Retainers: The Forgotten.

Now, what we tend to forget mid-dungeon is that Lil Jimmy (thusly named because of his small stature, not age) probably has a family that would miss him and his 3 copper per week income. The family goat just died recently and they sent Jim out to try to earn enough to buy seed for next year’s bean crop. But, on paper he’s listed as Torchbearer Jim: AC 11, +0 Init, 3hp, +0 Saves, Club: 1d6 dmg.

Sounds like it could almost be an RPG in and of itself.

Game Masters/Dungeon Master tend to hate them because they’re one more name to come up with and one more stat block to keep track-of. Players tend to use and abuse them for all sorts of things. While I try to make them as entertaining and endearing as possible, let’s just say most adventuring parties tend to either forget them, or use them as fodder.

Some players forget they’re even available, preferring to haul their lucre home on their own backs. But more often than not, a wagonload of loot and everyday comfort items can bog down. It’s a little hard to fight in a dungeon while dragging a chest full of loot, carrying a torch in one hand and firing a crossbow with the other two…oops. Not many three and four armed characters out there. (*Thri-Kreen not withstanding.) At some point, the group must realize they’re going to have to hire some help.

Personality: a guide to NPC retainer survival.

Sure, Lil Jimmy the torchbearer only has one tiny line of stats. He’s armed with, uh, the torch. He’s had little to no training as a fighter and tends to trip over his own boots in the dark. He hasn’t found any deathtraps yet because he’s still with the group. Super useful for carrying the torch. That’s about it.

Now, what we tend to forget mid-dungeon is that Lil Jimmy (thusly named because of his small stature, not age) probably has a family that would miss him and his 3 copper per week income. The family goat just died recently and they sent Jim out to try to earn enough to buy seed for next year’s bean crop. But, on paper he’s listed as Torchbearer Jim: AC 11, +0 Init, 3hp, +0 Saves, Club: 1d6 dmg.

Maybe Lil Jimmy the torchbearer is a really nice guy. Kinda meager. Missing a few teeth so he talks with a lisp. He’s mostly human, but grandma always said there was a gnome far up the family tree. All of Jim’s extended family lives under one roof. Great grandma’s lumbago keeps her bedridden, so Jim’s 3 coppers often go for apothecary expenses. Sharecropping hasn’t paid so well lately, so the family is pretty far in debt to the landlords.

My aim here was to illustrate the more the characters get to know their trusted, loyal retainers, the less likely they are to have one walk into a room full of traps to act as a damage sponge. Every job, including adventuring, has its set of employer-employee relationships. Most worthy employers at least try to know a little bit about their employees.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What? They ran off with the loot in the middle of the night again?

Photo by tino xvx on Pexels.com

Another thing that might keep an adventurer-retainer relationship healthy is that the retainers know when the group sleeps. There is very little to keep a number of disgruntled retainers from just wandering off in the middle of the night, possibly with the party’s gold and magic items. Those are just the scrupulous retainers. 3cp/week to haul around a veritable mountain of gold, magic, and misc objects d’art? You don’t have to be a noble to see that’s a really screwed up deal.

Yes, the adventurers might think they’re paying a fair wage. They have to do all the scary, heroic things to get the loot. Then again, porters and torchbearers might be risking all down in the dungeon right alongside the “brave heroes.” A bit of wage negotiation might be in order at that point.

Some games might include 0-level retainers/hirelings/henchmen as backup characters.

Dungeon Crawl Classics and other OSR games might allow for 0-level characters to be retainers in the event one or more party members happens to die mid-dungeon. The player may then treat the retainer as a character that freshly passed onto Level 1 and keep the action going.

Ed the cart driver suddenly becomes Ed the Wizard. Billy the torchbearer suddenly takes up the thiefly arts. Bob the dwarf cook suddenly becomes Bob the Dwarf Adventurer. Seems a bit unlikely in places, but perfectly logical in others.

Photo by Kevin Bidwell on Pexels.com

Retainers were automatic in some fantasy RPGs.

Photo by Antonio Friedemann on Pexels.com

We used to laugh in Warhammer FRPG when a new class automatically retained followers. The same was true of D&D back in the day. The question was always, “Who are these guys, and why should we care?” Sometimes characters would become landowners and need someone to watch the place while they were off dungeoneering. Enter the NPCs.

Well, obviously, Alfred the famous Warrior was worthy of a retinue of like-minded knights who want to travel with him. Fredo the Cleric had people who flocked to hear him speak, and Sunny the Thief had an entire guild of street urchins. Made total sense except for where did these people come from and why were they stalking our characters? The DM always had fun coming up with ways for these characters to obtain followers and why.

Some unscrupulous PCs would get their retainers killed and fake sympathy. One of my Warhammer players actually had his character start killing his off one by one. It was pretty grim, but it did settle the problem of people wanting to work for him ever again. That was a pretty, um…. murder hobo campaign, though.

Later editions of various rulesets made retainers optional or just not a thing, thankfully. It saved the GM/DM time in coming up with names, descriptions, etc. It was a lot less paperwork all around. Nowadays, if characters want to attract followers/retainers, cool. It can be a good roleplaying device and characters in some fantasy games these days don’t explore or crawl about in dungeons as much.

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

All things said, I think it can be a good lesson, especially for younger players.

Treat people nicely (in game) and they’ll want to work for you. Please treat people with kindness and understanding, regardless. In a game, it’s just nice to reinforce positive values. That, and it’s better than having Bob the Former Dwarf Cook having to be triple encumbered carrying a mountain of loot home on his back.

Thanks for stopping by. You’re awesome. I appreciate you!

I’m grateful for you!

Non Player Characters: Everyone’s Best Friends.

Otherwise, their NPC druid becomes disposable. Sanji the loveable pack bearer runs off in the night with a bag of magic items and is never seen again. They let poor Jamir walk down the hallway and find all the traps for them. (Grim, I know.)

One of my favorite keys to a good adventure for many, many years has been memorable Non Player Characters that stick with the party.

Some of my favorite NPCs were introduced sometime around the first few sessions. I try to make them endearing enough (or healers) that the group will want them to stick around. Some rely on cuteness. (Cute goes a long way around here.) Others rely on a shtick like roguish charm or comedy relief.

I often go out of my way to obtain or read copies of various GM guides and how-to-GM literature. I watch Roll 4 Initiative as well as How To Be A Great GM on YouTube when I can. Back in my day before we had the World Wide Interwebs, we read a lot of books on the subject. Johnn Four’s NPC Essentials. (Available on Johnn’s website or DriveThruRPG.) There also used to be this neat thing in print called “Dragon Magazine” that many of us read for articles on good DM skills, including NPC development.

Having a solid stable of NPCs can be a real game changer.

Sometimes you just have to try.

If you’re a new DM/GM, please don’t panic! I can rely on a massive heap of characters, lists of NPCs, and a long history of running games. You don’t have to! It’s okay. There are so many tools at your disposal for creating NPC names, generating random personality traits, and even background generators out there. They’re easy to find and sometimes built into the various VTT platforms if you’re using one.

You don’t have to have a heap of combat statistics and skills listed for every character. If they’re going to get in a fight pick one or two things they might be good at and have them do it. Sometimes that might be hiding under the nearest tree or rock until the end of the fight.

Contrary to what some actual play podcasts would have you believe, you don’t have to be a trained voice actor or a master of improv. You’re fine as long as the group knows which character is speaking. It won’t hurt to try different tones of voice and rates of speech. A little experimentation won’t hurt. But if your group is cool, you don’t have to. As long as everyone is comfortable with it, you can do a lot of things at the gaming table or not, depending on your preference.

NPCs are an incredible role-playing tool on so many levels.

Photo by Kevin Bidwell on Pexels.com

Sometimes interactions with NPCs can make or break a campaign. NPCs are so useful for sparking conversations, getting the group back on track, lightening up the mood, or dropping subtle yet valuable clues or hints. Sometimes NPCs remain a topic of discussion long after the session has ended. (I’m enough of a method actor that I’ve had to drop into an NPC from something I ran and then go through all kinds of crazy stuff in character. It’s a hoot.)

NPCs are also helpful if the group is arguing amongst themselves and have come to a stalemate on a decision they have to make. A well-respected, stable NPC can sometimes settle the argument by making a neutral third suggestion the group didn’t consider, suggest a compromise, or tip the balance and get the group moving again. Other NPCs traveling with the group might be a source of quests. Or sometimes they put themselves in harm’s way and need to be rescued.

It all hinges on how much the NPC has endeared themselves to the players. Otherwise, their NPC druid becomes disposable. Sanji the loveable pack bearer runs off in the night with a bag of magic items and is never seen again. They let poor Jamir walk down the hallway and find all the traps for them. (Grim, I know.) The barmaid that is secretly a princess fails to convince the group to go to the next town to confront the bandit king.

All the advice books and articles aside, sometimes you just have to play through these things.

Photo by JJ Jordan on Pexels.com

I’m taking one of the worst pieces of advice I’ve ever heard and turning it into a good practice. You can write down all kinds of information, history and stats on your NPCs. You can have all kind of plot hooks and diabolical plans made for the Warlock NPC to introduce. But if you can’t earn the party’s trust after the first encounter or two, does it do you any good?

Likewise, you can have a completely innocuous goblin randomly sitting in the corner of the tavern with nothing much more than a description and that’s the one the group latches onto and tries to get acquainted with. My point with this is: you have to know your group.

Quick fix for the above examples? Switch the plot hooks, some of the history, etc from the Warlock over to the seemingly harmless goblin “farmer.” OR have the goblin be the Warlock’s henchman. The group will never know what went on behind the scenes. OR have the goblin farmer be completely harmless, give her a name, and have the group meet her every time she comes to town.

If the group sees the plot wagon coming, some players will go out of their way to derail it. I’ve had this happen a couple of times when it was obvious the NPC was going to be with the party for a while. The sad part was both times the hapless, helpless NPC really was as innocent and cute as she seemed. The group just took their vanquished foes’ disdain as her being some kind of threat.

Once you build up a series of personality traits in your mind, it’s easier to drop a random NPC into any situation. I keep a list of names handy and then cross them off or make a note of who I used them for. It also makes for good roleplaying to know what kinds of characters are likely to build report with the PCs and who/what they’ll likely avoid if possible.

Sometimes it’s also fun to give the group something they need in an NPC package they don’t necessarily want.

Photo by imso Gabriel on Pexels.com

Opposites sometimes attract and other times annoy. But what if the group really needs something like gold to rez a friend or the unending favor of the Lord of Waterdeep? Suddenly that pain in the butt might be the group’s favorite character they love to hate.

Likewise, the really loving, caring, devoted cleric of the group might look a lot less friendly when they find out her father is known as the Butcher Baron of Barlow (not for his meat cutting skills.) NPC entanglements are so much fun to play out. They can be a wonderful diversion from the main plot for a session or two.

Good things can come to an end.

The amount of effort you put into an NPC can sometimes be exceptionally rewarding. However, one piece of advice I’ve always thought highly of stated, “don’t be afraid to kill a beloved NPC.” That “NPC” stamp on their forehead might mean a lot of things, but unkillable sure isn’t one of them.

Sometimes people leave from our lives in the real world, too. Not because of death necessarily. Sometimes an NPC outlives their usefulness. NPC’s are people too, so to speak. They fall in love and get married. They decide to pursue other career options. Sometimes they get tired of hauling loot around for the party and run off in the middle of the night with everything.

The heel turn.

Photo on Pexels.com
Poor Sir Allen.

Which brings me to another point. Many of us have had an experience at some point where an NPC turned out to be the diametric opposite in alignment and abilities. That innocent, sweet young elven lady that always followed the party’s druid around turns out to be a disguised succubus. Jamir the porter who was rescued from a dungeon several adventures back is actually a doppelganger. Oh, and that kindly old merchant on the corner is the head of the local assassin’s guild. Sorry.

The players have mixed reactions all over the table. Usually it’s raucous laughter. Some get a little miffed at the GM/DM. Some are a bit sad that their favorite NPC just can’t possibly be so evil. Sometimes there’s even hideous regret depending on the relationship between the character and the turncoat NPC.

Much like pro wrestling, where the term comes from, a heel turn can be a lot of fun. But please don’t overuse it! The first one is a hoot. But then the players are going to trust the NPCs a lot less for a while going forward. And every time someone starts getting interested in an NPC, there’s going to be the inevitable retelling of, “Remember the time Sanji ran off with all of our magical loot in the middle of the night?” Or, “Remember when Sir Allen’s girlfriend turned out to be a succubus?”

Be ready to write!

One last tip I like to give to any writer, especially GMs/DMs, is be ready to write down inspiration when it strikes. Carry a notebook, pad of paper, and a pen or pencil pretty much everywhere you go. That way when you meet someone who inspires you or if sudden inspiration hits during a movie, you can write it down. I once wrote down an NPC idea on a restaurant napkin with the waitress’ pen. (Luckily it wasn’t about her.)

As I mentioned above, it doesn’t have to be a full stat block, background, and everything else. Don’t write about a character’s lightning shaped birthmark if no one is ever going to see it. A first name, maybe gender, 3-6 personality traits and the reason the character is significant is all you really need. You can usually fill in the rest later.

Another NPC generation method I’ve employed in the past is to let the group create 1-3 characters for use as NPCs. Sometimes you get real gold. Other times you get real, uh what’s the opposite of gold? BUT if life gives you turds, plant flowers in them. (Okay, that was gross but better than making turd-ade.) You can always rework and reword the worst of a bad batch of NPCs into something useful.

Photo by Maximiliano Carrizo on Pexels.com

Wow! we covered a lot of ground today. Would you believe there may be a Part 2 to this article? I had so much fun discussing this topic.

Thanks for stopping by. Please give yourself a pat on the back if you made it this far. Thank you! See you tomorrow.



%d bloggers like this: