Players! Equal Rights for NPCs vs DMs! Making your Players give a crap about NPCs
Hello again! Welcome back and thank you for your continued patronage. This week, I have a story to tell you all; a tale of darkness and danger; a tale that will send shivers into your unmentionables. The tale is of a small village called Drayton.
So, the mini-campaign I’m running for just two Players has a survival-horror theme. They’re from a small village called Drayton which has been surrounded by an ever-growing barrier of Razorvine which grows back every night. Then come the Blight, animated walking plants that drag people away into the dark to feed the vampiric tree that spawned them. Spooky right?
The idea of the game was to run a high-danger horror-movie kind of game. The few NPCs that were with the players in their first session all died that night, picked off one by one in order to ramp up the tension. Those poor imaginary people, right? The game is all about survival of the fittest, but I think I may have created a monster (of the non-fun kind). One of my players is now obsessed with tossing NPCs to the wolves (figuratively and literally) at any opportunity. Oh dear.
Players! Equal Rights for NPCs
The easiest way to talk about this one is with a little anecdote, I think.
On the first night of the Drayton campaign, every time they tried to hide, a petrified NPC’s whimpering would give them away. The Players had to make a tough choice. When the giant Vine Blight was upon them, just about to get them all, they knocked out the whimperer, and tossed her out of the hiding place. The Blight was sated. It was a tough call for them, but they did it. However, one of the Players has taken that as a par-for-the-course kind of thing.
Later, as they fought against the Gulthias Tree (a once-defeated vampire who was buried with the stake in his chest, which later became cursed and grew into the tree) there were only two Players and an NPC left who, despite having the lowest hit points of the lot, was still alive. The tree was still, lying in wait (not that they knew that) and the Player in question suggested that they send out the NPC to poke it and see what happened.
And here’s the line not to be crossed. You see, in the previous instance, the NPC who was causing the ruckus was endangering the other NPCs and the Players. The Player who sacrificed that NPC was doing so within their alignment (Chaotic Neutral) and to save themselves from a situation they would never have survived otherwise. So, not so bad. However, when faced with the cursed tree, the other Player was then using NPCs as expendable lemmings rather than characters. Not cool.
Your NPCs might be all made up, but so are your characters. Your DM will put just as much effort into those Non-Player Characters as you do into yours. They aren’t just plot hooks. You can’t just slot a gold piece into them like a handy information-vending machine. A lot of those NPCs, if used correctly, can be valuable allies. The remaining NPC against the Gulthias Tree, for instance, used his wits to distract the thrashing plant while the Players dished out the damage. Which was good, because the first thing the Players did was climb the tree and become engulfed by it. If that NPC had gone in alone early on, the Players would now be dead.
Just remember, using your NPCs to your advantage is a good thing. Using them as cannon fodder, not so much.
DMs! Making your Players give a crap about NPCs
When people ask me what the hell D&D is anyway, I tell them that it’s a game that is essentially an interactive storybook. The DM tells you the story, and you decide what you want to do about it.
“Sounds like fun!” They immediately scream, and become obsessed shortly afterward, because I use D&D as a front for my cult of personality (partially joking).
But what makes a book great isn’t just the major characters, it’s the secondary ones, too. Your NPCs are your secondary characters. They’re your Players’ guides, informants and allies (also their betrayers and villains, of course). So how do you make your Players care about these people? Why should they bother saving them in instances where their alignment may not make it blindingly obvious? Why shouldn’t they, as the Players’ section above talks about, use them and abuse them to get ahead?
One reason, is because you make them care.
Roleplaying your NPCs is a great start. Your Players will instantly care more if the NPC comes across as a person rather than an empty description of a person. So put on your best accent (or worst in my case) and roleplay that sucker! Give them ticks and mannerisms. I find that changing the shape of my mouth when I speak goes a long way with this. Give yourself an underbite when you talk as that Bugbear Captain. Make the Elderly Dwarf Lady talk through her teeth more. Little things can change the entire nature of your voice and so make your Players forget that it’s you who’s talking.
Secondly, make them memorable in some way. I find my Players are quickly endeared to a funny character. I have a Gnome smuggler by the name of Alto, for instance, who speaks in a high pitched American (New York) accent. He’s a proper little douchebag and they love him. The other is my naïve travelling Elf, Eugene (named on the fly, unfortunately) who sounds like Professor Frink from The Simpsons. He’s a stupid throwaway character who I just dropped in by accident, but be damned if they don’t love him and ask for him every time they hit the tavern. Not one of those players would sacrifice Eugene to the local dragon.
The third option is to always have repercussions. Now, we’ll discuss what happens when your NPCs cause mayhem in a later column, but for now I mean low-level consequences for their actions. If they start to treat your NPCs like crap, have them meet with resistance. I have guard miniatures for just this reason. And, in an early game of another campaign, I made sure to mention that the guards of the town were used to Adventurers wandering through causing trouble. They were prepared. And, sure enough, when the characters were eventually taken to the guard house, the cells had anti-magic fields and every one of them had a scrying spell outside the door, watched by guards who were in another room. Get out of that one! (They didn’t, unsurprisingly). Now I would never shut down the group intentionally like that in a situation that mattered to the game, but it helped to remind them that not everything was easy to get around. Hell, just increase the DCs of your persuasion checks. I often say to the PCs that nothing short of a natural 20 would convince a certain NPC of a certain thing (This, also, has bitten me in the ass once. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to ignore that Nat20).
So there you have it, folks. NPCs are people, too (I’m having a t-shirt made with that on it). Next time we’ll talk about those repercussions a little more with Players! Don’t poke the dragon vs DMs! So your Players are wanted in fifteen fiefdoms.
Thanks for reading!
Craig Hallam is an uber-geek and author of Speculative Fiction from Yorkshire, UK
Find him at www.facebook.com/craighallamauthor or on twitter @craighallam84