Make Your NPCs Unreasonable

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1075

Table of Contents:

RPT GM Mark of the Pixie sent me these great NPC tips for better stories:

I have the bad habit of making NPCs too reasonable. PCs will put forward a reasonable case and I (as a person) will agree with it, and so the NPC agrees with it.

Sometimes, it would make a better story if the NPCs where less sensible.

I don’t have a problem if the NPC is a Mook or Henchman. But the Big Bads of my games tend to be genius types, and genius types tend to consider consequences and moves ahead, and often the PCs’ suggestions are better for everyone in the long run.

Sometimes I fix this by having the NPC be fanatical about something, but that isn’t always applicable.

So I am now looking at common errors of criminal thinking, and working those into the thinking of my villains. It’s a work in progress.

I also have the self-annoying habit of overusing stock NPCs. This is mostly a problem when I improv. I am trying to fix it by adding new stock NPCs to my stable so I have more choice and less repetition. I can also hide it a bit by changing surface details without altering the bones underneath.

Have you looked at Dogs in the Vineyard? It has interesting advice on setting up the sessions for each town in a way that encourages you to get the twist out quickly. The writer actually mentions having had the same “delay the twist” issue that you describe, Johnn.

Here is a bit from the book…

Actively Reveal The Town In Play

The town you’ve made has secrets. It has, quite likely, terrible secrets — blood and sex and murder and damnation.

But you the GM, you don’t have secrets a’tall. Instead, you have cool things — bloody, sexy, murderous, damned cool things — that you can’t wait to share.

There’s this interesting hump I have to get over every time I GM Dogs. It’s like this:

The PCs arrive in town. I have someone meet them. They ask how things are going. The person says that, well, things are going okay, mostly. The PCs say, “Mostly?”

And my reaction is, “Uh oh. They’re going to figure out what’s wrong in the town! Better stonewall. Poker face on!”

And then, “Wait a sec. I want them to figure out what’s wrong in the town. In fact, I want to show them what’s wrong! Otherwise, they’ll wander around waiting for me to drop them a clue. I’ll have my dumb poker face on, and we’ll be bored stupid the whole evening.”

So instead of having the NPC say, “Oh no, I meant that things are going just fine, and I shut up now,” I have the NPC launch into his or her tirade.

“Things are awful! This person’s sleeping with this other person not with me, they murdered the schoolteacher, and blood pours down the meeting house walls every night!”

….Or sometimes, the NPC wants to lie, instead. That’s okay! I have the NPC lie.

You’ve watched movies. You always can tell when you’re watching a movie who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

And wouldn’t you know it, most the time the players are looking at me with skeptical looks, and I give them a little sly nod that yep, she’s lying. And they get these great, mean, tooth-showing grins — because when someone lies to them, ho boy does it not work out.

Then the game goes somewhere.

Great tips, Mr. Pixie. Thank you!


Here’s what I take away from Mark’s advice:

  • Make NPCs unreasonable
  • Have NPCs make the same mistakes common criminals do
  • Add more recurring NPCs to your campaign
  • Get twists and plot details out early

Do these four things for better storytelling.