K is for Knights and Kings
From the Dictionary of Fearless Gaming.
My pop taught me chess when I was in 1st grade. It was one of his favorite games, and he wanted someone to play with. He never let me win. I cheated one game, you know, swapped pieces when he walked away —as a 1st grader might. He continued to play as if he didn’t know - but the rest of that game was brutal! When I lost, he reminded me that I lost and cheated and let me ponder on that. I’d go on to be a pretty strong Chess player in the small circles of neighborhoods and schools, and it’s stuck with me through life, I’ve even taught the game to my kids.
Of Knights A-leaping
When I play as an NPC character, I make use of my knowledge of chess. With it, I can help myself organize NPC people. I’ve used a lot of tools to portray NPCs. In my 30+ sessions run of Twilight: 2000, an NPC named ‘Phil’, quite possibly Polish intelligence, had several appearances. I first showed him devouring a grapefruit, a fat, juicy grapefruit all messy, in front of two “detained” player characters. That’s the “use a sense to drive characterization” trick. I picked taste/hunger. This is a nice tactical tool, but it doesn’t help me drive Phil long distances, IMHO. Phil is a Knight. His moves are tricky and challenging to predict - he doesn’t come at you straight. Or leaves directly. This is true physically, intellectually, and metaphorically. I can play Phil now strategically, and it gets better! Is Phil a Black or White knight? Or Grey, maybe even Red. Factions map very easily to the traditional sides of Chess. Black and White are adversarial, the main factions in conflict. Grey, in my book, is unaligned, playing both sides or staying out but could force a change. Red is always a faction of chaos if used.
Is Phil a King’s Knight or a Queen’s? Are the King and Queen of that faction aligned, is there friction, wants, and needs? Phil is a Black Queen’s Knight. He is not his own mistress; he’s not calling the shots.
Kings are leadership roles, in my book, via legacy, shenanigans, and politics —old business. Where Queens are flush with raw power, capability, hunger, and aggression. Kings are shrewd, tricksy, and influential. They are the status quo, as aged as it may be, beholden often to the old ways. This is how I see it. Strong, experienced Kings are felt, rarely exposed. Major Barnes in my Twilight: 2000 game is a King. She delegates to other experienced people who carry out her will. She is surrounded by competent folks, rarely exposed. She’s not a combat spec ops NPC. PCs can “take her out,” provided they can get her exposed. What internal faction side faction, King or Queen, can also color that NPC’s behavior and resources.
In our Twilight: 2000 game, We’ve not encountered one King, two Knights, and a Rook. I don’t pre-plan these things too far out. I tag an NPC with a Chess symbol as it becomes apparent through play. Some NPCs have no Chess ranking —they are simply not “in the game.” Phil, I knew when he emerged he was a Knight. That was it. Through play, I figured out what faction (color) and side - King or Queen. You can decide during play and rationalize it during GM prep time. You can have more than one King or Queen in a faction or even three Rooks. What does that mean!! That’s not Chess. Precisely. What is going on there? Play to find out. You also have an intuitive relationship compass. Phil (BQn) is in the Black faction and serves the Queen. Implied is that he opposes the White faction, not as strong as the White Rooks, equal to the other Knights there, and could challenge a few Pawns. I might even say he knows who the opposing Knights are. Just moving pieces around.
I know that Chess has a lot of personal connotations for me, symbols and history I’ve attached to the game. They are all connected to my experience with it. I can use them to make my NPCs more consistent and make their intentions feel real. If not Chess for you, maybe it's cards, tarot, astrology, or other symbols that you find as useful shorthand.