The rain pours down on the weary travelers as they knock at the town gate.
The gatekeeper opens a slot and peers out. “What be yer names and yer bizniss in these parts?”
The leader answers, “The name is Underhill. Our business is our own.”
The gatekeeper responds: “All right, little master, I meant no offense. It’s my job to ask questions – there’s a lot of queer folk about nowadays…”
That little line at the end is an invitation to adventure. Your players now know there’s something strange happening. And even if they don’t ask, you’ve made a potentially throwaway scene into something more – a portent.
It’s great to have an NPC who doubles as Local Color and a Plot Device.
When your players arrive in a new place and Lotta Queer Folk Guy is the first person they meet, you’ve just opened the door to that juicy “what’s going on in the world” information you wanted to drop – without being awkward about it. In fact, the party is going to ask you for it.
…And if they don’t, just have the guy fumble around with the rusty gate for a while, mumbling about all the “strange goings on” in the country side – and the PCs will have to give in.
The big thing here is that Queer Folk Guy isn’t contrived – he’s an NPC that the PCs would naturally have interacted with in order to do what they were trying to do – get into town. That makes the scene a lot easier to handle than having some random drunk come up to them at the tavern for no reason, and talk about ‘what is the world coming to.’
That being said…
Maybe you’re gaming in a world where “please show your ID” is a routine part of entering a new town, this scene would normally be mundane enough to skip over. Or maybe it’s unusual for the gate to be shut and guarded in this part of the world. Either way, the fact that you’re even doing this scene will subtly alert the players that something’s up – and unconsciously they’ll be primed to ask questions.
Now, instead of throwing plot info into their path, or dangling an out-of-the-blue plot hook in front of them, their attention is already focused on “what’s going on in the world” (like it or not, they’re a captive audience until he gets the door open) and this will most likely get the players to take the bait and ask for more info.
Use this character to underscore the difference between the average person and a PC. The gatekeeper has one job: check out new arrivals and keep the really sketchy ones out. He doesn’t have any perspective on what’s happening at the global level. He just knows that there’s been a lot of strange things happening locally, and he doesn’t like what it means for the neighborhood. This makes the players feel like PCs – without making the average NPC necessarily seem clueless or inept.
He’s seen things himself, and he’s heard stories from people passing through. He’s the Old, Supserstitious, And Worried type more than the By The Gods I’mma Do Something About This type. Because, for him, the omens of plague/evil/the dead walking the earth are just kind of harder to visualize than the concerns of them shady furreners moving into town, or the increased tax burden that any disaster is likely to bring.
Players are generally impressed when you get into an NPC enough to make him annoying. The Gatekeepers’s lonely out in the gatehouse with only his bottle to keep him company, and because of the nature of his work he’s got a lot of stories to tell. He’s not going to give up an audience too easily!
Make him talkative enough that the players are sure to give in and ask what he’s talking about – either so they can get away from him, or because they’re amused by your performance. And if they ask the gatekeeper for directions, keep having him get distracted and tell them more stories.
Remember, an NPC who’s just there for players to ask questions to is a boring NPC. As often as you can, give them an NPC who imposes himself in their space.