The Secret Role Of NPCs

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1071

It occurred to me I’ve never explained my fascination with NPC story roles.

In this article just for you, awesome Roleplaying Tips Patrons, I’ll share their secret function in my campaigns.

But before I can dig into that, I need to back up a couple steps and talk about how I think and run my campaigns.

The Atomic Unit

If you read far back in the RPT archives, you’ll find me talking about encounters being the atomic unit of the game.

Several encounters make up a session. A session for me is four to six encounters, on average. One of my goals is to get that up to nine.

Several sessions make up an adventure. I’m talking nine sessions, as a rough average, to complete a 32-page adventure equivalent. That’s about 36-54 encounters per adventure!

Several adventures make up a campaign. This one I can’t figure a good average for. Three? I homebrew my campaigns and loot adventures for parts. A lot of encounters get played outside of any published material. My guess is five adventures to a campaign.

I’ve completed about ten campaigns. That’s a fraction of the campaigns I’ve started. I can put an end period on the stories of just a few PCs. Another goal of mine is to complete more campaigns via my seasons model.

In this framework, encounters made up the basic brick of campaigns. Stack the bricks, build the campaign.

Campaigns => Adventures => Sessions => Encounters

Enter The Sandbox

I run three campaigns right now. My 2019 goal was to start GMing every week.

Strange side story about that.

I was feeling burned out on GMing again in 2018. I put my only game on hiatus. I figured I needed a rest. Consuming great books and Netflix would refill the well.

But it wasn’t working.

So I rolled the dice.

I got Hobos running again, monthly.

Then I committed to a monthly game with fine local folks I met at a public D&D day here in Beaumont, Alberta.

Then I emailed my friends from Vancouver. We haven’t played in 19 years. One now lives in Japan. Another, Germany. One in the States. One in Montreal. And the others in British Columbia.

And they agreed! So, third monthly campaign comes online.

You must be wondering why I’d treat my burnout with running even more campaigns? Old age must kicking in. Facebook lists me in lich years. πŸ™‚

Surely the solution was resting up until I felt ready?

Turns out my goal of GMing weekly has cured my burnout. I’m really excited about GMing again, and to be gaming almost weekly now.

I had read Seth Godin’s book, The Dip. He talks about reaching the inevitable quitting point in anything you do. Success comes to those who breach through that monster and keep going on the other side.

My hypothesis was, by GMing more than once a month my head would be more into the game. And frequency builds momentum.

There was also a dead zone in the plot of my Hobos game. I never clued into that until I started GMing more often again. The dead zone was killing my desire to GM that story.

But the real Dip here (other than yours truly), was losing game energy to real life. Job stresses, longer hours, consumerism, bad health choices, various projects, other hobbies β€” they all wick energy away from that which you do not defend.

A monthly cadence meant many weeks before each game. I’d procrastinate on prep. My mind would drift onto other things. I’d forget about the Hobos until a calendar reminder popped up.

Shoring up my priorities though, and getting that table time clawed out of my schedule (it was surprisingly easy β€” I made commitments to my players that I’d be their GM) helped me decide to GM weekly again.

And it worked. I’m always thinking about my campaigns now. I tend to think most about the characters, the story, and plots.

And I look forward to every session now and enjoy prepping for them.

A New Atomic Unit

Returning to the sub-plot of this article, each of these three campaigns is based on my current approach to campaigning:

Core Story => Sandbox => Hexcrawl

A much different structure than encounters as atomic units.

Yes, I still GM things as encounters. Player order gets decided, characters take turns, some short-term result manifests β€” win, lose, or draw.

Sometimes a long-term result opens up. The Infinite Game.

The difference now is, it’s a pull system.

Players tell me what they intend to do.

They decide amongst themselves about what’s interesting to do next.

The Core Story gives sign posts. It goes on, however, whether characters entangle or not.

So encounters are now more dynamic.

I think of encounters as several pieces coming together in the moment to create a compelling game situation.

We need a location. One or more characters. A purpose plus a reward. And a challenge.

For example, last session the characters returned to the Caves of Chaos to bring their employer, Master Mateo, to meet the necromancer, Mallanna. The party took a roleplay approach. The cleric even sought out a goblin foe he let live last visit to parley.

However, I had in mind a combat. Prior to the session I bookmarked the monster stats I needed and warmed up the d20s.

When the players presented a roleplay, however, I changed the humanoid foes into industrious workers preparing defenses against imminent attack by Goldfang and his thugs.

We’ll return to this example when I finally get to the main plot here about the secret role of NPCs.

Point is, I let players bring the variables. Location. Who. Purpose. I grabbed from Campaign Logger and my GM Toolbox the remaining variables: Reward and Challenge.

Therefore, the new atomic unit for me now are these five encounter elements:

  • Location
  • Characters
  • Purpose
  • Reward
  • Challenge

Kinda like what subatomic particles are to atoms.

The Sequence

Getting back on track a bit, the reason I tell you about my previous view of encounters as the atomic units of campaigns is, such a structure reveals a really important element.


The picture I’ve crudely drawn here shows my previous prep approach.

Plan the encounters and the campaign takes care of itself.

We see a pool of encounters I’ve prepped. Gameplay draws from the pool. The pool forms sessions. Sessions form adventures. Adventures form the campaign.

But it’s not encounters that are most interesting here.

Even though I no longer consider encounters as the atomic unit of prep and play, gameplay still uses encounters to build campaigns.

When we redraw the diagram to match the gameplay experience, we get:


And the part I want to focus on is the little line between encounters.


That little line is the secret role my NPCs are often responsible for.

I call that line a Transition.

The Encounter Lifecycle

One difference between mediocre game masters and great game masters is how they handle transitions.

A Transition answers the question, how do you move from encounter to encounter?

If we cannot Transition from one encounter to the next, our game grinds to a stop.

For example, after a battle with orcs the party continues on its journey through the forest. This is a Physical Transition.

Another approach is the Railroad Transition. When an encounter ends, the GM tells players how the next one starts. The characters are led on undeviating tracks to the next period of gameplay.

A third approach, my current one via Core Story => Sandbox => Hexcrawl, is to give players lots of hooks and let them choose what they do next. A Decision Transition.

That choice tells me what the next encounter is and how it triggers.

For example, all the PCs enter the valley of the Caves of Chaos.

I know Characters and Location, now. I also know the Purpose.

If I don’t know the Purpose, I just ask Why?

  • “Why are you trying to do that?”
  • “Why are you going there?”
  • “Why do you seek that NPC or information?”

Easy peasy. The players tell me the Purpose every time I ask Why? As a bonus, this question often causes great party debates full of roleplaying.

That leaves Reward and Challenge.

Reward takes many forms which we’ve talked about before in the newsletter. Plot advancement, clues, money, magic items, influence and status, greater agency, and so on.

I keep an ideas Log Entry in Campaign Logger for rewards. When an encounter triggers, I select one or more from the list and fit it in.

I prefer to have the Reward in mind before I actually begin GMing an encounter, because I like to work backwards from the end. Begin with the end in mind.

However, should an alternative Reward idea come to mind (sometimes directly from the players) I’ll make the switch mid-encounter as long as continuity is maintained.

All this gives the following encounter lifecycle:

  • Players tell me their next action => Decision Transition
  • I start piecing together the five elements to form an encounter (Location, Characters, Purpose, Reward, Challenge)
  • Encounter triggers
  • Encounter ends with Win, Lose, Draw (e.g., Purpose is accomplished or not, there might be complications, Reward is awarded or not)
  • Repeat

Back Pocket Encounters

I still prep some encounters in advance.

I take one of two approaches for each encounter:

  1. Prepare the entire thing and swap out any of the five elements during gameplay that don’t fit (Location, Characters, Purpose, Reward, Challenge)
  2. Prepare a partial or skeleton encounter with one or more elements left undefined and wait for gameplay to tell me what the remaining variables are

For example, the PCs enter the valley of the Caves of Chaos. I have prepped a combat encounter. I know Location, Challenge, and Reward. I guess about Purpose. I leave Characters blank.

Then, upon reaching the Caves of Chaos, the players choose to travel to the valley and parley instead of fight.

Location and Reward remained the same, in this particular case.

Purpose changed from loot to alliance (as per players telling me why they’re wanting to parley).

Reward changed to alliance and friendships. (When the cleric decided to find his former goblin foe, hoping to reconnect β€” but not in a mace-to-head way β€” he called the goblin a friend, so I took my cue from that.)

And Challenge changed to convincing Mallanna to agree to the PCs’ plan.

It’s sometimes overwhelming crafting encounters on the fly. But when I break them down to just five ingredients, I can fill in most blanks right away, leaving me a couple specific elements to focus on for improv. Works great.

The Secret Role of NPCs

Finally, we get to the main point.

What happens if the players fail to initiate the next Transition?

As we’ve discussed, without a Transition the game stops. No next encounter. No gameplay.

Enter NPCs.

They make the best GM Transitions.

You could argue successfully that maps make the easiest transitions. After an encounter ends the party looks at the map to see where to go next.

That’s pretty simple. But there’s not much gameplay there unless players argue over forked paths and routes.

NPCs, however, get us roleplay, puzzles, and even standalone encounters.

And we use NPCs to point the way when PCs stall or get stuck.

“Thank you for saving me! I am in your debt. T’was an evil demise I was headed for, yessirs. How can I ever repay you?”

“We’re looking for Goldfang. Have you seen him? Do you know where he lairs?”

“Why yes, yes I do. He’s the scum behind this attack. I can tell you where he likes to drink. Maybe that’ll help?”

The NPC here has guided the PCs to a choice of next encounter via a Location element. The NPC offers a Transition and the party gets unstuck.

The problem is, such interventions get predictable, repetitive, and boring.

I booted up Ultima IV on my iPad recently, aiming to tap the nostalgia button. And while still a fun game, I got bored fast from approaching every NPC in the castle and villages interrogating them for clues, and essentially, transitions.

Enter Story Role. It mixes things up. Makes each Transition fun and different. And gives failing sessions some momentum.

There are about twelve or so key NPC Story Roles:

  • Villain
  • Lieutenant
  • Victim
  • Guide
  • Trickster
  • Key Persona
  • Mentor
  • Resource
  • Sergeant
  • Flunky
  • Special
  • Rival

Each role offers its own unique levers and options to serve as a transition.

And in this way, you get instant variety. No more golden exclamation marks above NPC heads. Instead, you get deeper story action.

For example, a villain can offer transitions in many different ways. They could attack, have a headquarters, attempt a ruse, assign a minion to spy, deploy a lure, and so on.

Each gives PCs direction.

An attack involves intent. The intent reveals the villain’s direction. The transition involves getting to the villain for payback or justice.

A headquarters offers a destination. An adventure site. The transition involves finding a map or tracking directly to the location.

A ruse or spy exposes the villain’s fingerprints. The transition involves the party’s reaction. A frontal assault perhaps, or maybe a counter ruse.

Here are examples of how each NPC role can offer a unique sign post and transition to keep the encounters coming:

  • Villain β€” Tries to recruit the PCs
  • Lieutenant β€” Kidnaps PC ally
  • Victim β€” Begs for help
  • Guide β€” Reveals a secret route
  • Trickster β€” Steals from a PC and leads them on a chase
  • Key Persona β€” Offers a bounty
  • Mentor β€” Offers advice on next move
  • Resource β€” Unwittingly sells something with a secret compartment
  • Sergeant β€” Rallies the minions and sends them on a mission
  • Flunky β€” Makes a big mistake providing an opening against the villain
  • Special β€” Gets robbed and hires PCs for recovery of stolen goods
  • Rival β€” Accidentally reveals their next move

Each example offers a different transition flavour.

And that’s why I love thinking in the abstract and in terms of Story Role.

Every role or archetype offers something different to your plot.

Better yet, each role offers you a way to intervene, complicate, or guide via its own flavour.

Transitions need not be shallow golden punctuation headwear again!

Close the Gap

While transitions are seemingly a minor boon, I assert many sessions flounder because the GM gets caught with a gap in play.

Players don’t know what to do next. The game stalls. No new encounter rises on the horizon.

You consider the rails approach. Bad guys show up with guns ala Chandler’s Law. But that technique gets tired quick. Players learn to become passive because the adventure comes to them.

You ask what the party does next. But debate with incomplete information and no strong lead leaves everyone frustrated.

You are caught between forcing a transition or waiting passively while table energy dwindles.

The solution is to realize you need a transition. And that you need a transition delivery mechanism.

Hello NPC.

And hello Story Role to give you ideas for transition approach and flavour to execute well and trigger an exciting new encounter.

Go Forth and Wield Thine NPCs

It does not matter whether you sandbox or follow a path. You need transitions to stitch encounters together via gameplay into an immersive storyline.

Look to your NPCs to provide endless transitions.

And think Story Roles to help make each transition contextual, relevant, and fun.

2,579 words to say that. πŸ™‚

I hope it helps you have more fun at every game.