Should ‘townsfolk’ be synonymous with ‘weak’ in D&D?

Not all townsfolk in a D&D setting should be as helpless as this fellow.

From the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, there have been townsfolk in need of heroic rescue.

From an adventure design standpoint, their presence and relative weakness force the heroes into the spotlight; since the townsfolk cannot help themselves, only the valiant heroes can save the day and, since the game is about players being heroes, players jump at the chance to get into character and the game when the townsfolk are in danger.

But townsfolk being in need of rescue also sets an expectation in players’ minds that townsfolk are weak, since these country bumpkins apparently can’t fend for themselves. Thus, in the best of cases, heroes look upon townsfolk as defenseless sheep; in the worst of cases, they bully or otherwise take advantage of the townsfolk, based upon their relative weakness. But should townsfolk be so weak?

That question must be answered in a balanced way. After all, the player characters are supposed to be the heroes, and making them weaker than the village scribe detracts from the fun considerably. But at the same time, townsfolk – especially in frontier areas – have probably had more combat experience than many heroic tier player characters, and wouldn’t necessarily genuflect just because a third-level paladin has arrived in town.

For example, consider the 4e adventure module The Keep on the Shadowfell. One of the areas keyed for the settlement of Winterhaven was an emergency rations storage area, where townsfolk keep extra flour and provisions in case of prolonged siege from kobolds, goblins and occasionally gnolls. Apparently, the populace of Winterhaven can weather a siege from a couple of hundred gnolls, but the bands of five kobolds attacking the heroes on the road present such a danger to commerce that only the heroes can save the day. It is a glaring contradiction that both players and dungeon masters regularly choose to ignore, as someone asking for help puts the heroes in a position to provide that help, which gets the adventure going.

Of course, if none of the players cares about or recognizes that contradiction, nothing has to be done. But if players start asking questions about it, or if the DM wants townsfolk to be able to stand up to condescending or bullying heroes, giving those townsfolk some offensive capability doesn’t require a leap of logic. For example, D&D townsfolk:

  • Have probably defended their homes, valuables and food supplies from marauding humanoids and/or large predators (ankhegs, dragons, et cetera) for generations.
  • Have likely served in a military capacity, possibly fighting in several wars, before settling down in a frontier region.
  • Probably know most of the unique attacks, defenses and weaknesses of monsters common to the region, and have devised effective tactics from that knowledge.
  • Know their home terrain, and how to fight in it.

In short, most of the townsfolk already have more combat experience and monster knowledge than novice heroes, so they certainly aren’t bumpkins. The challenge, then, is to reflect the ability townsfolk have without diminishing the unique powers of the heroes. A DM needs to walk something of a tightrope to accomplish that task.

A common solution appears in The Keep on the Shadowfell: the townsfolk are capable, but they have exactly enough people to defend the settlement, and won’t risk any monster-hunting expeditions because the village could be attacked – and probably lost, due to insufficient defenders – while the war party is away.

Another approach is to apply the 4e rules suggesting that NPCs can be given levels in monster roles. An example appears in Fallcrest key in the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide; the leader of the Porter’s Guild, the pugilist Barstomun Strongbeard, is presented as a level 4 brute, with a mishmash of dwarven racial abilities and open-hand attacks. With those statistics, Barstomun remains a force to be reckoned with, but his abilities don’t take anything away from the heroes’ unique talents.

A third option is common sense, which is often in short supply among heroes. Imagine that there is a haunted ruin outside of town. Could the townsfolk launch an expedition to explore it, and destroy any evil within it? Of course, they could – but there is no point in taking the risk, since there is no proof of any evil, and even if there was, it seems to be staying in the ruin, either because it sleeps or because it has no violent intent toward the nearby town. Under such circumstances, the locals may actually try to prevent young, ambitious heroes from disturbing such places, as anything awakened by the heroes will probably turn its rage on the settlement.

What has been your experience with heroes viewing townsfolk as weaklings? How did you address it in-game? Please consider sharing your thoughts in a comment to this post.

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5 comments on “Should ‘townsfolk’ be synonymous with ‘weak’ in D&D?

  1. Brandon says:

    This is a very good question and one that I struggle with regularly. I prefer low level games anyways, so this issue arises often. When I create a setting, I try to decide on a relative power level of the world and the areas in the world, almost like zones in video games but obviously not so clear cut.

    I try to have a general idea of the power level of my npcs going into the town. I use basically the same tactic you talk about above: What sort of situations do these guys deal with on a regular basis? Ok, that is probably what they are good at. Men on the frontier are going to be good at combat. Cityfolk may try to steal from the party. However, in terms of power level, I like to think that it is the PC ability to face the dangers that sets them apart from NPCs. Sure, there may be a retired officer that is technically level 10 or so and the party asks why he wont just go kill the kobolds. Well, that retired officer may have children or grandchildren that he has to stay home and protect.

    I just give my NPCs a reason to stay in town. If I allow my PCs to be the ones to decide that there needs to be a change, or they are the only ones brave enough to challenge the threat then, in my opinion, that is what the game is about. You don’t have to be the most powerful character in my games, just the most courageous!

    Note: Love the picture on your post!

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for your visit.

      I never thought of having city folk being accomplished thieves; that’s positively inspired. for me, it was always about having enough muscle to prevent bullying on the part of obnoxious heroes. The thief angle is great – turnabout is fair play.

  2. Svafa says:

    A little late to the party, but I struggle with the same considerations in my games. My players are more forgiving than I am, but I strive for internal consistency even when the players don’t notice it. It’s probably extra stress on my part, but I enjoy the extra detail even if the players don’t care either way.

    The problem I run into consistently is the PCs trying to bully or argue their way through anything. For instance, in our last session they picked up a rumour that an expatriate drow was hiding some refugees, so with the typical “we can push NPCs around” attitude they went to extort him with their information. Turns out the rumour was true, but they had to be reminded that “NPC” is not a fancier way of saying “pushover”. Especially when said NPC is an expatriate drow working as a merchant who may or may not deal in the black market and may or may not be tied to a mafia-type organization. He does enough extorting of his own to know the ropes better than the players and is going to break even, if not make a profit off them.

    As for more combat related situations, I often let a few select NPCs outshine the players in the early levels and gradually let the players supersede them as they play. I’m careful to pick which NPCs (if any) overpower the players early on, and keep it to a limited few so that they can be believably powerful without reaching the point of being one-man armies. Typically, a standard level 10 NPC will have about as much health as a level 1 Solo monster. So while our NPC may be able to take on a group of low level kobolds without too much trouble, the players can still outperform the NPC when working together. And by the time the players get to level 5 or 6 they are often outperforming the level 10 NPC individually.

    Note: This is all written from the consideration of 4E. I do similar things when playing other editions or systems, but the above is specific to 4E. Mechanics for other editions or systems may require more or less adjusting.

    • Alric says:

      A graduated scale for NPC toughness, relative to character level – that’s a fine piece of DM ingenuity, right there. I especially like the idea of having NPCs being able to easily best the heroes in non-combat situations and profit thereby – it’s amazing how players think that their level 1 fighter’s intimidate roll would really work on a drow mobster…

  3. Medieval Man says:

    Little late as well.

    I think I have it a bit easier with the system I use (Basic Fantasy) because NPC’s are clearly divided into two categories, Normal Men and characters with PC levels. So while the vast majority of the world sports 1d4 hit dice, anyone who has seen any sort of fighting is a 1st level fighter. It humbles the players in a way because it reminds them they are just like everyone else, perhaps with a bit more luck than average person. But I also tend to limit the levels of NPC’s. The local lord might be 5th level if he has seen an done a lot in his time. While the local guard captain might be pushing level 3.

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