The murderhobo stereotype sums the worst behaviors of Dungeons & Dragons player characters. Such characters roam the land, killing everything that stands in the way of treasure. They rob merchants, murder town guards trying to make an arrest, and attack women encountered in a group of three. Players of murderhobos would rather kill some imaginary characters than risk getting surprised by hags. The stereotype comes from countless campaigns where the players cared nothing about the non-player characters in a world, only about the imaginary loot their characters could gain.
When the players become fond of the game world and especially its non-player characters, D&D becomes more fun. Players who feel an attachment to characters will strive to help and protect them. That draws players into the game world, raises an adventure’s emotional stakes, and encourages players to act like responsible members of the community. Instead of robbing and killing the citizens of Orlane, the players will protect them from the looming threat of the reptile cult.
How can a dungeon master make players care about other, imaginary people? To help answer that question, I’ve gathered advice from more than 100 DMs.
First a caution: When players grow fond of characters, don’t fridge them. Fridging refers to a trope in stories where the author kills a buddy, love interest, or sidekick to provoke the main character to act. Making callous D&D players care for imaginary characters is hard. A well-liked supporting cast enriches a campaign. Don’t trade your success for sorrow, anger, and a quick hook. Such lazy manipulation just teaches players not to become attached to NPCs.
The most common advice for making players care is to trot out lots of NPCs and see who players fancy. This contains one key lesson: Watch how players react to the characters they meet. If one sparks interest, then look for ways to expand the character’s role. Fonzie and Urkel started as minor characters, but the love of TV viewers made each the star of his show. So if the players love the salty attitude of the barmaid in her walk-on role, make her the campaign’s Harper agent.
But parading characters past the players reduces the chance any will attract interest or affection. Instead, they blur together. Players need time with characters for any to gain an impression. When NPCs join a party as guide or traveling companion, they gain the best chance to build a relationship with players. See The Surprising Benefits of Giving an Adventuring Party a Guide. Most key NPCs fit better in a recurring role.
Aim for a small cast of distinctive characters who appear enough to build relationships with the players. Rather than creating a new character to deliver each session’s hook, or to reveal a new secret, look to revisit familiar characters. As for the rest of the world’s characters, not everyone needs a distinct voice, a story, or even a name. If you save such details for the interesting and important folks, you focus the players’ attention on the characters who deserve attention.
Portray NPCs a little like you would play your own character. Start with a trait that interests you or that sparks your imagination. Decide what the NPC wants, even if it’s just lunch. All NPCs rate themselves as the star of their story. While this tactic helps DMs bring NPCs to life, don’t let the mindset tempt you to treat an NPC as your proxy in the game. Players deserve the spotlight. If a DM seems like a bigger fan of an NPC than the PCs, the players will grow to dislike the NPC, and possibly the DM.
Players never like a campaign’s supporting cast to outshine their characters. If you want an NPC to become a friend rather than a rival or foe, never make them excel at something the players aspire to do well.
Look for ways to link NPCs to the player characters’ backgrounds. If a character was a sailor, perhaps their informant in the Dock Ward once crewed the same ship. Such bonds make player characters feel tied to the game world. Plus the connection might gain the NPC some extra affection from the one player tied to the NPC.
If your players enjoy creating things in the game world, you can let them invent some of the campaign’s NPCs. This technique brings advantages:
The players’ own interests can guide these creations.
Players can more easily connect NPCs to their PCs’ backgrounds.
The players’ creations automatically gain some parental affection.
Still, not every player enjoys sharing this world-building role. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Player to Help Create the D&D World Beyond their Characters?
To encourage players to create NPCs, DM David Nett has a house rule: In a situation where a PC might know someone able to help the party, their player can declare, “I know a guy.” The player invents the NPC, sketching the guy’s background and relationship to the PC. (This rule assumes the gender-neutral usage of “guy.”) Now the party can reach out to the new character. To determine the NPC’s reaction, the player who created the guy makes a Charisma check. David writes, “I’ve found this simple and very loose mechanic invites players to create critical NPCs and continue developing (revealing) backstory as they play.”
Next: Part 2
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While I generally agree with your advice on not ‘fridging’ NPCs the PCs have grown fond of, I’ve had some great experience doing just that, such as when my Lost Mine of Phandelver group grew fond of Elsa the gossipy barmaid, who always expressed interest in their exploits and plans, often noting that someday bards would sing songs about their deeds. Meanwhile, I knew all along that she was a doppelganger. The eventual discovery was glorious! (Then I did it again with Droop, only for them to later discover that the real Droop, who they had also grown fond of, was safe and sound…or at least still alive and healthy.)
I guess the lesson I would take from this is something between “your mileage may vary” and “use with caution.”