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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons - How To Get the Most Out of NPCs

This article is a compilation of things I've learned about handling NPCs in Dungeons and Dragons from running games over the years. Some of these ideas might not work for you. Everyone has their own style. Obviously, do what you feel comfortable with.

I am using art from Pathfinder and D&D artist Eva Widermann in this column. She's pretty awesome and very overlooked, in my opinion.


This is stuff I use to help cook up NPCs:
 Non-Player Characters

An NPC is a non-player character - an individual not controlled by the players. The Dungeon Msater controls them. They are bartenders, elves in the forest, sea captains, villains, you name it. In this article, I am going to focus on friendly NPCs for the most part.

Let's kick this off with a couple of things that, in my opinion, you want to either avoid doing or exercise extreme caution if you go for it:

Mis-step #1: Using Your Old PCs As NPCs
Often, new DMs really love the idea of having their characters from other campaigns show up in their own campaign. Sometimes, the campaign even revolves around your old PC and the stuff he or she did.

This generally doesn't go too well. If you want to play, be a player. Your campaign should be about the exploits of your players, not a celebration of your hero. It doesn't take much to get the players to start to resent your old PC, especially if he's some legendary hero that everyone talks about all the time.

Your PC could show up and make a cameo or something fun like that. But that's usually only compelling to you, the DM, and you also run the risk of the PCs trolling you by embarrassing or beating up your treasured PC.

In general, you should keep in mind that the stars of the campaign are your players, not your old PCs.

Mis-step #2: The DM PC

That brings us to the scourge of dungeon mastery: The DM PC. I bet most of you have a horror story involving this topic.

It might seem like a cool idea for you to run a character in your own game. Maybe you never get a chance to be a player and this is your best shot. Maybe the party has a role (healer, usually) that needs filling.

I have never seen a DM PC run well. Ever. The DM PC is often a super-badass with plot invincibility because, well, his player is the DM. The PC knows the answer to every riddle, has secret relationships with the world, and almost always has astonishing success in their romantic lives. The other players just roll their eyes and the campaign becomes "DMPC and His Amazing Friends".

The Support NPC

Here is my suggestion. If the party has a role that needs filling, make a "support NPC". They don't need full stats, just monster stats and a couple healing stats or class traits. The support NPC can be a loyal friend who you can use to give players clues when they get stuck, or to lead them to a secret door they overlooked.

The support NPC can also be linked to a particular organization or entity that you want to feature in your campaign.

The support NPC should never outshine your heroes! I can't stress enough that this game is about your PCs getting to be Indiana Jones. You are Steven Spielberg, not Harrison Ford. You run Short Round and the nazis. It's fun and fulfilling all on its own. Leave the player stuff to the players.

Have Random NPCs Ready
Coming up with NPCs on the fly is very hard. You should have a stockpile on them at the ready, either on a piece of paper or on your tablet or whatever. You don't need stats, just a few basic notes. You need enough to make the NPC stand out, that's all.

It happens quite a bit - the PCs suddenly want to pull a random citizen off the street or pick a fight at a bar or get to know their local potion dealer. At the very least, have a list of cool names ready to use.

Picking Names

When choosing NPC names, make sure to pick names that are easy to say out loud. Some names look good on paper but are very awkward to vocalize (I never liked saying "Driz'zt"). Try to find names that are cool and fun to say out loud, like "Ebonbane" or "Cataphract".

Joke Names: Be careful! Your players will make joke names if the opportunity arises. Make sure you don't name your epic campaign villain something like "Major Thrallstack", because your players will be giggling about different ways to shrivel "Major Ballsack" for months to come.

Variety: Players have a hard time keeping the names straight. Try to give your NPCs different types of names. Some might be referred to as a single word, such as "Ava". Others are always referred to in the full name, like "Phineus T. Greymantle". Another might be "Lady Shadowborn".

Make sure to try to use different first letters for each major NPC's name. If you have three NPCs named Sandra, Sandoval and Serindal, it might be extra tricky for your players to keep them straight.

Portraying an NPC

In general, your NPCs should be helpful and kind to the PCs. It is a common mistake for DMs to have most of the NPCs in the campaign world be stingy or cruel to the PCs. Remember, the PCs are special - they have status, they have wealth, they have power. They also likely have made the world a better place and the legends of their exploits are spreading. Most NPCs won't want to get on their bad side at all. Most NPCs will want to show their appreciation, through gifts of food or shelter, or a simple thanks.

I've said this before but it bears repeating - when the NPCs treat your PCs kindly, it makes the PCs love your world and want to keep it from harm.

Coming Up With Unique NPCs
Use Books and Movies: A lot of times, you might get an idea for a cool NPC from a book or movie. It is fine to rip stuff off, as long as your players aren't familiar with it. You should be up front about where you got the idea from, in case they stumble upon the source weeks later.

It's often best to take a cool character from a book, strip elements from it and modify it to make it your own. If the source is especially obscure, then you could take it whole cloth.

Developing Voices: You can also end up with a classic NPC through developing a new voice or accent. If you hear a cool or funny voice, imitate it. Work on it with friends or alone. It's OK if it's terrible, as long as it is fun to do. A character will grow out of it, and these characters usually end up becoming PC favorites because of how you have brought them to life.

A good NPC needs to feel real. If your players talk about an NPC between sessions, wondering what she meant when she said X, then you are doing a great job.

Threatening the Life of an NPC

You have to be very careful. If you constantly have bad guys kidnap the PC's favorite NPC, the players will begin to resent you and feel like you are using NPCs as a way to mess with the players. It can come off as "cheap".

The players went out of their way to make a connection with your NPC. Do not discourage them or give them a reason to feel that your NPCs are a meta-game "trap". Players should often be rewarded through investing time to build a relationship with an NPC. Your players need to be able to trust that you aren't trying to arbitrarily trying to screw them over at every opportunity.

Gender Equality
When I populate a campaign with NPCs, I try to make 50% of them male and the other 50% female. In my Skull & Shackles campaign, some of my players were taken aback when they saw that half the pirates on most ships were female. The traditional depiction of pirates in movies and TV is a bunch of sweaty dudes with anchor tattoos. But everyone took to the mixed-gender crews in a big way.

In general, it is very fun to switch up traditional gender roles in RPG games. We are living in a time when all of this gender stuff is still being ironed out, so it is a touchy subject.

I am a big fan of Ronda Rousey, the UFC women's bantamweight champion. It's very disheartening to see people make comments online that say things like "only idiots pay to see women fight".

For the record, up to 600,000 people pay to see each of Ronda's fights (at $55 a pop), and she was named the biggest box office draw of 2014 in the Wrestling Observer, which covers boxing, wrestling and MMA.

Sometimes in your games, the greatest fighter in the land should be a woman.


Some of my most popular NPCs are the ones that come with the heroes - lantern-bearers, talking magic items and intelligent animals. I use these a lot to help guide the PCs when they get lost, to share lore they may have missed, and for comic relief.

Treat them with care! They will likely become a central part of your campaign. Henchmen and hirelings can be especially fun. Again, make sure to have these NPCs react realistically to the PCs.

Often, one PC will be a jerk to them. The hireling should avoid that PC or even flee the party if it turns into abuse. Conversely, a PC who treats the hireling well will earn enduring loyalty from the hireling, who might go on to great things (maybe the hireling ends up as the captain of the guard in a large settlement).


Giving NPCs a secret, big or small, really goes along way in bringing the game to life. The secret can be anything from being a kleptomaniac, to being in love with the married neighbor, to being the cousin of the campaign's bad guy.

The NPC's secret should at times motivate them. The PCs might wonder why an NPC reacted in a peculiar way. Once the PCs uncover one secret, they wonder what else is lurking beneath the surface of your campaign. It gives your world depth and gets the players thinking about your game between sessions.

Garbage Magic Items
Your PCs "garbage" magic items - like, say, a +1 dagger or a potion of plant control, mean so much to an NPC in the game world. If a PC hands one off to an NPC, the NPC should use it in a way that affects the world in some way, big or small.

The potion might be used to create a special garden in the village. Or it might be stolen and used by someone to commit a murder.

The magic dagger might make the NPC a feared and respected entity. Rumor spreads that she has this magic dagger. Any altercation in the street would be settled just by the dagger being drawn, its' runes glowing brightly. After all, these mundane NPCs can only guess at the power inside of that magic dagger.

This will help convey to the heroes how special magic items, and how truly awesome their powerful items are in the campaign world.

The Usual Suspects

When developing your campaign or preparing for a session, there's certain types of NPCs that come up again and again:


Bartenders are tricky! Almost every bartender in every D&D game is a bald guy with an eyepatch who doesn't take any guff. It gets old after a while. Try something like:
  • A bard who struck it rich with a hit song that everyone is sick of. He bought a bar and talks endlessly about his days as a big star.
  • A dwarven lady who can out-drink and out arm-wrestle anybody. She knows more about booze than most.
  • A retired pirate/sea captain with an utterly filthy mouth and maybe a magic parrot.
Town Guards

Don't make them all jerks! The town guards are trying to protect the town. At least some of them should be portrayed as noble and heroic, unless you're running a city that is vile and corrupt. You can have some jerks, but there should be some nice ones, too. Here's some examples:
  • A master of polearms, a whiskery fellow who sneaks a drink now and then.
  • A coward at heart who could become a hero with a bit of encouragement by the PCs.
  • A detective-type with a keen intellect and incredible deductive skills with a trusty hound always at her side.
Potion Vendors/Town Wizard
  • A shady orc selling stolen merchandise in an alley
  • A wizard always experimenting with new spells and potions, and wants to use the PCs as a guinea pig
  • A sorceress obsessed with dragons. She will pay handsomely for dragon parts like bones or a heart of a dragon. She may be a dragon in mortal form?
  • A kind and pure agent of goodness who adheres to every law, to a fault.
  • A hefty, hairy fellow who is a best buddy, always ready with a joke or encouraging word.
  • A woman who receives dreams sent to her by a divine source, or perhaps a trickster enemy.
  • The town drunk, always picking a fight. Has a terrible past where a loved one was turned to stone.
  • A member of the thieves' guild, eavesdropping on the PCs to learn of what treasure they've scored.
  • A seductress trying to find someone to use and manipulate for social standing.
Rival Adventurers

One of my favorite tropes to use is the "other" heroes. They could be enemies of the PCs, or kindred spirits. These adventurers can go on adventures that your PCs bailed out on. Or they can go into a dungeon and save the PCs from a TPK.

The PCs might hear of their exploits, and see them building a stronghold. This could motivate the PCs to build their own, cooler stronghold. You can use the rivals to demonstrate the cool things PCs can do with their characters.

Don't Force a Favorite

Once you've got your NPCs ready, you'll probably have some favorites. That usually shines through when you run them, and the NPC becomes a major part of the campaign. But sometimes your pet NPC just doesn't click. Maybe the heroes just never even interact with them. That's part of the game! Sit back and see how it all mixes together. That's a lot of the fun of D&D.


Unknown said...

Awesome mindfood and great advice! Cheers!

Zachary Orzech said...

Great information! I often bring in "DM PCs" but my group usually knows i'm trying to kill the "DM PC" in some way so it usually turns into my players saving the "DM PC" (while risking their own lives) who becomes an NPC contact and the players will meet a new "DM PC" and i'll try to kill that one too. Sometimes they live, other times it's pretty gruesome and the players can mourn or move on. :)