November 21, 2023

Alternatives to the NPC in Need

D&D adventures have been around for fifty years now, and over that much time, it’s inevitable that elements of newer adventures will start to retread old ground. Sometimes that’s for good reasons, as when a designer wants to create an homage to a classic adventure, or to invert tired adventure tropes to do something now. Sometimes it’s because original ideas are hard to come by, and every writer inevitably writes something that someone else has written before.

But a third factor that often leads to tired adventure design is the fundamental paradigm of RPG adventures needing to be a bounded framework for an absolutely unbounded story. Because that paradigm sets hard limits to what kinds of story we can tell in certain parts of an adventure. And there’s no part of an adventure in which that’s truer than the adventure hook.

In a novel, a short story, a film, an episode of a TV series, or any other form of locked-down story, an author can start that story any way they like. Most often, the start of a story is directly set up by the characters, either through their direct choices or their indirect reactions to unexpected events around them. But in an adventure, that initial hook (what’s often referred to as the inciting incident in fiction discourse) can’t be customized to the characters — because an adventure has no idea who the characters are. The hook has to be generic enough that it can work for literally any group of players, any party, any GM.

And so, long, long ago in Lake Geneva, the extraordinarily tired hook of “An NPC hires the characters to solve some problem” was born.

As you can probably tell from my tone, I’m not a huge fan of the NPC-in-need-hiring-the-heroes adventure hook. And there are two specific variations on that hook that I dislike most of all: the “characters hired by farmers and ranchers to take on some great peril” hook, and the “1st-level party recruited to fight some great evil” hook.

For the former, I grew up in cattle ranching country, and I can tell you with great authority that when farmers and ranchers face peril, they deal with that crap themselves. If any of the ranchers who were neighbors of mine when I was a kid had ever seen an owlbear stray onto their property, that handsome monstrosity would have been a stuffed head over the mantelpiece by the end of the day. The 1st-level troubleshooters hook is equally frustrating by virtue of how badly it breaks the verisimilitude of the adventuring world, because in a world with adventurers, no one has any real reason to hire 1st-level characters to fight evil when higher-level characters must be out there somewhere. Especially when the evil in question has huge stakes, all of which are known in advance. (I’m looking at you, Tomb of Annihilation.)

Mixing Things Up

Whether you’re looking at running a published adventure with the “An NPC tasks the characters with X” hook, or are running your own adventures and looking for ways to break past the oldest of D&D tropes, here are a few suggested alternatives. With just a bit of fine-tuning for your own game and its players and characters, you should be able to work in any of these hooks as an easy replacement for the NPC in need.

Part of the Solution

Instead of helpless NPCs beseeching the adventurers for aid, have the characters come across NPCs who are fully capable of looking after themselves — but who will happily take any additional assistance offered to them. Rather then being the only ones who can accomplish the adventure’s central task, the characters become part of a larger group capable of doing so — searchers, hunters, researchers, survivors of a natural disaster, and so forth, depending on the task. Then the characters just happen to be the one part of the larger group in the right place at the right time to jump into the larger adventure.

Close to Home

Rather than being hired by an NPC stranger, the characters discover that someone they know personally is in peril, create immediate stakes and a sense of urgency. Be cautious with this hook, though. Using it once or twice in one campaign with an NPC who has a habit of getting into trouble can be great fun. Using it multiple times — and especially with vulnerable NPCs placed into real peril — will quickly put the players into a mindset of seeing every NPC you introduce in the campaign as a potential plot-trigger victim.

Mistaken Identity

Having a plot hook handed to the characters takes on a different feel when the hook was intended for someone else. Being mistaken for another group of adventurers or specialist troubleshooters offers an ironic or comedic take on this alternative hook if your campaign runs in that direction. Or you can take a hard left from humor by having one of the characters targeted for attack or assassination after being mistaken for someone else.

Does This Sound Familiar?

A bit of prophetic prognostication given by a soothsayer, found in a previous adventure, or tied to a character’s backstory seems trite on the face of it — until events unfolding around the characters start to echo the prophecy a little too closely. By virtue of its potential to seem contrived, this hook can be problematic in its own right. But granting the players and characters a sense of being caught up in events they might be able to control is a powerful draw, even if that control turns out to be illusory. 

Mysterious Lore

A trope far older than D&D, stumbling across secret information is a great way to inspire the curiosity of players and lead the characters into an adventure. The discovery of an old map is a great way to draw the party into a site-based adventure. Likewise, finding part of a note or a letter can introduce the characters to a problem needing solving, while a troubadour’s song can tease a legend that needs investigating. The trick to making this hook shine is to introduce the revelation before it becomes relevant. Have the characters find the lore in the course of a previous adventure and not think anything of it, then discover a second bit of context (recognizing a location on the map, hearing a name from a mysterious note, and so forth) that fully hooks them in. 

Mysterious Relic

A party member comes into possession of some odd trinket or bit of minor magic that reacts strangely when the characters wander into a specific location or engage with particular creatures or NPCs. The relic can most easily have some connection to an adventure location you want the characters to go to, rumors you want them to investigate, an NPC you want them to meet, and so forth. As with mysterious lore, this hook works better if the relic is something picked up earlier, and which seems innocuous until its purpose is revealed.

Old Obligations

Tying to the characters’ backstories or backgrounds, some piece of the past suddenly reveals itself, drawing one or more characters back into unfinished business that conveniently ties to the adventure at hand. This hook can incorporate all kinds of fun scenarios, from an old enemy seeking the characters out to settle a vendetta, to a rival or ex-lover showing up unexpectedly, to a revealed secret putting the character and their companions into peril.

Dreams and Visions

One or more characters experiences a strange dream that lingers in memory, granting an urge to engage in some quest, seek out a specific location, seek an NPC they’ve never heard of before, and so forth. This one can feel pretty hokey as a concept, but it works surprising well in action, as dreams and visions create a strong connection between character and campaign story in the players’ minds. Properly wrapping up this sort of hook usually requires the characters discovering the actual source of the vision, whether it connects to a character’s deity, a supernatural agent involved in the eventual adventure, and so forth.

Movers and Shakers

Rather than the characters cultivating a positive but predictable relationship with NPCs in need, think about a relationship with someone in power who hates them. Operatives moving against the characters can easily push them in the direction of many different types of adventures, especially if the operatives are more powerful than they are, or if the characters are prevented from openly fighting back.

In the Thick of It

A monster terrorizing the countryside is always good fun for a GM. But rather than having the locals warn the characters about an existing terror in the area and plead with them for help against the threat, have the characters attacked first by happenstance, then put into the position of having to warn the locals. To make the hook even more engaging, have the locals not believe them.

Cash on Delivery

A scenario in which the characters are hired to take care of business as bounty hunters is obviously just a specific instance of the characters-as-hired-troubleshooters hook. But it can put enough of a spin on that hook to make it feel fresh, especially if the characters stumble across the bounty offer as a mysterious lore setup (above) rather than having someone seek them out with the offer. For added oomph, make sure the characters are aware of other adventurers or mercenaries on the trail of the same prize, so that the goal of attaining the prize is complicated by the need to prevent others from doing so first.