The Reluctant Ally
A template for NPCs that can add tension to your game.
By MARK WILSON
We tend to disparage cliches and tropes today, in favor of wild variations on those norms. I don’t dislike that sort of variance, but sometimes there’s a reason the standards became the standards. So I like to look at tropes to see what I can learn from them, and also how I can present fresh, interesting interpretations of them at my table to enhance my D&D games.
The Reluctant Ally is a name I just came up with, but I’m sure you’re already thinking of characters who fit the mold. Fate thrusts them together with someone that they either don’t particular like, or outright loathe, but the two sides must work together toward some common purpose.
Tension and “decision points” are things I actively try to generate as a DM. And the reluctant ally provides a constant stream of both of these things. If the two sides actually hate one another, either side could turn on the other at any point. This can both put the players on high alert, as well as giving them the decision of whether or not to betray their ally first.
How To Introduce The Reluctant Ally NPC
The first way is one we already mentioned: the larger threat. In D&D, there’s plenty of precedent for this. One of the earliest R.A. Salvatore Drizzt novels has Drizzt and Artemis Entreri working together to escape a portion of the Underdark together, knowing that they’re likely doomed without the other’s help. Entreri would play this role on several occasions in the following years, and it served to create a legendary amount of tension between him and Drizzt, as well as the other members of Drizzt’s company.
Another great way to introduce this type of character is to bring in an NPC that is loyal to only one of the party, but either mistrusts or dislikes the others. Their motivation is to help that one person, but not the others. Probably my favorite NPC of all-time fit this mold. She was the sister of one of my PCs. She cared for her sister, but was extremely vain, haughty and condescending. She rubbed the rest of the party the wrong way on numerous occasions, and almost came to blows with one of them. But she was simultaneously a valuable asset to the party (and blood relative of one of them). So there was an uneasy truce between them all.
Lastly, a great way to introduce a reluctant ally is to have it be a minion who is in service to a larger power, and they’re following orders. Maybe the mercenary troupe isn’t loyal to the party and doesn’t much care about their quest(s), but they’re getting paid well by their employer, so they do as they’re told. This isn’t the same type of tension as the others, but can again provide some interesting roleplaying options and tense decisions about how the NPCs handle certain situations.
“If the two sides actually hate one another, either side could turn on the other at any point. This can both put the players on high alert, as well as giving them the decision of whether or not to betray their ally first.”
The Backstab Moment
There are entire games (Diplomacy being a famous example) based around this premise. Everyone knows that the others are in it for themselves, but each person must ally themselves with others in order to survive. In doing so, however, they risk getting stabbed in the back at nearly all times. This dance can entertain some players through years of gaming, and there are very few narrative moments as delicious as a well-executed backstab.
So don’t think that your game only has to have NPCs that are loyal to or against the party. There’s a grey area in the middle, and it’s a fun area to play in.