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NPCs: Drive Like It’s a Rental

A perspective: NPCs exist to be fucked with by you, the GM, in pursuit of making the game more fun for your players.

This starts with NPCs that are part of the PCs’ backgrounds. Depending on the style of your campaign, and the way that player-created content (like background NPCs) fits into the game, you may need to use kid gloves with these characters.

Having the villain establish her villainy by, for example, flaying a PC’s younger brother alive and wearing his skin like a poncho might be taking it a bit far. Then again, it might not.

Nearly every group I’ve gamed with, though, treats background NPCs like any other NPC: as fair game for whatever the GM thinks will lead to a better adventure, or more fun for the whole group. If you proceed with that spirit uppermost in your mind, you’ll do fine.

NPCs you create, on the other hand, are always fair game. Get the players to care about them one way or the other, then fuck with them — mightily and often.

Have them…

Make their lives miserable whenver it suits your needs. Don’t go so over the top that your players get gun-shy about having their PCs get attached to new NPCs (unless you’re playing Call of Cthulhu, of course…), but don’t pull any punches, either.

Remember: with the one caveat about shared creation (characters from PC backgrounds), NPCs are all yours. The best of them will become everyone’s over time — but not without some bumps in the road. Preferably some very big bumps.

Chew them up. Spit them out. Chew them up again — have fun with your NPCs, at their expense, and see what develops.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "NPCs: Drive Like It’s a Rental"

#1 Comment By Heather On December 20, 2006 @ 6:32 am

Absolutely! Have fun with your NPCs, and also let your players have fun with them. No NPC’s life is sacrosanct, which also means your players can muck with them too.

My way of dealing with looking at player-created NPCs is this: they’re fair game, BUT I’ll do my damndest to make sure that if I muck with them, it’s dramatic, interesting, and, for lack of a better term, emotionally satisfying. In other words, the player ends up feeling like they got something out of that loss of an NPC, even if the something they got was just a really cool plot or scene.

#2 Comment By Stephen W. On December 20, 2006 @ 7:29 am

Don’t forget that PCs can leave convenient holes in the characters’ backgrounds. During a recent campaign, one of the PCs in my game returned to his home town to rescue his father and slay a dragon. Upon rescue, his father proceeded to spit poison (not literally) about how his son was a glory-seeking fool who cared more for fame than his own family. The father then proceeded to seek out the dragon on his own and force the old, “Your life or your father’s,” choice on the PC.

It was intended as a method of clarifying the PC’s alignment, since he seemed borderline between chaotic good and chaotic neutral. Still, it was fun to see the PC’s reaction as his father (an NPC of my own creation) berated him, went off to do his job for him, and then died at the hands of the villain. Heck, I even had his spirit refuse resurrection.

Toying with the PCs emotions is fun. ๐Ÿ™‚

#3 Comment By ScottM On December 20, 2006 @ 9:11 am

Passionate NPCs make the game more fun for everyone– they’re easier to remember too.

Your caveat about not going overboard all the time is a good one though. If everyone the PCs meet winds up getting kidnapped by villains, the PCs will soon figure out that staying home decreases the crime rate. ๐Ÿ˜‰

By mixing up the hurt you do to your NPCs (some villain inflicted, some emotional heartbreak, some self inflicted, and some happy events like marriages), you’ll find players reacting to them as people… not adventure prompts.

#4 Comment By Martin On December 20, 2006 @ 9:26 am

(Stephen W) Still, it was fun to see the PCรขโ‚ฌโ„ขs reaction as his father (an NPC of my own creation) berated him, went off to do his job for him, and then died at the hands of the villain. Heck, I even had his spirit refuse resurrection.

That’s so…wrong…and yet, so right. I love it!

#5 Comment By Crazy Jerome On December 20, 2006 @ 1:43 pm

Since I like to muck pretty heavily with the PCs, I don’t have any trouble applying that same standard to the NCPs. Every character is fair game. ๐Ÿ™‚

Also, things happen to characters whether someone is there at the moment or not. So if a foe wants to try and kill an NPC on Thursday, he’ll try that day, barring interference. I do make sure that the players have a good chance to know that something is up, but if they choose not to do anything about it, it still happens. So that takes care of the crime rate problem.

I drive rental cars with the same car that I drive my own. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine if this is inconsistent with above. ๐Ÿ™‚

#6 Comment By Telas On December 20, 2006 @ 2:44 pm

Rental cars are the best off-road vehicles, because when they get stuck, you just call the company and tell them where it is.

Seriously, the point of the game is to have fun, and NPCs are just a tool to that end. Don’t be afraid to occasionally abuse your tools, especially when they can be replaced.

Don’t go overboard, or your PCs will be like that poor lady in “Murder, She Wrote”; all of her friends and family will have been killed, and nobody will invite them anywhere. ๐Ÿ™

#7 Comment By Russell On December 20, 2006 @ 5:34 pm

I’m not sure how good advice “abuse the NPCs the
players care about” is. It seems to equate caring about an NPC with making them a hostage to be used against you. So it trains the players against getting involved with sympathetic seeming NPCs. Together with “your inoccuous seeming employer is really the BBG”, it’s a cliche that leads to the PCs being anti-social and distrusting everyone.

You can have interesting things happen to NPCs, that act as plot-hooks, without actually using them as hostages. For example, one PC in my game has an aunt, who is working undercover in the main evil organization. The party has helped her at various times get promoted within the organization or get vital information back to the civilized world. But she’s a successful, talented spy who doesn’t require “rescuing” per se.

#8 Comment By Yunt On December 21, 2006 @ 9:46 am

A past GM loved to railroad the hell out of us. You couldn’t lose in his games but he also piled on a bunch of seriously weird stuff.

My character as the avatar of Wrath was granted a minion who could survive anything I could dish out.

I mostly used him to set off traps and “check where those tentacles came from”.

This, obviously, was from the player’s end of things but the fun wrought from his charred and amputee’d body was a testament to the “Drive like it’s a rental” approach.

#9 Comment By CedrictheBlack On December 22, 2006 @ 6:52 am

Russell, have you ever read Spider-Man? There isn’t a person Peter Parker has interacted with that hasn’t been kidnapped, killed, transmuted into a villain or ripped his heart out (figuratively). This is a classic story telling gambit. The key is less that abusing the NPC is bad, but rather to make sure it’s not predictable. Everytime an NPC gets involved it should be a gut punch!

More generally:
I ran a campaign where a character’s grandfather, for most of the campaign thought to be a victim in need of rescue- a major motivator of the action, turned out to be the major villain who had killed the PC’s parents (his children). The jaw dropping shock when I revealed that was simply awe-inspiring. One of my top-5 GMing moments of all time!

Do it too often and it becomes less effective.

I’m a fan of having the PCs retainers and servants act like people with their own agenda while the PCs are out of town. We had a priest with a Paladin as a retainer. He left the paladin in charge of building a new church while the PCs were adventuring. Upon their return work was progressing well, but the Paladin was also recruiting acolytes into his Order. This was causing political trouble in town AND causing a shortage of available men for the Militia. Which ALSO came back to haunt the PCs.

#10 Comment By Russell On December 24, 2006 @ 7:46 am


Sure I’ve read SpiderMan. Every three issues he quits being a superhero “forever” because of the danger to his loved ones. Of course, he gets dragged back into adventures. When you do that with PC’s repeatedly, they do the same thing: turtle until you railroad them back into the game.

Your first example is the kind of thing I’d do sparingly if at all. Yes, it’s like a gut-punch, and after the first wallop, the players are going to think twice before going to the rescue of the next “innocent” victim. The example with the Paladin retainer on the other hand sounds great to me. He’s just pursuing his own agenda, and that has ambiguous consequences. He’s being competent in his own way, which isn’t exactly what the players would like. He doesn’t really require rescue, and he succeeded at the main objective, building the church. I don’t think that constitutes “abuse”.

#11 Comment By Martin On December 27, 2006 @ 9:20 am

(CedrictheBlack) Iรขโ‚ฌโ„ขm a fan of having the PCs retainers and servants act like people with their own agenda while the PCs are out of town.

This is brilliant, and easily overlooked — I’ve certainly never thought of quite that way before.

Any interest in fleshing this out as a guest post or adding it to the wiki (Roleplaying NPCs would be a good spot), Cedrid? (If the former, just drop me a line.)