How Can Non-Monster NPCs Motivate Players?
In the excellent blog Deeper in the Game, Christopher Chinn often talks about trap NPCs, which are the stereotypical quest-givers that turns out to be some sort of villain who the PCs have been helping all along. Repeated exposure to trap NPCs (or even a singular exposure that is poorly done), can leave players feeling distrustful and even make them unwilling to engage with future NPCs.
In opposition to trap NPCs, Chinn encourages DMs to create NPCs that characters will like—NPCs that give them basic goods, places to stay, good advice, and other little tokens of friendship. This NPC becomes a tool to direct players toward, well, anything—locations, treasures, story hooks—without creating that sense of betrayal and fear.
But Christopher Chinn is a better DM than I am, or he knows his players better than I know mine, or his players are nicer people than mine. Early on in the Wall campaign, they entered a church of singing animals. The animals ran away on noticing the invaders, with one bear staying behind to cover their exit, grappling the characters to keep them from chasing. It dealt no damage, and I tried to be as clear as possible about the bear’s intentions. Pepper the elf promptly arrowed the bear to death, and it became a touch point and long-running joke: why does Pepper the elf hate bears?
|A bear by Jon Carling, from his Tumblr|
Pepper’s player blamed a history of video games for his leap to violence, and over the following months, Pepper experimented with a variety of diplomacies. But the writing was on the wall: I couldn’t assume that NPC friendliness would be reciprocated. So what could I do?
Since my players already seemed to be suffering from Chinn’s abused gamer syndrome, I decided to make a number of NPCs into out-and-out jerks. It was bizarro logic, but I figured if everyone had a crappy demeanor, the players would be less scared of betrayal; you can’t be betrayed by a meanie.
Advent of the B Squad
First up was a group of adventurers working in the same guild as the PCs. In the very first session, they had been assembled at random from this chart:
|Lydia of the Southlands||S 8, D 10, C 10, I 11, W 10, Ch 14||bard||8||lute, hand crossbow||pleasant, naïve|
|Jonas Mercykiller||S 15, D 9, C 13, I 13, W 17, Ch 8||paladin||7||chainmail, longsword||insightful, manipulative|
|Hob the Gambler||S 14, D 11, C 8, I 14, W 9, Ch 16||warlock||2||dagger||gambler, patron: fiend|
|Husband Bartholomew||S 9, D 8, C 14, I 14, W 9, Ch 7||wizard||8||dagger, staff||must bring his wife|
|Hale Jennifer||S 12, D 8, C 15, I 12, W 8, Ch 13||fighter||9||club, crossbow, chain||ignorant, pleasant|
|Craig White||S 5, D 11, C 10, I 12, W 11, Ch 9||wizard||5||staff, poisoned darts||betrayer|
|Jon Fergusson||S 18, D 12, C 8, I 8, W 7, Ch 13||ranger||5||two shortswords, bow, leather armor||lucky, optimistic, werebear|
|Dashing Antonilla||S 11, D 14, C 10, I 7, W 9, Ch 15||rogue||3||sling||self-preserving bravado|
|Plain Thomas||S 11, D 8, C 11, I 8, W 9, Ch 7||fighter||9||longsword, shield, chain||boring, talks about himself|
|The Duchess||S 7, D 15, C 12, I 12, W 11, Ch 7||rogue||8||cloak, mask, shortsword, crossbow||noble slumming it in disguise|
|Veronica Olafsdottir||S 17, D 10, C 15, I 13, W 7, Ch 10||ranger||11||great axe, throwing axes, scale||biracial, something to prove|
|Quick Peter||S 11, D 11, C 4, I 14, W 9, Ch 16||warlock||3||wand||dense, patron: fey|
|Sister Helena||S 12, D 13, C 7, I 12, W 15, Ch 18||cleric||6||holy symbol, mace||terminally ill, cloistered|
|Roger the Sage||S 8, D 5, C 6, I 18, W 7, Ch 8||wizard||1||books||coughing fits|
|Scott Cooper||S 10, D 7, C 3, I 7, W 8, Ch 14||bard||4||shortsword, leather armor||singer|
|Ragged Finn||S 10, D 7, C 8, I 8, W 10, Ch 10||cleric||3||quarterstaff||alms beggar|
|The Burned Man||S 10, D 14, C 12, I 8, W 4, Ch 8||rogue||8||crossbow, leather armor, water||burned, impetuous|
|Sir Alexander IV||S 12, D 10, C 11, I 8, W 8, Ch 10||wizard||5||gilded staff||inherited position in wizard school|
|Big Brother||S 11, D 9, C 17, I 14, W 14, Ch 15||cleric||11||club||loves animals|
|Ragnar the Great||S 17, D 12, C 9, I 8, W 9, Ch 13||bard||7||drums||viking bard, boastful|
A few quick rolls netted me a party consisting of Hob the Gambler, Hale Jennifer, Jonas Mercykiller, Husband Bartholomew, and the Duchess. They were quickly overshadowed on that first adventure and became known as “the B Squad,” which means they had a perfect reason to treat the PCs like dirt.
It wasn’t long before the B Squad had a chance to get their revenge. On one of the first days in the dungeon beneath Wall, the PCs were seeking an abandoned mine. They asked for directions from B Squad, who was returning from an exploration session. For 20 gold, Mercykiller told the PCs they’d find the mine down a western passage…which led to a kingdom of bone creatures who constantly fight for and purchase more bones to add onto their bodies.
|The creatures of the Bone Kingdom, as drawn by Kevin Budnik.|
(Perhaps due to Pepper’s absence, no fight arose directly from the visit to the Bone People. Sylvester the halfling rogue signed a contract with them, though, willing them his bones upon his death.)
B Squad’s other crimes were many: they killed most of the singing animals; they took their companion Hob’s bones to the Bone People to cash in on his contract despite his wishes otherwise; and when the PCs discovered that the Bone People were enslaving ghosts, B Squad stood in the way of the PCs’ attempt to enter the Bone Kingdom to investigate. After 14 sessions of play, the two groups of adventurers finally fought, and all of B Squad were killed except for the mysterious masked Duchess.
I used B Squad to reveal the nature of some of the dungeon factions. Since they slaughtered the talking animals, the players had pity for them, and this led directly to their befriending the leader of the animals, St. James of the Mold. And while the players were waffling over the moral consequences of the Bone People’s enslavement of the ghosts of their contract signatories, aligning B Squad with the Bone People almost automatically clinched the players’ feelings: the bone guys are bad guys.
The mystery of the Duchess and the death of Hob continued to drive the players throughout the campaign. Those random rolls for five random jerks provided story fodder through the entire campaign.