'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Monday, December 10, 2018

NPCs: A Codified Approach to the Man on the Street.

In a general session of play, you as GM may have a series of NPCs that you are aware of. A cast of characters you expect your players to interact with. You have an idea about them and how the interaction will go. You have at least some idea of how the social encounter will work. This article is generally not about those cases, although it may act as a guide to flesh those characters out if you generally haven't and have trouble figuring out how you want to role play them.

This is an approach to NPCs that will hopefully help you have better social interactions between your players and the cast of characters that populate your world. Not just the few have prepared in advance but everyone the PCs encounter. They are, after all, representing people with their own lives and aspirations, even if the PCs only encounter them during a single session. I am going to present a basic framework to help you give your NPCs more life, more direction, which in turn will allow you as the GM to role play them better.

It's easy to want to boil these encounters down to a single roll of the die or an opposed test and go from there, and I won't tell you this doesn't have it's place. Instead this framework will allow you to use these rolls and give these NPCs desires to resist, or be difficult. Should the random guy on the street be as willing to help as someone the PCs have known, will bribing them be a way to get more information? I believe that simply boiling the encounter to a simple set of dice rolls is short changing a potentially rich encounter that may lead down different paths. Maybe that dancer they just tried to get information from is actually in cahoots with the villian and is laying a trap for the PCs? The possibilities!

The Framework

I see us needing to have a few known things to really flesh out the NPCs: What do they want? What is their disposition towards the players and what motivates the them? Certainly you can answer more questions about them, but I think knowing these three simple things will allow you to really add some realism to these people.

The Disposition of the NPC

If we accept the NPCs disposition is separate from their personality or charisma, then we must define it. Mechanically I see a scale, in the middle I see someone who is neutral, who just doesn't care. They might help. They might not. For this I think a simple social test at a basic difficulty is a fine way to determine if the NPC will be somewhat helpful or disinterested. I don't see this as an outward showing by the NPC towards the players, simply a concept of how easily they can be swayed.

As we move away from the middle of the scale we get the two basic dispositions you might encounter: positive and negative. One end of the scale is an NPC who thinks of the PCs as good friends and is willing to help them, go out of the way for them, maybe even endanger themselves. On the other end is an NPC who is openly hostile or rude to the PCs. Someone who hates them and who might become something more to them in an antagonistic way in the future.

I would probably leave the far ends of the scales alone for random NPCs unless the PCs have had numerous positive or negative dealings with the NPC.

What does the NPC want?

What the NPC wants can have a direct impact on their disposition. If they want to steal or cause harm to the PCs they are more likely to have a negative disposition towards the PCs. Is the NPC someone who wants something from the players? Is he a merchant looking to sell, or perhaps someone who needs something recovered? Or do they just want to be left alone to go about their business, that is probably the case of the neutrally disposed NPC.

Knowing what the NPC wants is something we should determine first and from there we can use this to determine a more accurate disposition for the NPC.

The Motivation of the NPC

The thing that motivates the NPC is something a player can use to change her disposition in their favor making social encounters easier? Is it money? Money is probably a motivator for a lot of people and is the easiest one for the players to figure out. Bribing someone with cash can be the easiest way to change there disposition towards a character. Of course there is probably a few people out there that will see an attempted bribe as an insult and may move disposition away from the players.

Maybe something else motivates them though, which could make things more interesting: family, friends, trinkets, food, jewels. You can use these to help flesh out the NPC. If the NPC is motivated by jewels, perhaps she is adorned in several of them, or mentions them in conversation. Likewise someone motivated by fine wine, might be overweight, or have a winejug with them. These small details might be picked up by the players making observation tests to determine more information about the NPC.

The NPCs motivation might not be something useful at all. The motivation of someone not motivated by money, who will do anything for their family, might not be useful to the players, unless they can determine that and are willing to do something....unsavory.

Quick Random NPC Tables

Now that we have a framework to build NPCs from, sometimes when the players encounter someone, or force and encounter with someone you will need to determine something about that NPC beyond basic stats. A few quick tables and a roll of a few D6 can generate this quickly and easily.

You can of course simply pick how you want the NPC to act, or build their framework however you want, but we all like rolling dice.

What do they want?
1 - Left alone (+)
2 - Left alone (-)
3 - Help finding something (+)
4 - Help finding someone (+)
5 - Rob the PCs (-)
6 - Lure the PCs into a trap(--)
Disposition
1 - Negative
2 - Negative
3 - Neutral
4 - Neutral
5 - Positive
6 - Positive
Motivated by Money?
1 - No
2 - Yes
3 - Yes
4 - Yes, but expensive
5 - Yes, but expensive
6 - Expensive and insulted by low offers
Other Motivation
1 - None
2 - None
3 - Delicacies
4 - Jewels
5 - Trinkets
6 - Family

So we roll 4d6 and consult the tables to describe the social aspects of the NPC. You will not that under the column, "What do they want?" each entry has a (+) or a (-) on it. Each + or minus will shift the disposition one direction, one step. So a (+) would move a hostile disposition to neutral and likewise a (--) would move a positive disposition to a negative one.

Lets see this idea in action

Your players are on a mission to rescue the king's beautiful daughter, the Princess of Zamora. They haven't simply ridden out to the evil Wizard's mountain as you expected, instead they have decided to hit the local tavern and see if they can glean any information from the tavern goers.

You are not really prepared for this, but as a good GM you have a set of generic human stats just in case, but of course these are not all generic people. The party warrior approaches someone at the bar and engages them in conversation........You as the GM, quickly roll 4d6.....and roll: 4,4,5,6. Suddenly the random generic tavern goer is someone in need of help, perhaps his own kin has been taken by the wizard, or maybe a more mundane kidnapping, either way as the PCs approach he sees warriors and maybe hope in finding his lost friend or family. He will react positively to the PCs, at least initially, although he *IS* motivated by money, he is expensive, but can also be swayed by family.

Now we have more than just a block of stats, now we have a somewhat fleshed out NPC that we put together at the drop of a hat with a few rolls on a very basic set of tables. How many options these tables get is limited only by you imagination and the world the NPC lives in.

Until Next Time. Keep it Weird!

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