Monday, June 5, 2023

People Are Problems: NPCs as Challenge Elements

Before we get started, I swear I'm not a sociopath.

I don't think of NPCs in the same way that most other GMs do. If you're new to the hobby, you'll find no shortage of tips and tricks on "how to make amazing NPCS!" And for many GMs, a well-crafted NPC is literally their favorite part of the game. Here's an article DM David wrote called "how to create loveable non-player characters," which, in my experience, is very typical of the sorts of advice you commonly see. He advocates that your NPCs should...

  1. Be distinctive
  2. Be flawed
  3. Be relatable
  4. Be useful
  5. Be authentic and vulnerable
  6. Struggle
  7. Ask for help
  8. Show warmth
  9. Show admiration
  10. Be entertaining
  11. Be optimistic

That sounds nice and all, but it is not how I roll. If I happen to make an NPC memorable, believable, three-dimensional, and beloved by the players, then that's a happy accident I'll gladly accept. But my goals are a bit different.

To me, an NPC is essentially the same thing as a trap, puzzle, monster, or magic item. They are simply another asset in my toolbox for crafting obstacles and opportunities to challenge my players. The reason it's hard to think of them through that lens is because... well, for one thing, they're people. But also because they are the most flexible and potent tool for crafting challenges, so all-encompassing in their possible design purposes that it's hard to make any generalizations about them. But today I'll share a few things I know.


I need to be clear about something before we begin: I'm not advocating for this approach. I'm merely describing it. I already know and understand that this will be extremely unappealing to most people. I just want to share how I personally do things.

In fact, I actually polled some of my players while writing this post. I can confirm that, generally speaking, they have a hard time remembering any specific NPCs (and are even less likely to remember names). So if that's a deal breaker for you, then feel free to walk. But I did confirm my suspicion: it was pretty easy for them to remember the events and activities that those NPCs provided. "I remember this time we did an interrogation scene." "I remember that we whupped those bullies' asses." "I remember that we recruited the surviving goblins as followers and made them go into every room first to set off traps."

It's not like I've never been down that road before. I've tried to make memorable PCs. I've tried to get their names and personalities to stick and to have naturalistic, vivid, and colorful extended in-character dialogue with my players. It's just... never made an impact. I'm probably bad at it. But this approach? It seems to stick pretty well.

I consider Beedle a great example of the
kind of NPC I aim for. He's not so much
a distinctive, memorable person as he is
a distinctive game mechanic.

The key to understanding this approach is to objectify your NPCs. Woah there, you don't have to be a pervert about it, ya freak. Here's what I mean;

  1. Titles are better than names. I used to prepare a title, given name, and surname for every NPC at minimum. "It can't hurt to have one prepared!" I thought. Nah, it's just a waste of time and creative energy. The best name a character can have is "the shopkeeper," "the landlord," "the nun." The players will naturally be doing this on their own, anyway. "What did the magistrate tell us to do again?"
  2. Assets, liabilities, and social resources. This answers the question, "what is there to exploit here?" This is the meat and potatoes of any NPC I make. It's endlessly flexible. An NPC could have knowledge, access, specialist skills, wealth, whatever. Hell, they could just be violent. But don't forget the weaknesses. Maybe they're a coward, or stupid, or angry, or addicted, or greedy, or whatever. Some NPCs have both good and bad traits, but it's not always obvious. For example, you might have some idiot jerk NPC who needs rescuing. Why would the players do that? Because his asset is that "he's the king's son." Even characters who seem entirely awful can still have value by proxy.
  3. Wants and Does-Not-Wants. This answers the question, "how do we exploit this person?" There's tons of ways to do this. A goal is more concrete than a motivation, but also interesting are instincts (or, in Dungeon World terms, an "impulse." Terrible name, just awful), as well as loyalties. The type of loyalty I play with the most is factional or political loyalty, like "member of the Federalist party" or "serves House Lannister" or "supports Parliament over the Throne or the Courts or the Church." But there's also a character archetype I love in media that's really gameable: super loyal henchman. Like, their whole motivation is just "I'm loyal to this other character" with no explanation. Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, Gonza in Princess Mononoke, Amos in The Expanse. There's a temptation to reveal some reason for this, but I find it so much funnier and more interesting when you learn "actually no, they aren't secretly in love with them at all. They're not family. They don't owe them anything. They're not gullible or being taken advantage of. They're just super loyal to them." They're basically a dog.
  4. Minimalize dialogue. In-character dialogue works against objectification. Other GMs often advise that you keep an eye out for every potential opportunity to do more social roleplay in order to enhance your game, like when players are shopping or resting or, I dunno, just trying to walk through a building where adventure isn't even supposed to be happening. I am the exact opposite. I often try to keep the NPC talky-parts to a minimum, even abstracting them away into mechanics when possible. Partly this is because I'm not super comfortable doing it, but partly it's because I can subtly keep the game focused on "activity" instead of "dilly dallying." Don't get me wrong, sometimes you can have a ton of fun during the parts where the action is on pause and everyone's just waffling. But I have found that players generally have more fun when things are happening, and they can reliably find plenty of opportunities to be goofy and roleplay along the way. If the point of resting mechanics is to give PCs a chance to refresh resources, then I'd prefer it to serve that purpose without obstruction. Making them put on a voice and have a conversation with an innkeeper only serves to place the focus on a part of the experience that I don't find interesting.

    This logic applies to all sorts of things. I learned an important lesson long ago: if the game you're running is dependent on players seeking out rumors to kickstart an adventure, then just give players the rumors automatically. Don't wait for the players to ask for them. Don't assume that the players will seek them out. And don't throw them into a tavern with a bunch of colorful NPCs and expect the players to tease out the rumors through natural conversation in-character. Just give them the damn rumors. Just say, "while enjoying your drinks, you overhear [summary]" or "during your rest at this inn, another traveler passing through mentions [basic gist]" or "while doing your shopping at the market, you heard about [just the part that would have caught the PC's interest]."
  5. Any other details should fit on one or two lines. Finally, when all of that isn't enough, when you just need to bring an imaginary person to life, I cannot emphasize enough the value of keeping it short and sweet and colorful. Lots of RPGs and blog posts have random tables of quirks and traits and whatnot to roll on if you're that kind of person. I'm more of a "answer some basic questions" kind of creative thinker. My favorite blog post for this is from Amanda P, who I think shows a better intuition for the most valuable kinds of details to have an answer for than any other resource I've seen.
There is a basic assumption underlying these. In my experience, players who have big hearts and a capacity for loving NPCs are reliably able to do that on their own. This explains the often-joked about phenomenon of the "goblin mascot." DMs the world over are constantly bewildered when their players adopt some random goblin as their favorite NPC. Why would they do this when that was just a nameless mook you didn't flesh out at all, meant only to be killed? The answer is that those players have big hearts and want to love NPCs, whether you are trying to get them to or not.

Thus, I've found that putting effort into trying to make NPCs loveable is just redundant. Better to instead put my effort into making NPCs that the ruthless pragmatists of the party can still find a reason to care about and protect.

Failing that, it also gives all players a bit of guidance on how to interact with this game element. Real-life humans are nuanced and complicated and hard to pin down. They're people, and some players are a bit paralyzed when it comes to interacting with people. But a game element that can be fully described as 1) Clearly descriptive title, 2) Assets, 3) Liabilities, 4) Wants, and 5) Does-Not-Wants is... well it makes things just a little more approachable for a lot of folks.

Some of My Favorite Tricks

I don't have a grand theory on categorizing NPCs into different types. But are some basic functions I've gotten a lot of use out of.

1. Factions, duh

I mean, I'm sure you already know the utility of factions, if not the appeal. They can even the playing field. PCs are likely to become quite powerful, with lots of spells and magic items and cool class features at their disposal. Sometimes the best way to balance that is not by matching their power, but by opposing them with a bunch of normies who merely have strength in numbers. PCs can have a successful fight with a part of the faction without destroying the whole thing. They have to think harder about how to systematically defeat an organization. When the PCs have a random encounter with a member of the faction, it automatically generates an impact beyond the immediate consequences of the encounter. And it doesn't always need to be adversarial! Attaching NPCs to factions makes it very easy for players to connect with an abstract political system. “We need the support of the miners’ guild if we want to get this dungeon excavation paid for and sanctioned. How do we get their backing?” Well, have a character who can stand in for the whole organization, make the players do that character a favor, and then the NPC says they’ll see to it that the party gets what it wants. What makes it “institutional politics” and not just “favors between friends” is the accumulated systems of power and resources that factions wield, that the friend has access to and can offer. It also allows you to make a single character remain sympathetic even if the institution they represent can’t be won over. “I’m sorry guys, I asked the union members and they voted against it. We can try again if circumstances change but until then all I can offer is to buy you a drink.” I love those kinds of NPCs.

2. Cliques

This is something I don't see very often at all, but which I use a lot. Factions can get complicated quickly. They often have dozens, hundreds, or thousands of members. They have tangible assets like strongholds and armies and wealth-generating enterprises and whatnot. They often have plans. But a clique is more simple than that. A clique is functionally almost identical to a single NPC but with the slight advantage of having a handful of bodies to occupy.

In my Tricks & Treats Halloween adventures, I use lots of cliques. There's a clique of mean girls, of skater kids, of police officers, of D&D kids, and so on. This is often better than just having each of those represented by an individual. Instead of there being the bully of the class, there are "the bullies" as a group of five. You can dismiss a single bully as a nuisance, and probably easily drive them off by just turning popular opinion against them. But with five of them, they are a major bloc of the social landscape. Many players' instinctive response to a bully is the classic "punch them back and give them a taste of their own medicine." But if there's five of them, that becomes less viable. They're not a faction, and they do each have a name and a simple unique trait. But they exist in the players' minds as functionally one NPC.

There's a clique of Nintendo nerds, too. Having just one nerd in your class is probably a waste of an NPC, since they'll mostly be socially weak enough to not have an impact. But having four nerds who are friends makes them a little bit more worth reckoning with. Another thing I like about cliques is that they're prone to infighting. This is a strategy that players can't use against individual NPCs and would have to work pretty hard to use against a faction, but which can be accomplished easily against a group of 3-5 NPCs.


Much has been made about the precise distinctions between henchmen, hirelings, and retainers. Hirelings are oftentimes just an NPC paid a flat sum to do a minor task, whereas henchmen are more loyal and get a share of the treasure or XP. Some people would call that a "sidekick," but that might imply a bit more weight. Prismatic Wasteland uses a word I love for this: "flunkies." He points out that they make for a great backup PC, which Ava Islam's Errant RPG codifies with a mechanic called "adjutants" (although it specifies that you can only have one adjutant per lifetime, making them much more special).

What do I have to add to this? Well in my own games, by far the most common type of helper or lackey or whatever that sees use is the "follower by circumstance." They weren't hired, but they'll do what you tell them to because the situation calls for it. A lot of the time it's just basic survival strategy. Sometimes they're in a crisis and the PC inspires them. But it's a very informal, temporary alliance.

This is a really great combination of traits. Many of my NPCs are ineffectual cowards, which is the primary reason why the PCs are adventurers who have to get shit done themselves. But an ineffectual coward caught in the middle of a crisis with the PCs can easily be adopted as a short-term ally. Here's my basic rules for that:

  1. Designate one PC as their boss. This is just delegating the responsibility to one player to account for the NPC's basic actions in each situation.
  2. The main benefit they provide is an extra set of hands. They can never do any of the hard stuff, unless that happens to be, like, the specific thing they're good for. "Violence" almost always falls into the category of "stuff too hard to expect of them," because if they were capable and willing to do that then they wouldn't be in this class of "ineffectual coward NPCs" to begin with.
  3. They give bad suggestions. I do this intentionally. When the players need to discuss a choice or plan or whatever, especially if the discussion has stagnated, then I'll have a follower chime in an obviously bad idea. "I don't see why we can't just barge right in guns blazing!" is a good question to sneakily force the players to answer by putting it in the mouth of an NPC. This is oftentimes enough to stimulate the critical-thinking brainwork enough to get the players on a productive path. It also means that players can't just rely on their NPC followers for the answers to their hard choices, because I believe that making hard choices is the number one thing for players to contribute in the game.

4. Contacts

Some games have a mechanic for this. A lot of folks like to let the player craft their own NPC here. I'm not crazy about that but if you like the sound of that, then sure. The point is that I want to give my players resources to solve problems, but sometimes the problem can't really be solved with money, tools, or time. Sometimes the best answer is just networking. I've always disliked the Flashback mechanic in Blades in the Dark, but mostly because I like the part of the game where players have to plan ahead and think critically and actually problem solve. I am okay with a nebulous, undefined Schrödinger's resource they can cash in as long as there's some clear constraints on the nature of that resource and what it can be used for in general.

So yeah, in Brave I have the "I know a guy" mechanic available to all players when they're in a settlement. If the PCs need someone for help (a rare item, expertise, access to somewhere or someone, etc.) but no known NPC will work, they can use a contact. Contacts are undefined until the player uses them, at which time they declare who they know (at the referee’s discretion). From then on, they are a permanent NPC in that settlement. How many contacts do you have? Well, everyone starts with a handful in their home settlement. Then I'll let you earn another one for every downtime period you spend in a settlement. It's a resource that slowly accumulates in the background over the course of the campaign, so you usually have one or two unused contacts in your pocket at any time.

The nice thing is that players will actually be forming plenty of natural contacts through the course of the campaign without using this mechanic at all. Every NPC they rescue or work for or who owes them a favor or whatever can also be reasonably called "a contact" to be used at a future date. But 1) sometimes in the early campaign you wanna give the players a bit of momentum, since they haven't met any NPCs yet, and 2) sometimes they just haven't met the right NPC for what they need, yet.

5. Quest NPCs

When it comes to NPCs giving quests, there's a tricky balancing act with maintaining an old-school philosophy of freedom and player agency and all that. The two most common quest-givers are 1) pleaders, and 2) commanders. Pleaders are the crying, panicking NPCs running up to the PCs in broad daylight beseeching them to help rescue or retrieve something that's now in danger. Commanders are the patrons, nobility, sheriffs, or whatever who dump a mission on the PCs. In either case, the PCs are more-or-less being told what to do (even if that's coming in the form of begging). I try my best to avoid using these two NPC types.

But that doesn't mean you can't have quests attached to NPCs! It's so easy for them to simply be rewarders. Players hear a rumor about such-and-such missing kid, then they can choose for themselves if they want to go for that quest hook without pressure. There's still ultimately an NPC parent at the end of the quest who they can return the kid to, but the only role they need to play in things is at the last step. The players can find a package of supplies in a dungeon that clearly got stolen from a trade caravan and then decide for themselves, "let's bring these back to town and hand them off to the merchant's guild."

Now you might be thinking, "I don't know what the point is then. If you reduce the NPC's role in the quest to just that last step, why have them?" Well, sure, if the reward you were planning on giving was as simple as money. But one of the simplest assets an NPC can offer as a reward is a social resource, like improving your reputation or owing you a favor. Sure, NPCs can give you gold or magic items, but you can also find those in a dungeon. A dungeon can't give you more votes in the upcoming election, so get creative in thinking about what NPCs can uniquely offer. You need to be having your dukes offer the PC a chance to marry their daughter!

6. Information-giver

This one is so obvious that I'm surprised how rarely I see it in adventures. Most scenarios will gladly include NPCs with problems that need solving. But they don't have enough people who are just there to be consulted for answers. To me, a crucial part of the true open-world sandboxing experience is the research stage of each adventure. Smart players do their homework before embarking on the quest. Not the initial rumor, mind you. Remember, I said to just dump those on your players. But there should pretty much always be bonus info just waiting out there which will make their quest easier if they acquire it. Where do they learn this stuff?

  1. Locals or travelers at the pub/taphouse
  2. Forums, town criers, and public edicts
  3. Vendors at the market or peddlers on the road
  4. A known expert or sage on obscure subjects
  5. A library or archive you can access somehow
  6. Known NPCs who are relevant
Or whatever else you or the players come up with.

In fact, at least when running Brave, I never write a rumor by itself. Every single rumor has at least 2 follow-up facts or details that I can provide if the players take the time to do this research. Every last one. And it might sound crazy, but I usually give info to my players for free! All they have to do is think to ask for it. That, by itself, deserves to be rewarded. The main tradeoff is just that it'll cost some time for them to learn info, so there is still a reason why they might choose not to do their homework. Plus, that's a good reason to still make them roll a die. Not to see if they successfully learn more, but to see how long it takes them to.

By the way, don't forget to include a fortune teller NPC every now and then. If the appeal of that isn't obvious to you, I'm not sure what you get out of RPGs.

7. Someone to protect

Yeah yeah I know. Nobody likes escort missions. Except when you do, because sometimes they're done well! Although I'll admit, I am more inclined to use "innocent bystanders" or "rescue the hostages" than I am a prolonged escort mission.

There's a few tricks to this. The first is having NPCs involved who the players would want to protect. These are almost by definition, going to be characters who aren't meaningfully capable of violence. If your players aren't monsters, then having children or just civilians in general is usually enough (provided that none of your players have expressed discomfort with the possibility of such innocents being harmed. Respect the players' preferences on this first and foremost). If your players are, like some of my own, ruthless pragmatists, then they'll probably only protect NPCs who have some value to them. This is likely going to be one of the other types of NPCs discussed in this post, like someone who's paying them, who provides a service for them, who's a reliable contact, etc.

The other thing is the difficulty. I'm gunna be honest, I rarely have my bad guys relentlessly gunning for the poor innocent bystanders. My monsters usually target the opponents who are closest, the most powerful, or who pissed them off the most. I think everyone I've ever played with was able to figure out that logic immediately, and could therefore determine the optimal way to protect vulnerable NPCs. Just make sure to be closer to the monster than the NPC, more powerful than the NPC, and always doing more to piss off the monster than even the stupidest of loudmouth NPCs.

Which is all just to say that, generally speaking, all it takes for the players to protect an NPC is the bare minimum amount of effort to try to protect them. Without fail, pretty much every time a noncombatant NPC has gotten murked in one of my games, it was because no player even attempted to protect them, which is their choice and/or blunder to make. But just that added little choice to try is a very juicy complication to add to any crisis situation.

8. Family

Family is an unbelievably important concept. We forget about it because so many players are in the habit of just making their PCs an orphan with no siblings. But I find it to be weirdly absent from a lot of RPG scenarios. It's one of the most common and simple bonds that two humans can share, so give it to lots of NPCs. Just the added detail that "the evil wizard of this tower is brothers with the old hermit druid you met in the last swamp" can be an actual game-changer. Family members are especially motivated to get revenge, whether they're asking the PCs for help in this task or they're pursuing the PCs as their target.

If you're up for it, maybe gently suggest to your players to be a bit more open to having family members as well. Some of them will gladly create some family NPCs as part of their backstories, but others might just say, "sure, if you ever wanna surprise me with an NPC who's my brother then I'm game."

Bonus guidelines on names

If a name is necessary, either make it short and simple or at the very least alliterative. I prefer real-life names over fantasy names, and I aim for names that my players find fun to say. That rules out all "Frulum Mondath"s of course, but it also rules out "Aiden"s  and "Reid"s. Those aren't punchy enough. The NPC names that I've caught my players actually remembering and using are like "Bert," "Pete," "Louise," "Randy," "Luna." In my Halloween adventures, there's a clique of recurring NPCs who are a trio of mean horse girls. Their names are Sandra, Hannah, and Barbara. Guess which one is always singled out as the point of focus by every group of players? Barbara. It's just a better name! I could say "Barbara" all day.

Other Bonus

I have never applied this advice but I just read this post by To Distant Lands and it seems exactly in line with the philosophy I'm describing in this post. So go read that, it's good.



  1. "By the way, don't forget to include a fortune teller NPC every now and then. If the appeal of that isn't obvious to you, I'm not sure what you get out of RPGs." Favorite Line.

  2. This is one of those posts that seems like it'd contradict some established wisdom in certain circles, but feels 100% true to me.

    Fallen London has a great collection of NPC names because nobody has a given name. I wonder how that paradigm would work in general! Keep on the Borderlands already does it, presciently!

  3. It's brahbrah.