Roleplaying & GMing Servant NPCs – Part I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0101

A Brief Word From Johnn

Wanna Play An RPG? — Try Skotos Online Gaming, A New Advertiser

As you know, Roleplaying Tips is not one of those zines with more ads than content. In fact, I only allow two ads maximum, and many issues just have one or even zero ads in them.

However, I’m very pleased to host a new ad for in this week’s issue because I feel they are a company who really cares about their service — online text-based RPGs.

Though is like a PBeM, it’s much more than that. It’s real-time and interactive. If you’re looking for an RPG to play, check them out. The first month is free for you to try risk-free (I always like deals where I can try-before-I- buy). Go to Skotos Online Gaming click on one of the games and then click “Create Account” to get the freebie month.

Where Do You Get Your RPG News?

I was wondering if and where you read your RPG news online? I’m looking for some web sites that post RPG related news to send brief, weekly updates to about each week’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter.

If you know of any news sites, please drop me a note. Thanks!

New Articles Posted At The Site

The following items were posted this past week. If you have time, drop by the site to check them out:


Johnn Four


New This Week:

Top 6 Must-Have Roleplaying Games

Top 7 D&D Expansions And Supplements For Dungeon Masters

Roleplaying & GMing Servant NPCs – Part I

Somethin’ On The Side: Situation & Motivation

From Alex J.

A great way to add a little depth to servant NPCs is to put their fingers into a side-business that gives them a little more of what they need. For example, turn that previously insignificant wealthy merchant’s wife’s handmaiden into a spy. That servant is definitely a more exciting NPC now.

A fast way to decide if a servant is a candidate for this type of role is to consider their situation and motivation:


  • Who is their employer?
    • Is the employer important, rich, or powerful?
    • Is the employer important to the story or adventure?
    • Does the employer have valuable relationships with important, rich or powerful people?
    • Is the employer linked or of value to the villain in any way?
    • Employer ideas:
      • Noble, politician or ambassador
      • Successful merchant or business person
      • Spouse of an important person
      • Has important job (i.e. bank manager, captain of the watch)
      • Has important role (i.e. guild council member)
      • Famous (i.e. musician, ex-adventurer)
  • What are their duties?
    • What (privileged) information does the servant have access to during the normal course of performing their daily routine?
      • Keys and locks
      • Security codes
      • Gossip, rumours, news, blackmail
      • Employer’s future plans
      • Weaknesses of employer or employer’s guests/friends
    • What important, private, or interesting places does the servant normally have access to?
      • Secret passages, private routes, servant areas
      • Gets close to important people
      • The kitchen (i.e. poison or drug food and drinks)
      • Has private moments with employer
      • Storage or equipment areas
    • What can they get away with?
      • Outside of their normal duties and privileges, what could the servant get away with if they tried?
        • Sneak into restricted areas
        • Overhear important conversations
        • Influence the decisions of employer
        • Influence the decisions of those who influence the decisions of important people
        • Enlist or coerce help from other servants

As you can see, there’s plenty of possibilities for story or side-plot development just by considering servants and how their situations could be valuable to the right people.


Once you figure out how a servant could be valuable because of what they know, who they serve, or what they could do, the next part is to establish a motive. In most stories, servants are happy with the status-quo. They don’t want to stick their neck out for fear of losing their job or being punished. So, why would they take the risk?

  • Servant-to-servant politics. The head servant often enjoys the most privileges. So, a self-motivated schemer could take it upon herself to sabotage the next servant in the pecking order in order to improve her own situation.
  • Greed. Bribes work!
  • Love or romance. When people become emotional, they can become less-inhibited, be more easily manipulated, or become irrational. Whether the suitor is sincere or not, romance can be a powerful lever.
  • Blackmail. Servants can be blackmailed too. They have families, secrets, status, or something to protect. How about blackmailing a servant into blackmailing their employer–a neat twist perhaps?
  • Loyalty. Enslaved servants, expatriates, prisoners, guild or club members, or family members are just a few examples of how a servant’s top loyalty might not be to their employer, but to something or somebody else.
  • Insanity. Temporary insanity or not, servants could be influenced through religious or cultist influences, prophecy, paranoia, hate, or from a number of psychological factors.

Example Scenarios

  • A wealthy merchant bribes the stable boy of his competitor to supply him with a weekly list of visitors. The merchant can use this information to anticipate business alliances, sabotage relationships, and figure out his rival’s future plans. The stable boy, not understanding the ways of business, is simply grateful for the extra five coppers every tenday.
  • A techno-peasant bodyguard is responsible for guarding the son of an important foreign politician. However, he is convinced by the boy’s private teacher to give the instructor access to the boy’s computer, perhaps to check up on his student’s homework or to sweep for viruses. The instructor uses the terminal to access the LAN and grab top secret information from the politician’s files.
  • The innkeeper of a high-class establishment is given a small supply of medicine for his ill mother who lives upstairs every time he reports to the villain’s chief flunky an important bit of news, information, or gossip overheard while serving his powerful patrons. Unfortunately, the villain has also bribed the cook to continuously administer small doses of poison to the mother’s food…
  • Here’s a classic: the Queen’s handmaiden is in love with the Prince, who schemes against his mother. The infatuated girl lets the Prince into his mother’s quarters for regular snooping, and she also diligently reports on the Queen’s comings and goings.
  • The Chief Eunuch gets a private room, eats the best food, and does the least amount of work. Plus, he’s got a nasty temperament and loves to be a bully. All the other servants despise the creature and one in particular is actively plotting against him.Sub Eunuch #2 is quietly being paid to pass on valuable security information to an assassin who has been hired to kill the Sheik. And Sub Eunuch #2 is spending some of his new-found wealth on getting forged documents that will frame the Chief Eunuch for the security breach. He has also paid the assassin to “accidentally” kill Sub Eunuch #1 during the Sheik’s assassination, and the forger as well to cover his tracks. Sub Eunuch #2 plans on being Chief Eunuch very soon!

Make The Servant An Expert

Pick a random skill from your rule book, and let your next servant NPC be an expert with that ability. One of two interesting possibilities will emerge from this situation that could help you add personality and depth to the NPC.

  1. The skill complements the servant’s work. That means the servant is extremely competent at her job. How could that affect her personality?
    • Confident
    • Arrogant
    • Takes initiative
    • Has ambition
    • Unsatisfied at being under-employed
    • Performs all actions in an “over the top” manner, such as a bartender who serves drinks while juggling bottles
  2. The skill has no bearing on the servant’s work. This could make the servant:
    • Interesting to talk with and learn from
    • Unhappy, sullen
    • Contemptuous of his peers
    • Ambitious and looking for a change
    • Inept at his job
    • Three dimensional as the servant has passion about a subject different than his work

This technique can be an extremely fast way to create a servant on-the-fly as well. As soon as you match a highly- developed skill with an NPC, your brain will almost instantly come up with all kinds of roleplaying ideas.

Try these combos and see what happens:

  • Bartender who is a highly-skilled wood carver
  • Stewardess who is a world-class opera singer
  • Butler who can tie complex and beautiful knots
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Avoid Cliche

From Brian W.

The best suggestion I can come up with is to avoid cliche. Not giving the butler a English accent jumps first to mind. Bartenders are usually portrayed as either gruff or quiet. Shoot for talkative and friendly. They are bartenders. Their trade is people and being friendly is part and parcel of the deal.So, the rule always breaks down to this: think about what every other NPC of that type has been presented as then do it differently… [Johnn: great tip Brian. And, what about the reverse? Use cliches to trick players into making a set of false assumptions and lull them into overlooking the NPC, then surprise them with a twist.

For example, make the prim and proper butler with the English accent a polymorphed intelligent monster who is the mastermind behind a recent series of robberies.]

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Keep Minor NPCs Minor

From Dwayne T.

Keep minor NPCs minor in some way. In my first campaign, every NPC the players spoke with had the wisdom of Gandalf, and every fighter they encountered (friend or foe) was a great tactician. Since then I’ve toned them down a lot. Minor NPCs can be strong fighters or wise folk, but most will not.[Johnn: good point. If we start letting every minor NPC steal the show or become an incredible roleplaying encounter, then that would lead to an unbalanced campaign.

I love cookies, but after about the 23rd one, I usually don’t want to see another Oreo for a long while. :)So, consider making a rule of thumb for your campaign: every fourth or fifth minor NPC encountered should be made interesting and stick out a bit, unless the story, game session, or PCs need more.]

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50 Example Servant Occupations

Sometimes coming up with interesting servants merely requires expanding the numbers and types of servants in your campaign. For example, thinking back on my games, I can only identify about six different types that I’ve used recently. It’s time to branch out a little, methinks. Maybe you should too…

  • Agent
  • Apprentice
  • Attendant
  • Bank Messenger
  • Bar Keeper
  • Basket Maker
  • Boarding Master
  • Brakeman
  • Brick bearer
  • Bricklayer
  • Carriage Driver
  • Cashier
  • Clerk
  • Construction Worker
  • Cook
  • Courier
  • Day Labourer
  • Drayman
  • Driver
  • Factory Hand
  • Farm Hand
  • Forge hand
  • Furnace Hand
  • Gardener
  • Gaslighter
  • Gatekeeper
  • Gelder
  • Governess
  • Grubber
  • Guard
  • House Servant
  • Housekeeper
  • Instructor
  • Land Lady
  • Landlord
  • Livery Stable Keeper
  • Maid
  • Mechanic
  • Night Watch
  • Nurseryman
  • Overseer
  • Porter
  • Seamstress
  • Sergeant
  • Shoe shiner
  • Stage Driver
  • Steward
  • Waiter
  • Washer and Ironer
  • Washerwoman

Another way to come up with different servant types is to take any profession and add the word “assistant” beside the name. For example, tailor’s assistant, accountant’s assistant.

Here’s a link to many more occupation types plus their archaic names:

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Use Sock Puppets For NPCs

Peter G. told me how he used sock puppets for a recent audition to represent different characters and parts. I bet that would be an excellent technique for NPCs too! Has anyone tried this before?

Here are some of the ideas that came to mind:

  • Shy GMs might be more comfortable using a puppet to roleplay NPCs with.
  • Shy players might be more comfortable roleplaying with a talking sock (I’m serious!)
  • Puppets could be used just to make certain NPCs special, like villains.
  • They’d be easy to make.
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Read The Three Musketeers For Servant Roleplaying Tips

From Ro

Read the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. If you’re only familiar with the movies then you’re probably only familiar with Planchet, who was D’Artagnan’s manservant. But, all the main characters have servants and all relate to them differently.

The most interesting is Athos’ servant. Athos is not a man of many words and so his servant has learned to react to the smallest of his gestures and sounds, sometimes getting it right and sometimes not.

This also gives insight into the treatment of servants. At one point a couple of the servants are given the task of delivering M’lady DeWinter to the headsman. When she attempts to bribe them the Musketeers stop them and carry out the task themselves, reasoning they’ve been tainted now and can no longer be trusted because they are not “gentlemen”.

If a character has a servant then the servant’s reactions will be based in part on how the servant feels about being a servant and how the character treats him.

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Message Board RPG Tips

From Christopher Y.

A couple of things that I’ve learned as a DM on a Message Board site ( have helped me to better my campaign and make it more enjoyable for the players.

  1. Give them a number of opportunities to roll the dice! If your Message Board site has a built-in dice roller, then you know what I’m talking about! As with tabletop sessions, I find that players and D’s alike usually love to “roll dem bones”.
  2. Present as many situations as possible where the PCs can use their various skills/feats/special abilities. Not only does this “spotlight” various characters, it also validates the tedious process of rolling up a character. What’s the use in having all of those wonderful powers if you can’t use them!
  3. Reward them for not only posting, but for posting well. Not only does this encourage frequent posting, it allows the PCs a fair opportunity to advance in level. In tabletop scenarios, the party usually gets to divvy up treasure and experience either on the fly, or at the end of the session. It takes forever to raise levels on Message Boards unless you award XP for posting or play/DM a predominantly hack and slash campaign.
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Let The PCs Learn A Lot About The Villain!

From Elle

Just a comment on this week’s issue:

The villain knows the importance of gathering intelligence and creates extremely detailed dossiers on each PC for future use, while remaining an unseen and unknown enigma to the PCs.

Oh no. No, no, no, this is so incredibly frustrating from a player point of view. It gets very uninspiring (and breaks game world believability, IMO) when the villain knows everything about you and your friends, but somehow evades the same scrutiny himself. It feels very contrived; it throws plausibility out the window.

What’s much more fun is to make the bad guy subject to the same attention as the good guys. If the good guys *try*, they *can* compile a dossier on Mr Evil… they can find where he went to high school, they can discover the truth about his lost love that turned him into a raving psychopath at age sixteen, etc. They might have to spend a lot of time doing it, or pay through the nose for someone else to do it (that’s what Mr Evil has minions for), but it should be theoretically possible.

This can actually push a campaign forwards; it gives the characters the capacity to understand the bad guy – maybe they can extrapolate his motivations or his goal, perhaps it’ll help them work out how to stop him, or redeem him. Maybe they’ll even sympathise with him.

Of course, that does rather change the flavour of a bad guy; it makes him an ordinary evil person instead of some extra- ordinary evil force. Sometimes that’s not appropriate; it depends what the GM wants for their game and that NPC in particular. But it’s a good way of pepping up bad guys when they start getting a bit tired or unexciting.

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Comments & Tips On #100: Nitty-Gritty Villains

From Aki H.

1. In The Villain’s Mind, There Is No Good Or Evil

Those who can’t tell the difference between good and evil are known as sociopaths. I’d argue that many villains have a pretty clear view of good and evil, but it is different from that of the regular John Doe. Rationalization is one way they can do what they please and still live with themselves. Another way is a code of ethics that simply differs from what we are accustomed to… and then there are those who see themselves as evil and lovin’ it.

A fine villain makes a great story, and an investment in understanding villain ethics is seldom misplaced.

4. Work The Villain Into As Many Things As Possible, Make Him Well-Known

Mmm. Not all of this notoriety needs to be grounded on facts, of course. It is easy for every cutthroat in the area to let Mork the Black take the credit for everything from robbery and murder to burned down buildings to failed crops and bovine miscarriages.

5. The Villain Is Probably Capable Of Killing The Party Members, But Doesn’t Want To

Alternative explanations for why does he not simply wipe out the party:

  • Doing so would create more fuss than it would solve;
  • The party is expected to bungle clues into oblivion (the ‘Mulder’ solution);
  • The villain is so much stronger than the party that the party is not a threat;
  • The villain’s assets are unsuitable to a direct conflict;
  • The villain’s personality is unsuited to a direct conflict

6. The Villain Returns Again And Again

*snicker* Aye. And the villain might come back as much nastier than she ever was before. Undead form is an obvious solution. Another is a last laugh scheme.. just to spite the party, the villain has made preparations against whoever defeats her. These smart even more, as the party faces these schemes without any chance of retaliating, as they have already killed the villain. Or – the villain returns through being a part of an organization. Take down the baron, face the duke; take down the duke, face the king.

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How To Save Time By Using Your Web Cam

From JR

Here is an idea that I’ve found useful. Hopefully this will be of aide to your gaming if you play table top. Recently, while designing my own DM screen, I discovered that you can use your web cam to take captures of the following:

  • Maps
  • Charts
  • Artwork

You name it, if its on paper all you need is a web cam and a good color printer. I have found this useful in various ways, like taking snapshots of the artwork of monsters in the monster manual and handing them to players during an encounter. This works well if you have new players–giving a visual experience while you’re busily describing the creature to them.