Shamus Young, author of the always-excellent DM of the Rings webcomic, made an interesting comment about paying equal attention to rules and roleplaying on strip LXX: The Needs of the Many.

The strip posits that if the scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where members of the Fellowship escort peasants to Helm’s Deep took place in a stereotypical D&D campaign, Aragorn and company would have made them do a forced march, sacrificing the old and infirm for the sake of efficiency — because really, who cares about a bunch of peasants?

As always with DMotR, chances are that you’ll laugh while remembering times your players did something a lot like this. Shamus’s point, though, is that you can’t pin this behavior entirely — or even largely — on your players:

…you could make the case that stuff like this is the result of a DM who is strict about rules and lax about role-playing, which is about the surest form of self-sabotage a DM can do. If you adhere to the rules with meticulous authority and fill the world with generic NPCs, then soon enough you’ll have players treating your world like a place to mine treasure and farm experience, and not like a place where an epic story is taking place.

I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, figuring that if I make sure we get the rules right, some of the other stuff (like good NPCs) will fall into place — even though in most cases, it doesn’t work that way at all.

Adherence to the rules should always take a backseat to providing your players with meaty, juicy steaks roleplaying opportunities, and one great way to do that is to design vibrant NPCs — and then drive those NPCs like a rental.