Nonplayer Conundrum

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.


  1. I’ve run into the same problem many times, and eventually, for me at least, the natural solution becomes… let them.

    I know it sounds weird, but if the PCs want to send the Duke and his royal guards to fight the wizard instead of themselves, send him off. He without fail does terribly, gets killed, the town is put under the charge of a despot (or worse, one of the wizard’s henchmen–or the town is just burned to the ground as punishment), and whatever goodwill the heroes had previous in this town is gone. The PC’s refusal to act led to a demonstrably worse situation overall, and it falls on them. Eventually, in my experience, after enough bridges have been burned (metaphorically and literally), the PCs will realize they need to take action, and will do so a lot more charitably in the future.

    And as a plus, you’ve got some new adventure hooks laid out as the PCs try and make right their mistakes.

  2. I make liberal use of companion characters for this very purpose. The PCs are welcome to bring along extra guards, local lords, acolyte priests, etc. I will throw together a quick companion character sheet and hand it over to the players. These allies may make the heroes’ job easier, but they also take their share of the XP.

    That said, I also game with people I have known for years and years. There is something to be said about the fact that we can anticipate each other’s styles at the table.

  3. It used to happen to me a long time ago, nowadays it rarely does, just make sure that EVERYTHING the players do has their logical outcome on the world. They kill someone AND IF it gets found out, they’ll get in trouble. They hire someone they’ll have to talk to the grieving widow, they mess up an adventure they’ll have to live with the consequences, heck on of the first quests for one of my group someone else took all the credit, and they had to live that down 🙂
    Funny thing is, though I have quite a lot of new players and other groups, I’ve never had to actually teach ’em this, I guess if you give enough life to the world and NPCs and make sure everything is as consistent as possible, players stop assuming they’re faceless goons.

  4. I’m really very ok with players wanting to use NPCs. But, it will have repercussions. Henchmen #22? They meet his daughter later. Maybe their interaction will decide whether she forgives them and becomes an ally or hates them and becomes a terrible foe.

    The Duke brought into battle? Could be pretty cool to have him and his men take on one fight while the PCs take another, or to just triple the number of foes but have the result of the other 2/3rds be all RP with some skill assists by PCs (Perception check: “Duke, watch your back!”). I really love these scenes. And, then the party returns to town to find the rival political faction has seized control… In general, I have some plot arc ideas and when the party does zany stuff I try to trigger them. If there is political intrigue, the rival faction taking control works great. If not, then maybe a treasure is stolen or some other impact.

    The summary being actions have consequences, but ones that further the fun and the DM’s plot. It brings an element of sandbox into a planned campaign.

  5. The last time any of my players asked an NPC to help them out, he broke down a door (making it obvious that someone had been there when the bad guy returned) and finished off the bad guy during the big fight (whoops, there goes the “interrogate him” plan).

  6. My players are always asking for help from NPCs, but I’ve made them pay for it. Allies and trusted characters have died because the party has put them in harm’s way, and hopefully they’re learning that they should assume these risks themselves as they’re better suited to actually surviving it.

  7. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is why I love Companion Characters (!

    Even a brief interlude with a Companion Character will make the players concerned for their fate. What if that blustering bartender were to journey with them to find his daughter, intent on personal revenge? Give that bartender some cool powers, like molotov cocktails and such. Later, every time they interact, that barkeeper becomes more than an NPC, long after the fate of the daughter has been resolved.

  8. I think anyone that has run games for a while has come across this at least a few times. As a GM, I know I have fallen into the trap of allowing the NPC’s to do too much. So, if that situation comes up again where the players are a bit too willing to let the NPC’s fight or whatever, then the NPC’s start either getting killed, or have been distracted by something else.

    Great article.

  9. Dixon Trimline says:

    What I love most about all of these comments is the clear “Say Yes” attitude of you crazy DMs. Instead of beating the stupid, cowardly players with a shovel, everyone appears to be saying, “Yup, let them. Give them just enough rope…”

    @Jeff: This is the approach of a true storytelling, just letting the tale tell itself naturally. I’ve never done it, but you make a good case.

    @Matthew Brenner: You make a good point about familiarity with the group. Currently, I find myself in games with people, who are essentially strangers, so there’s none of that inherent trust you find among friends.

    @Jonathan Delahaye: That’s true about breathing life into the NPC mannequins. If you fill them up with history and background, the players won’t treat them quite so cavalierly. I know I’ve felt… I’m not sure “affection” is the right word, but appreciation for a well-developed NPC.

    @Alphastream: Oooh, you can build in the histories as you play, I like your example of the daughter becoming an ally or enemy. Though allowing the duke (or set of NPC allies) to join in does raise the issue of who’s managing the NPCs. As a DM, I feel like I already have enough going on, and if I just hand it over to the players, won’t they give the NPCs short shrift over their own characters?

    @David Dorward: hehehe. Absolutely, the NPC will help you out, but you’ll soon discover he’s just as dumb as a horseshoe.

    @Gerald: Good idea! If the PCs have become fond of a particular NPC, it should hurt a little to watch them die, especially if it’s because of a player’s decision.

    @j0nny_5: Clearly I’m not utilizing companion characters as I should. It’s a scaled-down easy-run, as you describe in your article. They can slip into the background but still step up when necessary. I just played in a game last week where the DM did exactly this, handing out militia members to us players, and it ran very well.

    @stacey chancellor: That’s the best approach, allowing the NPCs to simply make bad choices. The tricky part for me (and maybe the exploit the players are counting on) is how the NPCs know my game better than the PCs, know the answer to the riddle, where the secret door is, what monsters are hiding in the next room, etc. It becomes a kind of poker game as I try not to reveal things by the NPC’s actions, or more importantly, inactions.

  10. Dixon: I don’t usually have too much trouble with running the extra NPCs in a scenario like the Duke and his guards. The reason is simple. I cheat. Or rather, I’ll simply roll a d20 (or a 6 if the song is going through your head) and based on the result have the NPC portion of the battle go back and forth. If one side seems to be consistently rolling better, then they start pushing the other back. Every round or so, remove a couple of minis (or just make a verbal note for your players if you are not using minis for the NPCs). I’m sure my players suspect that I’m not truly rolling actual powers and such, but there’s still a natural enough ebb and flow that they don’t mind.

  11. Alhazred says:

    I take my queues from real life. Were Dukes and Kings noted warriors themselves? Not usually. They might be great leaders and politicians. They may be modestly competent fighters, but the warrior king who’s personal reputation as a great fighter is very rare in history. Even in myth, legend, and literature there’s no consistent association between temporal power and personal prowess. Most influential people are adept politicians, not fighters.

    This is something I appreciate about 4e. Older editions were built around the notion of name-level PCs building strongholds and becoming big wheels in the world. This is great, but the concomitant of that was that there was an assumption that that was how the world worked. Of COURSE the Duke is a 9th level fighter, how else would he be able to have a castle? Many of the various monster descriptions, modules, settings, etc followed with this conceit, that the important people in the world are high level. 4e really seems to downplay this a lot, and we now find that NPCs are often minions or that they are just very limited in the capabilities (since NPCs typically no longer have class levels as such).

    So this kind of question “why doesn’t the Duke just go deal with the gargoyles” was not just typical in the old days, it was perfectly logical and the challenge was usually to explain why anyone would leave anything in the hands of low level boob adventurers. At least nowadays there is some logic to the whole thing. Sure, there’s a Duke. He’s a low level NPC stat block with a couple powers, if he has stats at all. He sure isn’t going after the gargoyles. The local priesthood, same thing. Maybe they know some rituals, maybe here and there there’s a guy who’s up to hanging with some adventurers. The vast majority of the world is made of ‘minions’ and low level NPCs with narrow skills.

  12. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Gargs454: Well now, I think you may be on to something. It’s the whole, “What the eye don’t see, the chef gets away with.” My problem is that every time I’ve suspected the DM of doing that to me, I feel a little slighted, a little… what’s the word? Cheated. This isn’t a judgment on the technique, and I’m sure there are plenty of times that I never even suspected, but I have it in my mind and my gaming chemistry that random rules the day.

    @Alhazred: You make a really good point, and it’s one commonly forgotten in the games today, usually by us old-school gamers who grew up with the “royalty = high-level” mentality. I suppose one of the reasons it was so easy to subscribe to the notion is the unwillingness to invite anarchy into the game. Once the players realize, “Hey, I’m the most powerful person in this town or temple,” they might get it into their heads to become psychotic super-villains. So long as there’s the threat of a 23rd level duke, they’ll try to behave.

    But I still like your idea of the world being primarily populated by minions, and that the PCs really are something special, different from everybody around them. With great power, etc. etc.

  13. Alhazred says:

    @Dixon, you make a very good point! Depending on the group you can finesse it. So for instance while the Town of Tisloch is filled with mostly minion townspeople there are a few human guards or similar around (watch sergeants, some of the local Duke’s garrison), plus a few grizzled warriors, an especially versed priest, and the local town wizard. The PCs can probably take any of them by 5th level, BUT they still need the goodwill of the people and 100 angry minions can be pretty scary! That seems to keep them mostly in line during heroic tier. Once they hit Paragon they could probably run the place with no problem, but I have given my group bigger fish to fry, and as few tough heroic tier NPCs as there out there in society there are FAR fewer paragons, if any. So, if anyone is going to find the 3 keystones to the Well of Stars and prevent the armies of the Abyss from going nom nom nom on all of reality, the PCs are going to have to take care of that themselves.

    Even so, the last group I ran did manage to toss the companion I gave them in the way of traps now and then. And there was the time they insisted that a squad of militia help them deal with the ogres… that got a bit sticky. Mostly though with the group I’m running for they’re pretty happy to play the heroes and do their thing. Maybe the next group will be more bloody-minded. Could be interesting.

    One other consideration you can work with. If the PCs become villainous then surely the gods will provide society with some OTHER heroes to deal with them! There might not be any tough NPCs around NOW, but give it a while and some up-and-coming types might just hear about the horrible injustices being done up in Kinergh and show up to slay evil!