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The Douchey DM » Alternate Views, General Gaming » The NPC as a Crutch

The NPC as a Crutch

I’d like to expand a little bit about the concept of the wise old man,  or the patron, or the the informant NPC. We discussed this on the most recent episode of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast. Some of this information will reiterate what we discussed on the show, some won’t.

NPCs are a damn good way to convey information to the party — sometimes the information is given freely, sometimes it’s paid-for and sometimes it taken forcefully. When these NPCs have made more than one or two appearances and provided  useful information, I think there’s a tendency for players to seek these NPCs out when they come to a dead end or are otherwise need info.

The Good Side

This tendency to come back to previously useful sources of information has its uses.

  1. In situation where the players are just not connecting the dots that are your clues, these NPCs can provide a non-meta-game way to give the party hints.
  2. NPCs provide a good way to explain the culture/setting of the game.
  3. Having a conduit of information that the party trusts can be used to provide foreshadowing information for future plot twists and context for seemingly unrelated events.

The Bad Side

The problem, of course, is that sometimes players will get lazy and let the NPCs do the thinking for them.

This is not always a bad thing, sometimes, the players (not being inhabitants of your setting) may want the NPC’s perspective to put the information they’ve gleaned into a proper context. This can be handled with an NPC, or it could be meta-gamed, as in “yes, the assassin was wearing a red cloak, and your characters would know that red cloaks are the symbol of the Fangtooth Clan. “

In fact, in some ways the latter method may make a lot more sense. I mean, why exactly does a Jedi Knight have to employ the wisdom of a local fry-cook to identify an assassin’s dart?

If the PCs are local to the setting, why are they asking  cultural tips about their own culture?

But that aside, there are some warning signs that the players are relying on your NPCs.

  1. Nearly every adventure includes a trip to the NPCs, at the players behest.
  2. The players will go out of their way to visit with or communicate with the NPC.
  3. Rather than follow more logical lines of investigation, they contact the NPC.

Solutions

When you’re players have an NPC “problem,” there are several things you can do to shake them up.

  1. Capture or kill the NPC. Throw him in jail. Have him kidnapped by brigands. Have him get hit by a car. Put him in the hospital in a coma. Remove the temptation.
  2. Bring the reliability of the NPC’s information into question. Maybe Ulgar the Sage is off his noodle. Maybe he’s gone senile. Maybe, after investigation, the party discovers that he was just wrong. Maybe he has political, religious or financial reasons to be less than cooperative. Perhaps he’s being blackmailed.
  3. Make the NPC uncooperative. Perhaps the captain of the local knightly order has discovered that the young band of adventurers he’s been helping are acting like marauders once they leave town. Perhaps his conscience won’t let him help the party. Perhaps — in this instance — the NPCs’ interest run contrary to the party’s. Perhaps he discovers they’re working for his rival.
  4. Give the NPC’s knowledge limits. Kind of obvious, but I’ve had players ask NPCs about stuff they wouldn’t know ANYTHING about. Make sure the go-to NPC has limits to his knowledge. Maybe you can turn the relationship around and have the NPC ask the party for information about something they know or can find out about.
I don’t think the NPC-as-crutch problem is really that much of a problem. After all, we play role-playing games, and a part of role-playing is having PCs and NPCs interact. That the meat of the game, and it should be encouraged, not discouraged.
In my current GURPS fantasy game, there are three such NPCs. Two are mages (and brothers) and one crime lord. The party certainly hasn’t abused these NPCs, but various party members have become fond of some of these NPCs, which is an entirely different subject.

 

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of DoucheyDM.com. He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

Filed under: Alternate Views, General Gaming · Tags: ,

3 Responses to "The NPC as a Crutch"

  1. […] purposely put a NPC in your game who the PCs constantly go to for information? I know I have. So the tips Stu suggests at The Douchey DM put some solid, easily apparent limits on what your players …. I love the idea of potentially having bad guys kidnap the NPC. Not only could it lead to an […]

  2. […] purposely put a NPC in your game who the PCs constantly go to for information? I know I have. So the tips Stu suggests at The Douchey DM put some solid, easily apparent limits on what your players …. I love the idea of potentially having bad guys kidnap the NPC. Not only could it lead to an […]

  3. WerebuffaloNo Gravatar says:

    This episode reminded me of my first D&D 3.5 game. We were playing in Forgotten Realms, and the DM told us that our PCs were from our real world (but not us as PCs). He said that all our PCs were attending DragonCon, and were transported into the Realms. (It’s been done to death, but he did it *really* well.)

    Well, because our PCs had no idea how to survive the Realms, an NPC wizard helpfully offered to accompany the group on their quest to return home. This NPC was probably around 10th level, while the PCs were all 1st level. This would have been amazingly overpowered. Except that the NPC made us *hire* him, at a basic ‘per diem’ fee, with additional pay required for unusual danger or spellcasting services. This lasted for several PC levels, and also resulted in one of the PCs being taken under the NPC’s wing, and being trained in what he would need to ‘achieve power and control’ over others. In other words, the 1st level PC wizard was being trained by the NPC wizard to be… a Red Wizard of Thay.

    Much later on, the PCs found out that their hired NPC, whom they at least mostly trusted, was a mid-level minion of Zass Tam, the Zulkir of Necromancy for the Red Wizards.

    So, essentially, we had been paying an evil NPC Red Wizard to hang out with us while we went on this quest to foil the Red Wizards and get home.

    Best ‘NPC in the party’ ever.

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