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.