Non player characters (NPCs) or game master characters (GMPCs) are the bread and butter of information giving in tabletop RPGs. Characters could always go to a library and read up on things, stumble across the answer to a mystery that’s plagued the world for a millennia or simply just be lucky. This can be fun from time to time but what is dramatic and ties the player characters to the world is interacting with its people. Revealing some of the most important plot points in your game may center around an interaction with a key character. Because of this, the character must be equally, if not more, interesting than the piece of information itself.
An example of this comes straight from my home game last night, an ongoing campaign that I’ve been running for three years or so. A very helpful NPC had turned out to be an instrumental player in the Lich King’s plot to retake his empire. Though begrudgingly accepting this fate on fear of death in response to refusal, the character had helped the PCs and was eventually forced to come out with the truth to them. He has now turned into a double agent for them, walking the knife’s edge between good and evil. The plot was there all along, but there was a chance that he would end up on the opposite end of Lisbeth’s sword.
That’s where the careful planning and anticipation come in. Effectively presenting and preserving an NPC like this can make for a really gripping, complex, and engaging way to experience the story of your campaign. People are complex in life, and so too should they be in your RPG. The vital NPC needs to be a relatable character, yet still expressly unique to make the players feel sometimes at odds with them. It leaves the right amount of tension and keeps the players guessing whether they are good or evil. If they’re useful enough, the players will try to keep them around rather than killing them. It gives you ample opportunity to throw wrenches in the plot, but beware: if your wrenches are big enough to put the PCs further away from your vital NPC, that could lead to their death.
The problems that are introduced as consequence to the PCs relationship with your complex NPC should not have said NPC directly involved. That’s how your character gets dead, real quick. Players have an uncanny ability of cutting out the bull in a game, keeping around only what they see as vital, not interesting. As soon as your NPC becomes directly opposed to the PC’s, even if they’re a bit useful, they now become the focus as a villain. So, my one of six master vampires left in the world of the Dragon Empire, Wilton, is willing to help them retake their home of Ald Sotha by informing them on what he can about the Lich King for a time. The catch is that if the Lich King finds out and plays the game, Wilton won’t withhold information from him because he’s scared of the Lich King more than the players. He had said that right off the bat. However, it is abundantly clear to my players that Wilton believes that with careful planning and precision, they can topple the Lich Kings plan, thus making him willing to help. He wants to be free of the political obligation that our wonderful Lord of Undeath bestows upon him so graciously. This creates a very interesting and complex situation with the clear good and bad guys, but makes it deeply interesting by having the questionable character that is extremely open and helpful to the PCs.
It can be a lot to keep track of on the GM’s part to maintain a story line with such a rich and complex set of relationships, but it can be very rewarding to see your players react to such. It begs the question however; how do I keep them alive? This is the part that’s easier said than done. Continuing with my example character; the PCs had found out that Wilton was living amongst mortals and elves because he simply enjoyed their company, despite being a vampire. This takes away the mentality of “vampire = evil” thus making it a bit more difficult to justify killing him. Before the reveal, even, Wilton was very helpful and kind when the players needed some information about an event that happened near both his residence and place of business. It puts the NPC in good standing with the players, making them less likely to be outright angry when his real situation is shown. The blow of finding out that my majorly helpful NPC is a blood sucking monster was heavy, but not heavy enough to drastically change the way they were handling the other important situations.
Keeping him alive from this point forward is just a task of maintaining that level of helpfulness. Not any more, not any less. However, if you’re a GM who really likes to kick up the complexity, making such an NPC even more valuable than is originally presented can set the stage for an immensely dramatic shift. Putting that important NPC in danger or at odds with the players after that could become an important part of your story. The trick to this is to make sure that both you and your players explore all of that characters usefulness. If this doesn’t happen before the coin flips, your players could be missing out on some key information or experiences in your plot.
These double agent type characters can be a true joy to explore in a long term campaign. They keep things dramatic, tense, but also give your players a bit of something to fall back on when they don’t know what to do. The most important bit to remember, however? The story is about your players, not this NPC. I love Wilton as a character, I do. Sure, he’s massively important and preferably needs to stay alive, but killing him won’t completely derail the game. It’ll make the players’ lives more difficult, without question, but the campaign can still be seen to the end.
There’s a lot to think about with this idea, and I’m sure all of you have some slightly (or radically) different approaches to such a concept. I’d be interested to hear them!
But for now,
Stay Metal \m/