Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Substitutes

Empress Dowager Cixi, regent for the Tongzhi Emperor
Empress Dowager Cixi, regent for the Tongzhi Emperor

(There is an ANNOUNCEMENT at the end so read through, homie.)

My daughter is in kindergarten and has had a substitute teacher for most of the year. The teacher she was supposed to have is out of commission for health reasons and so the kind woman she met the first day of school was replaced a few weeks later by a substitute. That teacher had to leave after the holidays for personal reason so the children are on their third teacher until the teacher they were supposed to have is well enough to teach them all about their letters, numbers, science, social studies and more.

My daughter has taken it in stride. Her first few days of school with teacher number one she called ‘boring.’ First days with teacher number two resulted in complaints that I don’t currently recall because it was soon overshadowed with admiration for her. The third teacher, my daughter gave the most ridiculous complaint. ‘She sings too much. She sings at the end of the day and I just want to get on with it already.’ Now my daughter runs around the house, singing the songs, leaving me to complain about them.

People have to have stand-ins for various reasons. Sometimes business takes us away from work and someone has to step in and pick up the slack while we’re gone. People get sick. People go on vacation. Things happen with families that call us away from our work-related duties and well, those work-related things can’t just not get done.

In the case of rulers, they sometimes fall prey to the same terrible illnesses afflicting the ruled, sucummbing to viruses and mental illnesses which require someone to rule in their stead. War or international affairs dictate the ruler be present to oversee, command or represent their country; just because they’re gone doesn’t mean the country should fall into anarchy. Someone has to hold the reins. Occasionally rulers come to power too young so a regent is appointed; this could be someone related to the future ruler, usually the mother of the child and one of the few ways a woman could get to rule in male dominated monarchies. Sometimes councils are left in charge, ministers and politicians left to rule while the head of state is away. When the ruler is away or still growing into the throne the power left in the hands of the regent is supposed to be limited but it sometimes provides the opportunity for more ambitious individuals to carve out places for themselves in history.

Substitutes don’t have to step into key positions of political power to shake things up. A different mail carrier or bartender could throw us off of our games, wondering where the people we’re accustomed to could be. Seeing an unfamiliar face behind the espresso machine could have us order a drip coffee instead of our usual latte. Who are these strangers? Do they know what they’re doing? Are they going to mess things up? Are they going to be better than the person who is usually here, leaving us pining for them once they’ve left us forever?

In games where PCs pass through the same haunts frequently, a change of command or new faces can be a shock. While we know people are less permanent than landmarks and have a tendency to move around, it can still be jarring to not see the same people in the places they usually are. Will the PCs even notice? Take it in stride? Or lament the absence of their favorite leatherworker?

For GMs

  • Who are the regular NPCs in the game and what are their jobs? How often do they interact with the PCs?
  • What are reasons these NPCs might not report to work? Illness? Family business? Other obligations? How open are the NPCs with their personal lives?
  • Where do their substitutes/stand-ins come from? Are they part of a profession that has a guild which might try to fill the need? Family members who might step in? Colleagues? Is there a temp agency set up?
  • Are the substitutes chosen by the NPCs themselves or is there another governing force dictating who must step up? Or does the alternate slip in while the regular is away?
  • What character traits does this new person have? How are they similar to the predecessor? How are they different?


Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are used to being the adventuring party of choice in a region. But when a mission calls them away for a long period of time, they return to find another group has taken up where they’ve left off, solving problems for locals, vanquishing things that need vanquishing, etc. How do the PCs take to being replaced? Who are the people who have replaced them? Is there enough adventuring for both parties or is someone going to have to move over for the other?
  • When an important professional within the community is called away for personal business, they send their good friends, the PCs, to the city to find a suitable replacement. They are given a list of candidates, all fresh out of school and must choose the the person who will best serve their community. Who are the candidates? How long must they work for? How do they all feel about the temporary gig? Is there a chance the job could last longer? What qualities are they looking for in the individual?
  • A bartender well known for confiscating the weapons of anyone who causes trouble in their establishment goes missing, a new bartender in their stead. Somewhere is a large cache of weapons this person may or may not know about, and quite a few people are aware of this fact. What kinds of weapons have been confiscated? Are any of the PCs weapons in the stash? What would it mean if the wrong person found these weapons? How did the original bartender get them from the troublemakers? Does the new tender seem up to the task?
  • The PCs are all the substitute guards when the regular crew is called away for training. What kinds of crazy things do they encounter as they stand in? Who tries to pull one over on them, the unseasoned? Who tries to take advantage of them? What do they learn about the guards they maybe didn’t know know before?
  • When the ruler dies, the spouse is left as the regent while the heir comes of age. A small group of advisors, seemingly loyal to the now deceased former ruler has also been appointed to oversee affairs of the country, trying to mandate matters regarding the heir’s schooling and training to the spouse regent, pushing them out of political matters. The PCs are all servants in the royal household and are asked by the spouse to help them gain more power, as they do not trust the council to run the country and feel they are better suited to the task. What is in the best interest of the PCs? What must they do in order to help the royal family? What are they promised for good services? Does the spouse regent have good intentions? What is their reputation? What would be the consequences of working against them? For them?

For PCs

  • How do you feel about unfamiliar people in familiar spaces?
  • Do you have any people you rely upon for things like getting your gear fixed, acquiring gear, to make your favourite food or drink just the way you like it? If you went to see them and someone else was there, how would you react?
  • What would you let a stranger do for you? What things would you rather have your ‘regular’ person deal with?
  • Who do you think could replace you? Your fellow PCs?

What say you? How can you use out of place NPCs in your campaign?

Have you ever read Reality Makes the Best Fantasy and had your own ideas for articles? Would you like to write for Troll in the Corner? Well, Reality Makes the Best Fantasy is now open to guest submissions! If you’ve got an idea for an article and can stick to the same format, (write-up, For GMs, Plot Hooks, For PCs), drop me a line at trisj at backthatelfup dot com with your pitch and few plot hooks. Your article will be posted on a Friday, just like any other RMtBF article only it’ll be YOUR article with your name and your bio attached. Oh snap! Guest spots will be open once a month with a few extras probably popping up in late April/May, since myself and my crew will be moving at that time. Can’t wait to hear from you!

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