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.

For example, let us consider an innkeeper, from whom the heroes have rented rooms for the past month of game time. The heroes have gleaned a few adventure leads from the innkeeper, who has been kind enough to offer reduced rates to them after they broke up a fight in his common room. The relationship between the innkeeper and the heroes is an amicable one, even if little time is invested in role-playing that relationship. The innkeeper is, from a player perspective, firmly established in the campaign as a neutral, perhaps bordering on being an ally.

But what if the innkeeper is tempted by one of the Deadly Sins, perhaps one that hasn’t surfaced through the small amount of role-playing the heroes have invested?

  • An innkeeper afflicted by greed might accept a bribe from the heroes’ enemies in exchange for information about the heroes’ movements or plans, or even for sabotaging the heroes’ equipment or possessions during their sleep or absence.
  • A lustful innkeeper might make romantic advances toward one or more heroes and, if spurned, appear outwardly dejected – but inwardly vengeful. Still stinging from the rejection, such an innkeeper might seek out the heroes’ enemies to offer assistance, or may find indirect ways of hindering the heroes or the people they love.
  • A prideful innkeeper might take offense to an innocuous comment made by a hero, a perceived offense that a mere apology cannot cover. In that case, the innkeeper might seek a way for the heroes to be “taken down a peg” and given a lesson in humility. An envious innkeeper might seek to provide the same lesson in humility so that the heroes’ glamorous reputation may shine less brightly than his own.
  • A slothful innkeeper may be too lazy to secure the heroes’ rooms when they depart for the day, or to pass on messages left for the party at his inn.

Ascribing a sinful tendency isn’t quite enough, though. The tendency translates into plot tension when a villain exploits that tendency to the heroes’ detriment. For example, if a villain is aware of  our greedy innkeeper’s weakness for gold,  she may approach the innkeeper with an offer of gold for information about heroes coming to the area. She may even offer a bonus if the innkeeper passes along false information on her behalf, information that leads heroes away from her true lair or into an ambush. And, unless the villain identifies the innkeeper in her personal writings or correspondence for the party to discover, the heroes may never know the innkeeper was involved.

By judicious use of this method, a Dungeon Master opens new options for villains, and exploits a new “angle of attack” against which the heroes must defend. And the only way to defend against a neutral-turned-villain is to role-play more intensely, and identify that neutral’s true motives – which will result in a better campaign for everyone.


8 comments on “Seven deadly sins that turn neutrals into foes

  1. Ameron says:

    This is an excellent idea. I always try to make neutral NPCs somewhat memorable (at the very least I try to give them all names). Giving some of them a “sin” will certainly help me envision and role-play the character better. Thanks.

  2. […] Seven deadly sins that turn neutrals into foes This article is a brief how-to guide on turning NPCs into enemies. It’s written from the slant of how to do it, but also how to avoid it in case you don’t want the friendly local baker to turn into a hated person by the party. […]

  3. Geekfather says:

    Glad you are back to posting!

  4. […] views in 2010. 1 Villains can learn a lot from Murphy’s Combat Laws December 2009 1 comment 2 Seven deadly sins that turn neutrals into foes September 2009 5 comments 3 100 Subjects for tavern chatter April 2009 9 comments 4 Medieval […]

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  6. […] the victim and identify the perpetrator. Choose a motive; some of the best are derived from the Seven Deadly Sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. Decide where the crime took place and […]

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