The NPC Factor – Part 2

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0329

A Brief Word From Johnn

Marathon Session Huge Fun

After a week of long hours at work helping to build a new website for my employer’s upcoming sci-fi RPG for the Xbox 360 [ ] I celebrated with a marathon D&D session last night.

I’m GMing the Temple of Elemental Evil for D&D 3.5, with a few extras thrown in here and there. Yesterday, the PCs quested for the Amulet of Eralion (based on a freebie Necromancer Games PDF, the Crucible of Freya).

The PCs journeyed to a strange cave complex above a waterfall (an extra location I added to the Freya module). There, they fought the Stirge Queen, and her children, who laired in stalactites above a large pool of blood that was the home of a blood elemental (thanks for the idea Shade – Stirge Keeper ).

Talk about a perfect match. The stirges feasted on the blood elemental night and day, making them larger and nastier than your average stirge, but the PCs used excellent tactics and the terrain to their advantage to come out relatively unbloodied.

At ENWorld, I enjoy how posters put “books used last session” lists in their signatures. It’s a cool way to see what people are playing, and what RPG stuff they find worth using. In the same spirit, yesterday our game used a few different elements:

  • 1 kilogram of peanut M&Ms
  • Temple of Elemental Evil ($5 PDF available at
  • Crucible of Freya (Free to download: )
  • Cool, free ideas from ENWorld members and message threads
  • Blood Elemental monster, available free at Wizards
  • Two player handouts based on September’s National Geographic: Right now you can get a 12 month subscription for only $20!
  • A delicious steak dinner BBQ’d by one of the players (thanks Dwayne!)
  • A dry erase table top (just $30 at Home Depot for an 8? x 4? showerboard which works perfectly with dry erase markers)
  • Fine tip dry erase markers, making it much easier to track stats on the table than those standard, chunky markers
  • D&D minis (I got a lot from me from my local game store that sells used commons for cheap)
  • 2? x 3? pad of 1? graph paper + a box of Crayolas for mapping (available cheap at Staples)
  • 5 players, one happy DM!

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

The NPC Factor – Part 2

PART II: NPC Development

Some characters are one-offs, present for a particular scene and never intended to return. However, memorable characters have a habit of turning up again and again; the continuity they carry helps make the world seem real and consistent. That said, it is unlikely the GM needs the NPC to fulfill exactly the same purpose as last time. The required function might be similar, but it’s unusual for it to be identical.

What’s more, NPCs often have secondary functions within a scenario. The primary function of a shopkeeper might be to convert into cash some of the knick-knacks picked up by the characters in the course of their last adventure, while the secondary purpose is to provide a hook for the next plotline, to develop a subplot, or to give the character’s information that might not be correct.

Where the NPC’s function is basically the same as it was the last time the character appeared, the character should exhibit some development. The character is now to serve an entirely different function, and he should be maintained before his next appearance. The two activities are very similar, but not quite the same.

Step 1: Upgrades

Has there been enough time for the character to have improved any of the specifications determined last time? If so, make these changes. For example, level-ups, equipment upgrades, new contacts.

Step 2: In The Meantime

What else has the character been doing between the time the characters last met him, and now? A one-line note is enough, sometimes a single word or phrase is enough.

Since the character is appearing for a second time, the probability of a third appearance increases, and so it behooves the referee to fill out the character concept a little.

Step 3: Interpretation

What capabilities within the game mechanics does the character have to draw upon to carry out these activities? What are those game mechanics based on? The NPC’s activities should be reflected in his abilities and stats.

Step 4: Consequences

What impact have these activities had on the character’s circumstances? Were there any consequences of whatever happened the last time the NPC encountered the PCs?

In other words, has anything happened to alter the relations between the NPC and the PCs?

The value of this step cannot be underestimated. Nothing makes a player feel more like their character is part of a world than having that character affect the people around them.

Step 5: Implications

Quite often, what has been revealed so far is only the tip of the iceberg of what makes the NPC tick. A merchant who has become involved in local politics wants to achieve something, for example. An arms instructor who has gotten married implies a wife, and domestic relations.

Step 6: Further Interpretation

If any implied behaviors, motivations, or relations need to be reflected in game mechanics, add them and anything else on which they are dependent.

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PART III: NPC Maintenance

When an NPC’s role changes radically between one occasion and the next, it’s a sure sign something in their circumstances has changed radically as well. If the greedy merchant is now a beggar at the city gates, for example, the change is obvious. If the same merchant is now on the town council and has an apprentice watching the shop much of the time, the change may be less obvious.

Either way, the character needs a tune-up to suit his new role. Where the new role does not preclude the old, this should be achieved using the procedures specified in Part II; but where the new situation excludes the old, as in the beggar example, use the following steps.

Step 1: Define Any New Requirements

Look at what the character needs to have in the way of abilities and characteristics to carry out his new role, then make those changes.

Step 2: Define The Transition

Determine the events, and any related abilities and characteristics of the character, that led to this change in roles within the plot. The more plausible and interesting these events are, the better.

Step 3: Consequences

Assess the consequences of the transition and events on other characters and on the local region – or on an even broader front, if that is appropriate.

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As a general principle, this type of approach means you first do only what you need to do, and that you add a little more detail with each subsequent in-game NPC appearance.

By targeting changes within a single individual’s circumstances, and then justifying those changes in terms of external events, the campaign itself becomes one with a dynamic, evolving history.

If these changes are noticeably occurring to, or impacting on, an NPC with whom the PCs interact regularly, that gives the history greater plausibility and a point of reference for use in determining the impact on PCs.

The causes have to be revealed, either to the NPCs or to the PCs – at least not until they investigate the cause.

By layering and sequencing one significant impact after another, almost any change can take place. By modelling the sweep of larger cultural and social forces upon the impacts to specific NPCs, these tend to assume a realistic scope in terms of undoing them, should the PCs desire to make the attempt.

These techniques are not merely methods of permitting the GM to do less work; they are also methods of substantially increasing the depth and realism of the campaign.

Final Suggestions

There will usually Be some individuals, however remote from the PCs, who have significant effects on the lives of ordinary citizens, such as heads of state and religious leaders. There is a natural tendency to base the social tone of a realm on the personalities of these NPCs. At the same time, there is also a tendency to base those personalities on perceived characteristics of the race, ethos, and culture of the individuals.

However, for the most part, leaders don’t actively pursue agendas of sweeping reforms; there are too many competing power-blocs to permit things to go to any particular extreme. Raising taxes to fund a campaign of military conquest has economic effects and social consequences, for example. In general, radical changes are the results of a sequence of events that forces change to be contemplated – often wars, plagues, economic disasters, and other calamities.

Most proposals for modelling such behavior focus on these key individuals and the big-picture causes and effects, and these can be hard to pin down. Ripple effects mean that the overall state of a society can be hard to grasp, and that large tracts of exposition are needed (i.e. GM labor), or that the impacts on day-to-day life can be forgotten since it’s much harder to go from the big-picture to effects on individual circumstances.

The approach offered above focuses on the small, and looks to establish larger-scale causes of changes by building up from individual effects. Not only is this more effective, it’s also easier.

To shape your history, you are better served by choosing typical, ordinary individuals. Instead of an exchequer or the head of a church, determine what has happened to the ordinary farmer, the ordinary innkeeper, the local village priest. Then choose causes that will lead to the desired effects.

Instead of telling the players that the kingdom is preparing to fight a war, let them simply encounter the consequences of those preparations. Not only does this give more realism, it lets your players feel pleased with themselves when they finally figure out what is really going on.

Some General Rules

  • People ignore or combat laws they dislike: the Prohibition Rule
  • Authority figures always paint their actions in the best possible light
  • Their enemies always paint the actions of authority figures in the worst possible light
  • If something is happening locally, it may be mirrored on a larger scale
  • If something is happening locally, it may _not_ be happening on a larger scale
  • Almost everyone justifies their actions in their own minds
  • One thing affects another, which affects another, which affects another – the ripple effect
  • Small, sustained changes add up to fundamental shifts over time
  • When conditions are right, a small event can have disproportionate effects
  • A change in circumstance always has consequences
  • It’s always easier to see patterns and trends from the outside: the perception rule
  • The bigger the lie, the more easily it is swallowed by the gullible
  • Conspiracies were invented thousands of years ago, conspiracy theories were not
  • Coincidences are not very believable, but they do happen
  • More people believe reports of evidence than understand the evidence itself
  • People lie
  • Everything is more believable if it can be explained
  • People prefer to believe the incredible than the mundane No doubt there are many more such truisms that can be applied.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Web Comics

From The GMMastery Group

Jay P. Hailey

Here are the webcomics I read.

Arthur, King of Time and Space

Paul Gadzikowski is an Omni-fan and manages to wedge commentary and humor about almost everything into this webcomic.

Roswell, Texas

Scott Beiser makes L Neil Smith a lot of fun to read.

Gone, but not forgotten. And remember, good science leaves craters.

Something Positive

Evil but makes me care about the characters anyway.


Fun for everyone who’s ever worked in a cubicle.

Dominic Deegan

A very gameable premise.

I identify.

Fox Trot

I identify with Jason.

Cheshire Crossing

The successor to Casey and Andy, also a very gameable premise.

Kevin & Kell

I don’t remember why I started by I sympathize with the characters, but now I do and go back to keep up with the Dewclaws.

Legostar Galactica

Successfully squishes almost all science fiction series into one webcomic and uses lego. What more could you want?

I am one of the guys in FFN.

I love the way this guy thinks. Funniest web Comic EVAR!

A classic, still one of the best.

Schlock Mercenary

A science fictiony science-fiction web comic.


Evil, silly, and yet well drawn.

Sluggy Freelance

One of the oldest, most classic – continues to get more surreal as time wears on.

Starslip Crisis – Kris Straub’s Inter-Dimensionally Awesome Webcomic

The other Space-Opera webcomic that manages to wedge lots of different references into a coherent universe.

346 Swoop, There It Is – Giant in the Playground Games

A Hoot – just a hoot. Much geek humor and then manages to make stick figures likable and tell real stories!

An assassin who targets bad pets. You’d think it would be horrifying. And it is, but still funny.

VG Cats- Updated Weekly

I am too old and uncool to get all the references -but when I get it, it’s very funny.

The Wotch – A comic by Anne Onymous and Robin Ericson

A gameable premise – More Harry Potter-esque hand waving and bad latin magic, but fun.

Wandering Ones

Clint Hollingsworth – this would make a lovely role playing game scenario.

Tales of the Traveling Gnome by Matt Summers and Michelle Mayo: Main

A very well drawn adventure comic about a decent D&D game.

I don’t always agree with the Penguin’s politics, but he’s funny.

Dinosaur Comics – March 16th 2020 – awesome fun times!

This is a new one to me, but is somewhat witty.

Chris J. Whitcomb

Irregular Webcomic


Pretty basic, but occasionally funny and perceptive. I appreciate the compromises made just to get a gaming group together.

The Noob Comic – Adventures in Clichequest

Mostly CRPG humor, but you don’t need to be hooked on

EverCrack to get it.

Penny Arcade – Comic – Teacher

General geek fun, with occasional RPG references. Occasionally disturbing, with lots of language.

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Alignments: Get To The Basics

From Nimpo Disciple

A way to understand alignments is to break them down into their “purest forms.” For example, the one word that describes what is important to each.

A way to understand the motivations of an individual is to break his goals and motivations into the basics, from which all else in his behavioral cycle is derived. By doing this, you will be better able to comprehend makes them tick. Law enforcement psychologists use the same techniques.

Here are the different alignments, and what drives each, in their purest forms. It should be noted, and is worth taking into account that, if Neutral appears on the opposite side of any other alignment, then it can be disregarded as a part of that alignment, having no bearing on what is truly important to the character.

Law – Order
Chaos – Independence
Neutrality – Balance or Apathy
Good – Life
Evil – Self

With these basics, we can start structuring alignments:

Lawful Good

Order and Life They uphold the law for the good of all. Sometimes seen as ‘zealots’ or ‘witch hunters,’ they can be very strict when it comes to the punishment of lawbreakers and evildoers… especially evildoers.

Neutral Good

Life Law or no law, the right thing must be done to promote as much well being as possible.

Chaotic Good

Independence and Life They do not like the restraints imposed upon them by ordered society and even enjoy a good tavern brawl on the occasion, but harming the innocent is out of the question.

Lawful Neutral

Order They uphold the law for the sake of order, even if it means the reluctant taking of innocent life to do so.

True Neutral

Balance or Apathy These people are reluctant to pass judgement either way on subjects dealing with Good vs. Evil, Law vs. Chaos. They may actively do their part in maintaining the balance between each force, respectively, by letting things ‘fall into place’ as they were meant to, or they simply may not care one way or another about any of these matters.

For example, they could be either of a fatalistic mindset or of an apathetic one, depending on how the alignment is played.

Ironically, this is the most complex alignment because it is the most commonly misunderstood.

Chaotic Neutral – Independence

They enjoy their freedom above all else. Ordered society can kiss their @$$es. And although they generally do not relish the senseless killing of others, if those others stand between them and their freedom, they usually will not hesitate to take life…innocent or no.

Lawful Evil – Order and Self

They uphold the law either because they wrote the laws, upholding the law benefits them in some way, or they covet – and hope to one day usurp – the position(s) of the highest ranking member(s) in the pecking order.

They have no qualms about the taking of life, innocent or no [unless it happens to break one of their laws], but usually will not do any killing themselves unless it is to keep their place at the top of the pecking order, or will promote them in said order.

Neutral Evil – Self

They don’t care one way or the other about order, independence, or even life, as long as their own needs are served in as timely a fashion as possible. If this happens to involve the killing of a few innocents, oh well…sucks to be them. Evil is, in its purest form, self-serving, and here is where the “every man for himself” motto comes into play. They don’t mind obeying the law while the do-gooders are looking, but it suits them just fine to break it while no one’s around.

Chaotic Evil – Independence and Self

They absolutely detest ordered society and live only for self-gratification. Laws are for weaklings. They will do what they want when they want whenever they can get away with it, and this, more often than not, will be done at the expense of others. Life means nothing to them, and they will kill sometimes for the pure amusement of it. They are the antithesis of all that is good and just, and are the least likely to be of any benefit to anyone but themselves in any situation.

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Let The Players Solve Your Mystery

From Loz Newman

Once I was asked to improvise a pick-up game of AD&D. Lukewarm about the idea, I warned the players it would be a combat-less murder mystery, a social/mental puzzle with no skill rolls, just enquiry and role-playing, and they said, sounds good, we love that kind of stuff! Drat….

Lacking inspiration and time for creating a decent murder mystery (when you have to plan out who did what with what and to whom, when, where and why) off the cuff, I improvised a neat little trick and produced a gaming session that was great fun for all involved.

I presented the players with a classic murder mystery scene: the family reunion weekend, and the unpleasant head of family stabbed between the shoulder blades in a locked room before he can reveal his latest Last Will and Testament. The rest of the family accusing each other of anything and everything.

The PCs were all “friends” of various family members who’d been brought along to act as witnesses/bodyguards.

The Trick

Each time the players looked for a specific piece of evidence, or came up with a decent speculation about a theory as to who did what, where, why, I decided *that* was what had happened, and created a piece of evidence to support the theory/search for evidence. The players built my scenario for me as they went along!

The Treat

They were also mightily pleased to have gotten everything right first time. Every time they tested the group’s theories, it turned out they had hit the nail on the head!

Great fun was had by all.

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Campaign Inspiration: Ideas For Regulating Magic

From Kit Reshawn

Almost always, dangerous things are regulated by those in power. They may be regulated because of a worry about misuse, or to keep the local population from rising up. The same should be true of magic and magic items. There are all kinds of ways this can be done, and there can be all kinds of repercussions for it.

An easy way to regulate magic is to make it illegal. Perhaps a citizen can prove their worth by buying a license to own an item or use magic, but it would require a hefty cost or some sort of service to prove their loyalty.

This might not apply to all magic. Perhaps only offensive types of magic are restricted, but healing and defensive magic is ok.

It may be that there is a complex bureaucracy built around the whole issue, and part of the problem players will encounter is figuring out what they can have and what they need to do to get it.

Overall, this is a great way to restrict player access to magic items and spells. Perhaps a spell is against the law to know because it is too destructive. Maybe there is a city that has banned the casting of fire spells because of religious beliefs or some past incident. It may even be that a powerful group is influencing the events to raise the cost of magic services, and thus raise their profits.

Of course, this will bring legal questions into the equation as well.  Perhaps the players find a previously lost magic item and are now wondering what to do with it. Should they turn it over to the authorities? Try to get a license to use it? Keep it under wraps and take the legal risk?

Maybe there would even be a problem of figuring out what it is, so should they risk getting it identified? Plus, there is the issue of the black market, since once something is against the law there is almost always an underground market for it that emerges.

Punishments for breaking the law where magic is concerned should be suitably harsh, though perhaps not always enforced as strictly as the law states. If you cast any area effect spell inside a city you are charged with the assault of every innocent bystander which was affected by it…but if you cast the spell in defense of the king, you probably get off scott free.

Maybe the party can make friends with the local lord who will be willing to overlook some problems so long as it doesn’t get too out of hand.

Things to keep in mind:

  • If magic is against the law, it will carry some sort of stigma or prestige. It may be viewed with distaste, especially if it is against the law because of some past disaster caused by it. On the other hand, if only the upper class generally have access to it, then it is likely that people who use it will be afforded extra courtesy by the locals on the assumption they are of the upper class. Both views could exist at the same time.
  • Licensed magic users may be interviewed any time there is a magical disturbance. This may be as simple as the police asking for any clues about the nature of the magic to who may have used it to being under suspicion.

A good plot hook may be that a mage in the party is licensed to cast a normally forbidden spell, and someone has cast that spell causing great damage. Now the party needs to catch the one who did it to clear the name of their friend.

  • This should make magic rarer than normal. As a result, it should be much more expensive than normal, and it should be harder to find places that offer magic services. That simple magic +1 sword will seem like a big deal if it took the party forever to find it.
  • Make some spells against the law for religious reasons. Maybe raise dead spells are considered a sin against god and nature, and as a result it is nearly impossible to find someone willing to cast them. Perhaps the local god of fire has declared all ice and water spells to be sinful, making it against the law to even know how to cast them. * Depending on the society, magic may be completely reviled and anyone known to have access to it will be considered a pariah. Such a society will have witch burnings and go out of their way to get magic items to destroy them. It may also be hypocritical, making use of magic to find and kill off magic, or only killing certain types of magic while claiming that what they use is not magic.