Monday, January 28, 2019

Keeping Your NPCs Alive

Inspired by my last game session, where we summoned a wizard from a summoning portal we found, and our rogue and barbarian had readied actions to attack.  My character started to negotiate, the wizard started casting an unknown spell, and he took two crits to the dome and was killed. As our DM pointed out, it was inside his own home and we didn't know that he was going to attack us.  We would be convicted in a court of law for sure.

Let me get this out of the way first: there is no surefire way to keep your NPCs alive.  The players are a bunch of filthy murderhobos and they'll kill anything you put in your campaign, us especially.  Dms that try to save favorite NPCs and deny player agency suck, and our DM called it straight, which feels great as a player.  However, there are ways I've noticed to give your NPCs a fighting chance to at least have a conversation with your players.

I'm thinking about this in the context of a megadungeon.  Really the best way to have NPCs stay alive is to encounter them in a social context where violence is not everyone's first choice.  They still might get iced, but I've had good luck with my PCs not killing annoying princes and vain innkeepers because they're in a social setting and don't want to be outlaws or w/e. But what if you're in a megadungeon and you want them to interact with all your cool NPCs?

The main takeaway is this: Your NPCs need to be insanely good at communicating an unambiguous non-threatening stance.  So insanely good at being non-threatening that it's unrealistic.   

There are two things working against your NPCs that require them to be this unrealistic standard of non-threateningness.

1.  PCs respond to any threat to their control disproportionally, and with violence.  If I had to guess, I would say that wizard was probably casting Greater Invisibility (I didn't know what he was casting in the moment, but we found his spellbook after)  That's showing agency, but it also decreases the PCs ability to control the situation.  Our rogue didn't like that, so he got iced.  Maybe that's cool!  That's likely how it would go down in the 'real world'. People get shot all the time just for running away from the police, or reaching into their pockets. I've had other PCs just kill prisoners for trying to wriggle free of their bonds (Of course, PCs would never expect to get killed just for trying to escape in situations where they are prisoners). It's not fair, in fact, its pretty fucked up. But I don't see it changing (mainly for reason #2 below).

Is there a way that  in the logic of the game that would allow the NPC not to take an action that might decrease control?  Maybe he is so confident in himself that he assumes no one would dare touch him, so he doesn't feel the need (I used this one all the time in Red and Pleasant Land, it's nice because they can still be arrogant and annoying, also see The Scorpion King in Maze of the Blue Medusa).  Maybe he's scared and doesn't want to get killed, so he negotiates.  Maybe he is drunk and thinks the PCs are his long lost friends.  Maybe he's just skilled at de-escalation tactics.  Someone needs to be, and it's sure not going to be the PCs.

2.  If one guy is bloodthirsty, we're all bloodthirsty.  It only takes one PC to initiate combat, and no matter how good they are, my other PCs are never going to stand around and watch their friend fight solo.  For one, its boring.  For two, there is a strong sense of group solidarity build around combat in DnD. To me it just feels wrong to leave my man out to dry, so I'll always back them up in a fight and then discuss it afterward.  So the threat of combat increases with the number and bloodthirstyness of your players. In this case it only took two hits so the point was moot, but I've noticed this in other situations.

I always think of the Boye Repairtee (or however its spelled) from Maze of the Blue Medusa.  They start off every encounter with the PCs by offering cigs and rum.  I'll bet in almost every game, those guys at least have a short conversation with the PCs, because they are super good at getting the convo off on the right foot.  They show their intentions clearly, they offer something of value to get the PCs on their side, and they have a mystery that is intriguing.

I would say any of the following actions will increase your NPCs chance of survival (assuming they are in a tough spot and would probably be killed.  A demon lord or drow would probably never do this stuff)  I'm not saying all NPCs need to be surrender monkeys, just the ones you'd like to have chat with the PCs for a min.

1. Put their hands up
2. Offer food/drink/drugs
3. They have a clear benefit to the PCs
4. They surrender/drop weapons (doesn't work for goblins usually)
5. They have a social connection to one of the PCs.  "Why Faeno is that you?  I knew your father etc."  They could even be lying.
6. Don't take any action that could be seen as threatening
7. They are visibly sick/weak/pathetic
8. They are visibly awesome/rich/cool
9. They greet the PCs "Why hello there! Why have you summoned me?"

There are probably a million other ones. The main point is, PCs are murderhobos, but usually they won't kill Ghandi.

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