On the Gameable NPC

Telecanter has an superlative post on an implementation of NPC's as locks. The kind of post that kickstarts your game and makes you want to design something that you can use in the game right now.

So, how do we implement this as functional?

Here are my thoughts.

The card design Telecanter made is brilliant. It contains space for an image, visible traits, and what tumblers (interactions) we can make to unlock information.

The picture and the visible traits serve the purpose of avoiding the basic confrontational stance that players always end up in to meet their goals when interacting with NPC's. The image and traits, as well as the introduction used by the Dungeon Master will provide clues as to which techniques will work best against the NPC. These traits can be generated from the link to the Character Traits.pdf (author unknown) on my sidebar, or whatever tool you use to generate NPC personalty. A automated one is online at B/X character creator.

Failure Conditions

First, We need a mechanic for creating a cost in the interaction. Otherwise players could just go down the list trying different things. It is important that this cost take into account the charisma of the player. Fortunately we already have that mechanic, in the 2d6 Reaction Roll. Each action taken will reduce or raise the reaction value by a specified amount with certain conditions (storming off in a huff, fighting, pressing charges, spitting, joining the party, etc.) occurring when values are met.

Note that this is extremely similar to the relationship mechanic in pathfinder or various bioware relationship games. What makes this different are the locks -- activities which unlock specific behaviors or events, rather then just timed events or specific actions that increase a singular numeric score. The score is simply to track win or endgame conditions, so that the process cannot be infinitely gamed.


Second, we need a list of interactions and a list of rewards and results!

Designing the list of interactions first involves an iterative collections of various options that are significantly or noticeably different from each other.
  • We want the list to be comprehensive, not in the extent that it be huge and cover every possible action, but in the sense that any action the player characters take could be fit within it. 
  • We also desire for the list to be evocative. If this were a mechanical system not dealing with sentient creatures, I would suggest a limit of 7 to 9 things. But human beings are complicated creatures, so creating a system with more options then we can easily keep in mind provides a sense of that complexity to the players (who after all, are interacting with a picture, two descriptive words, and three optional action/results.

We also have to worry about speed and conciseness. Not every option should unlock a tumbler and not every option will be good or bad. A simple way to track this is to say any unlisted option reduces the reaction level by 1. Actions that raise the reaction level (I would suggest by no more than 1) or lower the reaction level a greater amount (by 2 or 1-4 for example) would be rare and specifically noted.

An optional rule, is that a particular conversational stance, such as obsequiousness, friendly, or hostile is selected, and this gives a one time adjustment to the reaction track.

Rewards and Results

Thirdly, we need a list of what you get for unlocking the NPC! This has less to do with a specific list of items, after all, context will suggest many of the rewards. What this has to do with is acting as inspiration or random generator for those 'NPC' results generated in the dungeon.

I also believe for ease of use that perhaps results of 'NPC party' should be treated as a single NPC in this case.

Comments, Thoughts, Conclusion and Two Lists

The most exciting thing about this system, is that a simplified form could be used to handle encounter checks when the players decide to parley. Factions within a dungeon could be treated as a single NPC, allowing the players to gain alliances and other rewards based off the way individual encounters go.

Even though this is the mechanical system behind NPC reactions, the experience for the players should not change. Their interactions with the NPC's should remain organic and interpreted by the Dungeon Master. Players should not feel as if they are playing a computer game, this system exists to aid the Dungeon Master in adjudicating NPC interactions impartially.

Here is a list of options for interaction:
Action Options: Drinking, Flirting/Seducing, Intimidate/Threaten, Demanding (robbing, etc.), Ignoring, Honoring, Bribing (gold/magic item/food/etc.), Trade, Question/Interrogate, Pray/Convert, Seek Aid, Offer Aid, Surrender/Grovel, Flee, Gambling, 

Each of these is specific and should be individualized. If the player characters say 'we give him 100 gold', and what he really wants is food, the replay should give the players the information. "Aye, I'll take your metal, but it does little for my empty stomach."

Here are some ideas for rewards. These are less regimented and are merely meant to provide inspiration for the possible results of unlocking tumblers.

Teaching a spell, Telling about another NPC/Faction, Joining the party, Giving a quest, Handing over a reward in thanks, Telling about a trap, giving the players a map, Guiding the players somewhere, Teaching a skill, Unlocking a playable race, Unlocking a new special ability.


  1. Hm, I wonder whether this could be automated in order to create a scratch list of thirty NPCs for the GM to use behind the screen. I wonder whether it's worth pursuing this.

  2. I think there are a couple of factors at work here, that do not work very well for the automation.

    Of course, hitting refresh on your automator a couple of times leads me to the conclusion that you could easily work in reverse, generating the personality and other information from the key.

    First, there are very few NPC's encounter. Including wandering encounters, you will likely have between 3-5 verbal interactions in a gaming session, and quite often fewer.

    Second, NPC's are of greater complexity and importance than rooms or other things that are often randomly generated.

    Finally, I think the generation of class, type, personality and location all provide a context which leads one to have a good idea about what activities might be useful to try and what their likely effects might be. This deliberate design informs agency. Since it's deliberate and designed, they can use their intuition to decide what to do.

    That said, I feel as if your generator is wonderful and point out, that some of the rewards should be weighted to be more common (rumors, quests, information about other pc's) and the list should be longer and somewhat more specific if we're using a randomizer, instead of a list to inspire DM's by hand.

  3. Yeah, I agree with your points. Perhaps the value of the entire thing is one of terse description: Introduce the concepts at the beginning of a module and then use it for the two dozen non-player characters in the text. All the interesting reward specifics need to be there, anyway.

  4. Hey, thanks. Nothing sweeter than sparking other people to make things.

    1. Yeah, I was hoping you had an opinion on the expansion?

      Also, I forget Joke/humor as a possible interaction.

    2. I also think insult is different enough to be counted.

  5. I like the idea of a relationship track for npcs. I think I proposed something like that for factions once (haven't used it yet). I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing if players "game" the system. If your goal is to get them to interact with npcs in the world, that would have them doing it. That makes me think that things that would be funny or require player creativity would be even better, like your suggested "tell a joke." Maybe translate that to "Make DM laugh," haha.

    I like the idea of players knowing that npcs can be unlocked, so they know there is a certain thing you have written down and you aren't moving the goalposts at whim while roleplaying.

    I worry about having too much to remember as DM, like the old saving throw categories. So I'd probably want to limit each npc to 1 or 2 "tumblers" and 1 or 2 types of reward. And if we are using oblique npcs one kind of reward should probably be info on another npcs likes/dislikes. But I'm inexperienced with using npcs so I need to try some of these ideas and see how they work. Thanks again.

  6. Interesting system. I like how it gives each NPC a life and personality beyond what you see on the surface. If you can go drinking with a character, seduce them, and threaten them, and get different results each time, they feel like a three dimensional person instead of a quest hook. I like the idea of using this system for factions, too.

    I've been working on a system lately for NPC persuasion DC levels. It's based loosely off Aristotle's ethos, logos and pathos. There are three separate variables that influence the DC level: the character's reputation, the NPC's moral/emotional stance on the issue, and how well the player convinces the NPC that their proposition is logical and mutually beneficial. It works well for single checks, but I hadn't covered long term relationships.

    I like how in this system though, NPCs can be recurring characters with real personalities. I think that rules for NPC interaction and efficient planning methods need to be used more often. Nobody tries to wing entire dungeons or use monsters without stats, but it's easy to think you can run an NPC encounter with almost no planning, only to disappoint your players and yourself when all you have for the character is a funny voice. Maybe some people can wing it, but I definitely can't and I'll be sure to try out this system in future games. Thanks for the ideas.

  7. I like this. I realised I had something along the same lines though far simpler when I ran my Mutants Down Under game. Each potentially significant NPC had four 'actions/reactions' on the back of his or her index card: attacked, threatened, betrayed, flattered, with a few words or a sentence for each. That way I would have a place to play them from under those circumstances, instead of thinking, "now what will this person do based on his/her personality traits?"

  8. This is pretty spiffy.

    Another thing to consider is that this is a great place to match up NPCs to flags on the PC's sheets. If you have a player who deliberately wrote "sailor" on his sheet, have an NPC who has "won't talk to landlubbers" as a tumbler. (I think I messed up that example, but you get the idea.)

  9. So on that card for Tarkiel the Irritable, what do the numbers running down the right hand side mean? Is that like if he rolls a 2 on the reaction roll he flees or if he rolls a 5 he charms a party member?

    1. Two purposes. First, it tracks the remaining moves. Second, if his status changes (Say, Neutral to Hostile) then it describes the action he takes.

      The graphic in the actual book is more clear than this.


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