The NPC Strikes Back


We’ve switched gears in my campaign from more linear adventures in the desert to the sandbox that is Marrakesh. I’d been using pre-written adventures up until now (for want of more time), so my NPC’s were covered for me. But the onus is on me again, so I have to create NPC’s to populate the world. I’ve learned a lot from the way my players treated the other ones, such that I can turn those assumptions against their characters in the future, and make them work a little harder to get what they want.

Here’s what I noticed.

My Players’ Assumptions about NPC’s

And how they do make such wonderfully amusing asses of themselves.

Assumption #1: They Are Pushovers

My players are only level four-to-five, but because they’re heroes, they’re invincible, right? The DMG reinforces this, emphasizing the fact that they’re heroes: fighters are strong and more specialized than your everyday soldiers, and all that. Once you hit level ten, that definitely applies: you get away from humanoid and more towards the magical enemies, but right now I’d like them to see themselves as “smarter than the average bear,” but not über-bears.

Which is why there should be some NPC’s they can’t touch–and they should know it, too. Toramund from the Silver Springs tribe was one such. Featured in the “Vault of Darom Madar” pre-written adventure from WotC, attempting to intimidate him would incur an automatic failure in the skill check to glean information on the Canyon of Gothay from him. Because he’s a badass, and the PC’s don’t scare him.

That’s a significant change from their first session, wherein they literally took one of the slave minions of a raiding band with them to Altaruk. His name is Slavey. They treat him like shit all the time. Which leads me to the next assumption.

Assumption #2: There Are No Consequences

The same way that my players wantonly levy the so-called “Adventurer’s Tax” on everything they see, they expect to be able to beat on and murder NPC’s and go on their merry way free of guilt or repercussions. He won’t give us what we want? Or he dares ask for a cut in the treasure he’s going to transport for us? Intimidate him, and kill him if need be.

I mean, he’s just an NPC. He doesn’t have connections or family members or enemies. Or an entire merchant House backing him. Oh, wait… you mean he’ll be missed? This will be fun.

And the murders they commit in the capital city as they pursue their own goals? Yeah, there’s not an organized police system or anything like that. Or other adventuring parties looking to earn a pouch of gold by bringing a group of wanted criminals to justice.

Just wait until martial law goes into effect because of the string of arsons perpetrated by the last party. Hehe.

Assumption #3: They Live to Serve

This amuses me greatly to see in my players, but I think they’re beginning to learn. NPC’s aren’t clue dispensers that you need but pull a lever on to find out everything you need. Why would they tell you? They have their own motivations and priorities, which don’t necessarily align with giving away their knowledge to random passers by. Crazy, huh? Maybe you’ll have to offer them something in return, or force it out of them. Good luck forcing that off-duty police captain to tell you the whereabouts of his boss.

Come on guys. You’re smarter than that.

Assumption #4: They Are Only What Meets the Eye

Perhaps it’s because they’ve only gamed with me for two months or so now, but just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean it’s a duck and a duck alone. That duck could be a master aerial stunt flyer, a secret operative for the geese, or the heir to the Anatidae throne. They don’t expect a multi-layered NPC, perhaps because they’ve been conditioned by gamed like World of Warcraft, wherein most quest givers never moved, never evolved, and existed solely to give you a reason to kill fifteen slimes on that hill over there. (Granted, Cataclysm changed that somewhat, but the damage was done on role-players.)

Cue the following exchange last session:

“Hey Slavey, where did the [conjured onyx] dog go?”
“Oh, he said he was going home to check up on things.”
“Yeah, you didn’t ask him?”
“We have to go find him. NOW.”

Assumption #5: They Are Made of Quests, XP, and Loot

Again, this seems to be a bit of a holdover from WoW. Being more of a storyteller than dungeon master, my NPC’s are the equivalent of supporting actors in a movie, rather than stand-ins for wanted boards and item vending machines. Borderlands recognized that, and relied on both, using the few characters they had to enrich the story.

The real use for NPC’s? Pitting them against the Player Characters. Emotionally. In what ways can they facility role-play and make our heroes dynamic characters? Will some of their allies or villains foils? Do their mentors or rivals spur the heroes on to become legends? Will the competition prove to be the heroes’ undoing?

Granted, you will have some that are just plain shopkeepers, or just plain farmers, to make the named ones stand in all the more contrast. In Savage worlds, that’s the difference between “Extras” and “Wildcards.” The trick is to make sure your players don’t treat the latter as if they were the former. And that takes a bit of underhandedness on our part, the gamemaster’s part.

But it will be oh-so-much fun.

One last thing: don’t award experience for the deaths of NPC’s. XP is used to denote a challenge, something from which the player characters learned. There’s not much to be learned from killing in cold blood for its own sake (in most cases), so reduce the incentive to do so.

Portrait of a Renegade NPC

If you’re currently playing in my D&D game, stop reading, unless you want to have all the fun spoiled for you. Shoo! Git! I mean it!

Alright, so it’s just us now? Okay. Admittedly, I drew a fair bit of inspiration from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series when I devised this character, but because none of my players have read the trilogy, and there are a few major differences, I’m safe. (As any GM will tell you, don’t make up more than you have to. Feel free to draw from existing sources, and adapt it to your game as needed.) Still, he illustrates my point pretty damn well. Fans of Abhorsen, enjoy a reprise of:

“The Disreputable Dog”


The party found a small onyx dog figurine in the chest of House Madar’s lost treasures. On first inspection, it seemed to be a simple token by which to conjure a dog to command. But soon it seemed he was able to conjure himself, spending more and more time in an animate form. Once they reached Marrakesh he disappeared. “He told me he was going home to check on things,” Slavey answered when questioned.

Challenging Assumptions #1 & 4

He’s just a level four or five magic dog with a bite attack, right? Wrong. He’s a master Artificer from ages past who was discovered by the original patriarch of Madar and bound to his line by pure luck. He’s the protective spirit of the House, but not by his own choice. As such, he’s accrued a massive amount of knowledge and wisdom they could tap into if they acted in the House’s interests. But unleashed, he could easily wipe out the adventurers and any who dared stand in his way. “Quick, undo my collar so I can save us all!” And if they do…

My players encountered in the tomb a magnificent, artisan door not unlike Achilles’ shield but in pyramidal form, with a dual mechanic-arcane locking system. Yeah, the Dog made it.

He’s so much more than they realize. And so much more deadly.

Challenging Assumption #3

As the guardian of the House, the Dog should want to do everything he can to help its new heirs, or so my players might hope.

They actually have a few things working against them: first, they are not of Madar’s blood-lineage, having plundered its treasures and deeds from their lost tomb. Second, the Dog is bound to the House, and so whenever they act selfishly and not in the House’s broader interests, he gives them a hard time. Finally, he had no desire to serve the House in the first place, so he’s as devious as he can be while fulfilling the stipulations of his bond.

But he’s at their disposal because he’s an NPC, no?

Challenging Assumption #5

The Dog isn’t there to give out quests or items. He’s there to protect the House while doing as little as he has to, and as such should be a complex character to contrast with the characters. On the one hand, he’ll want them to do the “selfless” thing, for the good of the House as a whole, pushing them in the Good direction. On the other, he’s up to no good himself, so he’s perfectly fine with an ends justifies the means mentality. So when it comes to things other than the House’s immediate safety and long-term prosperity, he’s downright evil. Do what you must to get what you need.

We’ll see which influence wins out over the PC’s.

Your Turn

  1. Make a list, as I did above, of the assumptions your specific group makes concerning NPC’s. Actually write it down, don’t just think about it. You’ll find you come up with more that way, and it forces you to pin it down into words instead of floating around a vague concept.
  2. Next, take each of these assumptions, and think of a solution. Now add one or two of these solutions to your NPC’s as you play them. You needn’t use them all on one, but you could if you wanted to make a real prick (like our Dog here). This will add a measure of challenge to they way your players interact with the NPC’s, and it will likely foster more role-play. They’ll have to think harder, and they’ll come away from it feeling better having succeeded against the odds instead of waltzing through the story.

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