In “a priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens,” I wrote about how most players only find role-playing encounters compelling when they have a objective to achieve and an obstacle to overcome. Even encounters with the most vivid and fascinating non-player characters fall flat without these two essential elements.
Typically, role-playing encounters combine an objective of gaining information or help, with the obstacle of an uncooperative NPC.
Sometimes the players simply try to persuade the NPC, succeed at a diplomacy check, and move on, but if every interaction amounts to a skill roll, the game loses interest. At times the bard’s honeyed words may overcome any objections; at times an NPC faces conflicts or repercussions that require action.
I suggest an approach to role-playing encounters that yields more challenging and interesting encounters, along with more memorable NPCs.
Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome their objectives.
If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, you should ultimately give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.
The NPC may reveal the reason, but sometimes the players may need to figure it out for themselves. The key might not even be apparent on first meeting. If players learn something about a character that helps in a later meeting, then the world feels richer, the NPCs more vibrant, and the players cleverer.
To spark ideas and aid with improvisation, I created a list of potential reasons an NPC might have for refusing to cooperate with the player characters. Low-numbered items work best for ad-libbed objections from walk-on characters; they require less planning and fewer details about the NPC. Higher-numbered items work better when you have time to plan for your adventure’s most important NPCs.
Reasons a non-player character refuses to cooperate.
- She doesn’t want to get involved.
- He doesn’t like your kind, for example, strangers, elves, adventurers, or meddling kids.
- She doesn’t believe she can help.
- He thinks the players will only make things worse. They should leave well enough alone.
- She wants something: a bribe, an errand done, or to be convinced that she stands to gain if the players succeed.
- He has been paid to keep silent or to stay out.
- The players have insulted or offended her.
- He thinks the players efforts are dangerous because they don’t understand what’s really going on. He might know something the players don’t or he may simply know less than he thinks.
- The players have unwittingly caused her to suffer a loss.
- She feels that helping the players will betray her duties or obligations.
- He needs more information to support the players case before he can act.
- She knows or suspects that she or the players are watched.
- Someone he loves or respects told him not to help.
- She is secretly involved with the other side.
- The situation benefits her, for example, by raising the value of her trade goods, or by hurting competitors or rivals.
- She fears the players might claim a treasure or reward that she expects to get.
- He is allied with rivals or competitors to the party.
- She’s been threatened.
- Someone she loves safety is threatened.
- Someone he loves is involved with the other side.
- He’s not involved but might be implicated, perhaps for doing things that once seemed innocent.
- He’s being blackmailed for a misdeed unrelated to the players’ concerns.
When you play an uncooperative NPC, remember that the NPC may seem helpful. An uncooperative NPC can say all the right things while they lie or let the players down.
Still, I suggest feeding the players lies only when the deception leads to a new development. Lies that lead to false leads and dead ends will prove frustrating and unfun. For example, the countess can lie and say than her hated rival stole the broach, but then the rival must reveal a new piece to a puzzle, perhaps a secret that the countess fought to hide.