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How Can NPCs Survive Contact With Your Players?
By JohnnFour | Published August 16, 2021
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,170
You pour yourself into crafting the perfect ensemble of NPCs.
Smith, soldier, spy. Cooper, captain, King.
Game day arrives and with relish you walk them onto the stage.
And guess what happens next?
Player 1: I attack the King!
Player 2: I charge the spy!
Player 3: How much XP is the smith worth? I can’t decide between him and the cooper.
Head hung low you call for initiative and hope for the best….
Which brings me to a great question from @Lensman during the last Platinum Patron monthly Zoom call:
How do you create survivable NPCs?
I know where that’s coming from.
I used to get angry at my murder hobos a lot for choosing the combat option instead of the other four — and in my opinion — more interesting player choices (Adventure Building Master Game Plan members, see Lesson 5.02: The 5 Actions.)
But no longer.
It’s dice off my back.
Because I use the 3 Line NPC Method, and do not invest time until an NPCs has survived first contact with the party, I feel no stress if they perish.
It’s like popcorn.
If one falls onto the floor, I’ve got a bowl-full left. And it takes but moments to make more.
Plus, the dog gets a tasty treat.
But what if we really, really want a beloved NPC to survive?
It’s not impossible, heh.
Here are three ways to make non-player characters survive contact with the party.
The Key Thing You Must CreateIt all comes down to one thing: leverage.
You can try to make your NPCs as likeable as possible.
But one bad day at the office for a player, plus hair trigger on the crossbow for a character, and that NPC is doomed.
What we need instead is pressure to keep the non-player character alive.
Players must learn if they kill the cooper or captain, there will be bad consequences.
And these consequences cannot dovetail into fun gameplay like more combat or plot complications.
That just encourages them!
Instead, players must feel pain should NPC body and soul be cleaved.
This is what I mean by leverage.
Here are three ways we can gain leverage on our players.
ServiceIf you are a murder hobo warrior draped in mere leather armour and getting dropped in almost every combat….
Would you murder the only smith in town?
If your only supply of bat guano and sulphur is the spy….
Would you fireball them?
And if the only way to get access to the King is through the captain….
Would you whack him because you don’t like his sneer?
When NPCs offer valuable service to the party, we increase their chances of survival tenfold.
KnowledgeGive your NPCs valuable knowledge and they’ll survive.
But that’s at least one encounter in the future.
Joking aside, any delay of murder hobo activity gives you time to think and respond with counter-tactics.
So if we create the leverage of crucial knowledge, chances are the soldier lives to fight another day.
In previous newsletters, I’ve shared the tip about making Plot Factories for your campaigns so you have a constant supply of organic adventure hooks streaming into sessions.
RPT #767 | Use Plot Factories For Unlimited Hook Inspiration
RPT #768 | Plot Factories Part II - Spinning Up The Idea Machine
RPT #1,173 | Use This Clever Tool To Herd Your Cats - Plot Factories
RPT #1,175 | 3 Easy Ideas To Generate Instant Adventure Ideas - Plot Factory Tutorial Part II
Your campaign practically builds itself this way.
Well, many Plot Factories need a “front man.”
They need a mechanism to disseminate information (rumours, clues, details) to the party on an ongoing basis.
This gives you more leverage to keep such a useful NPC alive.
Because if the NPC has only one piece of valuable information, your leverage evaporates.
But story roles like spies, informants, whistleblowers, and subject matter experts means NPCs remain valuable, and can therefore survive longer.
Big BrotherMight does not make right. In this case, though, it helps.
If the players know they’ll get murder hoboed in return, it’ll make them pause.
The NPC might be a “made man” via their faction.
Or have a killer family — literally.
Or be protected by the gods.
Figure out a way to make the cost of attacking much greater than leaving the poor NPC alone, and they’ll survive contact with the PCs.
Signal in AdvanceA final word on how to improve your NPC mortality rate.
Ensure characters know the consequences of attacking before they meet the NPC in person.
Sure, you can roleplay the non-player character pleading for their life. But that scene gets tired fast. You want to reserve it, if possible, for key plot moments.
Instead, understand what leverage your NPC has, and deliver that info to your players ahead of time (via other NPCs is easiest).
Reputation. News and gossip. Demonstration.
However you decide to do it, a party forewarned will at least hesitate, if not choose a different action than attack.
I hope these tips help, Lensman.
Gaining leverage is the best way I know how to protect NPCs from players.