Beyond the Wall: Ally Playbook

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Based on last week’s notes, this week it’s a playbook (similar to PC playbooks in provided stats and skills) that allows allies to transition from null-stat hirelings to fully fleshed out characters that could serve as replacement PCs if the existing PCs die. Apply these stat improvements when it’s appropriate to answer the questions (i.e., one per adventure completion with the party).

What are your native talents?

Pick two ability scores to start at 10, the rest start at 8.

What happened the first adventure after you became an ally?

  • You had to flee and/or get help. +2 Str, +1 Dex, +1 Con, Skill: Athletics or Riding
  • You had to help scout/stay on guard duty. +2 Dex, +1 Con, +1 Wis, Skill: Alertness or Stealth
  • You were deep in hostile wilderness. +2 Int, +1 Wis, +1 Con, Skill: Animal Lore or Survival
  • You mostly got to stay out of danger and help with the food. +2 Cha, +1 Wis, +1 Con, Skill: Cooking or Hunting
  • You had to help with the injured or sick. +2 Con, +1 Wis, +1 Str, Skill: Healing or Herbalism
  • You helped with terrifying ancient mysteries. +2 Int, +1 Str, +1 Cha, Skill: Ancient History or Forbidden Lore
  • You got deeply embroiled with the fae or other strange creatures. +2 Cha, +1 Dex, +1 Int, Skill: Faerie Lore or Folklore
  • You were involved in mystical or philosophical weirdness. +2 Wis, +1 Str, +1 Dex, Skill: Magic Lore or Religious Lore
  • You had to be on your best behavior among polite society. +2 Wis, +1 Int, +1 Cha, Skill: Etiquette or Politics

After your second adventure as an ally, what’s your favorite part of adventuring so far?

  • The fights! +2 Str, +1 Wis
  • Games and riddles. +2 Dex, +1 Int
  • Proving your toughness. +2 Con, +1 Cha
  • Learning lore and secrets. +2 Int, +1 Dex
  • Learning about strange new folks. +2 Wis, +1 Con
  • Making new friends. +2 Cha, +1 Str
  • Being generally helpful and needed. +1 Str, +1 Con, +1 Cha
  • Learning a little from everyone. +1 Dex, +1 Int, +1 Wis

Now that you’ve been on three adventures as an ally, which of the party members do you look up to the most?

  • The strongest warrior in the party. +2 Str, +1 Cha
  • The most nimble scout in the party. +2 Dex, +1 Wis
  • The most stalwart protector in the party. +2 Con, +1 Int
  • The smartest and cleverest person in the party. +2 Int, +1 Dex
  • The most patient and considerate person in the party. +2 Wis, +1 Str
  • The one that you have a crush on. +2 Cha, +1 Con
  • The one that’s lost without your help. +1 Str, +1 Int, +1 Cha
  • The one that doesn’t need you, but lets you help anyway. +1 Dex, +1 Con, +1 Wis

After four adventures as an ally, the party is clearly starting to expect you to fill a role. What do you see your purpose in the party as?

  • The muscle, standing firm on the front lines. +2 Str, +1 Con, Skill: Athletics or Intimidation
  • The scout, hanging back and looking for opportunities. +2 Dex, +1 Wis, Skill: Alertness or Stealth
  • The protector, taking hits so the weaker ones don’t have to. +2 Con, +1 Cha, Skill: Riding or Survival
  • The brains, knowing details and secrets. +2 Int, +1 Dex, Skill: [Any Lore]
  • The heart, keeping track of and coordinating the party. +2 Wis, +1 Str, Skill: Healing or Socialize
  • The soul, keeping everyone happy and helping with outsiders. +2 Cha, +1 Int, Skill: [Any Social]

After five adventures as an ally, some of your negative tendencies are starting to become apparent. What’s your biggest problem?

  • I’m lazy, and don’t like to do my fair share. -1 Str, +2 Dex, +1 Int
  • My clumsiness tends to get us all in trouble. -1 Dex, +2 Con, +1 Cha
  • I keep getting sick and injured. -1 Con, +2 Cha, +1 Dex
  • I can’t remember all the things I should have learned. -1 Int, +2 Wis, +1 Str
  • I just don’t pay much attention and break things. -1 Wis, +2 Str, +1 Con
  • I’m secretive and distrustful. -1 Cha, +2 Int, +1 Wis

After six adventures as an ally, you’re starting to seamlessly blend with the hero that serves as your leader, learning from her example and shoring up her weaknesses.

Add +2 to the ability that your leader has lowest, and add either +1 to the ability your leader has highest or add the skill your leader uses the most.

After seven adventures as an ally, you’ve learned almost as much as you can in a subordinate role and are getting ready to strike out on your own.

Add +1 to your highest ability and +1 to your lowest ability.

Example Hirelings

The following were the blurbs I presented to my players as their starting local options for hirelings.

Mages

  • The Ostra-Goth (Witch): A weird guy in his late twenties that likes to wear all black and who doesn’t have many friends. He badgered the Witch for some training a few years ago, but she quickly got tired of him. He has the Hexing cantrip, the Call the Swarm spell, and no rituals.
  • The Chamber Maid (Order): A teen serving girl at the manor who was around the room a lot when the Apprentice Court Sorcerer was being taught by the Court Sorcerer, and seems to have picked up a few things. She has the Second Sight cantrip, the Abjuration spell, and the Sorcerer’s Steed ritual.
  • The Fae-Struck Boy (Fae): A touched young man in his late teens that barely responds to stimuli but is mostly biddable, he’s been like this ever since he wandered out of town as a child. Many think he was bewitched by the fae, as he has strange powers. He has the Glamour Weaving cantrip, the Obscurement spell, and no rituals.
  • The Imperial Novice (New Sun): An overly-cheerful young Imperial girl who came to town with the imperial priest and serves as his altar girl and gofer. She doesn’t seem to have any understanding of why people are so distrustful of her. She has the Blessing cantrip, the Inspiration and Word of Courage spells, and no rituals.
  • Horse Girl (Witch): This girl LOVES HORSES. She is really, really annoying about it. The innkeepers started paying her a small wage because they couldn’t stop her from helping out in the inn’s stables. She’s picked up some things from doggedly following the Assistant Beast Keeper on her rounds with the Witch’s menagerie. She has the Beast Ken cantrip, the Wild Call spell, and no rituals.
  • Mr. Helpful (Pagan): This guy is possibly in his forties. He has a polite smile for people, helps them get to their homes at night, and is just on the good side of being creepy about it. Most suspect he worships some weird old god of hospitality. He has the Mage Light cantrip, the Phantom Skill spell, and the Goodberry ritual.

Fighters

  • The Huntress: A woman in her thirties, she’s remained happily unmarried and spends her time out with the other hunters. The villagers joke that she’s married to her bow. She’s specialized in longbow and has the Great Strike knack.
  • Sword Guy: He’s slender, getting older, he’s not nearly as sexy as he thinks, and, yes, he does a weird dance where he balances his sword on various body parts to try to impress people. He’s specialized in longsword and has the Defensive Fighter knack.
  • The Ol’ Battleaxe: She probably shouldn’t have gotten married to a guy that thinks he’s as funny as her husband does, because the kind of woman that works as a woodcutter has a particular nickname that’s appropriate. She’s specialized in greataxe and has the Resilience knack.
  • Big Mouth: Big guy, big mouth, won’t shut up about how much he’s going to kick your ass, never really does, has about the reputation you’d expect because of it. Nice enough guy, when he’s not drinking. He’s specialized in battle axe and has the Great Strike knack.
  • That Weird Flippy Kicky Girl: She’s your age, just kind of washed up in Heimbach with traders a few years ago, barely seems to speak the local language or any other anyone knows, and wakes up every morning at dawn to practice her martial arts forms. She’s specialized in unarmed combat (and seems to have the Unarmed Combat trait) and has the Fleet knack.
  • Infantry!: He’s been in the wars, man. He won’t stop telling people about it. And they’re like, yeah, man, a lot of people have seen war, what makes you so special? And he’s all, I was part of an elite polearm fighting team, man, you wouldn’t understand the camaraderie of the training. He’s specialized in halberd and has the Defensive Fighter knack.

Rogues

  • Comrade Stinky: This guy has an imperial accent, lives like a hermit out in the woods, and doesn’t bathe, but seems to know what he’s about. He has the Animal Lore and Survival skills.
  • The Gumshoe: This young teen is an extremely middle child, and Nancy Drews her way around the village solving “mysteries” and would love to go solve a real one. She has the Alertness and Investigation skills.
  • The Freerun Artist: Heimbach has just enough architecture that some kid was going to invent Parkour, to the great chagrin of business owners across town. He has the Athletics and Stealth skills.
  • The Oldest Professional: Sliding gracefully into middle age, but cognizant that her future employment prospects are waning, she might be amenable to some adventuring to try to lay in a nest egg for her retirement. She has the Pickpocketing and Seduction skills.
  • Major Bored-o: One of the heralds at the manor is pushing thirty and has heard about a lot of great people, but seems to wonder if there’s something more than this provincial life. He has the Ancient History and Etiquette skills.
  • Ms. Science!: One of the town’s schoolteachers is a whip-smart young woman in her early twenties that has learned some surprising things about machinery through unknown methods of experimentation. She has the Engineering and Trapping skills.
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Beyond the Wall: Expanded Hireling and Ally Rules

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After five total sessions (three of which were spent miraculously avoiding harm and two of which they got cocky and got seriously injured both times), my Beyond the Wall players have finally begun to look into embracing the old school ethos of bringing along hirelings. So I finally really looked at the rules for them, and realized they were a little too vague for my liking. Thus, I proceeded to create the following house rules, which should be pretty compatible with the existing material.

Hirelings

While your player characters represent some of the most dynamic youths in your town, there are others that don’t have your lust for adventure but might be persuaded to help out for cold, hard coin. Given time, they might become secure in the lifestyle, and more interested in the long term, revealing their own talents.

Recruiting Hirelings

Your home town and other settlements will have a selection of individuals that can potentially be recruited to adventure with you (see Hireling Growth, below). In order to recruit a hireling, you must make a Charisma check with a penalty equal to the number of hirelings and allies that are known to have died or gone missing on your adventures (for you personally) and a bonus equal to the number of hirelings known to have been promoted to allies (for you personally). (This known status is obviously a touchy subject; if you eventually make it impossible to recruit hirelings at home, be very careful how much information reaches the distant towns you try to recruit at.)

For example, if two of your allies and four of your hirelings have died during your adventures, and you have two allies left, you probably have a net -2 to your attempts to recruit new hirelings (-6 for deaths, +4 for allies).

Failing to recruit a hireling marks that one as unavailable until you level up or do something else impressive for the hireling’s town that changes his or her opinion of you, and that hireling will be unwilling to go with the group for this adventure (even if another hero attempts recruitment). Getting just the highly Charismatic heroes to attempt recruitment has its own problems: that individual must manage all the hirelings attached to her, and is on the hook if they die.

You can technically have an unlimited number of followers at any one time.

Hireling Management

Hirelings deduct a half share of XP from the party for each hireling, but do not actually accrue XP (e.g., if you have five PCs and two hirelings, group XP awards are divided by six).

Hirelings generally expect a half-silver (five copper) per day per character level for non-dangerous days, and double that on each day they were in physical danger (e.g., a day with a fight, every day in the Hedge, etc.). They also expect a 20-silver-per-level death benefit paid to their families if they don’t return from an adventure, in addition to their monies owed. For example, if you spend 10 days in the Hedge with a second level hireling, and that hireling dies, you owe 50 silver to his family on your return.

Hirelings will generally try to hang back in a fight, and minimize their risk of actually getting attacked. They often prefer to use ranged attacks, and, particularly for melee fighters, to not engage until the second round of the fight once enemies have started beating on someone else. Getting them to take greater risks requires their manager to make a Charisma (Command) check, with penalties based on how risky the action seems. If the party starts taking serious injuries, managers must also make Charisma (Command) checks to keep their hirelings from having morale failures and fleeing.

Hireling Traits

Hirelings are treated as if they have perfectly generic ability scores, either through actually being mediocre or just through not putting in that much effort. They make most ability tests/skill checks at 10 (though rogues generally will have at least two skills defined). They do not gain ability bonuses or penalties to combat stats.

Hirelings have average HP for their levels, rounded down, like monsters do.

Hirelings rarely have particularly good gear or training:

  • Fighters generally have leather armor and either a two-handed weapon or a one-handed weapon and simple shield (d10 damage and 12 AC or d8 damage and 13 AC). They represent people in town with more athleticism than cleverness.
  • Rogues generally have a good weapon or leather armor, but rarely both, and track their Fortune’s Favor as an AC bonus (d8 damage and 12 AC or d6 damage and 14 AC). They represent people in town with more cleverness than athletic potential.
  • Mages generally have a fractional complement of spells and rituals, a minor weapon, and no armor (0-2 spells, 0-1 rituals, d4 damage, 10 AC). They represent people in town that seemed like promising apprentices to the local mages, but who were rejected for being ill-suited before they learned much. They can attempt to learn new spells and rituals from available books (testing as if they had a score of 10, for a 50/50 shot of learning most spells and rituals).

Hirelings gain their class abilities, hit die, base attack, and saving throws. They do not have Fortune Points.

Hireling Growth

Before their first adventures, hirelings generally just have a nickname and short descriptive blurb. You don’t particularly care about their names, and they likely won’t tell you much about their backstory.

After surviving his or her first adventure, you generally learn a bit more of a sketch about the hireling’s backstory and talents (and additional skills may become apparent).

After surviving his or her second adventure, you generally learn a hireling’s name and may choose to promote him or her to an ally (for the hero that has been serving as manager most often).

Allies

Allies are either hirelings that you’ve bonded with enough to learn their names and general personality, or named NPCs you meet in the world and form a bond with.

Recruiting Allies

You may have a number of allies equal to four plus your Charisma modifier. This represents total allies you’re maintaining ongoing relationships with, not just allies on the current adventure. If you want to replace an ally without him or her dying, you either have to figure out a way to trade with another hero or allow that ally to return to counting as a hireling (which may reset that ally’s growth if later returned to ally status). Allies are generally available to go on adventures as needed, and may not count against your total if they are often doing their own things.

Ally Management

Allies continue to deduct a half share of XP, but actually gain it and can level up.

Allies expect the same pay rate as hirelings, though may be willing to negotiate for a share of potential treasure instead based on their experience with how much the party has earned in the past. They generally expect any of their gear upgrades to be provided by the party, rather than out of their own income.

Allies are generally much more willing than hirelings to put themselves in danger for the party, but still may require a Charisma (Command) check to get them to do something very dangerous or to maintain their morale.

Ally Traits

Allies have tracked ability scores (see below) and calculate their HP in the same way as player characters.

They can have and use better gear (if the party provides it, see above).

They do not track Fortune Points, but can fortune bond magic items if provided and can mirror their manager’s use of Fortune Points on the same turn, if appropriate. Rogues continue to reflect their Fortune’s Favor class ability as +2 AC.

Ally Growth

Allies slowly gain ability scores over the course of several adventures, until they are similar in power to heroes. They may do this ad hoc, or through an ally playbook (see next week’s post).

Dirge NPCs

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Not a particularly dramatic idea this week, but it comes with a fun spreadsheet.

This is an expansion of the idea presented in a previous post about letting players turn NPCs into PCs when their characters die or for side missions, designed for Dirge. As usual, it will probably work with any modern D20 game with minimal tweaking.

The Basic Idea

When you introduce friendly NPCs that can join the players’ community:

  • Determine ability scores for the NPC. These should have a decent degree of variability (so the NPC winds up with core strengths and weaknesses), but should probably approximate a lower point value than PCs get. For example, if PCs are made with 20 point buy, the NPCs can be made with 10.
  • Figure out which stance and skills those scores favor. While it’s fun to make the occasional NPC that has horribly mismatched skills to innate capability, the players are less likely to be interested in that NPC as one that can contribute in a real way to the group.
  • Buy the basic starting ranks available to the character in several appropriate skills (in Dirge, starting ranks are equal to Intelligence). Don’t make any choices of feats or other options unless required to by the plot.

When a player decides to turn that NPC into a PC (either permanently or as an alternate character):

  • Allow the player to allocate the NPC’s feats (and other options, if applicable).
  • Grant one additional point of stats (per point buy) per time the players receive an advance until the character has equivalent stats to a starting PC (e.g., if PCs get 20 point buy, and the NPCs are made with 10, award one point for each of the first ten times the players get an advance while the character is active). This represents the previously background character growing into a protagonist once on screen, but keeps the players from just hopping between NPCs for one session as they might if they got the point boost immediately.

The Spreadsheet

The spreadsheet is available here. It just spits out stats, stance, and six skills. Use those as a guide for developing the NPC’s basic identity, and use the random namer of your choice.

Examples

The following are stats are examples of 10 point characters produced by the spreadsheet:

Determined
Character
Str 12 (+1), Dex 13 (+1),
Con 12 (+1), Int 10 (+0),
Wis 8 (-1), Cha 14 (+2)
Athletics +2, Handle Animal +4,
Leadership +5, Negotiate +4,
Stamina +2, Survivalist +2
Determined
Character
Str 10 (+0), Dex 13 (+1),
Con 10 (+0), Int 11 (+0),
Wis 13 (+1), Cha 13 (+1)
Handle Animal +4, Heal +3,
Leadership +2, Negotiate +3,
Perception +3, Stamina +1
Tough
Character
Str 10 (+0), Dex 11 (+0),
Con 16 (+3), Int 10 (+0),
Wis 10 (+0), Cha 9 (-1)
Athletics +1, Intimidate +2,
Leadership +0, Mechanic +1,
Stamina +6, Survivalist +5
Tough
Character
Str 17 (+3), Dex 10 (+0),
Con 10 (+0), Int 6 (-2),
Wis 10 (+0), Cha 13 (+1)
Athletics +4, Intimidate +4,
Leadership +2, Mechanic +1,
Stamina +1, Survivalist +1
Fast
Character
Str 12 (+1), Dex 10 (+0),
Con 11 (+0), Int 13 (+1),
Wis 15 (+2), Cha 7 (-2)
Acrobatics +3, Athletics +4,
Criminal +2, Heal +3,
Perception +4, Stealth +2
Fast
Character
Str 10 (+0), Dex 16 (+3),
Con 10 (+0), Int 10 (+0),
Wis 10 (+0), Cha 10 (+0)
Acrobatics +6, Athletics +1,
Criminal +5, Drive +4,
Leadership +1, Stealth +5
Vulnerable
Character
Str 11 (+0), Dex 10 (+0),
Con 9 (-1), Int 13 (+1),
Wis 10 (+0), Cha 15 (+2)
Computers +2, Handle Animal +5,
Leadership +4, Negotiate +4,
Profession +5, Sciences +3
Vulnerable
Character
Str 10 (+0), Dex 10 (+0),
Con 10 (+0), Int 16 (+3),
Wis 10 (+0), Cha 10 (+0)
Academics +6, Computers +6,
Electronics +5, Handle Animal +2,
Heal +2, Sciences +7

GM Tricks: NPCs

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Eight Types of Recurring NPC

Not counting the kind of NPC that shows up for one fight or encounter, or recurs simply for color (like a shopkeeper), there are eight kinds of NPC:

  • The Beloved Mentor vs. The Pointy-Haired Boss: Some NPCs are more powerful than the player characters and have an interest in telling them what to do. They may be a superior in whatever organization supports the PCs or just a powerful contact that gives them information and assignments. Some of these your players will constantly badger for advice; they’ll generally want to get the NPC to tell them what to do. Others, they’ll chafe under, hate, and wonder why they’re even bothering to work for this guy.
  • The Free Agent vs The Unwanted GMPC: Some NPCs are effectively peers to the PCs; maybe slightly more or less powerful, but on basically the same level. They will generally help the PCs fill out capabilities they don’t otherwise have, or provide extra help in a pinch. Some of these will be beloved allies of the PCs, asked to come along all the time and included in downtime activities. Others you’ll feel like the players think you’re forcing on them and the players will conspire to remove the NPC from their team as soon as possible.
  • The Lieutenant vs The Minion: Some NPCs are less powerful than the PCs, and intended to provide their support organization. They may be a natural consequence of backgrounds that suggest the character should have staff, or purchased through leadership traits. Some of them will have their names remembered by the players and willingly left in charge of vital tasks. Others, the players won’t even remember unless they happen to screw up.
  • The Nemesis vs The Invulnerable Pain: Some NPCs are opponents that just keep cropping up. Maybe they’re actively hostile but manage to avoid or survive every encounter with the PCs, or maybe they’re somehow legally protected or veiled in secrecy so the players can’t manage to fight them directly for many encounters. Some of them will be vital forces which the players love to hate, and may even consider trying to redeem for their own sides. Others will be ongoing annoyances that your players try to kill whenever they get the chance and give you that annoyed look if it turns out they can’t.

Clearly, these are set up in a fashion of the Platonic ideal vs. the too-frequent reality. How do you move recurring NPCs from the right side of the versus (where players would mostly rather the NPC didn’t exist when they remember him at all) into the left side (where the players think of the NPC as a vital, enjoyable character that they want onscreen as much as possible)? Some of the following tricks have helped me over the years.

Use Funny Voices

How are your foreign accents? Can you have a whole conversation in a different cadence or pitch than your normal speaking voice? Can you do an impression of anyone famous?

If not, learn. It doesn’t matter if your funny voice is bad, as long as it’s distinct.

Doing a different voice when you portray an NPC does two things:

  • It makes the NPC memorable.
  • It makes the NPC seem less like a mouthpiece for the GM.

Both of these are really important when you want buy-in on an NPC. If your NPC has a distinctive voice, you can just start talking to them and they’ll remember the character. They’ll also be less likely to think of the character as just another one of your puppets; sounding different is one of the few things you can do to create that illusion at the table.

Don’t worry that the voice is too silly. Players tend to appreciate some humor, even in a serious game. If your accent is really painfully bad, save it for a less important NPC that you won’t mind becoming comic relief. Save the ones you can do well for the NPCs you want taken seriously. But also keep in mind that just because they’re not really taking the NPC seriously, that doesn’t mean the NPC isn’t becoming beloved.

Do make sure you can remember what voice you used with an NPC. An easy way to do that is keeping a note on the back of a visual aid.

Use Visual Aids

Get access to a color printer and some card stock and make some printed headshots of NPCs (four, six, or nine to a page that you then cut up). Leave some space at the bottom to write the NPC’s name once the players know it. Once you’ve put pictures with the NPCs you know you want, get a bunch of pictures in a similar style of a range of faces so you can create a card for a new NPC you’ve invented on the spot.

I prefer this method because it leaves you with a nice blank space on the back to write notes on voice and any short-form information you need. What are the NPC’s relevant social stats? What PCs owe this NPC something? That kind of thing. It also keeps your portraits in a consistent size that’s easy to manipulate and keep track of at the table.

If you don’t have a color printer, you can do something similar in a variety of ways. For fantasy games, Paizo has a nice line of preprinted cards with portraits on them. For modern games, cutting headshots out magazines is an option. If you bring a laptop or tablet to game, you can download images and display them on screen.

The important thing, no matter your solution, is that you hold it up while portraying the character so the players are able to put a face other than yours to the NPC. They have something to visualize when talking to that NPC; even the best-worded description is going to fall flat next to being able to just look down and see the NPC’s portrait. Between having a face and a voice to latch onto, your NPC starts to feel very distinct and real; the kind of character the players can treat with equal importance to the other PCs.

Put It on the Sheet

It sometimes seems like cheating, but you can get immediate buy-in to an NPC by having at least one player write the NPC’s name on his or her character sheet (obviously, in a “contacts” section or similar place). Going one better, add some system where the player has to track something next to the NPC: favors/money owed, friendship rating, tasks the NPC can perform, etc.

Putting details on the character sheet is a shortcut to letting the NPC absorb some of the love the player feels towards his or her own character. The NPC is written down in a place where the player writes down everything that’s important in the game (i.e., his or her stats), so the NPC must be important.

Let the Players Make the NPC

Do you do shared chargen like from Smallville or Fate? Do your players write you backstories with their character submissions? If so, you probably have a ready and awesome source of NPCs the players will already by inclined to care about, because they inserted them in their character backgrounds.

Feel free to cheat and make a character more significant than really intended. If a PC’s beloved aunt turns out to be the head of a secret society when she was originally just mentioned as an aging housewife, it’s only a problem if the player had some kind of other mental construct that needed her to not be important. Feel free to discuss it with the player, but it’s always easy to get NPC buy in when the player is certain that the character didn’t exist at all until that player inserted it directly into the GM’s brain. It doesn’t matter that if the player didn’t invent the NPC, you’d have had to make one similar; what matters is that the player did invent the NPC.

If you start with less background on your PCs this is harder, but you can still achieve it to a lesser extent. Instead of saying “these are the names of your subordinates” just be like “hey, what are the names of your subordinates?”

Let Them Come to You

The easiest way to make players hate an NPC is to make them deal with the NPC when they don’t want to. In particular, NPCs that join the team because other NPCs said so, or the situation was clearly designed so they had to come, can make the players angry. It’s a theft of their agency and role as protagonists. At the worst, it can feel like the players are just audience to the GM’s descriptions of how awesome his character is.

Instead, don’t create situations where NPCs are required, even if they’re really useful. Put the problem out there and see if the players suggest an NPC that might be able to help. And never punish them for failing to bring along that NPC; if the NPC wasn’t memorable or likeable enough that the players thought to bring him or her along, then punishing the players for not going to the NPC will only further ruin the association.

And if you think that you can pull it off without seeming like you’re just being coy, play the NPC as several steps removed (another NPC that suggests someone that could help) or uninterested (the PCs have to convince the NPC to help). But not being coy is the hard part here; if the players start sounding sarcastic (“oh, yes, great one, what will it take to convince you to come along”), that’s the first sign that now the players are extra annoyed because they feel like you’re forcing an NPC on them and making them work to get that help.

Know When to Charge

You can also succeed too much. If you make an NPC someone that the players really like, they may wind up going to that NPC for help more than you’re comfortable with. Make sure there’s always some way you could limit an NPC from just becoming another PC: someone that can be relied on to drop everything and help whenever the PCs need it.

This is easy for mercenaries: they want to get paid, but may lower their rates for really worthwhile endeavors. For NPCs that are clearly supposed to be loyal to the PCs, you need to make sure they have a life outside of the PCs: they’d love to help, but they just can’t right now (or can’t unless the players figure out how to free them up, which may involve an alternate form of “payment” to accomplish that goal).

The converse is also true: you can sometimes increase an NPC’s estimation in the eyes of the players by choosing when to drop everything and help out for free. Knowing that there are things that the NPC will jump to help with is a special kind of characterization. If you’ve really gotten investment in an NPC, you can sometimes have the NPC ride to save the day and it won’t feel like you’re deprotagonizing the PCs (just don’t try that too much).

Evolving Redshirts

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In my group, we have a tradition of the “Lucky.” In any game where our PCs are part of an organization where we might have a lot of filler NPC help running around, eventually one of those NPCs manages to survive surprising odds or accomplish something else really useful by dint of the GM’s dice luck rolling for him. That NPC now gets named “Lucky” (whether or not the GM already had a name for him) and becomes our most important henchman, trusted to help out way beyond his NPC levels in the hopes his dice luck will hold out.

I’ve been watching a lot of Archer lately, and one of the cool thing the show does is round out the personalities of upwards of a dozen paper-pushers at the spy agency that were initially just one-note jokes. Similarly, Avengers features an Agent Coulson who’s evolved significantly over his appearances. The following system is designed to accomplish that kind of outcome. It’s heavily inspired by D&DwP’s multidimensional NPC advice. It’s intended to create NPCs over several sessions in any game where the players have nameless, low-level helpers running around (from the followers from Leadership to the crew of a starship). By participating in the growth of these NPCs, players should become more attached to them (and maybe remember their names) than if they’d just been prepped totally in advance by the GM.

This will be most useful in three types of game:

  • The PCs are lacking anyone with several useful skills and need to rely on NPCs to shore up their deficiencies.
  • The PCs will frequently need to delegate NPCs to perform essential but non-core functions (e.g., pilots, security staff, medics).
  • The system gives a good bonus for having lower-skilled help on tasks (encouraging a player to bring along an NPC buddy with his or her skills).

Setup

Prepare cards that are easily distinguishable for the following groups:

  • Core Competency: The NPC’s major role in the organization (e.g., security, driver/pilot, diplomat, engineer/crafter, etc.)
  • Cross Training: A skill package that any member of the organization might be encouraged to pick up (e.g., hand-to-hand, ranged weapons, languages, mental fortitude, etc.)
  • Name: The name of the NPC (implying or including sex, race, and nationality)
  • Hobby: A skill package potentially useful to the organization but non-essential that the NPC has as a hobby; detailed enough to create color (e.g., freerunning, MMA, stunt driving, movie reviewer, etc.)
  • Quirk: A foible of the NPC’s that is often a slight drawback but might sometimes be useful; mostly for easy characterization, but might be an aspect/distinction if the system supports it (e.g., smoker, pedantic, neurotic, effusively cheerful, etc.)
  • Specialization: Another hobby or cross training the NPC has picked up since palling around with the heroes (copies of the other two groups focused on generally useful abilities)
  • Home Life: Something interesting about the NPC’s time away from work that might eventually be an asset or hindrance; mostly for easy characterization, but might be an aspect/distinction if the system supports it (e.g., three kids, just moved into a fixer upper, swinging single, dating a musician, etc.)

Make sure that there are enough core competencies to cover as many NPCs as you expect to be available during adventures (e.g., if there are only a dozen such NPCs, split them into core competencies and only make a dozen core cards). Create the same number of names to fit the sex/race/nationality breakdown you want for the organization. You can create more than that many of the other cards, but don’t create an unlimited number (e.g., if the players are looking for someone with piloting cross training, there may be only one such card so they’re stuck with the first NPC that gets it).

In Play

When the players are taking NPCs with them, lay out the core competency cards that represent them. These should have basic stats for the NPC in your system useful in situations that are expected to come up (e.g., combat).

If a player asks whether one of the NPCs has a skill not in the core competency, pull cross training cards equal to the available NPCs that don’t have a known cross training. If the skill is on one of the cards, add it to one of the NPCs that doesn’t currently have a cross training. If a player just takes an interest in an NPC, allow the player to pick from three cross training cards to assign to that NPC.

As soon as an NPC gets a cross training card, also allow the players to pick one of three name cards to assign to that NPC. You now have a named NPC with a core competency and a cross training.

If that NPC gets called on again at a later session (likely because the PCs specifically requested him or her due to a known cross training), at an appropriate juncture pull three hobby cards and three quirk cards and allow the players to choose which to assign to the NPC. Begin playing up the quirk (if it’s different from the previous session’s attitude, it’s because the NPC is getting comfortable enough around the PCs to let his or her real personality show).

After a few more sessions of using the NPC, allow the players to pick from three specialization and three home life cards. The NPC is now a fairly fleshed out individual that the players are likely to take an interest in. If they do, at this point the GM can flesh out his or her stats and backstory further.

Once cards are pulled and combined at all stages, paperclip them together into a packet. This effectively becomes the NPC’s character sheet (and ensures that traits don’t get back into general circulation).

Example

This is done in FATE to keep the system simple. It’s for a SHIELD- or ISIS-style spy organization.

Core Competency:

  • Analyst: Empathy and Investigation +1
  • Junior Field Agent: Contacting and Deceit +1
  • Operator: Alertness and Burglary +1
  • Scientist: Engineering and Science +1
  • Security: Alertness and Guns +1
  • Transport: Drive and Pilot +1
Cross Training:

  • Counter Interrogation (Resolve +1)
  • Covert Ops (Stealth +1)
  • Defensive Driving (Drive +1)
  • Flying (Pilot +1)
  • Languages (Academics +1)
  • Krav Maga (Fists +1)
  • Range Certification (Guns +1)
  • Wilderness Survival (Survival +1)
Name:

  • Conti, Giada
  • Hall, Sebastian
  • Hassani, Taufic
  • Mikhailova, Irina
  • Munoz, Carmen
  • Roux, Kevin
  • Schafer, Luis
  • Taylor, Sienna
Hobby:

  • Bodybuilding (Might +1)
  • Camping (Survival +1)
  • Freerunning (Athletics +1)
  • Heavy Reader (Academics +1)
  • Magic Tricks (Slight of Hand +1)
  • MMA (Fists +1)
  • Model Trains (Engineering +1)
  • Mystery Fan (Investigation +1)
  • SCA (Weapons +1)
  • Superlight Planes (Pilot +1)
  • Target Shooting (Guns +1)
  • Track Days (Drive +1)
  • Urban Exploration (Burglary +1)
Quirk (Aspect):

  • Barely passed psych review
  • Doesn’t like heights
  • Extremely competitive
  • Mildly claustrophobic
  • Militant agnostic
  • Perfectionist
  • Perpetually late
  • Recent vegetarian
  • Slightly agoraphobic
  • Spoils movies
  • Thick accent
  • Trying to quit smoking
  • Very religious
Specialization:

  • Back to School
    (Academics and Science +1)
  • Best Not to Talk About It
    (Burglary and Drive +1)
  • Detective Training
    (Alertness and Investigation +1)
  • Deep Wilderness Missions
    (Pilot and Survival +1)
  • Gunsmithing Class
    (Engineering and Guns +1)
  • Hitting the Dojo
    (Endurance and Fists +1)
  • Infiltration Training
    (Sleight of Hand and Stealth +1)
  • Influencing People
    (Deceit and Empathy +1)
  • Kendo Training
    (Resolve and Weapons +1)
  • Making Friends
    (Contacting and Rapport +1)
  • Working Out
    (Athletics and Might +1)
Home Life (Aspect):

  • Dating a musician
  • Just had third kid
  • Married to the job
  • Nice apartment in a bad neighborhood
  • Perpetually single
  • Recently inherited a reasonable sum
  • Sleeping on a friend’s couch
  • Spouse is a teacher
  • Still lives with parents
  • Swinging single
  • Trying to have first child

The NPC Tarot

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Stuck for an idea to spice up a scene? The PC’s wandered off alone and needs someone to encounter? The scenario has grown muddled and needs the insertion of some new characters to restore energy and get the PCs moving? Pull a card from the NPC tarot! All entries below are associated with standard playing cards for ease of making your own.

Allies

AH          Robin Hood:
This ally is unfortunately engaged in justified but dangerous actions to which the PC is invited. Helping out will risk the current goals, but may pay off in the long run.

2H           Enthusiastic Apprentice:
This ally is young and overly willing to help out, and will likely get in over his or her head unless carefully managed. Cultivating this child may be worth the effort.

3H           Amateur Investigator: This ally is only partially clued in on the PC’s agenda, and cannot be fully brought in. He or she chafes against this secrecy, and may get into trouble trying to learn more.

4H           Slumming Aristocrat:
This ally is well-intentioned but overconfident, possibly from a life of wealth or book-learning. He or she wants to help, but takes a lot for granted and assumes control.

5H           The Crush:
This ally is attractive and friendly, a worthy romance for the PC, but has no idea he or she exists except when in danger. Alternatively, it may be a well meaning stalker-type for the PC.

6H           Untrustworthy Ally:
This ally is ostensibly well-intentioned, but does not engender trust for some reason. Can the PC rely on the ally for aid, or is he or she co-opted by the enemy?

7H           Managing Mentor:
This ally is a stay-at-home intellectual such as a scientist or academic whom the PC can frequently turn to for advice or inventions, but who might have his or her own troubles.

8H           Blood Tie:
This ally is related to the character in some way, and the two acknowledge this family bond. However, blood ties do not mean the ally is not a jerk or otherwise trouble to deal with.

9H           Friend in Need: This ally is a friend that has been through a lot and is totally trustworthy. However, that doesn’t mean the character isn’t constantly in danger and asks for more help that he or she gives.

10H        Burdened Hero:
This ally would be an amazing help in the current situation, but is currently engrossed in his or her own problems. Can the PC help in exchange for the ally’s assistance?

JH           The Comrade in Arms: This ally is a shining example of the PC’s agenda, and will support the PC with whatever is needed to accomplish it. But the ally might wind up getting all the glory.

QH          The Love Interest:
This ally is the PC’s love interest, or could easily become so if circumstances allowed. Like all such relationships, the benefits demand time invested and enemies could threaten it.

KH          The Trusted Leader:
This ally is in a leadership or otherwise respected position over the PC, and is ideal for the role. He or she often has a task for the player, and expects him or her to accept unquestioned.

Meetings

AD          Deep Throat:
This NPC claims to have secrets to share. Is he or she on the level, or is this just a ploy? How does the NPC know this secret information anyway, and why is his or her identity hidden?

2D           Crazy Person:
This NPC is acting oddly and drawing attention to him or herself. Should the PC be interested in the cause, will it draw attention to the PC, or is it just a harmless weirdo?

3D           Endangered Civilian:
This NPC is a normal civilian, likely a stranger or a very vague acquaintance, who is suddenly in danger or crisis at an inopportune time for the PC to lend help.

4D           Attractive Distraction:
This NPC is a very attractive stranger of the PC’s preferred type. Is it suspicious in the context for such a good match? Can the PC waste time looking at or chatting up the NPC?

5D           Mercenary Prodigy:
This NPC is young and highly skilled at a useful trade, but just as useful to the enemy. Should the PC take the risks of getting the kid’s aid, or risk leaving him or her unhired?

6D           Eccentric Aristocrat:
This NPC is wealthy, interesting, and in the way. He or she isn’t trying to annoy, and might even be an asset in other circumstances, but right now his or her activities are hindering.

7D           Local Law Enforcement:
This NPC is a representative of the law, and something has brought the PC to his or her attention. Will this result in unexpected assistance or an even greater fiasco?

8D           Government Agent:
This NPC is an operative that isn’t after the PC, but is present for a reason that may be related. Should the PC try to get help from him or her, or stay under the government’s radar?

9D           Retired Hero:
This NPC was once a staunch supporter of the PC’s agenda, but has lost the fire or simply can’t fight any more. Is the NPC’s potential aid worth stirring up bitter memories?

10D        Mad Inventor:
This NPC is brilliant, perhaps dangerously so, in science or another studious field. He or she has created something germane to the plot, and it is up to the PC to get it.

JD           The Hero at Cross Purposes:
This NPC should be a valuable ally, but his or her current goals makes the PC’s life more difficult. The problem is that the NPC’s goals are laudable to the PC.

QD          The Entitled Enticement:
This NPC is aggravating and spoiled, but has something the PC desires: simple beauty or something specific the PC is seeking. Will the PC put up with the NPC for the cause?

KD          The Powerful Problem:
This NPC is a man or woman of power, neutral between the PC and enemies. Should the PC attempt to sway the NPC to the cause, or simply keep him or her neutral?

Foils

AS           Oliver Twist:
This foil is a young, talented thief, of goods or information, that has happened across the PC and caused affront. Can the PC punish a child? Is it worth turning the kid to the PC’s agenda?

2S           Antagonistic Civilian:
This foil is a common stranger, unrelated to anything, but something the PC has done causes loud and aggrieved offense. How will the PC deal with a pointless, escalating situation?

3S           Unhelpful Resource:
This foil is a source of valuable information or aid for the PC, but is very reticent to provide the necessary aid. Convincing the NPC to help out will require serious effort.

4S           Incompetent Hero:
This foil is aligned with the PC’s agenda, deadly serious about helping, and has the support of other allies. He or she is simply trouble, though, and would be more useful elsewhere.

5S           Amoral Mercenary:
This foil doesn’t care either way about an agenda, and will simply work for either side, whoever pays more. He or she is powerful enough to be risk if left to work for the enemy.

6S           Allied Opposition:
This foil share’s the PC’s agenda but deeply dislikes his or her methods. The NPC will work almost as hard to stop or change the PC as to deal with the enemy.

7S           Millstone Celebrity:
This foil is important to the PC’s allies in some way, very notable and spoiled, and will cramp the PC’s style in every way. Can the PC tolerate the celebrity long enough to meet the goal?

8S           Interested Officer:
This foil is a law enforcer or other authority that has taken a deep interest in the PC’s methods and activities. If the PC is above-board, he or she has a mistaken bad impression.

9S           Fatal Attraction:
This foil is attractive, the PC’s preferred type, and tempting to romance, but is committed to the enemy’s agenda. Can he or she be suborned, or will doing so be a distraction?

10S         Aristocrat Criminal:
This foil is a privileged criminal nominally against the PC (either through alliance or as a target of opportunity). But, given something more interesting, he or she might change sides.

JS            The Chief Rival:
This foil should by the PC’s perfect partner, but he or she is more interested in glory and acclaim, and will go out of the way to hurt the PC to gain the greater share from their leaders.

QS          The Forbidden Fruit:
This foil is the child or spouse of a disapproving ally or the enemy leader, but very attractive; attempting to woo or just befriend him or her may deeply hurt the PC’s agenda.

KS           The Problem Superior:
This foil is in a position of authority over the PC or his or her allies, and is incompetent or otherwise terrible to work for. Can the PC suborn his or her control to succeed?

Enemies

AC          Moriarity:
This enemy is no match for the PC in a direct confrontation, but is incredibly smart and manipulative. He or she always has a plan and often has many minions for protection.

2C           Dumb Mook:
This enemy is the least of the opponent’s troupe, and is only dangerous if carefully directed by a smarter foe. Alone, he or she can easily be outwitted.

3C           Lazy Thug:
This enemy is simple support for the enemy, not lacking in brains but lacking in ambition. He or she is not much of a threat unless motivated by other foes or harming the PC is easy.

4C           Distracted Guard:
This enemy is typically placed between the PC and his or her goal, but either is unaware of being in the way or not paying much attention. Getting by through stealth should be easy.

5C           Angry Enforcer:
This enemy is a fairly potent member of the enemy’s agenda, though not powerful enough for the big time. He or she has something to prove by harming the PC.

6C           Cowardly Sycophant:
This enemy is highly placed amongst the PC’s foes, but primarily through bootlicking. Very petty while in power, the NPC could be easily intimidated when alone.

7C           Evil Scientist:
This enemy is a brilliant intellectual with his or her full powers turned towards helping the PC’s opposition and supporting its agenda. He or she will probably have unusual resources.

8C           Turn Coat:
This enemy is either currently pretending to by the PC’s ally, or was an ally until recently. He or she is optimally placed to backstab and reveal secrets if not dealt with in time.

9C           Sacrosanct Foe: This enemy has some quality that gives the PC pause in direct opposition, but is unlikely to be turned to the PC’s agenda. Destroying this foe will destroy something in the PC.

10C         Silent Killer:
This enemy works through stealth and competence, and the PC may be unaware of the threat until too late. He or she will avoid an open confrontation, instead waiting for the right moment.

JC            The Enemy’s Champion:
This enemy is the greatest asset to the PC’s opposition, and unflappably loyal. He or she may be more than a match for the PC, making direct antagonism a difficult proposition.

QC          The Antagonist’s Aide:
This enemy is a highly placed trusted advisor and/or lover of the PC’s chief opponent. Suborning or seducing him or her might seem attractive, but is harder than it looks.

KC           The Ultimate Foe:
This enemy is PC’s true opposition. While perhaps not directly more powerful than the PC, resources close the gap. Defeating this individual is ultimately required to meet the PC’s goals.

Strange

J1            The Enigmatic Problem:
This stranger appears from nowhere and works very hard to derail the PC’s plans, despite not being allied to the enemy. Who is this new foe, and what is his or her agenda?

J2            The Unexpected Ally:
This stranger appears with an important bit of wisdom, assistance, or material aid, despite the PC not knowing who he or she is. Why has this individual chosen to help?