Adventuring NPCs

Creating meaningful, adventuresome non-player characters that enhance the campaign, without stealing the spotlight

By MARK WILSON

Alright kobolds and firbolgs, let’s talk about the GMPC. First, if you really want to craft a player character (PC) for yourself as a Game Master (GM), the thing you have to do is ignore the protestations of your players and demand their fealty as their overlord.

Then ignore that clickbait first paragraph, and let’s transition into the topic at hand…

NPC Ally Roles in RPGs

This article is about the various roles you can give to non-player character (NPC) allies, and how to responsibly bring them to life in a campaign.

More specifically, I want this to focus on adventuring NPCs. The kind that serve larger roles than your typical innkeeper or caravan driver.

I want to tackle this topic in two ways:

  1. Start with small roles and build up to the most prominent, recurring NPCs
  2. Spend the most time at the largest roles, replete with examples, since those are the ones that can make or break entire arcs of a campaign

In the interest of completion, I think #1 there is important. But we won’t spend long on it. Because come on. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been around at least a few RPG blocks. You know how to populate your campaigns with shopkeepers and bartenders. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence except to offer a few twists on some classic nuggets.

The Defining NPC Principle

“Thy NPCs shall not grabbeth the spotlight from thy players, upon whom the campaign must shineth brightly.”

Or something like that.

But seriously, this is my guidepost for every NPC, even the really prominent ones. The spotlight should be on the players and their actions. Any exceptions are for the briefest of moments for a big reveal or dramatic scene, before reverting back to being the players’ story.

This is true for kings and queens, or legendary characters pulled from popular fiction (e.g. Luke Skywalker, Elminster, etc.) and thrust into the campaign. They’re not the focus.

If you disagree with this principle, I’d love to hear why, but expect some pushback from me. This principle guides much of my GMing as a whole, and it’s not failed me yet.

As we’ll see, though, the NPCs can compliment players in ways that go beyond mere bit roles, but without breaking this rule.

What Is an NPC’s Purpose?

If the story belongs to the players, NPCs serve a function within that story. So what is it?

Most will be functional. That cleric they meet runs the orphanage where one of the PCs grew up. Or the hacker who approaches them in a bar stumbled onto some information that could get him killed, and he’s looking for help. Or the bartender serves drinks and passes along local rumors.

It’s simple stuff…usually.

But if an eccentric wizard joins them on the road for a day or two (and maybe half a session of game time), is it just so you can fill in some time with a goofy voice and a few weird stories? That sounds like it doesn’t serve the players’ story. Where’s the narrative function? But that arbitrary companion suddenly becomes more useful if, embedded in their ramblings, there’s information on the surrounding villages, or info on the power structures of important factions in the world. Or if they discover that they have a common enemy, even if their eventual roads take them apart shortly thereafter.

In practice, both executions will “feel” similar. But the latter is more intentional, because it moves the story somewhere.

For clarity, I don’t mind elements untethered to the central narrative, but these tend to be lore dumps or extremely minor elements (e.g. “…a particular rare flower grows in these woods…”). For NPCs, anything beyond “leatherworker” or “tax collector” is going to infringe on the characters or narrative, and should usually be treated as such.

NPC Quick-Build

I’m going to borrow a few great tips from frequent RPGGeek contributor Clark Timmins:

  1. Give them a ‘tic’ or a mannerism or something that stands out
  2. Give them a name, a locale, and a one/two-sentence “story”
  3. Make them more committed to their own life than in the characters’
  4. Make them behave consistently – but not robotically

All good advice, which I can cosign.

To elaborate on the “tic,” I usually just pick 2-3 adjectives that inform everything from their mannerisms and voice to their personality and motivations.

A wizard whose superpower is striking epic poses

Movies as Character Templates

The Oscars have awards for Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress. While the distinction may seem ultimately a bit arbitrary, in practice, we can almost always tell the difference quite easily.

RELATED: Make It Your Own: Stealing & Adapting Non-RPG Elements Into Your Game

A supporting actor may have a side plot or arc of their own, but their presence is almost invariably in service to the protagonist(s). So the key is baked into the name: a supporting actor is one who supports in a very literal narrative sense.

Case Study: Aratissa Amaquissar

This is my favorite NPC I’ve ever played. She was the noble elven older sister to one of the PCs. The PC (Rae) was shirking her noble birthright to go goth, steal things, and lay low. Aratissa (Tis) was concerned about her younger sister, but also concerned with appearances: her own and her family.

Tis skirted the official action for a while, writing to her sister about her exploits, which involved digging into the pasts (families, history, etc.) of the other PCs, to make sure Rae was safe with them. Mischief ensued, but all off-camera, so to speak. This news eventually got to the party, who were angered. Tis eventually showed up, all haughty privilege and vanity, annoying or infuriating the entire party at times.

And yet, she wanted to help. She was a cleric, and was concerned for her sister’s safety. She just provided her aid in a profoundly annoying manner…but it was still valuable aid. Near the campaign’s end, with the major threat ended, she used her noble status to gain an audience at a large public event and announced to the nobles present that her beautiful younger sister Rae was both a hero and eminently single…an announcement that gave Rae dozens of suitors to reluctantly fend off.

Rae’s player almost leapt out of her chair to strangle me, a huge smile belying her actual amusement at the event.

Ok, so what did this all accomplish?

  1. By proving to be an annoying foil to her sister, it heightened and spotlighted her sister’s (the PC’s) behavior.
  2. In digging into the past of the other PCs, even if only to meddle in unhelpful ways, it allowed me to bring elements of player backstories to the forefront. I even managed a couple cameos of other family members, all due to Aratissa.

Aratissa had, at times, a near-equal spotlight on her to the PCs. But I only brought her more and more into that spotlight because the roleplaying between her and the others proved to be so delicious. She chastised, stole from, nearly seduced one, and condescended to almost every party member at some point, but each of those actions supported some development of theirs.

Her on-screen presence was also limited. She was present for an arc of about 5-6 sessions, which is the longest I’ve ever kept a co-adventuring NPC around.

Taking us back to “movies as templates,” can you imagine a romantic comedy where the protagonist is a rebellious young adult, with an overbearing and obsessively vain older sister who’s worried about the family name, but still finds ways to genuinely care for her younger sister? It almost feels like a trope, though I can’t name a specific movie reference for it. In either case, the rebellious one’s arc is the main plot, but it’s shaped by the older sister.

Taking It Too Far

With his permission, here’s another short list of Clark’s about what NOT to do:

  • Don’t let them become a “GM’s character”
  • Don’t become so attached to them that they become immortal/invincible
  • Don’t let them become a “solution of all trades” – they have a (narrow) role; they should act in that role
  • Don’t let them become so static that they are 100% reliable/predictable

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of those.

Don’t Have a GMPC
Was Aratissa a GM player character? I was having grand fun with her, after all, and she was an ally for an entire arc of the campaign.

I don’t think there’s a set limit on how long a combat-ready PC should be around. Maybe it’s a single scene, maybe it’s a full session. Often, for me, it’s been 2-4 sessions. Aratissa was my record, at 5-6.

But I had an exit strategy from the start. And I think that’s one of the keys. Why are they there, and for how long? If the answer is that their goals are the same as the party, that has to be only for a subset of the party’s long-term goals. Even if they both want to rid the world of The Evil God, for example, how they accomplish that should branch their path from the PCs eventually.

Don’t Become Attached
The best possible end for an NPC is a noble death. Or even an ignoble death. Seriously, they are a fictional, ephemeral entity. Any death is likely to be memorable, which is probably the best thing an NPC can be.

Solution of All Trades
I’ve fallen into this trap. Hell, Tissa up there was a healer, which is something that party lacked. In the back of my mind, I was probably at least partially filling in that gap out of concern for the PCs in what was a long-running, dramatic campaign.

NPCs are narrative and character tools first, or serve a specific function, as mentioned earlier.

My personal solution is often to truncate adventuring NPCs’ abilities. A spell list will be one third the size it could be, or they’ll only use a couple thematic abilities. It defines their role in a specific way, rather than forcing me into a situation where I’m rifling through stuff to find the “best” option in a situation.

Don’t Make Them Static
It’s easy to let NPCs fill the role of tropes. But this also makes them predictable.

Tropes are fine; useful, even, at times. But if you’re keeping an NPC around for any significant length of time, what’s one thing they could do to break the expected mold?

One might be enough to instill a sense of mystery or uncertainty in the players, even if the character is still their ally.

Case Study: The Mad Monk

One of our campaigns featured a potential ally who had lost his sanity. This made him not just unreliable but dangerous at times. It took some ingenuity to cure the better part of his insanity, but the lasting image of his initial madness meant that we always kept him at a distance.

As a result, it was an alliance more out of necessity than anything else, despite the fact that we did share common goals.

Case Study: The Ambiguous Villain

Villains are villains, except when they aren’t. We’re familiar with the “anti-hero” archetype. I’d argue that “The Ambiguous Villain” (my own phrase) is somewhat different, though.

They serve their own ends, and aren’t afraid to do some dirty work to achieve them. This could include minor crimes or even major violations such as murder. There’s a moral compass somewhere in there, though, and their goals will often align with those of more traditionally goodly beings. Or their crimes will harm those who most deserve it. But their methods may still be objectionable.

So when presented with such an NPC, will a party oppose them? Ignore them? Work for them or with them?

This one, to me, makes the most sense as a quest-giver, patron, or faction leader. However, these roles all have the potential to become recurring, and could even include adventuring with the players. And what happens when a morally ambiguous NPC is adventuring with them, one that they might not be able to fully trust? The possibilities to play off of PC motivations and personalities are myriad.

Case Study: Tom Bombadil

Merry fellow, no? I agree. However, there’s more under the surface of this iconic, somewhat bizarre NPC ally of Frodo and company.

Bombadil is a bit of a “get out of jail for free” card in Fellowship of the Ring, so you may not wish to use a similar NPC in your party. However, I think there’s some benefit to it.

Say your party is low level. You want to impress upon them the danger of the world around them, and their comparative lack of power (at least at the moment). How to do this? Throw them into a nigh-impossible challenge, then have an even more powerful ally save them. Maybe if they meet that same NPC later in the campaign, it will provide a fun benchmark to mark their progression as characters.

I ran a variation of this once, where an NPC who was obviously more powerful than the PCs saved them in one fight, then helped them for a couple sessions. But then she was mind-controlled and the party had to fight her (and some others). It was appropriately terrifying for the players, but only because I first established the NPC as more powerful. In this case, the power gap wasn’t as large as the implied gap with Bombadil, but the principle was similar.

Retainers and Hirelings

RPGs have a rich history of hired help. This might be apocryphal, but I think the first group to clear Gary Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors did so with a bunch of hired cannon fodder.

Escaping D&D for a second, it’s not hard to imagine hirelings in any setting where the PCs could presumably amass enough wealth and influence to hire combat-ready helpers.

In these cases, I’d personally follow a few simple rules:

  1. The PCs should be more powerful and prominent than the retainers.
  2. The cost should be substantial, but not prohibitive. If the cost is trivial, it becomes an easy solution to problems that may sap drama from the proceedings.
  3. There is not an endless supply of potential hirelings.
  4. The party’s reputation may influence the quality and number of willing applicants for hirelings positions.
  5. Similarly, they may have to actively seek out help, or recruit adventurers to their cause.
  6. They’d adhere to the few rules outlined above regarding personality, tics, consistency, etc.
  7. The hirelings can display agency of their own. They aren’t constructs or automatons. They remain in the background, but are able to think on their own.

Have an Exit Strategy

Always have an exit strategy for NPCs. Maybe you change your mind midway through and they stick around for a few more sessions. But the exit strategy should always be there, so that you can pull the plug when their presence becomes onerous for some reason.

What’s the easiest way to do this? My strategy is simple: Tie them to a specific plot hook.

This hook is not synonymous with the overarching goal of the story arc or campaign.

Example: Sith War

Campaign-Level Hook: Defeat the Sith uprising
Arc-Level Hook: Liberate a planet {Planet X} that has fallen under Sith control
NPC Motivation: The Sith commander who led the conquest of Planet X murdered my family. I’ll see him dead even if I have to join them in the afterlife.

Boom, built-in exit strategy.

And the “twist” might be if the commander escapes the attempt on his life and flees the planet. Maybe that NPC is around for the next arc, or one further down the line when the Sith Lord returns.

The Danger of the Resolved Character

“Nabokov illustrates the danger, the foolishness, of trying to reduce a human being to a single, simple image… Similarly, as writers we might tend toward logical or conventional patterns in our characters – not stereotypes, but understandable people. Resolved characters.”

– Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic

People don’t make sense. Not from the outside looking in, and sometimes not even to ourselves.

This is the weirdest item I’m going to offer up in this article, but I think it’s important: Not everything fits neatly into a resolved state in life. This is true of people as well.

This sort of relates to Clark’s earlier point about not making an NPC entirely reliable, but I think it goes beyond that. Their mood could change, they could become distracted or bored, or simply change their mind on something without provocation.

Granted, some of this type of nuance should be reserved for PCs. Don’t strain too hard to make every NPC a deep mystery. But spare a thought for how you might be able to make them more realistic with the occasional illogical progression.

Appendices

Some tables to help give you ideas for further use of this concept.

Appendix A. Reasons for NPCs to Join a Party

A hodge-podge of reasons why an NPC might join the party for some adventuring.

  • The blacksmith longs to test their creations themselves, and offers a substantial discount for the party to take them along for an adventure.
  • A local holy person is asked to acquire special herbs for a ritual that’s to take place.
  • A particularly zealous religious following is looking for excuses to head into the world and do their deity’s work.
  • You need a particular item, but only one person knows where to find it, but he’s not telling unless you take him with you.
  • You’re given a task by a faction leader, along with a companion to make sure the faction’s interests are kept in mind.
  • She needs to leave town…NOW! She’ll pay, and can protect herself on the road.
  • A curious teen wants to see an adventurer’s life up close and personal, and won’t take no for an answer.
  • My lord has assigned me to protect you along the road from Sprucetuck to Lockhaven.
  • A starship captain hires you to steal his starship back, but he’ll have to tag along with you until he gets it back.
  • My son fell down a well! He’s dead, but my daughter got abducted by wolves! I must save her!
  • Sure, the black market sells that. But they won’t sell to you…
  • Yeah, me and the wookie can take you and the old man to Alderaan. My ship’s the fastest there is. But it won’t be cheap.

Appendix B. Excuses to Split

Some excuses for splitting an NPC from the group, either temporarily or permanently.

  • We’ve done good stuff together, but I need to stay back and watch over the town. I hope our paths cross again!
  • I’m not cut out for this. Give me a warm hearth over this nonsense any day!
  • My master is pleased. I must report back to him.
  • I’ve been reassigned to lead the 10th garrison, far to the south.
  • You almost got me killed! You can go to hell!
  • Thanks for the offer, but I’m off to Thistledown next to visit a family member.
  • It’s almost midnight, so I’m about to revert back to my pickle form.
  • Good, it’s finished. Time for me to find a new path to tread.

Appendix C. Inspiration

A random assortment of phrases, ideas and archetypes that might inspire you to other creations.

  • A rich noble hosts the most opulent parties, and takes a shine to the players.
  • A craftsman is at the height of their skill, and needs an adventuring party to test certain creations.
  • A local is able to sniff out magic or technological wonders. They don’t seem too excited about adventure, but could be convinced.
  • The Mentor whose adventuring days are (almost) behind them.
  • The Mentee looking to learn from an established adventurer.
  • Pupper looking for his master. Also, he can speak. And maybe fight.
  • Is the adventuring companion bodiless? Trapped in an item or phylactery? Cohabitating a PC’s body?
  • She only appears on the full moon…

Appendix D. Additional Resources

Behind The Screen #19: Inspiration and Sources for NPCs

Behind the Screen #32 – Keeping Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer: Running a Campaign with NPCs that Matter

___

For more content, or just to chat, find me on Twitter @BTDungeons, and if you enjoy my work, check out my creative work for D&D and other RPGs.

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