needed them. Maybe their name just sounded funny to the players and became a source of ridicule… Whatever the issue, these dud characters are always the ones the group seems to remember forever.
For me, perhaps one of my more famous duds was Hurthral Galborn. Nearing adulthood, Hurthral was the son of a man whose disappearance was being investigated by the PCs. He convinced the party to allow him to accompany them with fierce determination and promises of his steady aim with a bow. In the first combat that he was with the troupe for, I neglected to record his initiative score because I didn’t have an initiative card for him and had forgotten my spare cards at home. Certain I would remember him, I naturally forgot all about him until the battle was nearly over and one of the players asked what he had been doing while the party had been fighting for their lives.
I had to explain that as it turned out, despite his bold talk, Hurthral had not truly been ready to face life and death head on, and had frozen at the edge of the battlefield. Inwardly, I was disappointed, but it worked out okay, as the players took pity on him and tried to coach him into being brave. He was out to save his father after all.
And so, rather than being a capable ranger who would lend his bow to the party’s cause, he became the young squirt the PCs put to guarding the horses, watching over camp and other “away from the action” chores. I wasn’t pleased, but it was at least realistic to the time period.
As the game sessions came and went, I vowed to myself that I would make Hurthral be what I had intended of him. He would come into his own and find his courage; he would put his bow to good use by the party’s side and earn their respect – and it wasn’t long before the opportunity presented itself. Up against a group of evil goblins and dark clerics who had taken control of an entire village and planned on sacrificing every man, woman and child to their dark god, the party learned that the villains had moved all of the town’s children into a single fortified location, so as to discourage any villagers from rising up with any would-be saviors.
Coordinating their actions with additional forces sent to help from the capital, the party would use the distraction of the main force to secret themselves into the town, and overtake those who held the children hostage. Once done, the party would fire an arrow lit by magic as the victory signal, enabling word to spread that the children were out of harm’s way, and that villagers could join the fray without fear that their most innocent residents would be murdered. As a ranger who used a bow exclusively, Hurthral would be the one to fire the victory arrow.
Naturally I told myself, before that would happen, he would drop a great many foes and prove himself a hero. The party would be glad that they had invested their time into him, and he would become one of the primary NPCs for the early portion of the campaign. Of course, this is a story about a dud, and so despite my assumptions that seeing the “Good Guys” initiative card would spark my memory of him as well as give the overall friendly side a slot in the initiative order, Hurthral once again was forgotten until the time came to fire the magic arrow to signal victory.
The players were incensed. The guy who did nothing but drool in the corner was going to fire the victory arrow!? He hadn’t earned that, he didn’t do anything. He was worthless! I had him hustle outside and fire the arrow before any of the players could snatch it from his hand, but the moment was anything other that what had been planned. Once again, my valiant Hurthral was a cowardly fool who had to be jostled by a group member into performing even the most basic duty. When he later asked if the party would allow him to continue following them to give him the chance to redeem himself, they just laughed in his face and turned him away.
In the end, Hurthral became the butt of nearly every joke during the course of that campaign. To this day, the players hurl mockery his way whenever stories from that game are told. Out of all of the NPCs from that campaign, Hurthral is the one who consistently let them down, even when they tried to help him. I used to silently kick myself whenever those bouts of mean spirited remembrance made their way to the table.
Surprisingly though, Hurthral also taught me that to have an NPC that is a failure is okay. Not everyone in life ends up being who they want to be, and characters like Hurthral are a reminder that “Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward” (if I can quote a little Victor Kiam here). In looking at the situation, Hurthral did what many of my best, most evil villains failed to do: he touched the players on an emotional level that has lasted years, and is certain to last many more. He may not have been a successful character, but he was certainly a memorable one.
…and he would’ve been awesome with a frigging initiative card!
All the best,