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How do you handle NPCs off the cuff? For example the players enter tavern, sit down & you say the barmaid comes over and gets their order. The PCs start asking her questions, while you had intended to gloss over their conversation with her because she was background for the tavern not really an NPC. In the past I have labeled these NPCs with the name Bob so the players get that they know nothing. Other times I have used a character from a TV show to fill in, in the above case Flo from Alice.
This is of course something that all DMs come up against. I have to admit, I haven’t been great at dealing with these kinds of situations, though I do have plenty of tips and techniques that I should be using. Part of the reason I don’t use them, is because it’s extra effort, and we DMs do a lot. To have to take every minor NPC into consideration is a huge task, and I’d rather fumble for words and make an NPC sound like a complete idiot then spend extra time I don’t have worrying about it. That being said, short of creating backstories for every NPC in existence, there are some easy ways to handle these occurances.
No matter how hard I try to gloss over a minor character, my players invariably want to talk to everyone, especially when they’re in the tavern. I think a part of it must be the video game mentality of “everyone has information for me.” Honestly, this is one of the things I hate about games like Fallout and Elder Scrolls. Not that I hate the games, I love them actually, but I hate the idea that nearly every single NPC has something to say. If I was wandering around the city seeking information, probably a meager 1% of people I spoke to would be helpful. But players play too many video games, and so they make our lives more difficult. So how do we handle this?
You’ve already hit on two techniques I use myself. Filling in NPC personalities with other fictional personalties is an easy thing to do, and can turn a pointless, flat NPC into someone interesting and engaging. They might not have anything useful to say, but at least they won’t feel so much like a cardboard cut-out. Like you, the other thing that I will do is give them really lame names. Bob is a favorite, as is Bob, Susie, Tim and Bernice (no offense to anyone with these names, especially Bernice. Bob, however, I’ll offend all day long, so get over it Bob.) Giving NPCs a “normal” name is a big tip-off that you didn’t put a lot of thought into them, just like Bob’s parents didn’t put a lot of thought into him (what now Bob?).
That being said, as DMs we should be able to have every NPC interact with the characters. But that doesn’t have to mean very much at all. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, D&D is a lot like Improv. A such, DMs should always be working on their improvisation skills. We should always be prepared for unexpected questions from players, and unexpected NPC interation.
This does not mean that every NPC needs to be deep and interesting though. It just means they need to be able to respond. If a player says, “Do you know anything about the strange tower to East?”, there’s nothing wrong with Bernice the tavern Wench saying, “Sorry, no.” NPCs saying no just means the players need to seek information elsewhere, probably from the source you intended. However, this is something (as per the rules of Improv) I try not to do. For one thing, it discourages players from interacting with NPCs, and sometimes this can be a bad thing. It may be difficult for them to always figure out who you want them to talk to, so they may be reluctant to talk to anyone after a while.
Practicing not saying “no” or “I don’t know” will also make you better at improvising in the future. So what do we do? One thing we can do is use these NPCs as a guide to help push the PCs in the right direction. Instead of just saying “no”, perhaps your well-described and buxom Wench can say, “I’ve heard strange stories from Flagellum,” Flagellum being the NPC you actually want the players to talk to. Or have her reveal a bit of not-so-important information that Flagellum was going to reveal. Something like, “I’ve seen a man wandering the woods at night over there.”
Lastly, keep in mind that as DMs we have all possible information about our world, so nothing we say can actually be wrong. Therefore, it’s okay to flat out lie to your players. There is nothing wrong with NPCs giving PCs incorrect information. It doesn’t even have to be a lie, it can just be a phony rumor. This can add more dynamics into the adventure, and might also discourage players from just asking every single person they meet for information. If they have to wander 5 miles out of their way and accidently slay an innocent old lady because some stupid barkeep listens to the town drunk’s ramblings, than that’s the players own damn fault. Players should learn to be a little discriminating.
So remember: the improvisational DM is king. They are capable of handling nearly any situation that comes their way, and this allows for more fluid gameplay and happier players. Practice your improv, challenge yourself, and have some fun with it, especially if that fun is at the expense of your players.
Torturing Players Because I Can,
The Dungeon Master
PS: I don’t really hate anyone named Bob
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