GM Advice: Why Killing NPCs Is Okay
Some may take a fleeting glance at the title of this little article, sigh a resigned sigh, and say to themselves "When isn't it okay?". A lot of Game Masters have no problem George R.R. Martin-ing their NPCs like every day was a Red Wedding. On the other hand, there is a very stringent collective of GMs who outright refuse to kill NPCs, stating that the deaths are empty and don't serve any purpose other than taking the spotlight away from the players.
NPCs are still characters. Sure, they are Non-Player Characters, but characters none the less. As such, they are as susceptible to the laws of your campaign world as your players' characters. They can die, and some of them should die. Now, I am not talking about villainous NPCs. The vast majority of them will ultimately meet an untimely end, or at the very least incarceration. No, these are your local shopkeeps, that friendly barmaid at the tavern the players frequent, the contact they have in the city's thieves' guild or even the patron the player characters are working for. They are the everyday faces you use to interact with your players.
And I am telling you right now, it is okay to kill these people. But you must know when to do it, how to do it, and why.
In fiction, as well as in your tabletop game, the death of a character has an impact, or at least it should. Randomly killing off Villager #2 won't muster much of a reaction out of your players, and it is them whom you want to react. The players control the characters, they are the minds and hearts of the characters. It is a symbiotic relationship the two share, so if you do something that has an impact the player, you no doubt impact the character as well.
The NPC that dies must have a reason for dying, either directly or indirectly related to the player characters. It could be a consequence of failing to perform a task, like getting the antidote to the poisoned child in time, or a result of the players actions in succeeding in a task, like saving the noble's daughter leading to the noble's son, who had the girl kidnapped in the first place, getting murdered by the men who were to receive a cut of the ransom.
Whatever the case, the players should have some kind of bond with the fated NPC, be it a history together or an oath of duty. They should be someone the party either likes a lot, or someone who is vastly useful to them, like the alchemist they get their potions from or the smith that gears them all at a discount. This NPC will have the most impact when slain.
But be cautious. Murdering off NPCs arbitrarily or too often is a good way to ensure that your players won't trust you, and won't form any bonds with any future NPCs. That means they won't bond with a large part of your world, and you don't want that. No bond means no investment, and you want them invested. Use a gentle hand when ending the life of your NPCs. Don't get too greedy. Either Socrates or the guy at the local buffet once said "Everything in moderation".
"San Dimas High School football rules!"
An NPCs death should never be random. It should be well thought out. Their death signifies something, and is meant to do one of two things, if not both;
- Drive The Plot: A character's death should propel the player characters deeper into the plot of the story or adventure. When Robert Baratheon dies in A Game of Thrones (The book is 20 years old. Spoiler warnings have a statue of limitations too), it sets a series of events into motion leading to an all out war for the iron throne, thus becoming a pivotal moment to driving the overall plot. The Death of your NPC should, in some way, help move your plot forward. If you cannot conjure a reason why it would do so, then perhaps that NPC should be spared... for now.
- Promote Character Development: The death of an NPC can deeply affect a PC, allowing for a great deal of character growth. If one of your players is running a moody, broody character that "prefers to work alone", and they had some deep connection to the NPC, they could realize that they wasted a lot of time never letting that NPC know how they felt, and now they will never get a chance to. This could break them if that cold exterior and cause them to be more open with what is going on in their head, maybe even allowing them to trust. On the flip side, if the character is a genuinely good and gentle person, and someone they care about is killed in cold blood, they could have a break down and devolve into a cold, calculating, ruthless exterminator of whatever unfortunate creature happens to stumble in their way next (it is a hoot watching paladins go through this. Lawful Good doesn't mean lawful nice). Either way, the character is changed in a significant way. It has grown from the original concept set forth at the beginning of the game and has evolved into something more complex and three-dimensional, making it far more memorable than a cookie-cutter concept.
Your NPCs are a dime a dozen, but wanton slaughter of your cast of thousands does not make the story you are trying to tell more interesting. While George R.R. Martin is pretty good a slaughtering characters, ever main character's death has held some kind of meaning and has either propelled the plot, helped to develop a character or both. And Mr. Martin, as proficient as he is, cannot hold a candle to the Immortal Bard, William Shakespeare.
Leave it to a bard to fill a cemetery with good storytelling elements.
"Kills every main character. Greatest love story ever written."
Everyone dies, but so few get to make it mean something,
Are you looking to get the most out of your NPCs? Even the ones you don't intend to put the axe to? There are a ton of affordable resources for you over to the Open Gaming Store. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.
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