Tag Archives: non-player characters

How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

When roleplaying game players have affection for the friends and allies in a campaign’s supporting cast, the game improves. Players who feel an attachment to non-player characters will strive to help and protect them. That draws players into the game world, raises an adventure’s emotional stakes, and encourages player characters to act like responsible members of their community.

How can a game master make players care about imaginary people? To help answer that question, I asked for advice. Hundreds of game masters weighed in. Many suggestions linked to research that shows how people can increase their real-world charisma. The same qualities that make imaginary people likeable can work for real people like you. Will these techniques really supercharge your sex appeal?

Yes. Trust me. I write about Dungeons & Dragons on the Internet.

How can you create likeable NPCs (and also apply the techniques to become more likeable)?

Make characters distinctive

In a roleplaying game, before characters can become likeable, they must become distinct and memorable. If characters blend into a game’s supporting cast, no one will care for them. So key characters need traits simple enough to flaunt in a roleplaying scene and quirky enough to stay memorable.

For GMs comfortable acting in character, traits might include mannerisms, speaking voices, or a phrase someone uses and reuses. Some characters might have distinct passions. Wallace adores cheese. Others might have quirky habits. Perhaps the informant at the bar cracks raw eggs in his beer.

Traits that defy expectations often prove most memorable. In D&D, the beholder Xanathar would be just another Lovecraftian horror if not for a beloved pet goldfish.

In a roleplaying game, subtle traits disappear. Broad strokes work best.

In the real world, quirks make you interesting. When you share your passions, your enthusiasm shows. All these traits make you more likeable.

Make characters flawed

Flaws often make the most likeable traits. For instance, romantic comedies always seem to make their female leads a klutz. Such movies start by casting a gorgeous actress, and if her character is good at her job, no one will empathize with Ms. Perfect. How could she be unlucky in love? So filmmakers make these characters clumsy. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant, a similarly gorgeous co-star often played characters with a certain shy hesitancy that made him relatable. Even Indiana Jones may be handsome, smart, and brave, but he panics around snakes.

Flaws make fictional characters relatable. After all, we all feel acutely aware of our own flaws.

Movie leads serve as the imaginary stand-ins for viewers, so we rarely mind if they seem better than us. In roleplaying games, our own player characters become our stand-ins, so we accept perfection. But in NPCs, we favor flawed characters.

In life, competent people who fall to everyday blunders and embarrassments become likeable thanks to something called the Pratfall Effect. We relate to flawed people too. None of this means you should purposely embarrass yourself, but when you goof, own it and take it in good humor. People will like you for it.

Make characters relatable

People like folks similar to themselves. In life, if you share an attitude, background, or interest with someone, you have the start of a friendship.

In a game, you can create NPCs who reflect bits of the players’ personalities and interests. For instance, some players inevitably love books, so NPCs who share that affection almost always make friends at the game table.

In life, you can make a good impression by finding a shared anchor that connects you to another person. You become relatable.

Relatability explains why a fondness for pets like Sylgar the goldfish makes such a likeable trait. At any game table, players who love animals will identify with such affection.

A desire for connection also explains why powerful non-player characters become disliked. These characters don’t just steal the spotlight—any hint of arrogance or request for deference shows the NPC putting themselves above the players. In the real world, a lack of humility also makes people less relatable and likeable.

Make characters useful

According to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, some charisma comes from a person’s power and from signs of a willingness to help others.

While players dislike NPCs powerful enough to overshadow the party, players favor NPCs who can help. Often useful NPCs act as a source of secrets, clues, or as a guide. Perhaps a helpful NPC pilots a boat or casts a spell outside the party’s repertoire. Don’t make friendly NPCs good at any talents the players want for their characters. Those characters become rivals.

Make characters authentic and vulnerable

People love dogs and children partly because they always reveal their true emotions. In roleplaying games, the same goes for NPCs too stupid for guile.

“Because most NPCs only exist to oppose, trick, or act as disposable exposition devices,” writes Tom Lommel, “the players inherently distrust or dismiss them.” Authentic characters break that pattern, so they work particularly well in roleplaying games.

In life, likable people are authentic, says Karen Friedman, author of Shut Up and Say Something. “They are comfortable being who they are, and they don’t try to be someone different,” she says. “They are approachable and sincere even if what they have to say isn’t popular.”

Often people avoid showing their authentic selves because that makes them feel vulnerable. What if people don’t like me? Will I be judged? But people admire folks brave enough to be vulnerable.

Make characters struggle

Sometimes vulnerability comes from characters thrust into a bad situation. R. Morgan Slade and Tom Lommel both named examples: Players might witness NPCs caught in an unfair deal or by a false accusation. NPCs might struggle with a sick child, a debt, or their own vices.

We admire characters for trying more than for succeeding. Give an NPC a goal to struggle for, but out of reach.

In a 70s TV show, the tough-guy detective Kojak sucks lollipops to cut his smoking habit. This trait works on several levels: The visible habit defies his hardened image, making the quirk memorable. Sucking candy like a child makes Kojak vulnerable. His battle against smoking shows a struggle.

Make characters ask for help

When players help NPCs, a quirk of psychology called the Benjamin Franklin Effect makes the NPCs more likeable. When we do something for someone, we justify the good deed by supposing we liked the person from the start. Our rationalization makes the affection real.

In life, you can trigger the effect by asking someone for a small favor.

In a game, players do favors and even save lives. If players save an NPC’s life, they can become particularly attached. When people invest in someone, they feel connected. The investment becomes a sunk cost, and people unconsciously work to believe the reward was worth the price.

Make characters show warmth

People reveal warmth by showing concern for another person’s comfort and well-being. We appreciate warmth in others because it demonstrates a generosity that may help us, even if we just need understanding and a cool drink.

In a game, GMs can have NPCs show warmth just by offering an imaginary chair. Brian Clark suggests building an emotional bond by having NPCs sharing wine, serving a meal, or defending the party against criticism.

In life, warmth is an unappreciated trait leaders need.

Make characters show admiration

Everyone loves getting a compliment—if it’s authentic. People of give compliments show warmth and generosity. In life, avoid complements on outward appearance. Instead seek chances to give genuine compliments praising things people choose, or especially traits people worked for.

Compliments come from admiration, which makes a likable trait in the game world. Many GMs cite examples of players favoring NPCs who admire the player characters.

“Tell them that a little girl with a bucket helmet and a stick sword runs to the strongest character and asks if she can join the party because they are her heroes,” writes Niko Pigni. “They will love that NPC.”

In most campaigns, player characters grow into heroes. Sometimes, NPCs should treat them as celebrities.

Respect reveals a sort of admiration. Brandes Stoddard writes, “Players like and respect people who offer them respect and social legitimacy.”

Make characters entertaining

When romantic comedies feature ordinary-looking leads, they cast comedians. We like characters who entertain, especially when they make us laugh. In life, the most likable folks make jokes at their own expense or that tease folks about traits outside of their core identity.

In roleplaying games, stupid or otherwise exaggerated characters can be funny and entertaining enough to be loveable. Recently, I played in a game where a foolish goblin who fancied himself king fit this role.

I take my player characters seriously, but I often give them humorous quirks. My monk recites his master’s nonsensical aphorisms and pretends they hold great wisdom. “The stone that weeps in silence weeps best.” My sorcerer points out ordinary things like a bed, and says, “Oh, this inn has straw beds! That’s much better than where I come from. We only got a bed to hide under on our birthday.”

Make characters optimistic

Part of my affection for my sorcerer stems from his optimism. We like people who show optimism because it lifts us. Optimism brings confidence and suggests competence—all traits that foster charisma.

Mixing traits

NPCs don’t need all these qualities to become likeable. Adding too many traits will dilute them all and waste creative energy. A few likeable qualities make a loveable character.

Author Eric Scott de Bie writes, “One of the NPCs in my current D&D game has been dubbed ‘the cutest dwarf ever.’ Not because she’s a romantic interest or anything, though the low-Charisma, half-orc bard might have plans, but because she’s cute, optimistic, and helpful. And she has a dire weasel animal companion.” This NPC checks optimistic and useful, plus she brings a pet.

Minsc from the Baldur’s Gate computer games appears on lists of gaming’s most beloved characters. As a companion, he’s useful, but he gained notice for an authentic lack of guile, optimistic enthusiasm, entertaining dialog, and for being the proud owner of Boo, a “Miniature Giant Space Hamster.”

Meepo the kobold from The Sunless Citadel surely ranks as one of D&D’s most loved NPCs. Meepo serves as his tribe’s Keeper of Dragons, but he struggles to find his missing dragon. He is distraught, making him seem authentic and vulnerable. He needs help, but also becomes useful as a guide and intermediary. In the hands of many dungeon masters, Meepo’s broken Common, exaggerated woe, and low intelligence add an entertaining comic element. No wonder Meepo became irresistible.

As for Meepo’s sex appeal, perhaps some of these traits work better in fiction. Instead, just tell folks that you’re a dungeon master. It’s a thing now.

Related: See part 1, How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like.

How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like

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

Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Much of a dungeon master’s skill amounts to choosing the technique that suits a moment in the game. I have two examples:

Use the right tool for the job.

For years, because I used the wrong tool, a type of roleplaying scene sometimes left my players confused. Adopting a better technique would have forced me to accept a limitation that just about every DM shares. Few of us can stage a good one-performer show. Lucky for my players, a giant of roleplaying game design set me straight.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM plays every non-player character. Speaking in character makes these NPCs more vivid, makes scenes feel more immediate, and encourages roleplaying. (See Most Advice for Encouraging Roleplaying Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.)

As a DM, when I portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. I figured if I performed better, then the confusion would lessen. So I worked on character voices and doing a better job attributing each speaker. Sometimes I even held up a picture of the current speaker. Despite any improvement, players still often became confused. Perhaps worse, players sat idle. Roleplaying games should encourage interaction and my one-man show discouraged it.

Permission to change my approach came from Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu—probably the most critically acclaimed roleplaying game ever. In a convention presentation, he says, “Never let two NPCs have a discussion, because then it’s just the gamemaster talking to himself.” Thank you, Sandy.

Instead of acting two parts in character, just tell the players what the two characters say. “The elders disagree about the best way to stop the raids. Some want to strike back the chief. Others suspect the attacks seek a stolen totem held by cultists in the village.”

Such a narrative approach falls short of ideal, but it works better than talking to yourself.

Still, the best roleplaying scenes feature a small number of players speaking to one NPC at a time.

In your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones.

Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need two characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view. Now you can act as each NPC in character without fostering confusion.

But suppose you have the acting chops to fill a crowd scene with distinctive voices chatting among themselves. Awesome! Can I play at your table? Still, avoid putting more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

Dungeon masters should work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. Splitting the party makes everyone contribute. Less-vocal party members gain time in the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them on their separate ways. (See Never Split the Party—Except When it Adds Fun.)

The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide

When I started gaming, people tended to play Dungeons & Dragons with larger parties than now. When game session fell short of 8 or more players, dungeon masters often added their own character to fill the group. To me, the practice seemed dodgy. The spotlight belongs on the player characters. The players’ choices steer the adventure; their characters’ actions create the story.

Now, DMs never add their player characters to the party, but sometimes they get the same kicks by adding a pet NPC. These game-world Mary Sues let game masters indulge in wish fulfillment. They turn other NPCs into admirers and turn PCs into sidekicks. (Aaron at RPG Musings tells how to spot at pet NPC.)

Over my career as a DM, I’ve read countless how-to-DM guides. They all warn against letting non-player characters overshadow the PCs. I read this advice and probably shared a typical reaction: No duh. I never felt tempted to create a pet NPC, but I never even created an NPC who traveled with the players.

Lately, I have run some adventures that added NPCs to the party. To my surprise, the additions worked. They enhanced the game.

Out of the Abyss begins with the new PCs held captive. They meet other several other prisoners, and everyone joins in an escape. The PCs and NPCs find themselves deep in the Underdark, traveling together for as long as their paths overlap.

As the adventure progressed, NPCs left the group, leaving a pair traveling companions: Jim Jar, the gambling deep gnome, and Sprout, the young Myconid. I started to see them enrich the game. The ongoing characters became more vivid than the usual walk-on NPCs. The players enjoyed interacting with them. Players never care about the NPCs they meet in passing, but now they became emotionally attached to a silent mushroom boy.

Plus, the traveling NPCs served as guides. Most D&D players feel at home in a fantasy setting, but the Underdark should seem alien. The party’s Underdark natives helped me reveal the strange environment. They could give background information and show the way.

Walk-on NPCs could have met the party and dispensed information, but having a guide creates a certain economy. The players don’t need to keep meeting characters they never see again. Instead, the guides save time while they build bonds.

The adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain also adds an NPC who guides the players. This adventure takes place in a typical (for D&D), flying castle, so its guide doesn’t help introduce the background. But this adventure aims to introduce D&D to new players, so instructor Tulahk guides novices through the adventure. He reminds players to do the sneaking, investigating, and diplomacy that will lead to success. Plus, Tulahk is crabby, talking skull, so when I ran the adventure, I had fun channeling J. Jonah Jameson while calling the PCs empty-headed boneheads and numskulls.

Despite the advantages of giving a party an NPC guide, only add them when they serve a role. And then keep the guide out of the spotlight.

To prevent a NPC from stealing the spotlight, follow two principles:

A guide can’t make decisions for the party. Either create a guide with little interest in the party’s goal, or make the guide too young, too foolish, or too weird to direct the party. Ed Greenwood prevented his NPC wizard Elminster from overshadowing players by making him eccentric. “I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the ‘old storyteller’ figure,” Greenwood said. “He was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs.”

The players must prove more capable than their guide. Tolkien understood the risks of letting a powerful figure upstage his main characters. He kept contriving to have Gandalf leave for important business elsewhere. If a guide reveals more power than than the PCs, the players will wonder why they showed up. On the other hand, if you mix in NPCs who the players can upstage, and who admire the PC’s exploits, the PCs shine even brighter.

Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord

In my last look back at Judges Guild’s 1977 City State of the Invincible Overlord, I avoided mentioning the product’s oddest quirk: Every non-player character has an adventuring class and almost anyone worthy of a name has 4 or more levels, mid-level for the era. Did everyone in the city begin as an adventurer, and only later settle down to become a candlestick maker?

In some cases, yes.

In some cases, yes.

All the fighting men and magic users seem weird now, but in 1977, they revealed potential answers to two questions no one asks anymore.

In the 70s, a player at my table asked, “Since townsfolk should be weak, what stops us from looting the town rather than the dungeon? They could never hit our magic armor. A bunch of shopkeepers and even the town’s militia would rout against a few fireballs?”

As a dungeon master the time, I would not dream of limiting a characters freedom by telling them they could not do something. The game allowed characters to attempt anything. By the ethos of the day, any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. (For more, see “Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.”)

So I wondered what I would do if the players upended the game by targeting the townsfolk. The player characters’ combat abilities overwhelmed the 0-level citizens and their 1d4 hit points—a single blow from a house cat would slay many of them. I could launch human wave attacks on the players, but I had no stomach for such imaginary slaughter, and the PCs would still win. I would need to summon high-level do-gooders from afar to pit against the players, now in the role of super villains. The game would degenerate into a total-party kill or a succession of escalating face offs.

Thankfully, my players honored the game’s social contract and stuck to the dungeon. Still, the question and my lack of an answer unnerved me.

As D&D adventures expanded beyond the dungeon, DMs everywhere faced the problem of how to counter players who saw towns as easier targets than dungeons.

In his Alexandrian blog, Justin Alexander observed that Gary Gygax seems to have designed early village settings in B2 Keep on the Borderlands and T1 The Village of Hommlet to punish players who target citizens. “The underlying assumption here (and in a lot of early city modules) seems to be that some significant percentage of PCs are going to be murder hobos: B2 deals with that by specifying centralized legal repercussions. T1 assumes that the PCs will succeed in looting a house or two (and therefore specifies the loot), but also lays out a comprehensive social network that’s going to come looking for their blood.”

The City State of the Invincible Overlord reached players in 1977, years before T1 or B2. Authors Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen faced more potential for murderous looting than Gary. Most players who sit to play an adventure will follow the plot threads, but the City State offers a sandbox, which gives players free reign. Why bother leaving town for gold and the experience points that it brings?

While the city doesn’t encourage adventurers going from store to store, murdering the proprietors for their cashboxes, it allows for it. Every location includes an account of coins and other treasure, usually hidden, often trapped. The treasure stashes in town match the loot available from the dungeon.

So what stops players from treating the city as a sprawling gold and experience farm?

First, the City State features an even more robust legal system than the Keep on the Borderlands. The initial guidelines devote with two pages to crime, trial, and punishment. With enough bribes, a murderer might escape execution, but the price in treasure offsets any gains. Even an ordinary foot patrol consists of 2-24 level-3 guards and the Overlord can call knights and wizards to challenge greater dangers.

orcus in box

In case of loan default, open box.

Second, some citizens posed greater threats than they appeared. As I mentioned in my last post, any shopkeeper could be a polymorphed Ogre Mage or Dragon. Worse, a loan shark might have a way to counter thieves and scofflaws with Orcus the Demon Prince.

I think I’ll try Lending Tree.Last, the NPCs create a balance of power. In the City State, every inhabitant gets combat stats, and the local baker could be a badass—actually he probably is. For example, the silver smith is a level-6 fighter aided by the (fighter 4) tinsmith next door. Even the lowly (fighter 5) tanner pays a troll to guard the cashbox.

Although the City State’s population seems dangerous, in the Judges Guild world, it ranks as a lower-level city. Its follow up, City State of the World Emperor, warns that its NPCs tend to be a level or two higher.

In games today, player characters have reasons to behave that do not stem from the threat of a weaver kicking their ass. Most campaigns require players to adopt non-evil alignments. The D&D Adventurers League typically requires non-evil characters. The campaign allows PCs in the Zhentarim faction to be lawful evil, but warns, “Just because a player has a character with a darker side doesn’t mean that player has a license to make the game less fun for others at the table.” More, D&D’s social contract has shifted away from allowing players free reign as long as they act in character. Today’s players respect their DM’s preparation by following the threads of the adventure, and avoid actions that ruin other players’ fun. For example, the Adventures League guide says, “If a DM or another player feels as though a player is creating an uncomfortable situation through the excuse of ‘it’s what my character would do,’ the DM is free to give the offending player a warning for disruptive behavior.” I will flatter myself by imagining the authors cribbed my post, “A role-playing game player’s obligation.”

All those fighters and mages in the City State reveal a possible answer to another question no one asks anymore. In a D&D world, what character class do ordinary people belong to?

In the era of the City State’s 1976 development, D&D products had only showed characters in a dungeon or on a battlefield, so everyone fit the game’s character classes. This led players to ask what classes unseen townsfolk fit in. People toyed with a few possibilities:

Stuck at level 0. Even with experience, ordinary folk never rise to distinguish themselves. Gary Gygax adopted this approach for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and it carries to fifth edition. D&D casts player characters as special—extraordinary individuals capable of gaining levels and rivaling heroes of legend.

Advantage: Players feel heroic and powerful. Because few rival their potential, they take center stage in the game world.

Disadvantage: Power corrupts. Players feel tempted to behave without a realistic sense of the consequences their actions.

A level-20 tailor creates the world’s finest trousers. Everyone has a class that advances as their skills improve. These non-adventuring classes gain experience differently than adventurers. Dave Arneson experimented with this approach when he created the Sage class, adulterated in the Blackmoor supplement. Such specialized classes peaked with third edition’s Expert and other NPC classes.

Advantage: Both NPCs and PCs in the game world operate according to the same rules, creating a mechanical consistency. I’m a level-3 blogger and a level-2 dungeon master. If I collected g.p. for this, perhaps I would gain XP faster.

Disadvantage: Character classes weigh NPCs with rules, calculations, and bookkeeping that rarely makes the game more fun.

Curiosity: In third edition, a high-level, expert tailor gained hit points and became harder to kill, suggesting that some hit points come from plot armor.

If you only have Fighting Men, everyone looks like a fighting man. Ordinary folk take the same few classes as shown in the game’s little brown books. The authors of the City State adopted this approach.

Advantage: Everyone poses a potential challenge to PCs, forcing them to behave with a realistic caution. This prudence reflects the reality that even the most dangerous warrior can be overwhelmed by a mob or slain by an arrow in the back.

Disadvantage: Making everyone a match for PCs seems implausible. If player characters must complete long and dangerous adventures to become mid-level fighters and magic users, then how did everyone in town gain similar levels? A city full of such dangerous dyers and wheelwrights defies the game’s logic.

Also, powerful NPCs can diminish the role of the player characters. If everyone has power comparable to the player characters, then what makes the PCs the heroes of the game world? The potter and the carter can just grab a few buddies and slay the dragon themselves.

Some of the joy of role playing comes from the chance to feel powerful, to seize the spotlight. People play D&D to act without the compromise and frustration of the real world. Making everyone an adventurer makes the PCs common.

In the era of the City State, players could feel common without diminishing play. PCs did not need to be central to the game’s story, because any story was purely accidental. Players chased gold and the experience it brought, end of story. Then, powerful NPCs either served as bystanders or obstacles.

As D&D became less about chasing treasure and more about thwarting evil, NPCs changed from potential sources of loot into folk to protect from the closing darkness.

How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session

Adventures should focus on the present, but they can still draw from your game world’s past. Exposing players to a little backstory makes the world feel more connected and vibrant. The imaginary seems more real.

I prefer to reveal backstory through dialog. This lets the players learn as they interact. They can role play their characters’ reactions. Players can ask questions, and feel clever when the answers lead to more insights.

Creating a source of backstory

Bound and unbound books and manuscripts on shelves and a table (Leiden, 1630)Backstory can come from more sources than a hoary sage or captured henchman. People hear things, and in fantasy your sources can be something other than people. Your players can get information from a range of sources that add flavor and even launch plotlines.

  • a local busybody or snoop.
  • a fortune teller whose insights come from a network of gossips rather than anything supernatural.
  • servants and slaves, ignored by their masters, but privy to intimate conversations.
  • an immortal creature or a ghost bound to a particular location or object.
  • a thief who discovered something in the course of a crime.
  • a shapeshifter who spies in animal form.

Opening a dialog

The best time to reveal backstory is when players seek it because they have questions to answer. See “When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure.” For example, if a party stops at a pig farmer’s shack to ask about a strange light, and they notice that he flies the banners of the lost kingdom, someone will ask about the banners.

If you cannot lead the players to ask the right questions, then you can have a non-player character (NPC) volunteer essential background, but keep the dose small. The players will tolerate a pig farmer who mentions that the last king ascended to the heavens from atop yon hill. They won’t listen to the king’s lineage.

When you make an NPC stand out, or put her in the path of adventure, players may decide to talk. Aim to let curiosity drive the the players. If you lavish too much attention on a bystander, players will metagame and assume that the spotlight obligates them to approach. No one likes to feel steered.

Sometimes NPCs will approach the players. In a world without mass communications, locals will seek wanderers with news from afar, and will bring gossip to share. If the players decide the pig farmer is not worth their time, then perhaps he wants to to know if anyone saw his lost sow. “She likes the berries that grow on yon hill. It’s special, you know.” Remember: small doses.

Revealing backstory in writing

Of course, sometimes no one knows the information the players need. At times, I’ve resorted to letting characters uncover a bunch of backstory written in a letter, or a journal entry, or an old book page. This tactic lets players learn from a dead or missing source. It avoids the risk that players will kill someone who knows something essential. It lets me create a prop.

But this approach suffers from serious drawbacks:

  • Reading a page loses the interaction players gain when they speak to a non-player character.
  • No one wants to stop participating to read. Often players’ handouts languish on the table
  • Only one player can read at once, unless you print copies. You can enlist someone to read aloud, but listening to someone drone never seems compelling.

If you must offer written backstory, make it short. The chance to inform without spending time at the table tempts some DMs to cast pages of backstory as a tome or journal, and then to dump them on the players. This only works if players can study between sessions, and many—perhaps most—players will skip the homework.

When did you last see a movie or TV show that expected you to read something to understand the story? I can answer that. When did you last see a Star Wars movie? Even in 1977, the introductory text seemed quaint. George Lucas wanted to evoke the movies he saw as a kid. If you can think of another movie that requires reading, I suspect it’s black and white, perhaps even silent. Contemporary movies find a way to communicate though dialog and images rather then text, and a game should aspire to more interaction than a movie.

Written backstory works best when it supports interaction. First players meet with the sage, then they get a copy of the lecture notes. If you have a journal or tome for the players, put it in the hands of an NPC who has read it. The NPC can tell what it says and contribute extra information to the discussion. When the discussion ends, the players have a text to reference.

Iceberg adventures

Although I dislike trudging through pages of adventure background just to run a published adventure, I hate when authors imagine nuggets of evocative backstory, put them in print, and then fail to offer any way for players to discover them.

Some adventures resemble icebergs, with a background that could make the game world come to life submerged and doomed to stay hidden. Of course, most adventure backgrounds drown the flavorful morsels with cruft the author could not bear to cut. For more, see “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory.”

When I run a published iceberg, I aim to break the ice. After I finish reading, I return to the background and look for all the interesting bits of history and scheming, motive and magic that might enhance play, if only I can bring them to the table.

How knowing the difference between a setting book and an adventure helps craft better adventures

What makes an adventure different from a setting book? Both start with maps, locations, and characters, but what extra ingredients turn a source book into an adventure? You might name story or plot as that essential extra bit, but early adventures lacked anything like a story. Many players favor adventures without plots, where you can enjoy as much freedom to play as a sandbox.

Not an adventure

Not an adventure

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “An adventure typically hinges on the successful completion of a quest.” The word “quest” adds some gravity to what could just be a search for loot, so I say “goal.”

Adventures start with a goal that leads to obstacles. The first dungeon adventures presents characters with the simple goal of retrieving treasure from the dungeon, and obstacles like monsters and traps that stand in the way. Forty years later, characters may chase other goals—they may never enter a dungeon, but the essential ingredients of goals and obstacles remain.

Even the most primitive D&D adventures assume the game’s default goal of gaining treasure to enhance your character’s power. The early game made this goal explicit by awarding characters experience points for treasure.

Setting books can include maps to explore, non-player characters to interact with, and perhaps even a monster lair, but without goals and obstacles, they fail to qualify as adventures.

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons focused their design on supporting three pillars of play: combat, exploration, and interaction. Adventure creators rarely struggle to create goals and obstacles for the combat and exploration pillars, but they often fail to properly support the interaction pillar.

A combat encounter features a built in goal—to survive—and ready obstacles, the monsters. Great combat encounters may feature more interesting goals, hazards, and traps, but no one ever built a combat encounter by pitting characters against butterflies and rainbows.

To support exploration, adventures pair maps with number keys. Adventure designers create maps for locations that players have a reason to explore and that presents obstacles. If the players decide buy horses, you do not need a map of the stables keyed with a description of what’s on the floor of each stall. Sometimes adventures include maps and keys for ordinary buildings with mundane contents, but most authors know better.

When adventure authors try to support interaction, they often falter. They devise non-player characters who the players have no reason to interact with—NPCs who do not fit a goal. See “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” They create NPCs who present no obstacle to the PCs’ progress. (Certainly a few NPCs can simply provide flavor or exposition, but most NPCs should do more.) NPCs best fit into an adventure when players encounter them in pursuit of a goal, and when they present some obstacle. By obstacle, I do not mean that NPCs must serve as creatures to fight. NPCs can act as obstacles in countless other ways.

But many adventures see print larded with NPCs that fail to support interaction. The authors devise rosters of colorful characters, but stop short of devising ways to put them in the paths of the PCs’ goals. Authors lavish text on some shopkeeper’s aspirations and home life just so he can sell rope.

For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen describes 22 NPCs who join the PCs on a two-month journey, but few of these NPCs entice the players to interact, and none act as obstacles. If I want to use any to “spice up the journey, or bring the trip to life,” I need to find ways to put them in scenes with the players. When I ran Hoard, I did this work. But designers Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur claimed a bit of my money while working as RPG designers—a dream job. I paid them to do the work for me. Instead they dumped a load of parts, and then left the work to me. Ironically, the dragon cultists on the same journey, who may serve as obstacles, get no description at all.

Not enough for interaction

Not enough for interaction

Adventure designers fail when they suppose that character descriptions alone provide enough basis for interaction. Like maps and monster stats, NPC descriptions cannot stand alone in an adventure. Scenes provide the true basis for interaction.

Scenes require at least one of these three elements: a goal, an obstacle, and a lead. The best have all three elements.

The goal for a scene stems from what the players think they can accomplish by meeting a non-player character. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Strike a deal with the troll to let you pass. Discover why the beggar keeps staring at the party. Whenever the players must persuade an NPC to provide help or information, they have a goal.

Scenes without goals begin when NPCs approach the PCs. These scenes can provide flavor or exposition. For example, the players may help a merchant who speaks of the ghost ship raiding the coast, or a beggar who explains how the wizard looks just like a legendary tyrant. Most scenes without a goal establish one when an NPC explains what they offer, and then what obstacles the PCs must overcome to gain cooperation.

If an NPC only provides flavor without advancing the PCs’ goals, the players may enjoy a brief interaction, but soon they will wonder why you judged the NPC worth bringing on stage. “Who is this guy? Did we miss something that should make us care?”

A scene’s simplest obstacle comes when players must devise the right questions to get information they need from a willing source. Greater obstacles appear whenever an NPC in a scene proves unwilling or unable to help. For more, see “22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.” Scenes without obstacles tend to play short. Once players get the bit of information or assistance they need, they tend to grow impatient, ready for the next challenge.

Even if an NPC helps the players, when a scene presents no obstacles, players will lose interest. If you devote too much time to colorful shopkeepers when the players just want gear, they will gripe. Perhaps not to you, but to me. I’ve heard them. A lack of obstacles means that an adventure’s denouement, where the PC’s patron grants treasure and ties up loose ends, never seems very compelling.

Most scenes end with at least one lead, some clue or item that directs the players to their next step. For example, a lead could be the identity of the burglar who stole the Casket of Wrath, or the key to the vault. The best scenes end with a choice of leads to follow.

Fourth edition Living Forgotten Realms adventures often supported interaction with scenes rather than just characters. The fifth-edition adventures I’ve seen lapse back to just listing NPCs. Why? I suspect the 5E designers associate scenes with railroading. They wish to break from the tight-plotting of 4E adventures, where players moved between encounter numbers 1-2-3, in order. Instead, they list characters, and so force me to give players a reason to meet them in scenes.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

Scenes in the Living Forgotten Realms Adventure ELTU3-1 Good Intentions

The plots and NPCs in recent adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen and especially Murder in Baldur’s Gate show true ambition. I suspect the designers aimed for the role-playing equivalent of the n-body problem with the players and NPCs scheming, acting, and reacting in ways too dynamic for the constraints of scenes and encounters. So the authors delegate keeping track of all the threads to the dungeon master. We must become George R. R. Martin, except instead of getting years to hash out the details, we must improvise. To add to the challenge, these adventures still expect dungeon masters to adhere to an overall story, so I find myself choosing whether to use DM mind tricks to nudge the players back on course or to allow them to stray completely off text.  For me, the ambition of these adventures works better in scenarios I create, when I have a complete understanding of moving parts that I created. Published adventures work best when the DM can operate without mastery of entire storyline and its many, moving parts. They work best when they hold to encounters, locations, and scenes—with ample, meaningful choices for the players to choose a course from scene to scene.

Scenes do not contribute to railroading any more than dungeon walls. Railroading comes when adventures fail to offer players choices. If every scene ends with exactly one lead, then you have a railroad. If each scene ends with a few leads that offer interesting, meaningful choices, then you have adventure.

Related: For an example of my struggle to injecting more interaction into an adventure, see “What Murder In Baldur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing.”

22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate

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.

  1. She doesn’t want to get involved.
  2. He doesn’t like your kind, for example, strangers, elves, adventurers, or meddling kids.
  3. She doesn’t believe she can help.
  4. He thinks the players will only make things worse. They should leave well enough alone.
  5. She wants something: a bribe, an errand done, or to be convinced that she stands to gain if the players succeed.
  6. He has been paid to keep silent or to stay out.
  7. The players have insulted or offended her.
  8. 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.
  9. The players have unwittingly  caused her to suffer a loss.
  10. She feels that helping the players will betray her duties or obligations.
  11. He needs more information to support the players case before he can act.
  12. She knows or suspects that she or the players are watched.
  13. Someone he loves or respects told him not to help.
  14. She is secretly involved with the other side.
  15. The situation benefits her, for example, by raising the value of her trade goods, or by hurting competitors or rivals.
  16. She fears the players might claim a treasure or reward that she expects to get.
  17. He is allied with rivals or competitors to the party.
  18. She’s been threatened.
  19. Someone she loves safety is threatened.
  20. Someone he loves is involved with the other side.
  21. He’s not involved but might be implicated, perhaps for doing things that once seemed innocent.
  22. 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.

Group scenes and mass confusion

In Dungeons & Dragons, the dungeon master assumes the role of every non-player character. As a DM, when I must portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. Certainly if I were better at voices—and better at sticking to a voice—the confusion would lessen.

Short of voice acting class, I avoid the problem by contriving to have the players interact with one non-player character at a time.

Undead Fred cookie cuttersIn your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones. As a DM, you have a tougher job than a TV writer, because when you speak in character, the players may not always recognize your character. Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view.

Now suppose you’re Mel Blanc and Jim Dale rolled into one awesome dungeon master. Great! Can I play at your table? Nonetheless, you still shouldn’t have more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

As a dungeon master, you must work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, you should resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. In “The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge,” I suggested splitting the party to force everyone to contribute to an interactive skill challenge. But even without a skill challenge, dividing the party always serves as a great way to encourage less-vocal party members to take the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them their separate ways.