comes as a request from the Comments in a previous post
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
this is just a collection of ideas and observations arising from decades of
play using various systems.
Or, “The last monster we talked to ate half of the
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
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.
parlance of TSR
, 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
advises players to talk to creatures they encounter when it is
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
Or, if they do not die, there is
some reason why they do not which makes sense within the milieu and tone of the
Some of the
potential uses of NPCs are:
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.
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?”
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
(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
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
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
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.
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!
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!
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
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
, 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
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
this, giving strong love interests and full grown sons to both Tarzan and John
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.
this in two ways:
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
with a chest full of gold and a dukedom once her father dies.
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
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
princess might be placed in danger, but even that doesn’t require the judge to
target her specifically. This is not accidental.
be included in this category as well.
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.
mean that all opportunities turn out the way that the PCs expect them to. I
would highly recommend Jack Vance
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Holmes, attempting to find out where a goose was raised in The Adventure of the Blue
, makes a recalcitrant vendor more forthcoming by pretending
to be a gambler who stands to lose a tidy sum if the vendor talks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
, only to be downplayed in 2015’s Spectre
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!