Day Fourteen in the “30 Days of D&D” challenge is Favorite NPC.
Players are the heroes, the stars of the epic adventure, upon whom the spotlight shines and about whom the story is meant to be told.
Non-Player Characters are supporting actors filling up the world, the “everybody else,” almost always played by the DM. Whether it’s the innkeeper or the salty guard captain or the evil necromancer raising an undead army, the NPCs are there to spice up the game and create interaction, but they’re not meant to steal the show.
When played well, some NPCs can still garner significant attention and affection from the group–either as a trusted ally or a hated foe.
I know I’ve done something right when the party keeps bringing up the name of someone they’ve encountered, and several have achieved that status.
Faelynn, the washed-up, binge-drinking former leader of a band of rival heroes, is one my players reference for laughs.
The leader of a small quest-hub town is a guy whose Pathfinder miniature figurine is like fantasy Nick Fury holding two axes over his shoulders. My daughter threatened to disown me for not calling him “Samuel El-Axen” from the moment he entered the scene… and that is now his name.
I wrote about Fleuris the good necromancer and Asslya the mentally scarred spirit-talker, both of which I love to add to the mix.
Right now, my favorite NPC is a little male goblin no wait male halfling no wait female elf sorcerer who has a knack for getting reincarnations off that Wild Magic surge table.
Early on in the game, the low-level heroes found out that some goblins were sneaking into the town and filching supplies. The PCs followed the tunnel to the goblins’ lair and had a good fight with some ranged magic users and archers. I took advantage of the description of “booyahg” as the goblins’ limited understanding of magic in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and so I really wanted to bring that out in the game.
One of the goblin casters got a fumble. Yes, I’ve been using fumbles on nat 1s and crits on nat 20s, combined with a crit hit deck and fumble deck which are unfortunately designed around 3.5 rules. The fumble card I drew said “Wild Magic surge,” and had some minor bad effect… but that seemed like perfect justification to roll on the surge table for the goblin.
Come to think of it, unless I misread it, Volo’s says that you roll every time the goblins cast, because they suck at magic. Or maybe that’s how I wanted to read it.
I rolled the effect that grants an immediate cast of reincarnation if the creature dies within one minute. Needless to say, the PCs knew that caster = bad, and my poor goblin wasn’t long for this world.
They flipped out when suddenly a cloud of light enveloped the dead goblin and it got up as a halfling, then ran to hide in a secluded room of the cavern. The bloodthirsty players charged toward the hiding goblin halfling, ready to strike… until a pathetic attempt I made at distracting them actually made them feel pity for this little guy.
Cue role-playing, lengthy discussions of “Are you REALLY going to try to change and not be evil?” and warnings that they would be watching his every move. Based on the cloud of light, we named the halfling “Brightborn,” and he guided the PCs through the rest of the cave.
Well… he also accidentally dropped a fireball on top of himself and the party, then played it off as a sign of power from the chaotic evil gods, shouting, “I AM THE EMISSARY OF KURNN!”
He popped up a few more times over the course of many sessions, most recently via a handwritten note to come to the Laughing Mountain Inn and “look for the elf.”
They enter and find a blonde female who waves them over. “Hey guys, it’s me,” she whispers with a nervous grin. “I’m the emissary of Kurnn and all that. So… um… you won’t believe what happened…”
1. noun. (archaic) an acronym for Non-Player Character, commonly used in Role-Playing Games. This character is one with whom the Player Characters (PCs) can interact in order to gain information, accept goals or objectives, or conduct business.
2. noun. (modern) A target or prop upon which the PCs attempt to unleash all manner of pain, suffering, and torture, without expecting any consequences.
The session in which the children accidentally all the NPCs.
(Grammar Nazi disclaimer: it’s a meme. The mistake is intentional.)
So, in session 2, the intrepid heroes created and controlled by my wife and children have successfully defeated a two-prong attack by goblins and a host of icky natural critters. As is always my fear and always the custom of seemingly all D&D players everywhere, regardless of what they face, the heroes attempt to capture the last surviving enemy in order to interrogate it.
One goblin remains and is questioned. He reveals that hordes of goblins are en route to the nearby town, bent on recapturing a jewel that was stolen from them. The heroes take their prisoner along in the hopes of using him as a bargaining chip.
Inwardly I laugh at the thought of goblins caring about one of their number held as a prisoner.
But that’s a surprise for a later session.
The plan for session 3 is mostly role-playing and interacting with NPCs.
This is one of the most fun parts of the game for me, because you never know what a player is going to decide to do to your NPCs. It’s usually good.
Session 3 begins with a recap, and then I describe the scene as the heroes return to their town (the supposed target of the goblin hordes). The townsfolk are camped out in makeshift tents like refugees, cast out from their own walls. The goblins have already struck.
I pick out one of the official-looking faces from the Urban NPCs deck, and now he’s the guard captain who meets the heroes and briefs them on the situation. He’s gathering together all able-bodied townsfolk for a counter-attack in the morning, and he needs the heroes to assist in the raid.
However, the rest of the people are giving the party the stink-eye.
And so I take a moment to describe skill challenges to my kids. “Now’s your chance to use some of these skills your characters are good at in order to figure out what’s going on, why the town is mad at you, and maybe get some info that will help you beat the goblins the next day.”
I also had a stack of those face cards ready for them to randomly choose, with a rough idea of who each NPC might be. They rolled initiative, but I had my half-orc barely-functional comic-relief character go first to show how an interaction with an NPC might go. He talks like Hulk, if Hulk was stupid. Or more stupid than whatever version of Hulk you might be familiar with.
I lucked out and got the crazy-looking guy. The conversation was devoid of anything useful, other than serving as an example of picking a skill to use to interact with an NPC, rolling a check, and seeing what happens.
Justin’s character, Clayface the rogue, was up next, and he got the innkeeper. Since the innkeeper was fairly friendly, all went well, and Justin used Streetwise to get some gossip about what took place.
Then my wife’s warlord, Bethrynivere interacted with a politician from the big city. The NPC was a total witch–no, not a magic-using witch, the other kind–and blamed the incompetent “countryside buffoons” for the failed defense of the town. But Bethrynivere was able to use History (her character’s primary hobby) to point out the unique and abnormal nature of the goblin attack in order to persuade the politician to help the party rather than hinder them.
She makes the guards bring out some of the salvaged supplies that have been gathered for the assault. I just let the players pick a total of five random cards from a Dragon Trove deck (or whatever it’s properly called… I’ll probably write a “Paizo is Eevil” post about it and offer a picture and link).
The warlord ended up with a special suit of armor. The rogue got a new crossbow. The hunter picked a heavy hammer. The wizard got a mysterious magic potion. And my “special” half-orc got a chainmail shirt he intends to sell for some extra gold.
So far, all has gone pretty well.
Jonathan’s wizard, Killbot encountered another wizard, a supermodel-perfect blonde-haired fellow who boasted proudly of all his awesomeness and ridiculed the so-called heroes for letting this calamity happen while they were out camping in the woods. I really tried to push Jonathan’s buttons by being as annoying as possible, but he calmly made a Diplomacy check to defuse the situation. Then the two wizards discussed the magic energy in the area, and Jonathan’s Arcana check helped confirm what this wizard suspected. The jewel the goblins were after was a powerful artifact that was changing the flow of magic around the town.
I was pleasantly surprised thus far. The kids were taking this pretty seriously, and kind of thinking about what their characters might do instead of how they personally would like to respond.
Then it was Deborah’s turn.
Actually, I’m pretty sure.
Deborah is smart, and she has a concept of what Beastly Tiger is like and how he interacts with people.
For one, he calls everyone a hobo. Sometimes he politely asks them if they are a hobo.
Because apparently old people are hobos, as a general rule.
Turns out Beastly Tiger is also a hobo.
Oh, now we’re getting some backstory here.
So Beastly Tiger encounters a monk, a servant of the Divine Aspect of Strength. And this fellow suggests that he is willing to offer a supernatural blessing to people of proven strength so that they might better defeat the goblins who have taken over the town.
“Show me your strength,” the monk says in my best Ian McKellen Gandalf impression, “and I will bless you.”
Deborah looks at the card for the hammer her character received, and grins.
“I could make you fly,” she threatens.
At this point, we have a conversation about consequences in-game, and how the townspeople might react to an attack on their number.
We also revisit the definition of Diplomacy.
Beastly Tiger re-thinks his plan, and the suggestion is that he can show off some martial skill with throwing knives.
Deb rolls low, and I describe the monk’s eyebrow raise in a question as Tiger’s knife nicks the side of a tree.
I almost went with the Miyagi line, “Wood not hit back.”
The monk is not satisfied and demands that Beastly Tiger try again.
So then Tiger decides perhaps a good demonstration would be to throw the monk into the tree.
Poor NPCs, objects of wrath and torment.
We discuss again the wisdom of such a decision.
Tiger finally decides to pound the tree with his hammer, sending splinters flying in all directions with the force of his mighty strike.
And that finally works.
Thank goodness, because I thought I’d hear the fateful words, “I attack the monk,” any minute now.
One “round” of NPC interactions has finished, and so I ask the kids if they want to do another round.
They’re loving it. “Yes!” they cry.
Again, my orc-sorc goes first. But DM PCs are notoriously horrible for stealing the spotlight, and I have eleven characters to play in this session already. So I want this out of the way quick.
I pick a random card and get a poor waif’s face.
I can picture her begging, “Please, sire, just a crust of bread to get me through the week…”
But Burak the sorceror is… sorely lacking in the People Skills department. It goes a little something like this:
My shout of “NO” is so loud and unexpected that my wife practically jumps and the kids’ eyes go wide. But then they start cackling, because once again it is proven that Burak is a moron.
“Surely no hero really acts that way,” you may think.
Yes, but players do it all the time.
I had a player show up impaired, we’ll say.
The session turned out to be quite odd, but never more so than when the heroes saved a villager from ruffians on his farm.
The Halfling comes running out the door of his farmhouse crying for help. The ruffians chase him, clearly intent on bodily harm if not bloodshed.
The heroes intervene and defeat the ruffians.
Then the player immediately says, “I INTERROGATE THE HALFLING!”
“Interrogate” is a word with connotations. It’s not just “ask how he’s doing” or “try to find out why the ruffians were after him.”
I questioned his chosen course of action at least three times, explaining, “That’s the Halfling you just rescued. You really want to interrogate him?”
“Shhh…” he whispered with a dismissive hand-wave. “It happened. It happened.”
Yes. Players do interesting and horrible things to NPCs.
So back to the game…
Now it’s Clayface’s turn, and he gets some beggarly-looking fellow with obvious fright on his face. I figure this is a contact of Clayface’s, someone with minor ties to criminal elements, someone who knows what happens in the back alleys of town. And Clayface wants to know what this guy knows, so Justin goes with Intimidation checks.
Last time, Justin’s character was represented by a “Human Bandit” miniature, with a big sack like Santa Claus slung over one shoulder. Thus, when it came time to question the goblin they captured, Justin’s plan was “I hit him with my sack.”
No questions, no demands. Just start beating the goblin until answers fall out, I guess.
This time, I gave him a miniature that looked a little more roguish. It’s an assassin with a flowing black cloak, jumping back as if parrying an attack with his shortsword.
Now Clayface’s intimidating plan is, “I whap him with my cape.”
Roll for a Humiliation check, maybe.
Naturally, he rolls a 20. (Pun intended.)
Capes can be pretty scary, I guess.
Soon, they’ve finished another round of chats with the friendly folk of the town.
They’ve learned about secret tunnels they can use to get the drop on the goblins.
They’ve learned about the jewel the goblins are after–that it’s probably an artifact of some magic power, that it’s affecting the area around the town in a bad way, and that it was seen in the hands of the merchant they rescued in the first session long ago.
They’ve gained some material and supernatural aid to help them own some goblins.
And they’ve been offered a few side quests from concerned citizens with interests in town.
It seems a good place to stop, and I’m left hoping that the players learned a little more about how the game works.
But I suspect that we’re going to have to talk about not beating on the NPCs again soon.
And I’ll be okay with that as long as I don’t hear “Shhhh… it happened.”
Seriously… STOP TAKING ALL MY MONEY! (Except I’ll puchase a few of these and one of those… and a set of that.)
DM: “You approach Torhalin and inform him that–“
Ranger: “Wait, who’s Torhalin again?”
Rogue: “I thought he was the guy we killed last session.”
Paladin: “No, that was the other dwarf… the one we used the Jar-Jar mini for…”
Ranger: “Oh yeah, I hated that guy. So who’s this guy?”
More likely than not, if you’re playing a tabletop RPG campaign, you have a few non-player characters (NPCs) that show up regularly. It could be the innkeeper who offers free room and board based on some favor the adventurers have done for her… along with juicy gossip full of quest hooks. It could be the kindly noble who needs heroes willing to stand up to insurmountable odds in order to save his town. Maybe it’s a favorite villain whose presence sends your players into a frothing rage. (Using a Jar-Jar mini helps with this.)
In any event, a name and brief description only gets you so far. Using an accent or particular speech pattern might make the NPC more memorable, but you still can only hope you are making an impression on your players.
A picture is still worth a thousand words.
And a deck of pictures is apparently worth about ten bucks.
The Friends and Foes deck comes with 54 full-color face cards, each with a space for notes on the back to aid with keeping track of just who the heck Torhalin is in your campaign. When you introduce an important NPC, you give your players an immediate image of what he or she looks like along with your description and roleplaying. Each time they encounter that character, they get the visual reminder that says “This is who you’re talking to, remember?”
GameMastery has at least two others: Enemies and Urban NPCs. I’m not going to bother looking through their store to see if they have any more… because I might buy them.
On top of having a visual cue, the deck of various pictures might inspire new ideas for characters, situations, interactions, or encounters… maybe even key campaign arcs.
Of course, the downside is that you only have so many cards, and the variety means you only have so many of particular types of NPCs. It might seem strange if all the bad guys start to look just like the first villains the heroes encounter.
But the decks are a great start… IF you want to spend ten dollars.
There are cheaper ways, of course.
If you have any artistic talent (or if one of your players does, and is willing to volunteer the effort), you can make your own cards, tailored specifically to the needs of your campaign.
You know what you want the diabolical politician and her powerful magician advisor to look like.
You have an idea of how the ancient ghost in the ruined city will appear.
What about the crafty assassin your party has chased throughout the realm?
Show the players exactly what you want them to see. (Try to have better handwriting than I did, though.)
This also works great for scripted events. You have the chance to show rather than tell.
Poor Archmage Danethral…
At some point he was doomed to get twisted inside out by one of the villains. I did my best to describe this, and a few of my players at least said, “Ew, that sucks.” Then I showed them the card,
and I got more than one cringe or grimace. Win!
Ok, so you’re not an artist. (I barely qualify as one anyway, so don’t feel bad. Paizo’s not banging down my door asking me to draw stuff for them.) What are you supposed to do?
Though stick figures might be good for comic relief, that’s not a sustainable option. Likewise, if your “art” becomes a distraction, it will take the players out of the game to try to figure out if that’s a picture of the troll or the damsel in distress. No bueno.
Oh hai Google Images.
If you use a computer as a DM screen, or even if you just load some pictures to your iPhone or cell, you can easily show your players a decent representation of what their characters are looking at. Load a few key NPC pics, and you can easily remind them of who they’re interacting with, while paying nothing but a few minutes’ of image search in the process.
And of course, your rulebooks probably have a few pictures in them as well. Flip to a page if you have a hardcopy, or bring up an image if it’s a softcopy, and there you go. Obviously, that’s less than desirable, but it’s better than nothing.
And if all that fails, and your players stilldon’t remember your villain, break out the Jar-Jar miniature. They may not know who it is or why they’re out to kill him, but they will unleash all manner of fury in their effort to destroy him… especially if he says, “Meesa gon’ die!”
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.