March 6, 2024

NPCs Who Go Both Ways

No, not like that. Though I think we can all agree that the best NPCs… well, let’s save that for another post.

What I want to talk about today are nonplayer characters who can serve double duty in terms of the part they play in a fantasy campaign, because you as GM have set them up to be useful allies to the characters, or to be sinister foes for the characters — and you don’t get to decide which path they take or who they ultimately are.

I make the following point a lot, so if you’ve heard it before, please bear with me. For me, RPGs are the most fun when unexpected things happen, but as GMs, we don’t get to deal with as much of the unexpected as the players do. Every new encounter, every dungeon door opened, every conversation with a mysterious hermit or suspicious barkeep kicks the game forward on a moment of uncertainty that hooks the players in because they want to know what happens next. But because the GM ostensibly knows what happens next almost all of the time, the fun of not knowing is largely denied us during the game. 

Loving that feel of uncertainty in the game is why I love things like wandering monsters done right, or rolling for random magic items and seeing what the players and characters do with them. It’s why I love the idea of dropping NPCs into a campaign without knowing what their true goals and personality are, or how well those things might or might not line up with what the player characters are doing. Because when I set up those NPCs, I know that I’m going to let the players decide those things, without them even realizing it.

First Impressions

When the characters first interact with an NPC, they might be drawn in by an empathetic reaction to whatever problem that NPC is going through. They might be instinctively suspicious because of circumstances, or because they’re aware that their enemies are plotting against them and they don’t know who they can trust. They might be indifferent, warily trusting but wanting to learn more information before engaging fully. And all those options are fine — unless you break out your NPCs with a clear and singular sense of who they’re meant to be. Because when you do that, you’ll eventually end up with the player characters loving NPCs you’d explicitly expected them to hate, or suspicious of NPCs who are there to lend them important aid, or indifferent to NPCs who you needed the characters to engage with in order to advance the story.

Every GM has had these sorts of experiences. Quest givers who the characters ignore, people needing help who the players assume are villains, villains who the characters get chummy with because their setup as NPCs makes them feel more nuanced than you’d ever intended, and on and on. But if you set up your NPCs instead as a kind of weathervane that can spin freely as the player characters engage with them, you can let the players easily and safely decide who those NPCs are, why they’re there, and what part they’re meant to play in the game.

Enter, Stage Left

I present to you here a few examples of the kinds of NPC setups I’m talking about, taken from an actual game — a three-year homebrew CORE20 campaign I ran a few years ago called “The Serpent and the Rose,” whose main villains were a lycanthrope order unimaginatively known as the Pack. The players in that campaign don’t actually know some of what’s expressed here in terms of the potential these NPCs might have had versus the way they turned out — because the way they turned out was driven entirely by the players’ collective reaction to the NPCs, and the relationships their characters ultimately forged with them as a result.

Hopcyn Raonull (Sheriff of Raharnwyd)

  • Scrupulously lawful, has a reputation for turning a blind eye for honest mistakes. He enjoys exchanging favors with others, understanding the long-term bond that creates. 
  • Secretly corrupt. He has a terminal condition that responds to remove disease, but not permanently. Has been quietly selling off stolen goods and magic confiscated by the militia for years to pay for magical healing. The Pack will discover this and turn him to their service in exchange for making him a lycanthrope, helping prolong his life.

Maili Mairald (Sage/Historian)

  • An absent-minded retired scholar. She pays for rumors, tales, legends, stories, and verifiable history with a seemingly endless supply of coin. (Rumors that she has a permanent everfull purse hidden somewhere on the premises.)
  • When the stories she collects have connections to the lore the Pack seeks, she sells that lore freely. The Pack’s fascination with the past promises her a place among them as their control spreads, and she’ll use that to protect herself when the bloodshed starts.

Conor Amastacia (Animyst Healer)

  • A retired healer who keeps to himself. A reputation as an old-school type who never cast a spell for anyone who didn’t pay in advance. In secret, he gives free healing to anyone who can’t afford it by taking promises of labor or installment payments that he then never calls in.
  • A secret dabbler in fell mind control magic. Working for the Pack, who use that magic to secretly bind local leaders to their control.

Brodrick Rathaill (Militia Captain)

  • Talented weapon master and trainer. Can appear overbearing when trying to encourage others to succeed. Dedicated to defending Raharnwyd to the point of needing to be convinced that problems in the wider area are important.
  • Driven entirely by ego. Has a problem with anyone except gentry-born like him in positions of militia leadership. Will embrace the influence of the Pack if it helps him get ahead.

The Path Not Taken

With this Schrodinger’s NPCs setup, a character can be both good and evil, both an ally and an enemy, until the players make a decision about who that NPC truly is and the game takes shape around that. Talking about the examples above, the players gravitated toward Sheriff Hopcyn Raonull so fast that I swear I heard an audible “Woosh!” during the game. They became fast friends right from the start, and that was great. In my notes, I dropped his potential for corruption even as I respun the narrative of him needing magical healing for secret reasons a couple of times to make it work within the context of a trusted ally. But in the end, even that got set aside when I realized it wasn’t necessary anymore. Because the players and characters had already forged the bond with Hopcyn that I had wanted that detail to catalyze.

Likewise, the absent-minded Maili Mairald became someone the players and characters felt responsible for and began watching over. Working off that, her corruption angle got replaced by a magical secret she held that could feed the characters important information — and which would make gaining that information always feel earned because of the players’ love for the character.

Conor Amastacia and Brodrick Rathaill, by contrast, were distrusted from the moment the characters set eyes on them. The story driven by that antipathy subsequently unfolded in legendary fashion, because it was built on a foundation of the players freely and honestly deciding how to react to an NPC, then having that reaction pay off. But there’s a never-played alternative version of the campaign out there in the multiverse somewhere where the healer and the militia captain became the party’s two strongest allies, while the corrupt sheriff and the conniving lorist became enemies who would have actively tried to take the characters down. And in either version of the campaign, the strength of the bond between the players, the characters, and the NPCs has been decided by the players, letting me as GM build on that unexpected outcome either way.