NPCs: Naturalistic, Political Characters

from Silver Marches

I don’t want to think of myself as the kind of DM that uses high-powered monsters and NPCs to swat down uppity player characters, but I do have to admit that I like to maintain a balance of power and respect.

My philosophy of running traditional, multiplayer tabletop RPGs is to extrapolate naturalistically from the players’ interactions with the setting. The PCs are running around a world full of NPCs with their own plans and desires, the vast majority of which are independent from any concern with the players’ characters. NPCs make choices based on the world they live in, not on how those choices help the PCs. This means that if you deliberately antagonize a powerful NPC, they’re going to retaliate.
(It just makes my skin crawl when an NPC has to ignore antagonizing behavior from a PC just to keep the game on track. It really offends me on some deep, aesthetic level.)

To use an example from my ongoing 5e Forgotten Realms game, the green dragon Grimnoshtadrano recently aided the party in destroying an army of gnolls who were burning down the High Forest. While he probably would have been forced to eventually take action for his own sake, Grimnosh bargained with the party to slay a younger dragon who was intruding on his territory. The bargain was concluded to everyone’s satisfaction – but one of the PCs decided to threaten to come back and kill Grimnosh later. 

A clever dragon is hardly going to stand idly by while a party of dragon slayers levels up in his neighborhood. It hasn’t come up in play yet, but Grimnoshtadrano immediately sought out the ancient red dragon Imvaernarho to begin whispering in his ear about the dangerous dragon hunters plaguing their home. While the elder dragon is hardly likely to leave his den just to kill some 6th level adventurers, Imvaernarho is going to alert his agents throughout Luruar to watch them. 

(The only reason Grimnosh didn’t immediately devour the party is because he has long-term plans to corrupt the party’s half-elf paladin and use her against her estranged elvish family. I never said NPC naturalistic reactions had to be practical, just believable given their desires. Green dragons in 5e are characterized as being bonkers for seducing elves.)

Similarly, the fey’ri of House Dlardrageth have been repeatedly stymied by the party. While they’ve only ever appeared in the game as underlings to more powerful villains, it’s not like they’re going to take their defeats lying down. The fey’ri were only allied with those other villains in order to gain their objectives while risking as little of House Dlardrageth’s resources as possible. They have their own schemes, and now the PCs are identified as enemies who stand in the fey’ri’s way.

Crap, the High Forest has gotten rather hostile toward the party. Maybe they should think about making some allies. After all, it’s naturalistic extrapolation to think that friends and allies will want to aid the PCs against mutual enemies. Unfortunately, you have to make friends first – which means I need to nudge the players toward some encounters with some influential figures. I mean, you can’t just expect Alustriel to rescue you because she’s “good;” she’s a slightly-insane demigoddess benevolent tyrant who is trying to oversee the political demands of a growing nation. She told Drizzt he couldn’t enter Silverymoon way back in Streams of Silver because she wanted to preserve peace with Nesmé; she’s not going to risk Luruar for a bunch of strangers. 

Hmm… This might be a good chance to try 5e’s faction concept. While my campaign is set back in the classic Realms, most of the 5e factions were operating back then too. This would be a good way to get the players into position to wield some leverage in the game world, make thems a concern for the great and powerful, and extrapolate naturally from there.


  1. Insightful look into your GMing style. Do you have a line you set that signals crossing from natural NPC reaction versus GM pettiness?

    It seems you have things well in hand. I have a similar mental way I have characters behavior in accordance to PC actions. Sometimes I worry that I might be snapping back too hard, too pettily. Then again, I also tend to ask my players repeatedly about where things are going or who they hate the most so I can constantly tilt things against them.

    So, maybe pot calling kettle black on my part then?

    1. Honestly, if you can justify it with characterization and in-game circumstances, then I think you’re safe. Having a dragon respond in a hostile manner to being threatened is based in characterization; murdering a PC with a randomly-encountered dragon because the player won’t contribute to the game is just petty. :)


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