How Do You Make Encounters More Interesting? — Introducing The Chorus Line

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1112

What to do with NPCs in the background to make encounters more interesting?

That thought came to me as I bumped into a random blog post on writing, and this snippet jumped out at me:

One of the things to watch out for when choreographing a scene is the chorus line – any people who would be sitting around the tea shop, walking down the street, standing around waiting to also board the plane, or doing other perfectly normal irrelevant activities in the area.

Sometimes, they can all be lumped together as more scenery (“Rush-hour crowds”), but as soon as the bank robber bursts out of the bank or the runaway wagon comes careening down the hill, all those people will react.

They usually don’t need detailed, person-by-person descriptions of where they’re running to or what they’re doing, but they can’t just vanish (unless of course this is the sort of world that has teleportation magic or technology, but that, too, should be remarked on, if only for the reader’s benefit).

So writers call background NPCs a chorus line. Cool.

Back to the question, should we put NPCs in the background of encounters? And if so, how might they make our games more fun?

My answer to Q#1 is yes, we should add NPCs to our scenes when it makes sense to make our worlds seem alive, to give players options, and to give us options.

Here are 17 ways we might do that.

17 Uses For NPCs in the Background

  1. Witnesses. Less murder hoboing when others are around judging you — and reporting you to the guards.
  2. Clues. If Godzilla tries stealth, people pointing in fright at the sky would help tip the party off. But other clues for story purposes could come from the chorus line in any encounter should the PCs get stuck.
  3. Hamper Movement. When Godzilla pokes his head around the skyscraper’s corner, panic in the streets ensues. We can make encounters more challenging by putting people in the way of PCs. For example, in D&D 5E you could make a crowded street of fleeing NPCs difficult terrain, which doubles movement costs.
  4. New Monster. Put the players in a tough spot by making background NPCs a physical threat. Perhaps call a street full of fleeing NPCs a swarm that does trampling damage each round to characters who fail to defend themselves.
  5. Utility. Place a group of NPCs in an encounter as a tool for smart players. Characters could hide or disguise themselves this way, blend in to spy, or gather information from.
  6. Help. Scare PCs by overwhelming them with a threat and then using the NPCs to assist. Perhaps a crowd distracts Godzilla, or a helpful citizen trips up a foe during a chase.
  7. Mystery. Engage players by having background NPCs doing something weird, unexpected, or mysterious. Use this to point PCs in the direction of the plot, distract players, or engage your table.
  8. Verisimilitude. Make your setting feel alive by having people around. NPCs waiting in line, staff helping customers, people visiting each other. Fill your scenes with NPCs — you never know what might happen.
  9. Crucible. Use innocent NPCs for tougher encounters. Hostages, trickier stealth, reputation concerns, innocent bystanders.
  10. Contrast. Players lose a sense of accomplishment if their characters are stuck in dungeons with level-appropriate foes and challenges. “I’ve got 100 hit points!” “That’s great, the dragon hits and does 100 hit points!” When PCs mingle with normals, players get to see how far their characters have come.
  11. Comedy. NPCs in the background provide excellent grist for laughs should you need to relieve tension or change table energy. For example, two gnomes carrying a long ladder….
  12. Atmosphere. Set your encounter’s mood with background characters. Use what the NPCs are doing, and how they’re doing it, to set a mood. For example, two drunken warriors brawling and cursing versus a children’s birthday party with lots of balloons and laughing.
  13. Influence. Here’s a subtle one. Room #3: Trick or Setback. We game the players. If NPCs do something, even if innocuous to your plans, players will take note and possibly copy. One time I had NPCs gathered in a circle singing in low solemn tones. Players tried to understand the words and a couple joined in. Turned out it was an evil ritual….
  14. Soundboard. NPCs can react, share their opinions, and give players feedback with their words and actions. Use this to spur player ideas, spawn deeper thinking about an issue, or get things moving again if group debate has locked or stalled. “Hey misters, I don’t think it’s right that they should get away with that. Somebody ought to do something!”
  15. Props. Make NPCs useful. A security guard might open a door. A banker might share private details. A swimmer might rescue a drowning paladin in armour. The point here is to improv this. Just populate your chorus line with randos and let players do the work.
  16. Validation. Break analysis paralysis by having background NPCs chip in with the idea, side, or position they agree with.
  17. Mirror. We can message to players how they’re playing and who their characters are by using background characters as reflections. For example, the party whacks goblins without a second thought. Add in grieving parents, a wailing spouse, and shocked goblin children staring at the body, and players get a whole new view on things. A more positive example: cheering, backslapping, and free drinks for PCs when they do a good deed.