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.

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Seven deadly sins that turn neutrals into foes


In most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, there are four types of characters: the heroes, their non-player character (NPC) allies, NPC villains, and neutral NPCs, who neither help nor hinder the heroes on their quests. Players quickly come to expect certain behaviors from the different types of NPC, and a creative Dungeon Master can exploit these expectations for dramatic effect in the game, particularly for “neutral” NPCs.

 

"The Seven Deadly Sins" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

"The Seven Deadly Sins" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Players expect NPC villains to be villainous. They also watch NPC allies cautiously, since the “friend who betrays” is such an absurdly common trope in the genre. But players typically don’t  expect a neutral NPC, such as the heroes’ innkeeper, to betray the party, particularly if that NPC has had numerous positive interactions with the party earlier in the campaign. In that case, the dramatic twist brought on by that betrayal raises the players’ emotional stake in the game.

 

Like most Dungeon Mastering techniques, it is important not to use this device too frequently, or the heroes will come to suspect every commoner, innkeeper, armorer and merchant of collusion with infernal forces, detracting from the real story line.

At a glance, one could say that the methods of moving an NPC from the “neutral” column to the “foe” column are as varied as NPCs themselves. One quick method for doing so involves using the Seven Deadly Sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. By ascribing one of these sinful tendencies to a neutral NPC,  a Dungeon Master can develop a believable motivation for a neutral to assist the heroes’ enemies, if only for a critical moment. Continue reading