Welcome to the online diary of the “London Ziegs,” as they journal their experiences relocating from the balmy climes of sunny Orlando, Florida to the more chaotically cosmopolitan environment of London, UK!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

NPC Roster

When designing a campaign, one of the interesting tasks for an AD&D Dungeon Master was populating his make-believe world with a wide range of "Non-Player Characters", made-up personalities with whom the players would chance to interact, yet not actually control. These would act as sources of legend, rumor, or mirth, stimulating the story along, and frequently to be found in pubs, dark alleys, and as I am lately to discover, rail platforms.

One of the things I most enjoy about London is the huge and immensely diverse cast of characters with whom we are sharing this storied kingdom. You pass them on the streets, exchanging directional queries ("Do you know the way to Bridge Street?" "Er, by the river?"), trying to decipher bus schedules ("Does this tram stop in Iver?" "I think so..."), jousting with trolleys at Tesco, and strolling their pets through the park.

However, my absolute favorite venue for people-watching has to be rail platforms and the serpentine multiverses which call alongside. Following are some of the most reliably entertaining NPCs I have had the pleasure to encounter during my daily commute:

The Hippie – Dressed in shaggy jeans and T-shirt, looking like a wandering child of Woodstock. Long hair, often in braids or dreadlocks. Threadbare rucksack mandatory. Usually found traveling in pairs, communicating within their group with lots of "dude, that was awesome" and "do you think your mom could pick us up at the station?"

The Punk – hair green, blue, or crimson, standing straight up in mohawk spikes. Cheap leather accouterments, usually with feeble efforts at chains or at least an exposed key ring. Mild sneer, made less threatening as he clearly hasn't spent enough time studying his surroundings to have formed a clear objection to them yet.

The Businessman (Traditional) – white shirt, tie, vest or sweater, suit-coat, scarf, then overcoat atop that. Holding a briefcase and/or folded copy of the Financial Times. Face firmly set in rather grim, stoic determination, with sadly dead eyes staring sightlessly past bleak vistas that have long ceased to excite.

The Very British Lady – smartly dressed, hair coiffed and possibly topped with a knitted woolen bonnet. Often clasping a neatly packed shopping bag from one of Windsor's nattier outlets. Stands with such good posture it hurts to watch, swiveling her neck to peer in an attitude of wide-eyed perpetual astonishment at all of the very un-British vagrants they have allowed onto the Queen's train. Indicates disapproval (and rather a lot of that) by miming shock, a visual vernacular that seemed quaintly anachronistic at first, but which affectation wore quickly once I found myself the recipient of that aghast appraisal.

The Schoolboys (and girls) – dressed uniformly in their suits or skirts and school ties. Usually travel in groups of three or more, though often a lone straggler can be found dashing across a platform in hopes of avoiding a truant slip. Groups huddle inwards out of reflex, wisely avoiding contact with the adult world. Slips of conversation emerge from the throng: "did you revise for...?" "Have we an exam on...?" "Did you see what she...?" Students travel by rail alone at a surprisingly young age; there are no yellow school buses here, so most families must arrange their own transport, and the "by application only" basis of most county schools means it's not unusual for a child to travel 10mi or more to school each day, often in a combination of foot, bus, and rail.

The Yob (qv) – usually encountered in groups of 4 or more, often balanced sets of males and females (though generally like-with-like, not arm-in-arm). Loud; it seems important to these young people that they be seen to have something to laugh at, or about, at all times. They must be visibly enjoying themselves, and look for opportunities to show their disregard for convention, even furtively scouting out their fellow travelers in hopes of discerning what might be found appropriately upsetting. Beware as the bumping, gyrating swirl of their laughing pack-play can "accidentally" jostle nearby bystanders, providing openings for a theft of opportunity.

The City Girl – these twentysomething Sarah Jessica Parker wannabes are taking everything the big city has to offer, and then some. They travel in virtual packs, a distributed network of endnodes connected by the omnipresent mobiles which seem glued to their cheeks: "so I said..." "and I'm thinking about breaking up with him because, you know..." "but I ended up going home with..." From what I can tell, it's all one long, ongoing call, like Bilbo's Road or Stephenson's Drums, to which they temporally connect and suspend in a continuous ethereal joining of the jaw. One must be careful not to listen too closely, or you may find yourself drawn into the ongoing saga like so many daytime soaps: if you find yourself nodding agreement that she really should ditch Randy, he's too moody and besides David really is so much better for her now that he's finally over Lisa, then you probably need to go spend some time in the vestibule with your head out the window.

The Geek – can't seem to put his damn laptop away (oops, I'm typing this on a train!) Often wearing a trademark ThinkGeek T-shirt with an inpenetrable locution involving some combination of "root", dragons, and too many zeros and ones. Facial hair may be kept in a neat goatee, fashionably disheveled, or in an external USB fannypack, but must be producible on demand. Not limited to laptops, qualifying toys includes mobile devices such as Blackberrys and iPhones, if-and-only-if such use is accompanied by foolish grin, muted snorkles, and held at a range not greater than 6" from the user's face.

The Flower Lady – okay, I've only met one of these, but I've seen her three times and it left enough of an impression to make the list. In my mind I caller her Molly Weasley, because that appears to be her inspiration: a somewhat short and dumpy matron, with flaming orange hair, dressed in layer upon improbable layer of pleats, skirts, sweaters, shawls, scarves, coats, and hat...all in some shade (but never the same tone twice!) of orange, red, yellow, or brown; many decorated with a contrasting print in periwinkle, lavender or lime. On a grey winter day, you can see her for miles, and I applaud her one-woman determination to bring a splash of colour into these dull days.

The Bicyclist – the trouble lies less in seeing these pests than in tripping over them. An amazing number of people bring bicycles onto the train, which clog the vestibules, guard the gates and generally make a nuisance of themselves. I'm better disposed toward the intriguing folding bikes which many commuters collapse into little packages scarcely larger than a briefcase. Note that Bicyclist is more of a subclass, to continue D&D nomenclature, often found combined with Hippie and, surprisingly, Businessman.

The Traveler – easy to hear these crashing along stairwells and squeezing through narrow carriage aisles ("excuse me...so sorry..."), with their oversize luggage in tow as they try to make their way to or from Heathrow using our miracle of modern public transport. Often to be seen looking lost on arrival, trying to find the local bus terminus, or humping up and down stairwells in search of the proper platform ("does this train go to Paddington?") The most you can do to ease their pain is help carry the luggage up a staircase or proffer them a seat on a crowded car.

The Businessman (Modern) – a new update on a dated original, these have absorbed all the worst innovations of the American model. Rather than treating travel as an unpleasant but unavoidable necessity of the daily grind, to be silently suffered as in the past, these rail warriors take their office with them, joining international conference calls on the go: "look, we've gotta move on this or we lose the fish...tell Simon to wake up Tokyo and tell them if we don't have that contract signed by morning NYC, we'll have to go with Dubai on the 15K from Lisbon." Rather like City Girl in this respect, they seem utterly oblivious to the fact that their loud chatter is permeating a crowded chamber; possibly in recognition that we listeners honestly don't have anything better to do than passively pay witness to their executive acumen.

Naturally this is not a complete catalogue; I have left out minor subcategories such as The Ascot Snob, The Enamoured Lovebirds, The Shy Guy, The Shopping Mum, The On-The-Wrong-Train Guy (common sad story there), and other colourful characters. Still, hopefully this will give you enough material to begin designing your own grand campaign :-)
"Psst...buddy! I hear there's a warlock looking to assemble a team of steely-eyed commuters and go after the dragon's horde in the Warren of Deserted Platforms beneath Paddington!"

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