DM: The duke shakes his head sadly, and says, “The gargoyles came out of nowhere, slaughtering my guards and stealing my daughter. Please, I’m asking for your help to get her back.”
Swordslash Bladekill: How many guards do you have left? If you send along 20 or 30, we’d be willing to go.
Steamrat Cutpurse: And what about you, duke? You must have some ability. What are you, a paladin? Grab your sword and you can lead the way.
Myrrellin Explodeyboom: Don’t forget about the duke’s adviser. She’s probably a wizard. She should come along too.
Brother Holyheal: I saw a few churches in this town of yours. They should be able to give us a dozen or so clerics.
Because the population of a typical game world runs more than four to six, there will be a vast and diverse representation of nonplayer characters in every game, and not just the ones that want to strangle the characters with their own intestines. No, this would also include the slithery shopkeepers and the blustering barkeepers, the drinking buddies and back-alley allies who might just know a thing or two about the Cliffs of Insanity, the mysterious uncle who keeps popping up with advice or healing or a pursuing horde of death lizards.
The problem with introducing these soulless NPCs is the players’ automatic tendency to treat them as just another party resource, no different than any consumable found on their inventories. Without concern or hesitation, the players push a hireling to examine the dodgy-looking corridor or dispatch the villagers to investigate the dragon’s lair or command the wizened sage to deactivate the magic-trapped columns.
After all, doesn’t it make sense to risk the worthless and replaceable first? It’s not like henchman #22 really has a backstory or a history or a family or any perceivable value at all. It’s wise and responsible to use these semi-living embodiments of 10-foot poles before the points of light go marching into harm’s way. Any other approach would be reckless.
This does rather conveniently ignore the notion that these PCs are supposed to be heroes, or at the very least, self-interested, egocentric, immature facsimiles of heroes. These are the protagonists of the world, the first actors (despite how often they lose initiative), the source of all gravity around which everything else revolves. No, nobody else in the village ever thought to look into the disappearances. No, the city guard do not have the resources to deal with the harpy night attacks. No, the acolytes from the local temple are not nearly powerful enough to deal with the restless dead in the graveyard.
The players want to believe that their characters are the most important beings to inhabit this world, but they’d also like to set aside the responsibility that comes along with that position. All the glory, none of the danger, thank you very much. They don’t mind if all those nonplayer people carpet the road before them with rose petals, but feel like those same NPCs should show a little enterprise when it comes to the mad necromancer. The DM makes it clear, “Look, you guys should be doing the legwork here. I wrote the adventure for you.”
What’s peculiar is how this always comes as a huge surprise to the players. The DM wants to create a fully fleshed-out world full of interesting people, but these interesting people shouldn’t be the ones doing all the adventuring. It’s a conceit of the game that the players need to accept and the DM needs to enforce: this game is built for the PCs, not for the NPCs, and the PCs should be proactively responding to that reality.
When I return from the day’s game, I don’t want to have to bore my friends and family with stories like this:
“The evil sorcerer summoned a demon right in the middle of town, and none of us knew what to do, but luckily the stableboy with his shovel and the blacksmith with his hammer came rushing out. They slew the demon first, and then chased down the sorcerer, and we in the party stood back and watched. It was so thrilling!”
I’m much rather bore them with this:
“Swordslash held the demon off while Steamrat snuck around behind it, but the demon sensed him, and whirled and felled Streamrat with an energy bolt. Holyheal shouted, ‘Buy me some time!’ so Myrrellin threw herself at the sorcerer while Holyheal prayed over Streamrat’s smoking body.”
In this second example, the PCs are risking their lives but telling bigger and more interesting stories. Through the risk comes the adventure, which is the reason we play, isn’t it? I don’t feel particularly successful if I make it through an entire session without a single moment of suffering, unless, of course, our defender was performing his duties brilliantly or our leader was supporting our group perfectly. I want to feel the risk about as much as I want to find the success, and I want to bring home the bigger stories.