Roleplaying scenes prove most compelling when players start with a goal and face an obstacle to overcome. Even encounters with the most vivid and fascinating non-player characters fall flat without these two essential elements. When characters lack a goal and a dungeon master launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. When a scene lacks an obstacle, it bores. (See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure and Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.) So as a DM, when a roleplaying scene lacks a goal and an obstacle, either summarize the scene and move on, or add the goal or obstacle that the scene needs.
Typically, roleplaying encounters combine an objective of gaining information or help, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.
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.
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 the NPC’s objections.
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 non-player characters refuse to cooperate.
|01-05||Doesn’t want to get involved.|
|06-08||Doesn’t like your type. I recommend avoiding racism analogs in D&D games, so don’t select even a fantasy race or lineage as a type. Instead, choose a role like bards, adventurers, or meddling kids.|
|09-13||Doesn’t believe anyone can help.|
|14-19||Thinks the players will only make things worse and should leave well enough alone.|
|20-27||Wants something: a bribe, an errand done, or to be convinced that they stand to gain if the players succeed.|
|28-31||Was paid to keep silent or to stay out.|
|32-36||Insulted or offended by the players.|
|37-40||Thinks the players efforts are dangerous because they don’t understand what’s really going on. The NPC might know something the players don’t.|
|41-43||The players have unwittingly caused the NPC to suffer a loss.|
|44-46||Feels that helping the players will betray the NPC’s duties or obligations.|
|47-51||Needs more information to support the players case.|
|52-54||Knows or suspects that either the NPC or the players are watched.|
|55-57||Told not to help by someone the the NPC loves or respects.|
|58-60||Told not to cooperate by an authority.|
|61-65||Secretly involved with the other side.|
|66-70||The situation benefits the NPC, for example, by raising the value of the NPC’s trade goods, or by hurting competitors or rivals.|
|71-74||Fears the players might claim a treasure or reward that the NPC expects to get.|
|75-77||Is allied with rivals or competitors to the party.|
|78-82||Has been threatened.|
|83-87||Someone the NPC loves is threatened.|
|88-92||Someone the NPC loves is involved with the other side.|
|93-97||Not involved but might be implicated, perhaps for doing things that once seemed innocent.|
|98-00||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 un-fun. 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.