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GM Working with NPCs

Game Management

Working with NPCs

What are NPCs

NPC stands for Non Player Character or basically all the people in a game setting that can be interacted with by the players and their characters. It represents all characters who the Players don’t control and under the direction of the Games or Dungeon Master (DM).

Each NPC has a level of detail associated with it. Sometime the NPCs are created on the spot, or fully fleshed out with a specific backstory. Each of these NPCs are as valid as each other and provide enrichment to the game that makes it feel more like a interactive setting instead of a story your just witnessing.

NPCs come alive with their words, description and actions and can become a memorable part of the game.

It should also be noted that personal views of NPCs and statements are not always true, and they can lie, mislead, or redirect characters based on their motivations including how the players have treated them in the past.

A NPC is not going to automatically trust or believe a player character, just because they are a player character. Trust needs to be earned if you want the best possible outcomes from them as they are the extensions of the DM. In the story they can interact with the players, not just describe a scene, item or encounter. A NPC is where most of the Role Play in the term Role Playing Game comes from, without interacting with them, you have reduced the DM roll to a narrator telling the story without being part of it. So fo be fair to your DM’s, talk to the NPCs, strike up a conversation from the point of view of your own character as see what the Role Play aspect of the game can provide.

Why work with NPCs

While the Player Characters (or PCs) are the focus of the story, they are not the whole story. If there were no other interactions available the game would not be as interesting consisting of party encounters and challenges and forcing any character growth to be between players only. While this approach is possible, it is also leaving the DM out of the game while they do it.

Backstory with NPCs

As a rule in my games, a characters background does not exist until it is spoken by the character in the game. If the back story is never going to affect the game, then it is not relevant to the story. Such as a preference for walnuts when your character never eats nuts. How is a back story relevant to working with NPCs you might ask, well it is how you can discuss your background, or important elements with NPCs as part of rest, relaxation or between encounters. It gives players a chance to express what they want about the character such as a funny story from their past, while having other players aware of the events, but not forcing them to participate to get it out.

The same goes with ignoring NPCs, saying you talk to them as a Player, but your character never does is missing that Role Play aspect of NPCs and making it a tick box interaction that does not assist the storyline or play of the group.

Some common sense with such interactions is always recommended as any time you take away from the table for just your character is time the others don’t have to be part of the game unless you include them. As a shared resource, taken the focus onto just your character should not be for all session, with a recommendation that it is less than the number of players (including DM) as shared time for the session. i.e. if there were four players (including DM) then for each hour of play, the game should not focus on one particular character for more than 15 minutes (1/4 of an hour). If each each character got their spotlight that would leave little group time remaining, but at least some for the session.

Familiars as NPCs

While a characters familiar is part of their class abilities, most players do not include a personality with their familiar, or even remember it is there most of the time. I have had players go for up to ten sessions before remembering they have a familiar from the last time they interacted with it.

As an NPC the familiar gains personality, and appearance. It will interact with the party members, they will see it and feel it as an active part of the group. As a player stat block it is mostly ignored.

So the Player can either provide characterisation for their Familiar or the DM will do it for them based on how that player has described it. Either way the addition of an active familiar is a benefit to the story.

The familiar should have a distinctive appearance so they can tell it apart from others of its kind means that roleplaying using the familiar for sending messages does not result in other players asking since when did you get a familiar. This can include how it communicated with the party, how it talks (if it can) and what activities it gets up to.

An example is a witches fiendish familiar, with red glowing eyes, that always seems to be staring at one particular party member whenever they notice it. Another is a familiar that always seems to be handing rocks to people as a gift. Or another that likes to sit on people while they rest for attention.

Mounts as NPCs

Why have mounts as NPCs. Because they are present in the game, and something the player either ignores and in a way mistreats or they talk about how they look after the mount, caring for its well being and seeing to its needs.

A horse for example, can have a helpful attitude to the PC, or could simply be annoyed and hold a grudge for some slight they gave it or they forget to give it promised treats for its service. While it remains in their control, it does not mean it can’t have a personality of its own.

A groups mounts might compete against each other, or even attack given the opportunity depending on their natures. A griffon for example might see a horse as a meal and not a friend.

Another thing to consider is the Speak with Animals spell and ritual allows the Players to communicate with their mounts and really define their motivations. Of course this can turn into comedy or tragedy depending on needs, it is an opportunity that Player to have meaningful conversations that continue over time.

The lifestyle of the mount is under the control of their PC, so a Player needs to be aware of how their treat their mounts reflects on how other NPCs in the game world see them.

Companions as NPCs

A companion is either a Druid/Ranger aspect or a Hireling brought on to serve an particular PC. Either works as a companion as the player is responsible for this NPC even if they do not control their actions.

Older versions of most animal companions had them being solely in the Players control as they direct their every action, new versions of rules have moved those actions to the DM and require the PC to use their valuable actions to request the companion to act.

Either way, the companion should react more based on how they are treated by the PC and less on what the PC’s stat block or class feature says. As a game, it should be fun, but it should also be a place for players to show compassion, friendship and heroics. Keeping an animal constantly chained up or under a PC’s thumb is one thing, but leaving it chained somewhere and forgetting about it is another.

Like mounts, how you treat your animal companion reflects on how your perceived by the NPCs of the world. With the ability to communicate, either directly or via magic, the companion is a source of valuable information about the PC and often used as a way to verify or validate interactions.

For example a druid your talking to might ask animals in the groups care what they think of them, or a employer might ask a hireling about working for you to see what sort of Character they are dealing with.

Party Member as NPCs

Why have a party member as a NPC. Usually this happens when there are not enough players to form a full party, and NPCs have been included to fill a role. An NPC can take on an active party role, and only take control of the action when needed. They do serve a higher role then the other mentioned NPCs and need to be fleshed out as much as PCs.

They should be respected, new players who disrespect a party member because they are an NPC should be hassled by the other players because they have just disrespected one of their own, who has an equal share in their adventure and stake in the outcome. Here is a good guide for NPCs as party members.

  • NPCs should advise and not lead, it is the players game, not the NPCs.
  • NPCs should not be the tipping point in combat, if any effect at all, it should be in the support role, with them occasionally stepping into combat if things are dire.
  • NPCs should not have the knowledge of the DM to use against the PCs but can remind them of things the group has seen or done to help them get back on track when they flounder. The advice should not be accurate, just from the point of view of the character.
  • NPCs should not have the best items, but they can gather the discarded items or items no one else wants to carry. Having someone able to keep a list for the group fairly does help, but this is a role best for one of the PCs if willing.
  • NPCs should not be the main social character, otherwise you end up with the DM roleplaying with themselves while the players watch.

Most of the Interactions with NPCs is about balance, making sure the players feel like they are directing the action as the heroes of the story, while providing the support they need, and the chance to roleplay.

Conclusion

NPCs are one of the core building blocks of the Role Playing Game world, where each game is different, and every DM is different, so to can every NPC be different. Some use funny voices, accents, or speech patterns to define the character, other will show a picture, describe a smell, play sound or music, to give you something to build upon.

So next time you have a chance to interact with an NPC, start taking notes, because it is not just the DM who needs to be invested in the story and remember what has happened, the Players need to take the time to also invest in the story.

By making the NPC’s an important part of a game session, you can advance both the story arc your playing in, as well as your characters personal story growth. So make sure you take the opportunity when it is available, because you never know when another player might just kill off that NPC for no particular reason.

Content Updates

Game Management

GM – 2021 in Review, Choosing a New Campaign, Downtime Uses, GM’s Luck Roll, House Rules, Running Games over Skype, Sandbox vs Linear, Story RPGs, Table Rules, Tracking Experience

Annotated Stat Blocks: Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Pathfinder 2, Star Wars FFG

Creating a Campaign: D&D Mystara Design (2022), Genesys, Pathfinder, Pathfinder 2 TRAP Design (2022), Shadowrun, Star Wars (Mandalorian, 2022)

Character Creation: Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder 2, Star Wars Beta, Star Wars FFG

Concluding a Campaign: Star Wars

NPCsTalking to NPCs, Working with NPCs.

Virtual Table Top (VTT) Software – d20Pro: Installation, Realm Works: Players and their Characters, Using for D&D, Realm Created

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By thedarkelf007

I am a long term gamer, I run 6 RPG's a fortnight, host board game, card game and LANs each about once a quarter and have an addiction to buying more games. Games I am currently running are Pathfinder (1st and 2nd Edition) and Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition).

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