Those Blundering PCs: Keeping your NPCs alive

For this week’s bonus blog, B. Lynn asks:

How do you reveal in game NPCs that the players should NOT mess with?

This is certainly an important topic, and one that can be handled in a variety of different ways, depending on your needs for the game.  There’s nothing worse than a group of PCs charging into battle and either a) killing off an important villain too soon, or b) getting slaughtered trying to kill off an important villain too soon.  Scenario b) is kind of funny, but it’s still annoying.

The first thing to consider is, how important is the NPC?  Are they integral to the plot? Are they important for just the next adventure? Sometimes we create so many “important” NPCs without realizing that we don’t actually NEED that many for the story to progress.  I always consider the storyline from a bare essentials point of view.  What do I need at minimum, to get the players from A to B?  If some of my NPCs don’t fit into that storyline, I won’t leave them out, but I will create some backup plans in case they die or get skimmed over.

This can seem like a great deal of extra work, as it sometimes means creating backups for nearly every scenario, however, once you do it enough, you start realizing it’s not actually that difficult.  You can write in an extremely short segway that will take them from A to AB to B instead of the direct path from A to B.  The benefit of this for me is that it allows the players to make whatever decision they want without disrupting my story too much.

The second thing to consider is, can the PCs actually defeat the NPC if a battle happens?  If the answer is maybe (or if the NPC is so important to the story that he or she MUST survive), than we need to use a different route.  In these situations I will try using my powers of description first.  I will drop hints about their power and might, perhaps describing their armor or weapon as appearing to be imbued with extremely powerful magic.  Maybe it’s a glow in a sorcerer’s eyes, or the confidence with which the NPC approaches the players.  I will do as much as I can to let the players know that this is an NPC to be reckoned with.

Often the description, if done well, can be enough.  As always, if you’re ever worried that they won’t get the point, there’s nothing wrong with being blunt.  You can add something along the lines of, “You’re quite certain this isn’t someone you want to mess with.”  When we encounter people in real life that have the sort of unyielding confidence and raw power we’re talking about here, don’t we instinctively know that we shouldn’t piss them off?  Most of us wouldn’t go up to some 7 foot tall, 350 pound muscle-bound brute and tell him, “Fuck off!”  Of course, in the game, we’re talking about potentially experienced warriors with much more confidence and combat skill than most of us have, but with that experience, should also come the ability to assess your opponents well.

If this doesn’t work, or isn’t something that you can or want to do, there are other ways to handle the situation.  I’ve had players blunder into lots of fights and the easiest way to end them soon is to fudge a bunch of rolls.  Make the NPC appear more powerful than he or she actually is.  Presumably, by the time they face off, the PCs will be more powerful anyway.  Some people seem to have the mantra, “the dice are king.”  I find this to be limiting to the story, to the characters, and to the overall flow of the game.  I have no problem ignoring a die roll, and do it frequently for the sake of the game.  If within the first couple of rounds of combat the players get a serious beating (there’s no reason to bring them close to death), they will probably think twice about attacking again.

Unfortunately, alot of players if this sort of situation will continue to fight until they die because they think that’s all they CAN do, or because their ego won’t let them give up.  After everyone’s had a turn, I will usually pause for a moment, to make it clear that the enemy isn’t interested in killing them, and is willing to let them leave alive.  If this isn’t enough of hint for them, the NPC can just as easily tell them to take a hike.

The one thing we should consider in this situation though, is what would the NPC actually do?  If he or she wants the characters dead, we obviously can’t just allow the NPC to let them go.  It goes against character and will appear contradictory later.  If this is the case, you just need to use all of your godly and descriptive powers as DM to make sure the fight doesn’t ever start.  If situations like this come up for you a lot, you should probably reconsisder the way you’re writing your adventures.  Sometimes it’s best to simply not include open-ended scenarios in a campagin if you only want one end result.

I love open-ended stories.  They’re mostly all that I write, but even I have a grand plan (usually), and if there is something that absolutely SHOULD NOT happen, I just won’t ever give the players a chance to make it happen.  Easy enough.  Basically, consider your needs.  If your needs outweigh the need for player creativity and freedom, then take that freedom away from them for that particular encounter.  If you can afford to let the players put a temporary dent in your story, let them do it.  You can recover, and the story will too.

Roll it like you mean it,
The Dungeon Master

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2 Responses to Those Blundering PCs: Keeping your NPCs alive

  1. kevin stover says:

    One of the tricks I use when possible is to have the NPC display their power upon another NPC within view of the player party. This usually works well. When the frail, old force-sensitive woman creates a bunch of plant-growth to decimate a few dozen Sith soldiers, characters tend to not want to be on her bad side.

    • Ask the DM says:

      yes, this is a great point. i’ve used this as well, and it can definitely be handy. this sort of falls under the “using your powers of description” idea. all in all, i think us DMs are pretty creative people, and generally, most ideas we can come up with will work just fine. the biggest problem is people tend to worry too much: about the rules, the story, the PCs, or whatever. i say just relax and enjoy yourself. try something new out, if it doesn’t work, you know not to do it again.

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