8 City NPC Tips

From Tony Budden

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0169

A Brief Word From Johnn

Index Of Supplemental Issues
We’re up to 14 Supplementals now, and you can get an index file with instructions on how to request each of them by sending a blank email to:

[email protected]

Easter Holiday – No Issue
Just a heads-up that the next issue will be April 28th.

Campaign Update
Last Wednesday’s game, my first in many moons, went quite well. For planning, I used Microsoft Word for adventure notes and MyInfo for campaign and game world notes. The players didn’t mind me using a laptop at the table, but I need to get it more organized for next session.

I would say my biggest failure was in not preparing the minor details well (i.e. room contents, location details) and I had difficulty narrating those on-the-fly. My biggest success was in just naming a game date, prepared or not, and running the game. It’s too easy to let real life push game nights around.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

8 City NPC Tips

Looking at Johnn’s list of city places, which is an excellent resource to start with when designing your city, I was a bit disappointed with the list of important people. Thinking on this, I realised that the vast majority of the NPCs in my game were city based. I presume that this is pretty much going to be the case with other games. Even the most hardened barbarian visits the city from time-to-time; and most other characters are going to be hanging out there a lot.

Where else are they going to buy swords/magic ingredients/iron rations/beer? And if the party is based in the city then there are landlords, tax collectors, burglars, and the neighbours to deal with.

I’m not suggesting every shopkeeper and militiaman should be fully fleshed out. That would be a complete waste of GM resources and time. But a few of the likelier candidates for long-term NPCs should have at least a name and a few notes. This list is intended to remind the GM of the powers and usefulness of certain city-based NPCs, partly to stop said NPCs being abused by the party, and also as a means to get plot hooks and background stuff into the game.

1. Recreation

Pubs, taverns, inns, bath-houses, theatres, stadia, brothels.

Sources of information and places to meet people. The owner/manager/employees will often have a lot of information about the local area, personalities, and recent history. This is likely to be 80% opinion and 20% fact, and they won’t dish out the best bits to people they have just met. Good and regular customers get good service, and the people working there are much more likely to share information, particularly “juicy” gossip.

The owners commonly have effective links with both the official and unofficial authorities in the city, and their customers will also be concerned if anything untoward happens in the place.

If you cross these people they are likely to bar you from entrance. If you cause major trouble, they will get either the local police (watchmen, militia, military, etc.) or the local underworld involved, depending upon the nature of the establishment and the owner’s contacts.

2. Police

Watchmen, militia, soldiery garrison, religious type guards. These people are charged with keeping the peace. They also generally want a quiet life as well. The thing to remember with these NPCs is that they will have the full support of the city’s official authorities and lots of back-up if they need it. So, if your party beats up the lone watchman on patrol at night to cover their tracks, then his colleagues are going to be on the lookout for whoever did it. You murder a militiaman, there is going to be a price on your head (as well as lot of nervous and angry militiamen after you!).

The responsibility for policing the city is likely to be split between several groups. The army might be responsible for guarding important buildings (the Palace and the Granary for instance), the militia might guard the gates and the walls, the local clerics of Heimdall are responsible for the temple areas, and self-employed watchmen can be hired by just about anyone.

All of these groups will have their own motivations (or lack of same), personal priorities, and differing amounts of available back-up. This could also lead to areas of conflict between these diverse groups. If the Mayor is killed in the temple district, the Heimdall clerics, the Mayor’s personal bodyguards, and the army might all be involved in the ensuing investigation and bringing to justice of the culprits.

Lower status police types are more likely to be bribable so long as they have little to lose, but this will also depend upon their character. Honest cops abound, but then so do dishonest and bribable ones. Having their own “tame cop” is a carrot to dangle before any party but beware the risks! If the NPC feels threatened, they might do something like turn the party in, run away, or simply not do as asked. Such “bent cops” are also likely to have dealings with the underworld (for obvious reasons).

3. Local Government

Magistrates, councillors, tax collectors, clerks, administrators.These types are similar to police in that they tend to want a quiet life and can usually depend upon the back-up of their employers. These people also tend to see things in black and white (i.e. you’ve either paid your taxes or you haven’t), and have sufficient authority to allow them to perform their duties.So, if you don’t pay the tax collector and throw him out on his ear, then expect the local police to be banging on your door soon!

These NPCs will know about the local government and its laws, but not necessarily much else (again, that depends upon the individual). But if you need to get a license to cast magic within the city walls then you will have to deal with them, even if you are a tenth level mage with the Bazooka of Extreme Killing. These people have real power (in the city anyway) and will use it.

Many will be dull, conservative, quill-pushers. Most aim to be pillars of the community and like to keep things as they are. Some can be bribed. Some have links with nefarious parts of the community. Some might also be representatives of a local religion. For example, the local priest of an appropriate cult might officiate at trials; clerics of the local knowledge god might be charged with keeping city records, etc.

4. Religion

Priests, clerics, initiates, general worshipers.There are a wide range of possibilities here. Some cults will be officially recognised and patronised by the majority of the populace and have a great deal to do with the running of the city. The city will respect and recognise the benefits of such a cult. It will have prestige and a lot of real political power. It might have an awful lot to do with the day-to-day administration of the city (as in the examples above). The hierarchy of such a religion are going to be pretty powerful people and have access to lots of interesting information.

In the example above, if the PCs were after some info about something that happened in the city 50 years ago, then their best source of information is going to be the priest of the local knowledge god, as he’s the one with access to the city records.Other religions are going to be unofficial, with little local power or resources, and others will be banned, whether from mere prejudice or because the cult is inherently inimical to the inhabitants of the city or their beliefs.

One way to look at integrating religions into the city’s overall make-up is to consider the more powerful “official” religions as part of the hierarchy of the city. Clerics of these sorts of cults will function as administrators as well as priests. “Unofficial” religions will concentrate more upon worship; and banned religions will operate in similar ways to the underworld and may indeed have many links there.

To be respected by any religious authority will require that you at least look as if you are obeying its tenets. Priests have a position and an image to uphold and won’t like to be seen with ne’er-do-wells or lawbreakers unless they are clerics of an outlawed cult. The official religions of a city are likely to have a lot of important people in their congregations and consequently might have a lot of both official and unofficial power and be able to sway much of their congregation’s opinions if they really want to.

5. Traders

Shopkeepers, market traders, merchants, pawnbrokers.Aside from the obvious activity of selling stuff to the party that they might need, traders will also be useful sources of information, some of it from far away. Some of it might even be based upon truth. If they haven’t got what the party wants, they are also likely to know where they can get it. Of course, they may not choose to divulge this information.Traders may be organised into a guild or patronise a trader cult.

They will certainly have a lot of contacts between one another, and word of theft, fraud and other skullduggery is likely to get around them pretty quickly.Traders may or may not have dealings with the underworld, but they are likely to know of its existence and some of the people involved. They may be paying protection to keep from being hassled or they may rely upon the local police (of whatever sort) to protect them. Some might employ their own bodyguards or doormen.

The richer the trader, the better such protection is going to be. If your world is magic-rich, such protection is likely to be magical as well as mundane.

6. The Underworld

Mobsters, thugs, thieves, assassins, Mafiosi, pimps, hookers, fences.Every city is going to have an underworld of some sort, whether the prime activity is pick-pocketing handkerchiefs or illegal slaving. Because of the nature of illegal activity, there are usually links between all these diverse activities, and being in the bad books of the local pimp might also mean that the local street gangs start breaking your windows, or the “Mr Big” of the area thinks that you are muscling in on his territory.Of course, the underworld is a useful place to get certain items that may be unavailable elsewhere.

Poisons, slaves, forgeries, and certain weapons spring to mind, but anything is possible if there is suitable demand for it. The underworld is also a useful place to sell certain items or launder money. Imagine going to your local market trader and trying to pay for something in coinage that is 1000 years old. Yes, you might have got it from a dragon’s lair. Yes he might even believe you. But it looks odd so he’s not going to accept it.However, the nearby pawn shop is known to have a sideline in cropping coins, so he might be able to help… (For those that don’t know, cropping coins was a common practise in the days when coins actually had intrinsic value.

Unscrupulous persons would snip bits off and melt down the gold or silver that they were made of, thus getting something for nothing. It was usually severely punished, and even today in the UK there is a stiff prison sentence for “defacing the queen’s image”, although I doubt it’s been imposed for many years).Most members of the underworld do not look like they are, especially the more powerful ones. Mr. Big might in fact be the Mayor and attend temple every week.

The local herbalist might have a sideline in poison manufacture, etc. Outsiders are going to find it hard to get into contact with the right people and will be treated with suspicion (and probably charged well over the top). Asking the wrong questions will be dangerous, and drawing attention to illegal activity will be dangerous. Bear this in mind when your characters are dealing with members of the underworld.Of course, this is where “thief” characters come into their own.

If it is their own town then they are likely to know a lot of the “dodgy” people, especially those relevant to their particular area of expertise. Even if it isn’t their home town, then the thief-type is likely to know how to go about finding who they want without treading on too many toes (or not, depending upon the GM and how well the player does).

7. Nobility

Those holding noble titles may or may not be actively engaged in the government of the city. They certainly will have privileges that others don’t, such as being able to wear armour or ride horses in the city. They will certainly be able to get things done and call in favours with various individuals and organisations. They may be well-respected members of the society, or a group of thugs that invaded 5 years ago and are now lording it over their new subjects. They may or may not have official power, respect, money, land, or servants.

8. Other Groups

Consider who else is going to live in the city. Many types will fit into one of the (pretty arbitrary) categories above, some won’t. Below are a quick listing to (hopefully) get your GM juices going and ideas for some random punters who might be witnesses, disguised individuals, innocent bystanders, or useful contacts for the party. Other ideas for NPCs can be gotten from Johnn’s list of city buildings and simply by asking yourself “who lives or works there?”

These are in no particular order:

  • Foreigner, ambassador, traveller, sailor
  • Beggar, untouchable
  • Servant, scribe
  • Drunk, druggie, junkie, idiot-savant, lunatic, moron
  • Farmer, villager from out of town, yokel
  • Actor, entertainer, singer, bard, juggler, artist
  • Athlete, boxer, strong-men (or women)
  • Plus, all the “character classes” (if you’re using a class based system)

A last word. If the city where you begin your adventures has a reasonable stock of realistic NPCs, then you will be saving yourself time and effort in the future. You may not use them until your PCs return from whatever gallivanting around in the big wide world they were up to, but you will eventually. You can be pretty sure that they’ll want to spend some of that cash, and to get stuff repaired, and to relax a little.

Perhaps they want to sell Tenser’s Pointless Artifact to someone. If you have a few NPCs set up to “welcome” them, then city time can be useful to plant plot hooks, develop characters, and get the PCs involved with all sorts of machinations.

[Johnn: to get the City Places file Tony spoke of, send a blank email to: [email protected] ]


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Using An Online Message Board To Keep Players Interested Between Sessions

From The Nightshade Ice

I am now running two games a week and I found that using online message boards can be a good tool for players and GMs alike. A site I have found particularly useful is [ Pro Boards ].

Here, you can obtain a message board 100% free. I had previously used a personal website to create a page for players to go to and look at things between sessions, however maintaining a web site can often be time consuming as well as a lot of extra work on top of planning game sessions. However, the message boards from the above site are great organizational tools if your players have access to the internet.

I use a single board for both of my campaigns and have sections for things such as Session Recaps (where the players can respond and talk to each other about what they thought of the session), Session Quotes, and a Player’s Board where players can talk about the campaign in general.

After a session, I update a recap on what happened for the players to reference and think over. Often times I will post a poll over something that happened over a session to get the players thinking as well as discussing the sessions events.

An example of a poll I used was whether or not a certain NPC whom they were told was evil is really evil or did their informant lie? Such a topic can provide grounds for interesting debates when players believe different things. It is a commonly known GM tactic to listen to players’ ideas when they are not sure what they want to do next. What better way to get players’ ideas then to set up a poll with possible outcomes of puzzles to be solved or suspects in the whodunit?

Players will be pleased when they think that they were right the whole time and you had the outcome planned all along, or you could reverse it and choose the least selected answer to get the players saying “wow, I didn’t think that would have happened.”

Another added bonus is that, when players post their vote in a poll, they can also add a comment on why they think that way. You can use this to catch them off guard when it was the answer they chose but not because of the way they thought, or you use the way they thought to get the answer they didn’t choose.

The players also enjoy posting comments on events they thought were particularly exciting (like when the entire part was set up, the guards were bribed, and the party leader was assassinated), creating their own polls (such as who is each player’s favourite PC, who will be next to die, who is the group’s favourite NPC, etc.), and things that puzzled them and they need to reconsider.

I think the boards have helped quite a bit, as even though the last session seemed kind of slow because it was all roleplay and no combat, after reading and posting on the board, the players and myself are waiting in anticipation until Tuesday. After several discussions and polls they realize that quite the mystery/intrigue has occurred within their game and the overall plot has thickened.

Hope this helps.

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Use PC Prequels

From Jim G.

I’m writing about a new technique my gaming group has developed that has transformed our game. It began when we had the idea to create prequels for the characters to introduce them in lieu of the usual meeting in the local tavern.

First, the Director creates a background/history of each character up to the day they begin their “adventuring”. Backgrounds are made based on the skills and traits the player chose for their character during the creation process. Each character is then given a prequel scene, with the other players performing the NPC parts. The prequels are tailored to each character and explain why and how they left their homes and became an “Adventurer”. Each prequel is outlined by the Director but the scenes are pure roleplaying.

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Use Of Audiotapes In Sessions

From Joseph

This email is in response to Varianor’s tip on getting the players to read background info for the campaign, specifically, using audiotapes for background info.

One of my GMs used audiotapes while running a Cyberpunk campaign. It was an excellent tool to grab our attention. He made a new tape every session and it was the first thing we did when the game started. He presented the tape in the form of a newscast on one of the local radio stations in our city. He usually kept them to about 3 minutes so they didn’t overwhelm us or get boring. Just a quick run through of the major news stories since the last session.

This made the world seem realistic since we got to hear about what was happening that didn’t necessarily directly relate to us, and provided him with a way to introduce new plot hooks. The best part for us, was of course, listening for when we, or something we did, made the news headlines on the broadcast. I think this was a great tool and it definitely increased my enjoyment of the game.

Thanks for your ezine, it’s great to get new ideas and tools each week.

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Group Bonus Option

From John Fade

Give the group a bonus for the heroic deeds of one member. One trick I have found to inspire my group of hack-n- slashers to go beyond tactics and inject some heroic flare into the game is to give a morale/circumstance bonus to the entire group if one character pulls off an amazing manoeuvre during combat.

The key to this is to watch the reactions of the players and use that as an indicator of when to supply the bonus. If everyone is amazed and cheering because a PC has just made 2 or 3 critical successes while attempting some outlandish stunt that helps the group, then announce to the players that due to this spectacular success, everyone receives a +1 bonus to all combat rolls/skill checks for this encounter. Doing this really has made a difference in the way the players look at combat.

Thanks for the great ezine.

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More Payment Prices

From Tips Subscribers

Last issue, a tip discussed alternative forms of payment to spice up merchant transactions. Here are some reader submitted additions, perfect for initiating side-plots or perhaps for clauses in a prophecy.

  • A drow’s mercy
  • A skeletons heart
  • The purest
  • The voice of a spider
  • The courage of a thief
  • Unspun wool to make a rope
  • Essences of darkest night
  • Tears of the trees
  • The peace of death
  • Earth from a lich’s grave
  • The essence of fear
  • A lock of hair
  • One drop of blood
  • A laugh
  • A story
  • Their fear
  • A teardrop from a statue
  • The locket of a widow
  • A coin from a beggar
  • Their most unhappy memory
  • To stand vigil for the smithy upon his death
  • To make a sacrifice in the name of the smithy
  • Their body…when they die
  • Their left shoe
  • Their first kiss
  • Their name
  • Their promise never to kill again
  • A glass dagger
  • To leave the town and never return