How Can NPCs Survive Contact With Your Players? - Roleplaying Tips

How Can NPCs Survive Contact With Your Players?

You pour yourself into crafting the perfect ensemble of NPCs.

Smith, soldier, spy. Cooper, captain, King.

Game day arrives and with relish you walk them onto the stage.

And guess what happens next?

That’s right:

Player 1: I attack the King!

Player 2: I charge the spy!

Player 3: How much XP is the smith worth? I can’t decide between him and the cooper.

Sigh.

Head hung low you call for initiative and hope for the best….

Which brings me to a great question from Lensman during the last Platinum Patron monthly Zoom call:

How do you create survivable NPCs?

I know where that’s coming from.

I used to get angry at my murder hobos a lot for choosing the combat option instead of the other four — and in my opinion — more interesting player choices (Adventure Building Master Game Plan members, see Lesson 5.02: The 5 Actions.)

But no longer.

It’s dice off my back.

Because I use the 3 Line NPC Method, and do not invest time until an NPCs has survived first contact with the party, I feel no stress if they perish.

It’s like popcorn.

If one falls onto the floor, I’ve got a bowl-full left. And it takes but moments to make more.

Plus, the dog gets a tasty treat. 🙂

But what if we really, really want a beloved NPC to survive?

It’s not impossible, heh.

Here are three ways to make non-player characters survive contact with the party.

The Key Thing You Must Create

It all comes down to one thing: leverage.

You can try to make your NPCs as likeable as possible.

But one bad day at the office for a player, plus hair trigger on the crossbow for a character, and that NPC is doomed.

What we need instead is pressure to keep the non-player character alive.

Players must learn if they kill the cooper or captain, there will be bad consequences.

And these consequences cannot dovetail into fun gameplay like more combat or plot complications.

That just encourages them!

Instead, players must feel pain should NPC body and soul be cleaved.

This is what I mean by leverage.

Here are three ways we can gain leverage on our players.

Service

If you are a murder hobo warrior draped in mere leather armour and getting dropped in almost every combat….

Would you murder the only smith in town?

If your only supply of bat guano and sulphur is the spy….

Would you fireball them?

And if the only way to get access to the King is through the captain….

Would you whack him because you don’t like his sneer?

When NPCs offer valuable service to the party, we increase their chances of survival tenfold.

Knowledge

Give your NPCs valuable knowledge and they’ll survive.

Until tortured.

But that’s at least one encounter in the future. 🙂

Joking aside, any delay of murder hobo activity gives you time to think and respond with counter-tactics.

So if we create the leverage of crucial knowledge, chances are the soldier lives to fight another day.

In previous newsletters, I’ve shared the tip about making Plot Factories for your campaigns so you have a constant supply of organic adventure hooks streaming into sessions.

Your campaign practically builds itself this way.

Well, many Plot Factories need a “front man.”

They need a mechanism to disseminate information (rumours, clues, details) to the party on an ongoing basis.

This gives you more leverage to keep such a useful NPC alive.

Because if the NPC has only one piece of valuable information, your leverage evaporates.

But story roles like spies, informants, whistleblowers, and subject matter experts means NPCs remain valuable, and can therefore survive longer.

Big Brother

Might does not make right. In this case, though, it helps.

If the players know they’ll get murder hoboed in return, it’ll make them pause.

The NPC might be a “made man” via their faction.

Or have a killer family — literally.

Or be protected by the gods.

Figure out a way to make the cost of attacking much greater than leaving the poor NPC alone, and they’ll survive contact with the PCs.

Signal in Advance

A final word on how to improve your NPC mortality rate.

Ensure characters know the consequences of attacking before they meet the NPC in person.

Sure, you can roleplay the non-player character pleading for their life. But that scene gets tired fast. You want to reserve it, if possible, for key plot moments.

Instead, understand what leverage your NPC has, and deliver that info to your players ahead of time (via other NPCs is easiest).

Reputation. News and gossip. Demonstration.

However you decide to do it, a party forewarned will at least hesitate, if not choose a different action than attack.

I hope these tips help, Lensman.

Gaining leverage is the best way I know how to protect NPCs from players.

Reader Tips: Helping NPCs Survive

Ask Players to Create Them For You

From RPT GM Tiago

Before I start the campaign I am currently running, I asked my players to create NPCs for the town.

I think it was great, because now they really care for the NPCs they created, so they wouldn’t kill them without a reason.

An extra good effect of doing so is that I have less work preparing the campaign, and the players feel more included in the story we are creating together.

Use the Storyteller or Referee Model

From RPT GM Jim

Hi Johnn,

In addition to your tips on helping NPCs survive the players, a group can also clarify what they want the GM’s role to be.

If the group wants the GM to be more referee than storyteller, character deaths happen when they happen and that’s that.

As your tips point out, you can offer the PCs in-world incentives and consequences for letting an NPC live, but in the referee model, if an NPC dies, so be it.

Consider it an expected outcome of the referee model instead of a problem to be stopped.

If the group wants the GM to be more storyteller than referee, character deaths happen only when they’re fitting for the story — when they’re exciting, dramatic, satisfying, or intriguing.

You don’t have to play every fight to the death anyway. In fiction and in reality, most people would surrender or flee instead of fighting to the death. Or external circumstances could suddenly intervene before the character dies, if they make for a good story.

Good players can accept that certain things happen for the sake of a good story.

A storyteller GM could decide that death by the rules doesn’t have to be literal, immediate death (for NPCs or PCs).

Take the character out of action for at least the current scene, but use death as only one option among several.

For example, instead of dying:

  • The character faints or falls unconscious.
  • The character is forced to surrender or flee in a near-helpless state.
  • The character’s allies show up at that moment to stand guard or to take the character away because “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”
  • The character lingers for days, weeks, or months in a bedridden state, just barely able to talk or move.
  • The character has a way to make a sudden exit from the scene, even if it’s an unglamorous or cowardly exit. It could be a secret escape hatch, a getaway vehicle, a secret hiding place, or a teleportation, for example. A sudden exit can be good storytelling for a recurring villain, but maybe only once.
  • Unless the PCs take steps to make absolutely sure the NPC is dead, they find out later that somehow the NPC didn’t die after all (or died and was brought back).

Even when an NPC dies, a good storyteller runs with it instead of resisting it.

Make the death exciting, dramatic, satisfying, or intriguing, even if the NPC was (until this moment) a nameless nobody.

You probably weren’t banking on the NPC’s death, but now that it’s here, use it as a storytelling opportunity.

Examples:

  • Now or later, there are consequences for this NPC’s death. There are pragmatic consequences like killing the only smith in town, but create story consequences too. There’s a ripple effect. Think of at least one NPC, place, or thing that changes or responds in interesting ways because of this death, and also find a way to let the PCs know about it. (It’s not a cool ripple effect until the players find out about it.)
  • The NPC utters some dying words, possibly an important piece of information you’ve been wanting to share, or possibly a cryptic remark of unknown significance. It’s practically a rule that the NPC will die before answering any questions.
  • The NPC utters some dying words, but dies before getting to the good part. “You may find the object you seek in the castle of ….” [aaargh].
  • The NPC stuffs a MacGuffin into a PC’s hands, begging for it to be protected or delivered — and likely dying before providing complete information.
  • Clues on the NPC’s body reveal information about new or existing puzzles.
  • The NPC turns out to be important in ways the PCs didn’t realize, and then they might have an “Oh no, what have we done” reaction.
  • The NPC utters a death curse or an ominous prophecy before dying.
  • Right before dying, the NPC makes scary threats about dire consequences. The threats are empty, but the PCs don’t know that.
  • The NPC makes a startling deathbed confession, such as having been a big fan of the PCs, or being the cause of some past problem they had. Maybe the NPC says it was an honor facing the PCs as opponents. Maybe the NPC expresses regret for opposing the PCs. And with those words, the NPC dies.
  • The NPC’s dying action is to “click the detonator” (or spring the trap, light the fire, or take some other drastic action), creating a new immediate challenge for the PCs. There could be different motives for this. The NPC would rather die than have the PCs succeed. The NPC is trying to eliminate evidence. The NPC doesn’t want the place or possessions to fall into the wrong hands. The NPC says, “If it’s my time to die, I’m taking you with me.”

In either the referee model or the storyteller model, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing when the PCs kill an NPC.

Go Solo

RPT GM Dean

Hey Johnn,

Have the NPC encountered when the characters are outside the party setting: as individuals whether eating food at the inn, off gathering supplies, or even just the old ‘psst! hey buddy, over here!’ from a side street.

Often, players are more willing to engage in dialogue and info gathering when on their own, without the rest of the team in the situation with them.

The NPC is the Objective

From RPT GM David

Hi Johnn,

My NPCs that need to survive:

  • Have information the party needs or is looking to find out
  • Protecting or recovering the NPC is the objective (maybe you need them to gain access or lead the party to the base)
  • Killing the NPC would draw to much attention or leave evidence behind
  • Sometimes the NPC has been assigned by another NPC.

For example:

The conversation with the back alley gem dealer in town was that if you find the man on the hill he may help….

But he is hard to find….

And you need to watch out for him….

I think he is the only one that remembers all those old stories….

That way the party gets a lead and they are kind of told not to kill him.

Have a great game.

Switch to Milestone XP

From RPT GM C.

Hello Johnn,

If the campaign is a milestone type game, I think it’s much easier to have NPCs survive the players PCs.

I think this is because a milestone campaign is more story driven. 

You can introduce an NPC and, as the contact unfolds, the players will put the NPC into one of three buckets. Either they consider the NPC an ally, enemy or they are neutral to them.

After the players have made this determination they act accordingly.

If the campaign is XP driven, then it’s hard for a NPC to survive contact with the PCs because an NPC is thought of as another source of XP.

I think the best way to handle an XP game is to be upfront at session zero. Telling the players that an NPC in your game has the most to offer, as far as XP, if the players during role play can correctly determine what type of NPC they are making contact with.

An NPC correctly determined to be an ally can provide quests or rewards (sometimes money, sometimes information, and sometimes items or a way to obtain an item that benefits the party) that lead to greater XP gains than simply treating a NPC as another type of monster.

I’ve always said that if the players I’m playing with are more about surviving and dungeon delving than storytelling then let’s play 4e.

Big Brother

From RPT GM Heiko

For some really annoying NPCs I use the Big Brother method.

I have a recurring NPC, Mr. Smythons, who is the assistant of a powerful Mage Lady.

He mocks at the PC sometimes, but they did not dare attack him yet, fearing the wrath of his mistress.

And she is also the one where our PC Wizard gets his education/spells/lore.

Consequences

From RPT GM Gwydion

Players in my campaigns know that murder is punishable by death.

And if not executed, they will be excommunicated. Forward postings for no sales or contracts, and possible bounties to all populated places beyond.

Finally, all my important NPCs are professional in things related to their craft. The smithy is a high level swordsman with uncanny knife throwing capabilities.

They also have “a way out” via trap door, alarm, hidden trap (explosive or otherwise), spell, etc.

I had one character test me on this with an apothecary only to have the entire party die of poison and disease from items within the store. She was serious about theft. Everything was coated or tainted with only her knowledge on the cures.

She offered “tea” after a sale that must be drank or no deal. Those who merely browsed were fine unless she cautioned you ‘not to touch that’ for some reason…

They killed her after an argument and took whatever they wanted, quickly leaving town (also stole fresh horses that later returned).

The TPK was NOT pretty….

Have a great week!

You Cannot Hide

From RPT GM MC

One trick I found out helps in keeping NPC alive is to present to the players during early quests and adventures how divination works in case of murder.

Basically, the first possible assignements for the party is usually someone looking to find who murdered or kindapped their loved one.

As a lawyer, I’ve always imagined how criminal cases would look like in high and low magic settings. It seems plausible that even in low magic settings a seer or priest in the local temple can give some clue as as to who the murderer is or where to find him.

The barrier to that would be money, of course.

But death of prominent (or well connected well) NPCs should almost always involve investigation through scrying or oracle, unless there is no one interested in the NPC’s fate.

This usually keeps my liver-collecting murder hobo at bay.

And if that fails, tingling sensations describing to the party what it feels like being scryed, observed, or their gut telling them someone knows their whereabouts should help.

And if that fails also, an attempt to blackmail party because of their wrong-doings is a nice starting point to new adventure.

I even keep ideas of who would blackmail party and why, and what would a letter or note with demands look like, as a way to direct the party to areas where I am more prepared.

Escort Quest

From RPT GM Valen

I have a trick I learned from MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft. I make it very clear to the players that there are no experience rewards for randomly killing NPCs.

Almost all of my XP is built around completing quests and quest objectives.

After explaining my background with MMORPGs, I also use the threat of an escort quest to remind them that the story is more important than XP from kills. (In most games, escort quests are awful.)

Part of the reason I changed rewards is that I really hate the grinding nature of XP for kills in the first place.

It was the pattern with WOW prior to 1.7 that you killed everything in the zone as you walked through it killing creatures for the quests. MMORPGs speed up those rewards by doing the math and “dice” rolls in the background in real time, but it is still a grind.

It is way worse in the tabletop environment. If it feels like a grind to me, it has to be as awful for the players.

(WOW switched to using quests to fulfill leveling experience with 1.7 to eliminate the need to grind.)

So, knowing there is little value to killing someone unless the adventure actually called for it stops a lot of those calculations.

Flattery

From RPT GM Brett

Johnn,

An NPC who makes the party feel good about themselves will have a much better chance of surviving.

Players will be less likely to kill an NPC who thinks their characters are awesome.

I had a group that killed every goblin they came across until they ran into one who looked up at them with starry-eyed admiration. They kept him around as a mascot. 

They’re also less likely to kill someone who thanks them and tells them how much they’re appreciated.

This tactic does mean the NPC will look favorably on the PCs, but it doesn’t mean they will automatically give the players everything they ask for.

The captain of the guard may express his appreciation towards the players for killing the citizen-murdering manticore, calling them heroes and shaking their hands, but his duty as captain still comes first and he will not betray his oaths for the PCs.

This tactic is dependent on the players feeling some level of empathy towards the NPCs and caring about playing to their character’s alignment.

Highlight the Important Bits

From RPT GM Mark of the Pixie

I have found another hidden factor is what system you are playing in.

D&D (in all its incarnations) has a HUGE combat focus. Your characters kill because 80-90% of their character sheet and books are about the mechanics of killing. 1-2% of the mechanics are about talking to NPCs.

The very system is telling them that fighting IS what the game is about, so obviously they SHOULD fight and kill things.

Gumshoe (just as a random counter-example) has an investigation focus. You don’t really get murder hobos in that game.

Try using a yellow highlighter to emphasize the social stats and skills on your D&D sheet. By making it stand out, players are more likely to use it.

Make It Cost More

RPT Gold Patron Christopher

Hi Johnn,

I mostly run character/story driven campaigns, so I don’t have a problem with NPC slaughter.

In the past I have used a similar technique to teach them: give players the warning by establishing the value of the NPC at first.

If the NPC is slain, make the consequences show in the difficulty getting the (information, assistance, connection, etc.) that the slain NPC would have provided harder.

Of course, have a backup plan in place.

For example, if the NPC thief would have provided directions to the local crime lord for 10 GP, make the next NPC tavern owner charge more.

This usually curtails the players from slaying NPCs on sight.

Make Them A Linchpin

From RPT GM MaLcoLm

Hi Johnn,

I had this image of a group of people standing around discussing something, when suddenly someone hands the cooper a crossbow. The archer has to retie his shoe, and says, “Can you hold this for a moment?”

Then the Murder Hoboes come in, someone obviously saying, “I throw a fireball at the guy with the crossbow.”

Poor Tom Cooper of Smithtown.

And for the rest of the campaign it’s going to be:

“Oh, you need to know <the secret of the McGuffin>? 

Well the person you need to talk with is Tom Cooper over in Smithtown.

“Oh you need to get access to <the place the PCs need to go>? Well the person you need to hire is Tom Cooper, over in Smithtown, nicest guy in the world, and knows his way around <difficult terrain>.”

Everywhere the team goes, the person who could solve their problems is someone they murdered because of <random not great reasons.>

Probably more fun for me than them.

Unless I can rope the players into building the lines for me, then it could become a self-reinforcing “don’t be a murder hobo” structure.

Setting an Example

From RPT GM Xavier

I show players the setting’s tone and lore.

That means preparing some scenes where they get to BE part the campaign’s social structure.

That makes the trick.

An example: first adventure, they are in their town’s festival. Their parents or tutors are with them and help them through a series of coming of age games.

There you have the town’s mayor, that nasty rival kid whose father is your father’s best friend, etc.

Are you an orphan? Great, I’ll show you the people who raised you or your street friends who look up to you.

Another similar example can be: you want to be mercenaries? Perfect. You have a reputation because you are well trained, so a merchant pays you to protect a caravan from the orcs and you’ll get money.

By the way, here’s your house in the city where you live and train, and you’ve got clients who trust you and sell your wares. They get what they need to make the wares from caravans, the ones you protect.

Of course, there’s this bad mercenary company who is an enemy of yours. Duel these other mercenaries to death if you dare, there are city laws about that. Also, there’s orcs to fight with, lots of them.

Third example: you want to travel the world, no ties to anyone, great.

Here’s the map of the land.

There are three factions battling.

First thing you see is a full blown battle with NPCs much more powerful than you. Someone wins and you’ve got food for three days. Now you can decide to try and steal from corpses, steal from their supply lines, sell your swords and spells to any of the factions.

If you go full murder hobos you know the warlords are gonna crush you. You’ve seen a battle, so if you want to be bandits and rob and kill, better be stealthy.

However, a campaign might call for a murder hobo style. Like: let’s be cruel pirates or raiders from the wild when a strong civilaization is falling.

So sometimes I don’t want to stop them.

That gets me to my final point. I think the real solution comes from talking to the players before the game and making a game/story everybody likes.

Then they don’t go murdering NPCs like there’s no tomorrow because this is not the kind of thing they want to do.

Make It a Tough World

From RPT Gold Patron ER

I’ve been playing this game too long.

There may be some of your audience who remember The City-State of the Invincible Overlord, and other such materials.

Even the streetsweepers were, like, 5th level characters with some kind of class.

“But why?” the murder hobos asked.

“Cause parties like yours have been through before, and everybody else is dead. Somebody has to do this work, and these guys are all that are left….”

Except for the goblins, but the party didn’t know that yet. 🙂

Run a Gritty Setting

From RPT GM Mike G.

Hey, Johnn.

Those were good tips.  

Sometimes I also allow the PCs to see justice in action. I do this early on, soon after the PCs have come into a new area. I treat it as a current event.

Brutal punishment was sort of common in the Middle Ages, so I let them witness a typical scene, but I also like to convey to the PCs that the criminals being punished are as powerful or more powerful than they are.

If the PCs are 3rd level and they see NPCs that are at least 3rd level being flogged or executed, it makes them realize that there are repercussions AND that the law here is certainly able to handle their kind.

Of course, it need not be the legal authorities that are doling out punishment. It could be a mob hit on NPCs that are twice the level of the PCs. It could be a mob of vigilantes that take matters into their own hands because the local officials are feeble.  

A more interesting question becomes “How to you convey the level of NPCs to the players”?

This is important, for many players think they are more powerful than most people in town, so seeing punishment has no effect on them (“It wouldn’t happen to me”).

For warrior types, you can allow PCs to see them in action. The PCs might witness a battle, joust, grand melee (tournament), or raid.

In such cases, describe the NPC as a complete badass, hinting at game mechanics without actually mentioning them.

Perhaps you mention how fast he is, delivering shots seemingly twice as fast as his opponents.

Perhaps he is very strong and delivers crushing damage, splintering wooden shields or rending enemy armor.

Perhaps he is a great horseman, knocking others out of the saddle and moving his horse effortlessly.

Those are in-game ways of saying “This guy has more than one attack per round”, “This guy deals lots of damage”, and “This guy can dop things on a horse that you cannot yet do”.

Take a similar approach with other classes. A thief may even pick the pocket of the highest-level thief in the party, and the PC may not realize until much later, when he sees his item around the neck of the NPC thief.

Remember too an interesting maxim that I read somewhere: “What criminals fear far more than a policeman’s gun is his radio”.

I could gather eight friends, arm them all with AR-15s, commit a nasty crime, and easily drive off the first two policemen that arrived on the scene. It’s the 30 other SWAT officers with similar or better weapons that will kill us all.

That is what gives at least semi-intelligent criminals some pause.

Some game mechanics are problematic here.

I think there need to be significant bonuses when people gang up on others. No fighter should be able to stand amidst a dozen enemies and swat them with impunity.

On one end of the spectrum, skilled warriors working together (a SWAT team, for example) can handily defeat lesser foes. So when the Lord Mayor of the town sends out his elite guards, the murder hobo PCs should run!

On the other end of the spectrum, even an untrained mob in action (a la the French Revolution) is terrifying.

I adapted the swarm mechanics from D&D 3E and use it for humans. Even powerful PCs will be hurled to the ground and beaten to death by sheer numbers (their high level is not meaningless – it usually enables them to escape in ways that commoners cannot).              

Another related question that deals with design:

How do players get it in their heads that they can get away with anything?

There are several answers (most have to do with the DM allowing too much), but one that I noticed has been rooted in the games themselves (at least D&D, which influenced many others in turn).

In early AD&D, Gygax mentioned in several places that PCs are superior to most people. They are a cut above, whereas most commoners are 0-level people.

That naturally gives players the idea that their 6th-level PCs can walk all over the locals.

Related to this is another problem. Early AD&D, though it included a great deal of fantastic elements (magic, monsters, etc.) tried for a semblance of realism.

Magic and monsters certainly existed, but they were not on full display on every street corner. They were not taken from granted. They were not mundane.

Those DMs that tried to retain this element (like me) were at a serious disadvantage because the PCs were essentially the only ones rapidly progressing in power.

I kept most NPCs at lower levels to keep the flavor of the game realistic, as it was intended. This only encouraged the murder hobo problem.

Yet, if I did what many DMs did over the years, which was simply to jack up the power level of everyone, the flavor of a realistic world falls apart.

This results in what is now common (at least in D&D), which is a world where PCs begin as rock stars (somewhat equivalent to Batman) and eventually become almost super human (somewhat equivalent to Superman).

How you address this depends strongly on what type of game you want.

For those that really want to keep the realistic feel to a world (even with its magic and monsters), you need to slow down PC leveling.

Indeed, when you have a great story going, leveling is not a goal; it’s incidental.

In my world, 9th-11th level is the top tier, generally speaking. Those are the most talented people in the known world. I adjust everything to that standard.

Thus, bishops in a powerful church may be 7th level. Influential priests may be 4th or 5th level. Common priests, though they are not that common) may be 3rd level. With warriors, knights of renown may be 6th level and above. Average knights of the realm may be 5th level. Knights that were elevated too early may be 3rd or 4th level.

That is my answer, but I suspect that most people love their high levels and such. In that case, in a world of superheroes, it makes sense to have extremely powerful NPCs that can easily put the PCs in their places.

Have a Clear Social Contract

From RPT GM Istrian

Hi Johnn,

The problem you’re describing sounds like it’s more about setting player expectations right, rather than finding ways for their homicidal tendencies to have consequences.

And let’s face it, if the death of an NPC has seemingly-unrelated consequences, then the players will just think the GM is taking it out on them for killing his favorite NPC.

I tell my players “this is not a murderhobo campaign.”

It works most of the time.

The few times it hasn’t worked, I simply asked “Why do you want to kill X?”

If there’s a strong motivation that could later be used for character growth, then I allow it even if the tone of the campaign shouldn’t.

If there isn’t, then I politely ask the player to leave simply because they’re in the wrong campaign and it’s not going to be fun for them or me.

Or I tell my players, “This is a sandbox, do whatever you want and kill whoever you want, there will be consequences both good and bad every time.”

The good and the bad don’t necessarily come at the same time, but it’s important that both exist: players have a real choice, and they trust that I won’t be arbitrary with them.