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Wisdom of the Masters: Managing NPCs

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fifty Six on 10 March 2021.

Libby (indignantly): Book!
Lennon: Come on, it’s just a little sign, it can go on, what about that eyestalk?
Ryu: Lennon, what are you doing to Libby?
Lennon: Well…look, we have like seven research beholders around the Guild House, right?
Ostron: Twelve.
Lennon: Twelve!? Aw man, now I need more signs.
Ryu: Signs…for the research beholders?
Lennon: Yeah, I can’t keep them straight. I see one floating around and I’m never sure if it’s the one that I asked for the reference book to help with the show notes or the one I told to make me a sandwich.
Ostron: Okay, I’ll grant you that telling the beholders apart is a bit tricky but do you really need to identify all of them? And Libby’s pretty distinctive anyway.
Lennon: So you’re okay with unlabeled characters just running around?
Ryu (shrugging): I like chaos. Then again, that’s not for everyone.
m

For a lot of DMs, the idea of taking a party into a town or a city, or any sort of populated settlement, can be nerve-wracking. If you look at, for example, Waterdeep Dragonheist, the creature appendix has a couple dozen non player characters, or NPCs, from that city with full backstories and character profiles, along with stat blocks. The idea of doing that every time the characters pass by a hamlet they want to spend the night in can cause a bit of stress, or things like the campaign suddenly taking place in a depopulated wasteland where there are only six other people on the planet.

For all those DMs, we’d ask you to take a breath, put down the nested spreadsheets, and listen, because we have some advice that may help you.

To begin, do not look at the pre-made adventures as the gold standard for what’s required. Particularly don’t take the Waterdeep adventure as a standard for how towns and cities should be fleshed out.

First of all, the adventure was put together by several people, so the work of inventing and researching the NPCs could be farmed out to one or more people whose job it was to specifically do that. Second, remember Waterdeep is five levels of adventure taking place all within the city. The characters never go anywhere else.

Now compare that to resources like Descent into Avernus or Icewind Dale – their appendices have about as many NPCs in the back, but those adventures have characters going all over the place. Baldur’s Gate is nearly as big as Waterdeep, but it doesn’t have nearly as many NPCs defined, because the characters don’t spend as much time there. Likewise, you’ve got ten different towns in Icewind Dale, but only one or two per location that get stat blocks or even names.

Now don’t read too much into those resources either. You could probably dissect all the books and try to come up with some sort of comparative formula that dictates if you have X population, then you need Y named NPCs and Z of them will need to have stat blocks, but that is just going to create a different level of stress. 

m
Ryu: Why do I feel like you’re speaking from experience here?
Ostron: No comment.
m

Anyway, the real point is that each of those adventures have as many NPCs as are necessary for the story. Remember – the ultimate goal of D&D is to tell a story, not to check off a to-do list of building a good adventure. Even if you’re actually running one of the pre-built adventures, your goal is not to make sure that the characters encounter every NPC that’s outlined in the book.

Those NPCs are put there because the module designers wanted to help the DMs by giving them resources to account for some deviations from the main story. Say some Avernus characters want to hang around in Baldur’s Gate a little longer? There are a few (very few) NPCs that will help them out with some extra information or side quests. If the bard in a Waterdeep campaign wants to interview the Blackstaff for the book they’re writing? The resource has some extra info so the DM can give answers to some of the questions.

If you go through the adventure and you suddenly realize the characters never ran into this NPC or they never found out about some part of the story, you know what that means? It means they didn’t need to go through that part of the adventure. Or they didn’t want to. Or what if you don’t want to use an NPC because you feel like they’re slowing things down, or they’re supposed to help characters who are already steamrolling the adventure, or they’re Tali from Frostmaiden? That’s perfectly fine too. The presence of an NPC in the book doesn’t mean they’re required to show up in the campaign. If the story you and your players are telling doesn’t go in a direction that includes them, don’t put yourself or the players through extra stress trying to shoehorn them in. At the end of the day, it’s your story, not the book’s.

Now what if you’re coming at it the other way? You’ve got a brand new world or section of Faerun or square planet on the back of a duck-

m
Ostron: You guys promised there’d be no more teasing about…that…this year! 
Lennon: I did no such thing! 
m

Anyway, you’re homebrewing. You idly mentioned a village in the distance and your players decide “Hey! That sounds like a good place to spend the night.” Panic! Now you need three shops, with shopkeepers, an Inn, innkeeper, attached bar, barkeep and 2d4 interesting people in the bar with names, backstories and side quests available.

Except no, you don’t need any of that. If you think you do because that’s what online generators or rolling tables produce, you’re again missing the point. Those generators are producing information in case the DM needs it. It is perfectly acceptable to just create an innkeeper. Not every village in the countryside has a general store, or a weapon shop, and it certainly wouldn’t have a magic item dealer. And if the inhabitants are violently isolationist, they wouldn’t want to talk to the player characters anyway.

Now that sort of thing is a useful trick to pull if you’re caught off guard, but it shouldn’t be the standard. Have at least one town worked up where there are more than two people to talk to and maybe some quests for the characters to poke around at if they’re interested. As we mentioned, there are some online generators that can help with that kind of thing or you can just do what Lennon does and steal ideas wholesale from other reference books. The town is no longer Phandalin being harassed by the Redbrand ruffians, it is now…Fondalin being harassed by the Blueband brigands. Really? 

m
Lennon: I was in a hurry at the time.
m

Right fine, anyway the point is that even when you have to create this stuff you usually don’t have to do it from scratch unless you either want to or you feel the story needs it to be tailored to what you’re doing.

One thing you should always do, however, is watch how your players react to such things. If they get into the isolationist town and seem disappointed that there’s no one to talk to, you should probably accept that when they go into a town they’re hoping for more things to do and plan ahead for that. On the other hand, if they get to the xenophobic town of misanthropes and their response is “fine, we don’t like people either,” then you can probably get away with not putting a bunch of NPCs in your settlements for a while.

A good trick a lot of DMs have used to help with this is to keep a file of premade NPCs and just pick them up when necessary. This is again where stealing from premade resources may help. When the player characters start taking an interest in the innkeeper beyond “we need a room,” pull out the sheet; that’s now the inkeeper for this town. Someone tries to chat up the bartender? Grab bartender character block #3 and work with that until they lose interest.

When you do that, though, make a note of where you used them, at least for a while. If the characters just seem to move on and never really bring them up again, then you’re okay to just stop tracking it. But if they keep saying things like “Hey I wonder what Sorsnag’s up to back at the Bouncing Bugbear Bar?” as they’re going through, it’s probably worth holding onto that character’s notes and working them back into the story at some point.

On that note, the reality is that while books and modules and individual DMs try to make sure there are interesting NPCs the players will latch onto and take an interest in, there’s no magic formula for that. Some people playing Waterdeep really get into Volo’s plight, others want to rescue his friend by giving the kidnappers Volo instead. Most DMs have stories of things like the characters getting a list of random names for whatever reason, and then suddenly they go complete forensic files on name number 6 on the list and by the end of the campaign that person has become the proxy king of a large nation.

There’s nothing you can do about this, in most cases, but almost everyone who’s a veteran DM agrees the best course is to run with it however you can. If the interesting NPC was supposed to be someone else, take all the info that applied to them and put it on the other NPC instead. If you don’t have all the info, congrats, the player characters now have a side quest to figure out who this person is and why they’re so interesting (in other words, send them on a dungeon crawl until the next session and spend the intervening time making up or stealing all that information from somewhere).

Finally, let’s address the subject of NPC companions. Wizards’ materials in particular love sticking extra NPCs onto the character’s backs. If you travel to the right areas of Borovia the party can end up with a veritable entourage of tagalong NPCs joining them in storming castle Ravenloft.

If or when this happens you have two options really. Running the NPCs yourself is what many people assume is expected because the DM always runs the NPCs, but you have to be smart about this. If you have 3 NPCs accompanying the players, a combat can end up with a long stretch of time of you being the only one rolling dice as your NPCs fight with your Monsters. A good way to cheat this is to just use default values for damage and simple die rolls, and do it all beforehand; make the rolls while a player is spending a while figuring out their turn (there’s always one – in this case let it happen), then just describe the results of all the activity when it comes up.

The other option is outsourcing. If players are willing, you can have them control the NPC’s actions during combat. Just give them a copy of the stat block (probably not the character background, particularly if there are spoilers in the description) and they can run them like a sidekick. Success with this may vary from group to group depending on how proficient the players are, but it takes a lot of the work off of you and can make combat with the NPCs more interesting.

Hopefully that takes away some of the anxiety you might be feeling about managing NPCs.

m

Ostron: As in, stop putting signs on the beholders.
Lennon: Fine, fine.
Ryu: Out of curiosity, what happened when you asked a beholder to make you a sandwich?
Lennon: Um, it sort of worked? They made the sandwich, brought it over to me, put it down on the table, and then glared at me and disintegrated it. You know what it’s like to be glared at by six eyes at once?
Ryu: Gah. I don’t want to. I do know what it’s like to get glared at by RaeRae when the scrying pool when it’s getting full though. We should probably go deal with that.

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