The importance of being second-string.
There was a time, during my high school and college D&D games, when NPCs killed more player characters than monsters did.
During the past 40+ years of running an ongoing tabletop RPG campaign in my own setting, I’ve come to realize some of the value of non-player characters (NPCs). I’ve been known to run an NPC to accompany the players during an adventure — but that can get dicey. Some players can develop a habit of deferring to the NPC because that character is run by the same person in charge of the game. Those players may cease to make decisions for themselves if the NPC is willing to do it for them — which should not be the case. Also, because all NPCs speak with the same mouth as the gamemaster (that’s me), many players seem willing to take everything they say as gospel truth.
That can be a heady power for one person to wield. It may require a measure of finesse.
For my own games, there tend to be about four distinct types of NPC.
1. The Companion: A character, created and played by the gamemaster to accompany and possibly aid the heroes. Can be used as a way for the gamemaster to communicate and interact directly with the players. Generally trustworthy.
2. The Catalyst: Someone that precipitates an adventure. This could be a king that orders the party to perform a task. Maybe a patron that offers a reward for some service. A wizard that places a geas upon the heroes to undertake a quest. Whatever works.
3. The Backdrop: All of those random people that occupy the town, city, kingdom, or world. The guard at the gate. The hawker of wares on the street. The performer in the square. The urchin trying to pick your pocket in the crowd. The affable innkeeper with bits of useful information. You know — folks.
4. The Rivals: For me, these are the truly enjoyable NPCs. These are other adventurers. What? Do we really think the player characters are the only adventurers in the entire world? The only, or even the best? They meet other adventurers in taverns from time to time, but what about on the road? How about inside the dungeon?
This time, I’d like to talk about the fourth group.
It surprises me that NPC adventurers don’t have more of an impact upon many of the settings I’ve seen. Not to steal the thunder from the player characters — that would essentially defeat the purpose of the entire game. Those other aspiring heroes can be peers, colleagues, rivals, patrons, or even role models. NPC adventurers of levels lower than the player characters might even look up to them, giving the players a little ego boost or sense of purpose. Those of comparable ability might be friendly rivals for jobs or glory. They could help keep the players on their toes. Nothing wrong with a little healthy competition. Some of them could even become friends. Then, imagine when one or more of those friendly rivals are found as mangled corpses in a dungeon passage by the player characters during an adventure. These are people the players knew. Maybe shared a campfire with. Possibly bought a round of drinks for in the local tavern. And, now they’re dead. Not only that, but they were of about the same level of ability as the heroes. Do we pause to consider that something brutally murdered these adventurers who were just as capable as the player characters in life? You bet we do.
I’ve also used these NPC adventurers for a timely rescue. While not something I would do more than once or twice, there was a time when the entire player character group was headed for certain doom — through no fault of their own. Just some bad choices and unfortunate die rolls. I confess to using another adventuring group to arrive at the eleventh hour to help pull them out of the fire. Just that once. And, it was still touch-and-go during the harrowing escape. One player took over an NPC as replacement for her own fallen character during the fight. This is the outline for that NPC adventuring group:
Adventuring group sponsored by the Circle of the Silver Flame — a cabal dedicated to the recovery of lost knowledge and the advancement of magic.
· Madis of the Silver Flame is a journeyman wizard in service to the Circle. Her father was a member of the Circle, before he was lost during a mission. Madis hopes to learn his fate, and someday join the Circle.
· Brother Brown is a cleric in plain earth tone robes with a deep cowl, and brown leather mask covering his entire face. One of his brown eyes is always bloodshot. Nearly killed by wights during a previous adventure, Brother Brown has spent the better part of a year in meditation and recovery. Which deity he serves is unknown.
· Cestus Bulwark is a massive human fighter with a shaven head and red goatee. Wears a pair of cesti which he uses like bucklers in combat. A brutal man in combat, but fond of singing (even in battle), and loyal to his companions.
· Dagger Norane was a mugger and low-rent assassin who drifted in and out of guilds. During a job, he found himself vastly outmatched and brutally beaten. Awakening a week later on his own ratty cot in a fleabag hostel, the last thing he recalls is the target’s hand. Not only the ornate ring set with a large fire opal and a golden phoenix within, but also having his throat cut with a knife. Shaken to his core, Dagger seeks redemption as a professional adventurer — hoping to become a hero someday. His given name is Daglan.
· Brevan Stout chose his adventuring name from the side of a keg in a faraway pub. What his given name and his past may be are none of your damn business. He is a dwarf.
· Arlenn Winterbrand is an elf maid who favors sword and shield over wand and scroll. Long white hair and ice-blue eyes. Very pale skin. Her mother was said to have been some kind of winter faerie that left the newborn with her father, then departed for parts unknown. Arlenn wields a frost blade in battle, supposedly left to her by her lost mother.
I’ve learned to take care in the use of NPCs as individuals and as groups. Made sure not to have NPCs guide the adventure or usurp the glory. Gone out of my way to offer them as examples of the kind of people my fantasy world is likely to produce. Tried to give each one just enough personality and detail to make them memorable, but not to make them a distraction. A true fantasy world is made up of people. Lots and lots of people.