You can't run a memorable AD&D campaign without creating some memorable nonplayer characters. Think about it. The only tools you can use to bring your campaign setting alive in your players' imaginations are your descriptions, storylines, and NPCs. Of these, only the NPCs give you an opportunity to step into your own world and flesh it out from the inside. Your NPCs allow you to ham it up and bring the game world to life. They give you a chance to step out from behind your DM's screen and get in on the action. Your characterization of NPCs is especially critical because your players look to you for guidance in developing their own characters. If your NPCs are lively, your players are likely to follow your lead with more memorable creations of their own.
Last month, we identified the first nonplayer inhabitants of our campaign world. In this month's installment and the next, we'll explore strategies for making those NPCs an effective part of the campaign. But before you can create great NPCs, you must first understand the various roles they are likely to play in your adventures, so let's begin with a discussion of...
Four Things You Can (and Should!) Do With NPCs
1. Provide the Players with Exposition
NPCs are a great tool you can use to introduce the players to information about your setting. There is probably some resident somewhere on your campaign world who can answer just about any question the players might want to pose. The wizened sage who lives in the big city can probably identify the runes on that ancient book the adventurers pulled out of the last dungeon they visited. The local king can probably give the party a clue as to why his daughter recently disappeared. The goblin lord probably knows when the five tribes are planning to assault the local stronghold and how they might approach it. Of course, some or all of these folks are probably not inclined to share their secrets, leaving it up to the players to figure out how to loosen their tongues!
When creating an NPC, it's important to think about what he or she knows. What important questions might the NPC answer? How can this information help the players? What secrets might the NPC potentially reveal? You should also think about how the players might gain this information. Is the NPC someone the PCs might befriend or someone they must outwit? And then there are some NPCs who are designed to reveal their information without any sort of coaxing from the players. Imagine an old beggar who aimlessly wanders around the city mumbling about some terrible creature he encountered in the forest long ago, or a traveling minstrel who moves from inn to inn singing ballads of great heroes and their adventures. When NPCs are free with helpful information, make sure they keep their revelations as subtle as possible. Make it at least a little challenging for the players to puzzle out the significance of any information they glean. The wandering beggar shouldn't come right out and tell the players that the creature he met was a wyvern. Instead, he should describe "a terrible hiss," "wings that blotted out the sun," or a "razor-sharp tail." Clever players will get the hint, deduce the creature's identity, and take the appropriate precautions before venturing into the forest themselves.
2. Offer the PCs Services and Tactical Options
Typical adventurers are able folks, but even the most experienced and well-equipped group can't do everything for itself. Sooner or later, the PCs will need the services of a blacksmith, a sage, or a moneylender. This means that whenever you create an NPC, you should also consider what that character can do for the PCs-and what it might take for the PCs to procure these services.
A good AD&D campaign presents the players with a web of possible solutions to any problem they encounter, and NPCs are likely to occupy key positions within this web. Suppose, for example, that the PCs retrieve a magical sword from a dungeon but are unsure of the weapon's true nature and capabilities. In a well-developed campaign, they'd have several clear options, allowing them the freedom to choose and reinforcing the idea that their destinies lie in their own hands. They might simply use the sword and try to deduce its capabilities from its performance. They might mount an expedition to recover a lost spellbook of which they've heard, hoping it contains an identify spell or other lore concerning the weapon. They might visit a nearby sage in hopes that he'll recognize the blade, or they might travel all the way to the big city, where they can hire a friendly wizard to cast an identify spell for them. Of course, for these latter options to work, the PCs must have already met these two NPCs and familiarized themselves with their capabilities. To build these sorts of options into your own game, you should anticipate the services the players might need in the months ahead, then liberally sprinkle appropriate NPCs all over your setting. Likely services usually include help with: spellcasting, identifying magical items, buying and selling equipment, raising money, acquiring information, and ensuring adequate security.
Keep in mind that the services your NPCs can supply aren't very helpful if the players are unaware that they are available. The local captain of the guard might be an expert jeweler, but this ability won't provide the players with any problem-solving options until the players discover the guard's expertise. This doesn't mean that you should immediately reveal the capabilities of your NPCs to the players, but think about how and when you might go about making those disclosures. If the capabilities of the NPCs aren't obvious, try to reveal them in as subtle a fashion as possible.
A couple of months after the campaign begins, for instance, the PCs might stumble across a fracas in the local marketplace. An old man and a merchant are loudly arguing over the value of a small ruby, each threatening to pummel the other. Apparently, the son of the old man bought the ruby from the merchant earlier in the day. When the son returned home, his father discovered that the gem was flawed and that his son had been fleeced. For his part, the seller insists that the ruby is exceptional and that the boy's father is near-sighted and senile. Eventually, a patrol led by the captain of the guard comes on the scene. When he learns the nature of the dispute, the captain snatches the ruby, holds it up to the light and announces that the old man is correct. He then threatens to imprison the merchant unless he returns the boy's money, quickly ending the incident. When his fellow soldiers look to him with surprise, the captain explains that his own father is a jeweler and that he mastered some of the basic skills early in his youth. Once the PCs have witnessed this scene, they realize that they could potentially turn to the captain should they need a gem appraised in the future.
For maximum effect, this revelation should come long before the PCs might actually need the guard's services. Otherwise, it will seem like you're conveniently suggesting a course of action and doing their job for them. The trick is to make the players feel like they're clever for remembering that guard they encountered all those adventures ago.
3. Propel the PCs into Adventures
As you create each of your NPCs, think about how each of them might direct, drag, or otherwise coax the players into undertaking an adventure. NPCs might possess information that is just begging to be investigated, or they might keep secrets that reveal danger or opportunity when uncovered.
There are many strategies to use NPCs as adventure springboards. One tried and true method is to give the players some reason to care about the NPC-which shouldn't be too hard with good-aligned adventurers-then place the NPC in danger. For example, any AD&D adventurers worth their salt should rush off to save a friend's recently kidnapped son, giving you a great opportunity to throw some interesting and entertaining obstacles in the way. Similarly, what if an adventurer's sister is accused of witchcraft and threatened with execution? This should prompt the PCs to investigate, inevitably leading to a confrontation with the entity who is really responsible for the unexplained events that have panicked the townspeople.
Another classic method of using NPCs to trigger adventures is to create characters who are interested in hiring the PCs to undertake some dangerous assignment. Maybe a local merchant needs an armed escort to accompany a caravan he plans to send across the Murky Swamp, or a powerful wizard is looking for a party capable of procuring those wyvern's teeth she needs to cast an important spell. While it's easy to use this method to launch new adventures, try to employ it sparingly. Using NPCs in this fashion often feels like you are telling the players what you want them to do. This is OK every once in a while, but in general you should allow the players to feel like they've undertaken an adventure on their own initiative. That way, you'll give the players a sense of empowerment and reinforce the idea that they are making as many contributions to the storyline as you are.
A third method that bears a mention is simply to create an NPC who is bound to become an adversary to the adventurers. If one of the PCs is a priest, introducing an important NPC priest from a rival sect is sure to result in the two characters' crossing ... er, maces. One great way to make this tactic more effective is to introduce a foe whom the players don't immediately recognize as an adversary. Generally, the more time that elapses between the introduction of the NPC and the revelation of his or her true nature, the more dramatic the end result. Imagine the shock when the players discover that the kindly innkeeper they met fifteen or twenty adventures ago is actually the vampire responsible for the strange killings that plagued the campaign world over the last two years.
4. Create Atmosphere
Finally, NPCs are a great way to lend the game a touch of sorely needed atmosphere when necessary. You might think about creating an appropriately goofy NPCs who can visit and liven things up when necessary or an appropriately somber NPC who can bring the players back down to earth when they are getting too silly. While these sorts of NPCs can be quite useful, it's important that you don't overuse them. Try to confine their appearances to no more than once per adventure to guarantee that they don't hog too much of the floor and draw attention away from the players' characters.
On a related note, it's not a bad idea to create an important "stereotypical" representative of each of the most important social and political factions in your campaign world. Making sure that the players frequently cross paths with these characters is a great way to help the players learn to understand these various groups and the roles they play in the setting. In other words, if the elves of your world are generally proud and arrogant, you might introduce a particularly arrogant elf whom the adventurers often encounter. This will give them a better idea of what to expect from other elves and help them recognize and appreciate the unusual elves who run counter to the stereotype.
Tarrin and Jarrak
To illustrate some of these principles in action, let's return to the two sample NPCs from last month's installment: Tarrin the guard captain and Jarrak the wizard. Tarrin is Richard's second-in-command of the Ironoak stronghold and the captain of all the guards stationed there. Years ago, he lost his left hand to the curse of an evil cult leader. Jarrak is a powerful and mysterious wizard who once devised a potent spell that saved the stronghold from devastation. Jarrak has never shared the secret of this spell.
Tarrin is probably best used to 2) Provide the Players with Tactical Options, and 3) Propel the PCs into Adventure. Since the military might of Ironoak is essentially under his control, the PCs can earn the option of seeking assistance from his troops whenever a crisis arises. Of course, you can't allow Tarrin to fight the PCs' battles for them; his assistance should definitely come at an appropriate price and on Tarrin's own terms. If the PCs have nowhere else to turn, however, he can be a very powerful ally. As for propelling the PCs into adventures, you can make special plans for Tarrin's missing hand, as hinted in the last installment. Eventually, the cult that left its curse on Tarrin (and the hand itself) will reappear and threaten Ironoak, dragging the PCs into the conflict.
For his part, Jarrak is best used to 1) Provide the Players with Exposition and 3) Propel the PCs into Adventure. That Jarrak is a wise and formidable wizard with his own mysterious agenda is already established. He certainly has access to important myths, legends, and other facts that could benefit the PCs on their journeys, and the fact that he occasionally emerges to share this knowledge with the PCs won't seem unusual. They're likely to presume that he is assisting them for his own mysterious purposes. Eventually, Jarrak might propel the player characters into adventure by asking them to duplicate his feat of saving Ironoak from the same marauders who attacked it decades ago, as he is now too old to combat the fiends on his own. In fact, at the climax of this adventure, one or more of the PCs might even earn the opportunity to convince Jarrak to share the secret of his powerful spell.
Next month, we'll look at the details you should create to flesh out an NPC, and we'll concoct some examples from the world of Aris.