Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Favorite NPC: Meet "Puzzler"

I recall a recent G+ thread where GMs were asked about their favorite NPC. There was a wide variety of non-player characters mentioned: the archvillian who thwarted the PCs at every turn until the campaign ended with his inevitable confrontation and defeat; the innkeeper/bartender who became the party's "go-to" person for rumors, supplies, and accommodations; the femme fatale who eventually became the wife of a player character; etc. But in my home campaign, one NPC stands above all others. Today, I'd like to introduce you to "Puzzler."

"Puzzler" was originally a Villains and Vigilantes NPC. I had a supervillian group known as "The Gamesmen," where each bad guy had a different gaming theme. There was Rook (chess-themed leader and strategist), Videon (videogame-themed electrical terrorist), Delver (RPG-themed barbarian tank), and Bad Sport (sporting-themed weapons expert). Then there was Puzzler -- a puzzle-themed computer hacker, inventor, and thief. Puzzler's suit (illustrated here by Chris Theisen many years ago) had a wild crossword-puzzle pattern and was also fairly impervious to damage. He was incredibly agile, and his belt had several gizmos and devices in it. (The question mark buckle was actually a grappling hook and line.) His primary weapon was The Pencil -- a giant No. 2 pencil that fired hypnotic solid energy illusions that he used to befuddle and confuse his foes. Plus, it made for a dandy battering ram, spear, and all-purpose club when necessary.

But where the other Gamesmen were "serious" villains, Puzzler was more of a nuisance bad guy. He wasn't into crime for profit. He was more into it as a game of one-upmanship. Was he smarter than the supposed "good guys?" To him, being a supervillian was a way to test his intellect against the police, the feds, and any supergoodie who came after him. (Yes, there was a bit of Riddler showing through the cracks.) But here's the fun part I forgot to mention: Puzzler was also completely insane.

Whenever Puzzler appeared in a game, I played him as if Charlie Callas (with a touch of Curly Howard) were cast in "The Ambush Bug Movie." Every comic played-for-laughs bad guy was channeled into Puzzler. The players would be staring into the manhole Puzzler escaped into, trying to plot their next move. Then Puzzler would lean over their shoulders to stare into the same manhole. "What're we looking for?" he ask. There would be a comedic beat, then he'd go scampering into the night, laughing joyously as the players fired energy bolts and concussive sound waves at him. Puzzler was great fun, and any game with him was always a chance for the players to play a "silver age" superhero game more for laughs than any BIG STAKES.

Eventually, I decided to run The Great Super Villain Contest for my players. And I tossed every homebrewed villain I'd ever created into this adventure -- including Puzzler. Puzz easily made it through the first few rounds of the contest but, not one to play fair, he broke into the private offices of The Crimson Claw (the contest organizer)to see what the future rounds were like. When he discovered the final round was a fight to the death amongst all the finalists, he panicked. Puzzler was many things, but he was no killer. But he also knew that to run was a death sentence. So he called upon the only "friends" he had -- my players. "You guys gotta get me outta this!" he begged as my players pleaded with me to let them blast him. But cooler heads prevailed and Puzzler, acting as their inside man, actually helped my players thwart The Crimson Claw. Puzz even saved one or two PCs during the final brawl.

Many months later, the players -- now acting as a government-sponsored superteam -- were asked to train a new hero-in-training. When Puzzler stepped off the bus, I thought my PCs were going to have kittens. "The Crossword Crimefighter" had become the citys' newest superhero, under the tutelage of the PCs. Eventually, Puzz left to protect a town of his own, but the occasional team-ups were inevitable.  

Years after my long-running V&V group dissolved, I introduced Puzzler into a shared superhero universe called "Vanguard Dossier." Much like the Wild Cards universe, the writers each created and "owned" a superhero who could be borrowed and remixed into their shared narrative. As a member of Vanguard, Puzzler's powers, gimmicks, and mental instability were all present, as well as his lengthy backstory as a former villain who reformed. Vanguard Dossier ran for quite a number of issues (near 20 as I recall), and I have them all lovingly collected and filed away for occasional reading. (Vanguard Dossier is also where my first inklings of being a writer surfaced.) Almost 30 years after I first created Puzzler, the Conundrum King still surfaces in pick-up game sessions. Whenever I pick up a new superhero RPG, I inevitably stat up Puzzler first. And that brings me to today.

I recently ran into one of my old V&V gaming group, and we got to talking about past games. He asked specifically about Puzzler and whether I still had his old stats. Sadly all of my old handmade V&V materials are long since gone. But over the course of the conversation, we managed to recreate Puzzler's stats for Villains and Vigilantes. So, in the coming days, I'll post up my favorite NPC for one of my favorite RPGs. Stay tuned.


  1. Sounds like a great character, look forward to seeing the stats and hearing more stories.

  2. Tnis is awesome. I just got a copy of V&V for the first time the other day. Made my first character this morning (blogged the experience). Interesting game, and I kinda wish we had actually played it when I was 13 like we were gonna (before we jumped over to DC Heroes).

  3. Great, great post. Superhero games (done in the "proper style of the comics") are my bread and butter.