Manage NPC Guides Carefully

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0349

A Brief Word From Johnn

New D&D Minis

I made my Will save and didn’t purchase any of the new D&D minis last week. I have lots of minis right now, and my biggest problem is trying to track hit points per mini, not a lack of minis. I thought I might use poker chips stacked under minis to denote how much damage they’ve taken, but the chips are larger than the 1? squares my giant graph paper has. I’ll quest for smaller, 1? chips or markers of some kind, but I doubt I’ll find anything.

Anyway, did you buy any of the Unhallowed minis? How are they?

DDO Lots Of Fun

I had heard bad things about D&D Online, so I didn’t get around to trying it until recently. However, after playing it with friends I’ve found it to be a lot of fun. As with any video game, I’m busy checking out the environments and quests as I play with an eye for borrowing stuff for my own pen and paper campaigns. I find visualizing interesting rooms, locations, and foes from video games while GMing helps my descriptions out quite a bit.

I see they’ve recently announced what new stuff is planned for 2007:

There’s a 10 day free trial at


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Manage NPC Guides Carefully

Recently, I received the following reader tips request about NPCs traveling with the party:

“I’ve been reading your e-zine for about 3 or 4 months now. I was just wondering if you could put out some tips on the DM playing an NPC that travels with the PC party. To me its hard not to make him the one to push the story forward. Is this a bad thing?” – Mnjhoober

In answer, this week’s article offers a few tips about running NPC guides: non-player characters hired to lead the party, or put there by you to steer things from time to time in a helpful, non-intrusive fashion.

A few years ago, I was running a campaign where, quite by accident, the characters were expertly guided through the adventure by an NPC – Bordon of clan Shining Hammer – who didn’t take over the game or ruin the fun for the players. NPC guides are dangerous because players might over-rely on them. Groups can also feel railroaded when following the expertise and orders of a GM-controlled guide.

In 2006, I also guided a party on a short side-plot adventure with Spugnosis, a crafty wizard the PCs met at the inn they were basing. While he sometimes drove the adventure forward, and he even helped save the PCs once or twice, the group didn’t feel like they were the GM’s puppets, or that they were victims of deus ex machina.

Bordon’s success was unusual because he was not only twice as powerful as the rest of the party members; he was also the PCs’ employer. Yet, the players didn’t feel Bordon intruded on their game, stole the limelight too often, lead them around by their noses, or bossed them around. While GMing, I also noticed the party did not rely heavily on the dwarf, yet he provided the advice needed to help me guide the story and keep the adventure moving ahead at a good pace.

Following is a short recipe of the success of Bordon and Spugnosis, which I hope answers Mnjhoober’s request. I’d also be very interested in hearing your ideas on what can make a successful NPC guide.

Give A Guide Their Own Agenda, Goals, And Secrets

Rather than being NPCs who guided because it was a way to make a buck, or simply because they knew the adventure area well, Bordon and Spug agreed to guide the PCs for their own special reasons. This helped create a richer story during the game because I had an in-character NPC reason for urging the group onward when they slowed, or for getting the players back on track when they were thinking of straying.

Bordon and Spug’s agendas were also well-kept secrets for a period of time. This gave the PCs more reasons to roleplay with their guide than just to ask directions once in a while. They closer they got to their destination, the more curious they became. Tension mounted and excitement built.

Bordon’s secret agenda, I believe, was the main reason why the players soon forgot he was a guide and a “GM tool”, and why they started considering him as a three dimensional character in the game.

Example secret agendas:

  • Use the PCs to get the guide through danger to the treasure location, and then be there first to claim a powerful magic item the PCs don’t know about.
  • Free the NPC’s family member. The father is actually the head of a crime syndicate, and he’s been captured by a rival crime family.
  • Adventurers and mercenaries are destroying the balance of power in the area. Lead the party around to sites and encounters to restore the balance without the PCs catching on. Teach the PCs about balance and convince them to leave things as-is once balance is restored.
  • The NPC is aware of one or more upcoming complications, but stays silent so the PCs won’t quit, retreat, or hesitate.
  • The NPC is aware that, by pursuing the quest, the PCs will make one or more powerful new enemies.
  • The NPC is powerful or has powerful equipment/magic items, but wants to appear weak so the PCs don’t make him take risks or get in harm’s way.
  • The NPC has an alignment opposed to one or more PCs, and he’s using a magic item, or just good roleplaying, to throw PCs off the scent.
  • The NPC works for the villain. His tasks are to guide the PCs to the villain, and to make sure they are as depleted and weak as possible when the confrontation occurs.

Give The Guide Few Leadership Skills

If the party identifies the guide as a leader, in any way, it can become habit for them to defer to the NPC or take orders from him. Once that happens, the game degrades into the GM leading the party, not the NPC, or a character, or even a player. The solution: give the guide few leadership skills, or hide his leadership potential well.

In D&D terms, I gave Bordon a very low Charisma, and played him as such. He was gruff, aloof, hounded by his own inner demons, and rude. Who would want to follow a person like that? In your game, you give your guide an anti-leadership trait or anti-social disadvantage to discourage players from following him at all times.

I also made Bordon a wise dwarf. Even though some people have no leadership ability, they still try to assume control. By making the dwarven guide wise, I played him so he understood his weaknesses, and he knew he made a better follower than chief.

For Spug, he was a weak, low level wizard. His power came from knowledge. His fawning, cowardly, and flighty nature put him out of mind immediately for any kind of leadership role, except when the PCs wanted to know what he knew.

Bordon did two additional things (besides being rude) that helped the PCs learn he wasn’t going to be their leader. First, Bordon publicly declared one of the PCs as the party’s leader. Being their employer let him do that, and picking a popular PC helped him get the rest of the PCs’ ongoing support. Second, whenever a character asked him a question about what they should do, he deferred to the party’s leader. After doing this several times, the PCs stopped looking to him for leadership and went straight to the PC leader instead.

Therefore, give your next guide a follower mentality, and back it up with his character sheet make-up.

Make Your Guide Specialized

Give your guide a specific set of skills. It can be tempting, when creating an NPC who is to help the party, to make a jack-of-all-trades or someone with a vague and poorly defined skill set. Either case makes it harder for you to say “I don’t know” for the NPC during the game. Sharp players may try to take advantage of that to get a lot of juicy information from the NPC (and you).

If you clearly know the boundaries of the guide’s abilities, then you know when to say “I don’t know” while walking in the NPC’s shoes. This also helps your guide seem real and not a puppet.

Depending on the situation and your group, you can also use a guide’s limitations to provide mis information and wrong answers. Players often feel manipulated when a GM has their guide give them bad information. However, when you are playing true to the NPC’s knowledge, you can give bad, in- ,character advice without upsetting your group.

Therefore, be clear about what the NPC knows and doesn’t know, and use specialized knowledge to prevent too much information from leaking into the game. This will also mean the party won’t rely on your guide outside his area of expertise. A great boon indeed.

Give Your Guide An Interesting Personality And Have Him Participate

I used to have all my guides stand back, be quiet, and speak only when spoken too. I was always worried about them hogging the spotlight or becoming too influential. With Bordon though, I learned the exact opposite was true. I gave him an interesting personality with biases, prejudices, and rough edges, and he almost always put his two cents in during party discussions. The characters soon accepted him as one of their own and enjoyed bantering with him.

Spug was also active in some discussions. Being a wizard, he was often away studying, letting the PCs plan on their own. However, if it looked like the party might veer away from Spug’s objectives, he would try to guide the party along his path, usually by revealing new knowledge – true or not – to make his case. This created a nice balance of NPC influence, without it feeling like GM manhandling.

Quiet PCs can be abused by PCs. When an aloof or quiet NPC speaks, players usually stop and listen. They know at the meta-game level that “the GM wants to gives us important information” because the NPC never speaks otherwise, or it’s so unusual for the guide to say something that the players are shocked and attentive.

However, having a guide NPC actively participate, with an interesting personality, helps the players forget it’s the GM speaking, and in-game play continues without skipping a beat.

It’s harder to meta-game when an NPC is active in discussion, as well. You can guide the party at the game master level better without being obvious about it. You can spread bad advice, plant clues, and give important information without giving yourself away too.

Give your guides personality and roleplay them well.

Guides Offer Choices

Avoid circumstances where the PCs are forced to follow the guide. Instead, have the guide offer choices – informed choices.

It’s difficult letting control go of the PCs’ path. Perhaps you’ve only prepared for one course of action. Maybe one route is too deadly at this point. It could be one option seems to have much more entertainment potential. In these cases, there is great temptation to brandish the guide to force things to play out a certain way.

Resist this impulse. Though harder to do, try to influence, not control, PC decisions in-character with the NPC. A guide has knowledge the PCs don’t – that’s their role and purpose. Therefore, have the guide share his knowledge, but through the lens of the NPC, not the omniscient GM. The guide might be confident or even absolute in his belief that he’s right, but like the PCs, he’s not perfect and is limited to what he’s seen, learned, and experienced.

Have the guide offer doubt. It could be that there is only one possible way, but reveal that the guide isn’t sure what dangers lurk, or that this is just one way the guide knows of, and the guide can’t swear to there not being alternate routes.

If the PCs look like they’re about to make a decision you don’t like, have the guide reveal information to build up a case for your choice. Influence, but don’t demand.

Its best if the guide can offer one “but” for each piece of advice he has.

  • “Yes, I do know about black dragons. They swim, fly, and breathe acid, but I don’t know what they are immune to, whether they cast spells, or what other special abilities they might possess.”
  • “A way to the cave is along this path to the left, but I don’t know if there’s a faster route, and I haven’t been here in years – who knows what dangers lair along it now.”
  • “I would attack now, while your presence remains undetected, but it will be a difficult fight.”
  • “How powerful is he? I saw him not only repel five assassins, but finish them up in mere seconds. But, his confidence is his greatest weakness.” “I would not go that way, if I were you. Death awaits along that path. Back down the stairs we go, says I. But, perhaps you are stronger than I think.”

Another ploy is to have the guide present an option for learning more so the PCs can make a better informed choice. Offer up another encounter to stall, influence the PCs, or change the course of the game. For example, the guide might offer to take the PCs to a more knowledgeable NPC for consultation, such an a skilled expert, survivor, or sage. The guide might point out a new option, or an option the PCs have forgotten, such as exploring a section the group left behind, searching along a certain path bit more, casting a certain spell, using a magic item, or getting a forgotten clue deciphered.

If the guide has been wrong before, the PCs are suspicious of the NPC for some reason, or the guide’s personality keeps players in the moment and not objectively meta-gaming, then such a ploy will seem like an option and not a GM intervention.

Give The Guide A Weakness

Give the NPC guide a negative aspect that keeps them from assuming control, and provides a logical reason why they’d choose to guide and not lead or use their great power. Choose a weakness that also becomes a temporary barrier for deus ex machina moments. If you have to intervene to save the PCs’ lives or prevent them from making a critical mistake, you can have the NPC do something to bypass their barrier, but it requires great cost or strength, which is why the NPC doesn’t jump in and steal the limelight more often.


  • The NPC is a coward. He flees from battle each time, but when the PCs start dropping, he must somehow muster the courage to jump in and help.
  • The NPC has an intense phobia. However, if a character does a good enough job with diplomacy or intimidate, the NPC can be convinced to act.
  • The NPC serves the villain who’s about to deliver a TPK. However, the NPC has grown to respect the PCs and has strong empathy for them. To determine whether he’ll point out the secret escape route or let the villain prevail, he tests the leader PC with a moral, ethical, or philosophical question.
  • The NPC could use his secret wand of fireballs to kill the creature, but the wand only has 3 charges left and he needs it for personal defense.
  • The NPC knew exactly where the McGuffin was the whole time, but the villain has threatened to kill his family if he tells the PCs.
  • The NPC doesn’t understand the PCs’ language. He can show them the way, but he won’t be able to answer verbal questions or pick up on opportunities to correct or clarify PC misperceptions as they talk to each other or discuss plans.
  • The villain holds the NPC’s power. The guide is a powerful wizard, but the villain stole his spell book. The villain has the brave warrior’s magic arms and armour locked away. The villain has the NPC’s spirit or soul trapped. The villain is a twin, look-a-like, illusionist, or master of disguise and has framed the NPC, making the guide a fugitive, no longer an authority, and not to be believed by other NPCs.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Shadow Clue Idea

From Mike Bourke

The most effective hiding spot I’ve ever come up with involved nothing more than a length of reasonably stiff wire of the type used by florists. I twisted it into loops in such a way that the shadow of the wire, when held at the right angle and rotation to the light source, spelled out the password/command word to open the door into the dungeon.

In game terms, the wire was much stiffer and almost impossible to bend. It took my normally pretty quick-on-the-uptake PCs four or five hours of playing with the wire, deciding it was a red herring and searching the fancily-embossed lintel that had held the wire, etc., before they figured it out. I had much entertainment that day.

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Political Encounter Hook

From Chris T.

The leader of a large city or country has recently given some sort of power to a good friend or family member, but the person who received this power has no idea what they are doing. They are causing a whole bunch of mayhem and problems in the area that will affect the PCs. The leader is too stubborn to admit he was wrong and will stick to his decision unless the PCs can convince him otherwise.

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Use A Message Board Between Sessions

From Kiteran

We use a message board between sessions. We have several rooms to choose from. One is a world information room with deities, house rules, campaign info, names, places, maps, etc. Then we have a lobby for out-of-character, real world talk. Then we have a tavern for in-character game talk. Lastly, we have separate rooms for each character where we post stories, new spell ideas, in character dialogue, etc.

The board works well when life gets in the way of the game and we have to go several weeks without meeting. It is also a fantastic way to do travel. The GM can write a description of the boat, cart, etc., and players just respond with some dialogue. Before you know it, you have a thread of in- character responses.

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Keep The PCs Motivated

From Jessica

The best way to keep the characters on track with your story or plot line is to give them a reason to. If you have a mercenary company for your group, and you keep throwing adventures where you fight evil for the sake of good, and the happy, smiling faces of children is your only reward, then you shouldn’t be surprised if the party is easily side- tracked.

You have to craft adventures and plots that connect with the characters and make them want to participate. This doesn’t mean you should have the big baddie kidnap the fighter’s sister to make the party go on this adventure, but craft it to be something the party will be interested in.

I can’t count the number of times where a GM has dangled some obvious plot thread in my face but it was something my character would be in no way interested in pursuing.

Take in consideration the motivation of both characters and the players, as well as their personalities, to craft a game that everyone will enjoy without feeling like the track is already laid out for them or that it will be only mildly interesting at best.

Take time in-game to note down what sorts of things interest your group – not only the stuff they go after but the stuff that they talk about as well. If they sit around the campfire thinking about how great it would be to go on a mysterious ocean journey, then you might want to think about incorporating something like that into your game –  it would be something the characters would follow without you having to lead them.

Watch, learn, adapt.