The law of conservation of NPCs

I can’t remember where I first ran across this idea, but I used it way back when I was running a D20 Modern campaign.

The basic idea is, before introducing a new NPC into the game, consider whether an existing NPC which the party has already met will serve. There are a number of advantages to this.

One of the main ones, in my opinion, is that it keeps the cast list for the game small. The fewer important NPCs there are, the easier time the players should have in remembering at least something about each of them. Hopefully.

Another advantage is that it keeps the players wondering. If each adventure has its own NPCs who never reappear, the player are likely to not care much about them or their motives outside of the obvious. When the NPCs start showing up in later adventures, especially if there’s no obvious link between the two adventures, at least some of the players are likely to be curious as to why this NPC has shown up again. It’s worth noting that you, as the DM, don’t actually need to have an explanation as to why the NPC is showing up again, if the players get curious they’ll start theorising. Just take the theory which you like the best and pretend that was what you planned all along. There’s a good chance they’ll be ecstatic that they figured out your plans and outwitted you. Just don’t tell them the truth 🙂

One last advantage, one I quite favour at this point in time: It reduces the amount of work the DM has to do. That’s always a good thing.

The art and science of having the villain get away

In many forms of table-top role-playing games there’s an unspoken contract between the DM and players. The player-characters will defeat (or sometimes fail to defeat) or overcome (or sometimes fail to overcome) a nemesis. Even when the players are playing evil characters, there are nemeses to defeat, whether those nemeses also be evil characters or whether they be the do-gooder paladin types.

When it comes down to a battle, players are not well-known for showing mercy to their opponents, especially if they have reason to dislike the opponents, perhaps because he’s beaten the players before, perhaps because he’s taunted and mocked them, perhaps because of something in the back story. Whatever it is, it’s unlikely (well, at least for the players that I know and have roleplayed with) that when their nemesis is at their mercy, they’ll let him go.

What then, when the nemesis needs to get away, so that he can do the ‘So, we meet again, Mr Bond’ type encounter?

Well first, what not to do:

DM: As you start to draw your knife across his throat, the mage reaches into a pocket, pulls out a wand, mutters a complex spell and vanishes.

The players are likely to feel cheated, and rightly so. Especially if it happens more than once.

If the nemesis needs to get away, plan the encounter around that fact. Plan an exit route into the encounter from the start. Maybe the fight is on top of a sky scraper and a helicopter snatches the bad guy away. Maybe the encounter is next to a fast-flowing river that the ‘defeated’ nemesis can fall into. Maybe there’s a zip line, an elevator down to a getaway car., a contingency spell in place, etc

Whatever route is chosen, the players should feel like they had a chance of victory, if *that one roll* had gone better, it they’d realised the implications of the signal lights, if they’d had someone downstream, etc, etc. Not cheated that the victory was taken from them with nothing that they could do about it.

And if the players do manage a complete victory despite all the preparations. Well then maybe it’s an opportunity for a different scene:

You killed my Master! Prepare to die!