Today, in a collaboration with Reinhart of Chaos Engineering, Run a Game presents tips and tools for GMs to portray difficult NPCs. These are notable named non-player characters -- major secondary characters in the story -- who the player characters interact with, but who are not perfect allies. That is, they often cause problems for the PCs, run at cross purposes, represent challenges of their own, and make difficult demands.
Don’t Be Yourself: Change Your Perspective
It seems obvious. It’s the definition of “role playing” after all. Don’t be yourself. But taking on a troublesome NPC’s role requires you to do more than do a bad accent, describe a physical quirk, and read over a list of motivations. You have to remember that the NPC is not the GM. You have to pretend not to know everything that’s going on.
Let me give you a scenario. Let’s say there’s a major NPC who works as a police community liaison. This character is in charge of the policing efforts in the slum neighborhood (territory) your Werewolf: the Forsaken characters live in (patrol). The morning after a particularly bad battle against a spirit of despair involving the PCs using flash-bangs and shotguns (like PCs seem to carry everywhere), she and some uniformed officers approach the PCs’ row house. They explain that they protected the neighborhood from a spiritual incursion, and they can prove it if she’ll just come with them to the old condemned elementary school. As the GM, you know that they actually only violated some firearms laws, but she doesn’t know that. She probably suspects they were involved in a gang war, and while no bodies were found, that doesn’t mean nobody got killed, shotguns and grenades being what they are and all.
The quick GM response is to call for a die roll, probably with a penalty for the outlandish claims. A player hucks some dice and gets a few successes on Persuasion. The end, right?
Wrong. As a GM, you should use social skills to help remind yourself that you are not your NPCs, and your players are not their characters. Just like a single Firearms roll couldn’t instantly solve the problem of the Despair spirit, a single Persuasion roll can’t instantly bring this cop around. And more system is not the answer. (The god-awful God Machine Social Maneuvers system would not help here.)
The Basics of NPC Scenes
Interacting with a challenging NPC is just like interacting with a challenging person in real life: You have to assess their behavior, figure out what they really want, align their needs with yours, and ensure that what you say is received as effectively as possible. In a tabletop RPG, social skill systems only do so much here, anyway.
- Assess their behavior and figure out what they really want: Make your NPCs fairly simple so that the players can figure out what they want quickly. Villains might conceal their motives, but even the most troublesome non-villain NPCs should blatantly telegraph them. Even an NPC who has needs they don’t want to admit to should behave as if they’re hiding something (not making eye contact, stammering, hesitating, using evasive language, trying to end the conversation). Social system might help you here, if you’re not the best actor, or if the players are stumped. They can make Empathy, Sense Motive, Knowledge: Local, Criminology, or other such checks or spends or whatever to give them the information they need. It’s optional, but it can come in handy.
- Align their needs with yours: This is Sales 101. You can’t sell someone something they don’t already want. Luckily, people are complicated, and while they usually want something you’re selling, they might have reasons why they can’t buy it right now. Your goal is to help them overcome those barriers. This is the key to fun NPC interactions. (Aside: This is also why the Social Maneuvers system in God Machine Chronicle is so bad. It abstracts this part.)
- Ensure what you say is received as effectively as possible: This is where players like to role-play their plea, argument, pitch, demand, or whatever. This is also where good actors, charismatic players, and players with sales jobs really shine. This is the only part of the social interaction that requires or even benefits from any system. It allows the action to pause for a moment, allowing the players to bring in their Personality Traits, Alignment, Bonds, Flaws, Aspects, and other motivation traits. Then it allows a die roll to override any social skills the player may or may not have.
You Think YOU Have Problems?
The fun of a social interaction encounter for players is the challenge of overcoming the NPC’s motivations and needs that make them unhelpful (if not troublesome). The GM’s challenge is designing NPCs whose needs and motivations prevent them from being immediately and unquestioningly helpful to the PCs. This is where it helps to prep for your session, because if you improvise an important NPC, you may find yourself listening to reason from the PCs, and that just won’t do! Even GMs who like to improv should pause the action and take a minute to come up with the NPCs’ motives and issues that interfere.
Remember, only NPCs who are going to recur or who are important to the story should get this treatment. You don’t need to turn every bartender, contact, and shopkeeper into a challenging encounter!
Here is a list of reasons NPCs might not be all that helpful to the PCs. Each is listed with a few example ways PCs can overcome it. Your creative players are likely to think of means we haven’t listed.
Aligned (for now!): The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties support the PCs' goals. There is no conflict or issue interfering… yet. The NPC agrees to help, but something is bound to come up that changes things. Pick a problem or conflict for the NPC to come down with at the worst possible time.
Solution: If the NPC’s help is important, they might want to keep a close eye on them, in which case, they might sense trouble down the road and cut it off before it causes a problem.
Interdicted: The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties support the PCs' goals, but something has tied up the resource the PCs need, so they must help fix it first. For instance, they would loan the PCs their magic rod, but the magic rod has been stolen. Or they would send their soldiers to help defend the border, but the soldiers are torn apart by dissension and strife. This tends to create a nesting doll quest.
Solution: The PCs need to help the NPC overcome the interdiction. Alternately, they can use other NPCs to help, if they’re in a rush, or they can be pushy.
Judgmental: The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties support the PCs' goals, but they disagree with the PCs' methods and refuse to be associated with them.
Solution: The PCs can promise (honestly or not) to mend their ways, or force a confrontation and shame the NPC into admitting his or her bias. They can hide or deny their activities, or try to spin them.
Skeptical: The NPC demands hard evidence, often requiring very convincing proof, before believing the PCs' need requires anything from them. The NPC will come around with proof. The standard of evidence required to motivate the NPC depends on their level of urgency. They might irrationally skeptical (or just irrationally lazy).
Solution: Obviously this isn’t much of a challenge if the PCs have sufficient proof ready to hand, so the GM should make the NPC demand more proof than the PCs can readily produce. The PCs can leave collect evidence, or they can try to lower the NPC’s standard for proof by impressing them with their honor and reliability, or with the urgency of the need.
Interference: Helping the PCs would distract from, interfere with, or take resources away from the NPC's other priorities. These tend to be important projects that would suffer greatly if they were neglected. This is the kind of problem that comes up when the PCs ask someone to take time off work to help them. Sure, a burger flipper has no trouble calling in sick, but what if the NPC is an important police detective and there’s a high level strategy meeting that morning?
Solution: The PCs can expend their own time and resources to support the NPC’s other priorities in return for the NPC’s help. Usually the NPC is going to require more from the PCs than what they get in return, because of the NPC’s particular perspective.
Personal Problem: The NPC agrees with the PCs, but there is a pressing personal problem they have to deal with that puts them at odds with, or at least in disagreement with, the PCs. This can be the villain's agency ("I will kill your husband if you help those guys") or just happenstance ("I'd love to help tomorrow, but if I cancel on my girlfriend at the last minute one more time, she's going to leave me.")
Solution: The PCs will probably try to solve this like in Interdiction, above. But here, things are personal. And that means that the NPC is likely to have strong opinions about their “solutions” and will at least want to be involved, if not lead, the effort to fix things. Sometimes the NPC won’t want any help. “You’ll just make things worse!” In that case, the PCs have to get out of problem solving mode, and try to persuade the NPC to help in any way they can. They may even have to urge the NPC to suffer the personal cost for them, which is awkward and definitely indebts them to the NPC.
Cross-Purposes: The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties directly conflict with the PCs' goals, but are not aligned with the villain's goals either.
Solution: The PCs need to find some common ground with the NPC, or identify a higher loyalty or cause that they both share. "You may need to guard the tomb, and we may want to get into the tomb, but we both serve the gods of good, and they have sent us on a mission to cleanse the tomb."
Debt: The PCs owe the NPC, and the NPC will not help them until the debt is paid. The NPC doesn't trust them until the debt is paid. Maybe the debt is a major favor or money that the PCs took advantage of. Or maybe the PCs offended or embarrassed the NPC, and the debt means they have to make up to the NPC for the offense.
Solution: The PCs can pay their debt, but that usually costs them much needed resources at a time when they’re already reaching out and asking for help from others. The PCs can persuade the NPC that they’re honorable and “good for it” to build enough trust to get more favors from the NPC. They can make a partial payment and hope it’s enough. They can try honeyed words, casting the NPC as their savior; or on the other hand, try the hard sell.
Rival: The NPCs are rivals to or opposed to the PCs themselves. The conflict is not ideological but personal. The rival is not a villain, though an extremely desperate rival is basically the same a villain. A rival typically wants to prove themselves better than the PCs, which often means they're pursuing the same goal. Imagine falling into an inescapable pit trap, expecting to die there, then seeing that odious rival’s face appear above you. “It seems I’ve finally come out on top, so to speak… Heh...”
Solutions: Needing something from a rival is a hard place to be in. Depending on the PCs’ need and the rival’s position, they may need to beg, threaten, or trick the rival.
Frenemy: The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties are aligned with the villain's, but they are on friendly terms with the PCs themselves, willing to trade favors, and might be brought around depending on the urgency of their motivation. Making deals with enemy agents is great for nuanced settings where there’s no black and white. Making deals with enemy agents is great for nuanced settings where there’s no black and white.
Solutions: The PCs will need to be careful making deals with devils, no matter how friendly they seem. Some frenimies are like Magneto: They’re civil and fully committed to opposing the “good guys.” In that case, the trick is making a deal that avoids causing more harm than good. Some frenimies are not so committed, and the PCs can play on their doubts. Alternately, the PCs can trick the NPC into helping them, or use other leverage to force them.
Feelings Get in the Way
Even with all of the problems listed above, it stands to reason that if the PCs can find a solution that benefits all parties, that should wrap things up. Reason prevails. Everybody wins.
But it’s never that easy.
The problem with NPCs is that they're human, and have human feelings and passions. Feelings can get in the way. Here’s a quick tool: Pick (or randomly roll, if that’s your bag) one of the problems for your NPC. Then decide (or randomly roll) how passionate the NPC is about it. Below is a scale from least passionate to most, and how those feelings can really get in the way of the NPC agreeing to help the PCs. The strength of the NPC’s passion increases the difficulty the PCs must overcome and cost that the PCs must pay to get what they need from the NPC. The strongest passions can even make NPCs into potential villains in their own right, if the PCs aren’t careful.
Cautious: The NPC is pragmatic and listens to reason, but may still have other priorities. Because of their pragmatism, the NPC is likely to avoid helping the PCs do anything rash or reckless, but on the other hand, they are much more likely to listen to a plan that improves their safety and security. This is the admiral who won’t agree to take the whole fleet off the blockade to search for the lost courier ship; or the cleric who insists that the PCs go through a week-long ordeal of purification before entering the sealed temple, just in case.
Passionate: The NPC is eager to achieve their goals and will put them over approximately equal priorities, but won't ignore a credible danger to their life. This NPC cares enough to be a major inconvenience. This is the Baron who won’t release the soothsayer from the dungeon because he insulted the Baron’s wife; or police lieutenant who won’t send help because she doesn’t believe in zombies, even if the PCs produce “obviously photoshopped” proof.
Desperate: The NPC puts their goals over significantly more pressing priorities, including danger to their own life. They will not put others in clear danger for their own agenda. This is the sort of NPC who will go try to save his son from the ogres, even if he has to go alone on a suicide mission; and if the PCs help, he’s going to want to come along.
Irrational: The NPC will risk their life and the lives of others for their priorities. The NPC will commit crimes and minor evil acts to achieve their goal, short of directly causing the death of innocents.
Insane: The NPC may be driven to commit crimes and evil acts, even heinous crimes, to achieve their goal. Try to avoid any implication of mental illness -- whatever makes this NPC so irrational should be a strong emotion like pride, grief, love, or hate. Imagine an NPC who has tried to follow the same leads and quests as the PCs, but keeps coming up a day late and a gold piece short. Their pride has been so injured that while they won’t kill the PCs directly, they might leave them to their grisly fate in the aforementioned pit trap.
Monster: The NPC uses their personal goals and ideology to justify repeatedly committing heinous crimes. This is the sort of NPC that is often more trouble than they’re worth. Imagine a wizard with great magical power who continues sending curses down upon the House of Urala because Jericho of Urala was cruel to her and caused the death of her child. What the PCs must do to get the help of a monster is often morally repugnant. The PCs might be able to get the wizard’s help, but only by offering to kidnap an Urala child to replace the one she lost. If the fate of the world is at stake, will they commit a heinous act to please a monster for the greater good? This sort of situation raises the stakes considerably: “If we don’t find some other way to open the portal, we will be forced to kidnap a Urala child for this foul wizard, so she will open it. And time is running out.” Sometimes it’s not that blatant, though. And sometimes the monster is a literal monster. “Watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever, cut a deal with a dragon.” - Street Proverb (Shadowrun, 1989).
The fun of improvisation is that sometimes you find yourself needing to come up with an important NPC on the fly. After you've decided their name, appearance, and other features, you can use these tables to randomly determine what makes them so troublesome.
What kind of conflict or problem is there? (roll 1d20)
1-2 = Aligned (for now)
3-5 = Interdicted 6-7 = Judgmental 8-9 = Skeptical 10-11 = Interference 12-14 = Personal Problem 15-16 = Cross-Purposes 17-18 = Debt 19 = Rival 20 = Frenemy
What is the nature of the problem? (roll 1d20)
1-6 = Love (family, friends, mate)
7-11 = Money (greed, debt, poverty, class barriers)
12-15 = Power (ambition, appearances, authority, orders)
16-18 = Religion (dogma, opposed gods)
19-20 = Ideology (chaos, law, caution, glory)
How does the NPC feel about it? (roll 1d20) 1-4 = Cautious 5-9 = Passionate 10-14 = Desperate 15-18 = Irrational 19 = Insane 20 = Monster
PS. This post was composed in Google Docs and pasted in here. Do you like the formatting better? Is it worse? Leave some feedback!
PS. This post was composed in Google Docs and pasted in here. Do you like the formatting better? Is it worse? Leave some feedback!