Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Care and Feeding of NPCs (Part I)

This post comes as a request from the Comments in a previous post.

Almost every game is going to need NPCs. In fact, unless the PCs are the only living intelligent beings around, your game will need some. Even if there is no one to interact with directly, the presence of other people will probably be felt, like with the found documents and riddles in the first version of Myst.  I am going to assume, therefore, that everyone reading this understands the basic concept. Likewise, most of this post applies to any role-playing game, and is not limited to Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Basically, this is just a collection of ideas and observations arising from decades of play using various systems.

Non-Player Characters
Or, “The last monster we talked to ate half of the party!”

Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures don’t waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren’t meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you remember, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere.

If you are reading this blog, you probably know that quote as the tagline of the Dungeon Crawl Classics series of modules, starting from 3rd Edition days, and published by Goodman Games. I am going to suggest that you replace “NPCs who aren’t meant to be killed” with “NPCs who aren’t meant to survive” in your thinking. The first implies that the NPCs in question should die at the hands of the PCs, but the tagline is actually a reaction against modules where NPCs are given plot protection to make an adventure run as intended by its author.

In the parlance of TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons, it is important to note that all NPCs were considered monsters, although not all monsters are NPCs. This meant that it is always okay to consider them as the opposition, to be met with violence – or even just simply as a target to be murdered and despoiled. On the other hand, as with many thinking monsters, talking to an NPC is often rewarded. In the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook, Gary Gygax advises players to talk to creatures they encounter when it is possible.

One of the upsides of this is that NPCs are NOT and should not be DM PCs. They do not have plot protection. They are not favoured. If the PCs kill them, they die.  Or, if they do not die, there is some reason why they do not which makes sense within the milieu and tone of the game. 

Some of the potential uses of NPCs are:

Colour: There are people walking around in the marketplace. Someone is drinking in the inn. A server brings you your clichéd bowl of stew. Pilgrims are encountered on the road. Kids roll a barrel hoop down a muddy street. The Duke has hired people to repair the bridge. Etc., etc. The world around your PCs is filled with people. Many of them are just there because the world would feel barren without them.

Concealment:  The king disguised as a beggar, or the pickpocket, are going to stand out like sore thumbs if the PCs never encounter non-king beggars and non-pickpocket urchins. Don’t let that be your game. A vibrant population means that the assassin, the thief, and the would-be duelist don’t necessarily stand out initially. Determining who is important among the multitudes is a result of play, although some characters obviously stand out due to position (the Duke, the King, the old witch in the swamp) or circumstances (the weapon seller, the drunkards you are brawling with, the old witch in the swamp). This is similar in principles to a 2011 blog post, A is for Animals (or Lions, Tigers, &Bears, Oh My!).

Change of Pace: Talking to things provides a change of pace from fighting them. Especially if talking can lead to fighting, or vice versa, if the encounter is handled poorly or well.

Or, “What the heck is this guy doing here anyway?”

Beyond the general notes above, major (and even relatively minor) NPCs can serve a function within game play itself. There are two general rules to keep in mind here:

(1) If the players are interested in an NPC, that NPC has just become elevated in the hierarchy of campaign importance. That doesn’t mean that he or she has become more important in the milieu. Rather, it means that the player’s interest makes them important in the game itself.

(2) No NPC should ever serve only one purpose if they can serve two or more. People are complex. The NPCs we focus on should also be complex, not necessarily in the way they are played (more on this later), but certainly on the way they impact game play.

Here are some functions NPCs can fulfill. Note that, while some of these are similar to each other, they are listed separately to encourage the GM to consider all of these functions.

Ally: Someone who is capable of giving substantial help to the PCs, but isn’t an adventurer (or, at least, not part of the PCs’ party). The viscount who offers them men and equipment, the priest who provides sanctuary, the senator who smuggles them out of the city when the political winds blow against them. In fiction, Elrond is an ally who provides rest and sanctuary in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Foil: A foil is an enemy, but not a combat-related enemy. Or, if a combat-related enemy, someone that the PCs don’t necessarily want to kill. A foil exists to complicate the PCs’ lives, causing irritations minor or major that cannot simply be solved with sword or spell. Tyrian Lannister, in A Game of Thrones, plays the foil to many other characters…in the early seasons, anyway. Even a character like Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a foil that gets his eventual comeuppance.

The thing that the discerning judge must remember about a foil is this: If you don’t want the PCs to kill your foil, you need to supply reasons why they should not. Something must offset the irritation of having the character survive, be it fear of her power, his superior position each time they meet, or even a grudging admiration due to aid received from the foil in the past.

And if the PCs do succeed in killing your foil, let the PCs succeed. Never, ever make your adventure rely upon the survival of a single NPC!

This doesn’t mean that consequences should not apply. The king looks unkindly on those who destroy his agents, for instance, no matter how annoying those agents might be!

Information Source: The NPC knows something the PCs need or want to know, and can convey that information to the PCs. Gollum knows a secret way into Mordor. Elrond can read the runes on Glamdring and Orcrist. A long-deceased NPC’s diary gives clues about an adventure location. A scarecrow can give directions to the Emerald City. And so on.

One of the nice things about an information source, as mentioned, is that the NPC need not ever be met in person, and need not even be alive. Some information sources are manipulators, which attempt to give misleading or false information to cause the PCs to act as their instruments. Other information sources are well-meaning but wrong. The players should always be aware that no NPC is the “Voice of the DM” telling them what they must do, but rather all information sources should be taken with a grain of salt.

In a game like Dungeon Crawl Classics, where “Quest For It” is the beating heart of play, information sources are especially valuable. How does one Quest For a particular spell, if there is no one who can say where such a spell might be found? These do not always have to be NPCs, but they must be something the PCs can interact with. Examples of information sources, living or otherwise, can be found in The Black Goat, The Giggling Deep, and TheSeven Deadly Skills of Sir Amoral the Misbegotten, among other places.

Instrument: The NPC is a tool that the PCs may use…an extension of their own powers, as it were. Rhadagast the Brown is an instrument of Saruman when he goes to fetch Gandalf from the borders of the Shire. Tyrion Lannister uses Bronn as a physical instrument in A Game of Thrones, and is later himself the instrument of Daenerys Targaryen. A PC who hires an assassin to remove a foe has made use of an instrument. Unlike a support character, the PC does not generally supervise an instrument.

Love Interest/Friend: The NPC is simply so likable that the players want to hitch their characters to him or her. When I wrote The Dread God Al-Khazadar, I created rules to encourage this sort of relationship. You can find rules in Drongo:Ruins of the Witch Kingdom that do the same. You don’t have to play out any part of the romance at the table, especially if it makes you or others uncomfortable, to establish that it is there. But having it there means that you have the option of creating PC dynasties in long-lasting campaigns, where the children of your adventurers grow up be heathen slayers themselves. Edgar Rice Burroughs certainly did this, giving strong love interests and full grown sons to both Tarzan and John Carter.

There will certainly be a temptation to place friends, loved ones, and family in harm’s way. This does happen often enough in Burroughs’ novels, for instance, and even Conan’s temporary romances often find themselves in need of his rescue. Yet, Conan and Tarzan are going to get recompense for their chivalry which, frankly, you are unlikely to want to play out at the table. And, even if you did, rolling dice is not the same as canoodling for real. What happens in games is that players quickly learn to avoid emotional entanglements with their characters. There is no real benefit to the player, but it does give the PC a vulnerability that the judge (and therefore his imaginary enemies) can exploit.

You overcome this in two ways:

(1) Provide a benefit. The NPC might have information, or provide support. The PC may get a mechanical game benefit, such as extra hit points. Something within the game itself offsets the vulnerability that the player is accepting. Another example: Princess Annegret in Creeping Beauties of the Wood comes with a chest full of gold and a dukedom once her father dies.

(2) Limit your exploitation of the vulnerability. Simply put, if you place your PCs’ significant others in danger regularly, your PCs will choose not to have significant others. In The Portsmouth Mermaid, the aforementioned Princess Annegret is never placed in danger, although she is often used as a foil to spur the PCs towards taking action in the situations they encounter. There is one scenario in Three Nights in Portsmouth where the princess might be placed in danger, but even that doesn’t require the judge to target her specifically. This is not accidental.

Family may be included in this category as well.

Opportunity: The NPC is a mark. Your thieves have to do something to earn the name, right? Here is someone whose jangling purse demands to be taken by stealth or force. Or someone whose home is in desperate need of burgling. Or who is ripe for a con. If you have thieves in your game (or rogues, depending upon what you are playing), let them act the part. Provide some opportunities.

This doesn’t mean that all opportunities turn out the way that the PCs expect them to. I would highly recommend Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld for a number of great examples of how a clever and observational fellow may attempt to scam the world around him, both to his weal and his woe.

Opposition: Some NPCs are out to kill you. They are more interesting if they also partake of another potential NPC function.  Darth Vader was compelling as a villain; he was exponentially more compelling as Luke Skywalker’s father. The initial appearance of the Master in Doctor Who was fantastic; the Master as an ongoing foil to the Doctor is better. But be warned – a little of this goes a very long way. Few and far between should be the opponents who were old school chums, family members, and so on. Once in a while is spice. Too much spice destroys the dish.

Patron: Possibly, but not necessarily, in the general Dungeon Crawl Classics magical sense, a patron is any NPC who sends the PCs on missions in exchange for something else (money, freedom, information, magical power, etc.). Again, the players should always be aware that no NPC is the “Voice of the DM” telling them what they must do, but rather all patrons should be taken with a grain of salt. But also, again, most patrons should be (relatively) level with the PCs, or the PCs will soon no longer desire the patronage of anyone.

Riddle: The NPC presents a challenge to the players. If they can figure out what he wants/how to treat her, then they can get some benefit from the relationship. If not, they might face some danger. More likely, they just won’t gain the benefit. For example:

(1) Determining how to deal with Gollum allows Frodo and Sam to get across the Dead Marshes, and then make use of a secret way into Mordor.

(2) Sam Tarly in A Game of Thrones is mostly cowardly, but by treating him well and giving him something worth fighting for, Jon Snow gains a useful ally.

(3) Sherlock Holmes, attempting to find out where a goose was raised in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, makes a recalcitrant vendor more forthcoming by pretending to be a gambler who stands to lose a tidy sum if the vendor talks.

Note that these sorts of things should reward the player’s ingenuity rather than the character’s build, wherever possible. Even if the game is very build-centric, you can offer bonuses for how the players approach the problem….or even use their build as an excuse to present the problem more completely, while leaving the solution up to the players.

Support: The NPC is literally going on adventures with the characters, and might be used as a replacement PC if there is a death. These characters – known in Ye Days of Olde as henchmen and hirelings – should have their own personalities, but are often left mostly to the players to order about and control. Note that familiars and intelligent magic items are often NPCs of this sort.

Reward: The NPC is, or is the means to, some form of reward. The reward might be some esoteric knowledge, the start of a relationship, or even simply access to another NPC (directly or via letter of introduction). A familiar, a henchman, a lover, a friend, or a new patron are all potential rewards for successfully completing an adventure.

Service Provider: The innkeeper who sells you ale, the farrier who shoes your mighty steed, and even the cleric or chirurgeon who heals your wounds are all service providers. So is the person who runs the baths or mends your armour. In general, they provide a given service in exchange for coin.

Threat: The NPC provides a threat by which the PCs’ options are delimited. This can be relatively benign (the queen supplies the threat her tax collectors wield) or downright hostile (Sauron will send more orcs and Nazgûl, and probably obtain the One Ring, thus covering Middle Earth in darkness, should the Fellowship not proceed with care).  A threat is an NPC who is largely offstage, encountered only through the actions of his own servants and/or reputation during actual play. Another good example of a threat is Ernst Stavro Blowfeld until near the end of You Only Live Twice. Likewise, the shadowy Quantum organization is a major threat in Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace, only to be downplayed in 2015’s Spectre.

The important thing for the GM to remember about a threat is that, while it delimits the PCs’ options, the threat should not be used to railroad the PCs into a given course of action. The threat acts as context for the PCs’ choices, and can certainly lead to consequences, but a large part of the game is the players figuring out how to beat the limitations imposed by the threat – just as James Bond does when faced by the threat of Blofeld, or the Fellowship does when faced by the threat of Sauron’s dominion.

Even if a threat is initially portrayed as all-encompassing, in should not be. There should always be a way – not necessarily an easy one – for the PCs to come out on top! And, importantly, if the players can come up with a reasonable way for doing so, it should have a commensurately reasonable chance to work!


  1. Lots to take in here. Thanks, as this is what I'm trying to help my players with understanding.

  2. This is excellent, and it's only the first part. My first question would be relating to creating NPC's on the fly. I think I remember you saying something at one point of having a list of potential people on a notebook you could encounter if you didn't have anything pre planned.

    My second would be how effective would it be to incorporate NPC's you've never met or probably won't encounter in the game, and maybe provide examples. I think for flavour, or some other purpose, I remember a Jack of Roses in one of your games.