Oh my, the NPC betrayed us again! Let me work on my “surprised” face…
It’s the low-hanging fruit of all Game Masters throughout the history of gaming. NPCs, henchmen and hirelings start out an adventure being helpful and friendly before either (Choose at least one)
Sometimes more than one are combined, like being kidnapped then attacking the party at the rescue scene. Players are then expected to act surprised or shocked like they never saw it coming and feel a sense of drama in the game. When they are feeling a sense of *ugh*.
Recently I came across a few posts by GMs online who are still using this plot-point in their games and losing their player’s interest. I thought it might help a few greener GMs to relate why this doesn’t work and offer ways to switch things up. I’m not suggesting that these devices should never be used, but they have been used a lot.
Surprise your party with loyal friends and NPCs that support their cause. Yes, on occasion they may be in need and come to the heroes with a request, but they aren’t trying to kill, trick, betray, or harm their friends all the time. Let the party have the treasure of friends and allies in the game. It broadens the depth of your world, the game, and helps drain coffers.
Yes, friends of the party are surprisingly expensive. When you provide loyal, friendly regulars to your setting, players go out of their way to over-pay their friends in extreme ways. One of my characters would travel far and wide on his adventures. He would frequent markets in these far away lands to inquire about seed, wheat, and spices. Then purchase large shipments and hire henchmen and wagons to cart the produce back to his hometown. There, the local farmer who tended the heroes’ home while they were away, would reap great benefit of these new exotic crops and spices. One such shipment cost my character nearly 3,000 GP!! The humble farmer became the mayor and set town guards around the clock to secure the home of the heroes.
As a GM, I’ve seen characters buy their hirelings homes, horses, food, drink, clothes and more. Friends in the game world who don’t betray, are a treasure and they add depth to your game setting. They become spouses, background, and a bridge to things other than fighting monsters.
Constantly trying to have NPCs or henchmen befriend, then betray the party (or become kidnapped by villains) has been done so many times that there is almost a predictable resulting action of the players. NPCs and henchmen end up at arm’s length, they get pushed into rooms first, used to test potions or traps, sometimes straight out abused. The players have no emotional attachment to these “tools” of your story line if they are misused.
The players at the table will inadvertently start meta-gaming. They will trust a swarthy dark thief, as long as it is a player at the table, but the NPC paladin who just popped up to buy the heroes a drink is treated with suspicion and gets sized up for magic items.
When everything is the focus, nothing is the focus. It’s ok to create a baseline of operations. The town loves their heroes after all. It’s a medieval fantasy world, there’s goblins, ogres and dragons out there. The heroes come to town dripping with gold and ready to buy luxuries and services. Yes you provide friends and loves for your heroes, but if they are always being held for ransom, you are creating the same issue. Let the players trust that their friends and allies are ok and they can survive. Yes their home town will face struggles, but let it be as a whole not focused on their beloved NPCs.
When you have a standard, it might be ok to run a story of betrayal or capture once or twice. As long as the GM maintains the baseline of operations that there are friends for our heroes to trust. In our fantasy worlds based on medieval life, heartache and strife are parts of life. We might have to make this life a little sweeter than it would otherwise be to fix what has happened to NPCs over the years. Players are quick to forget though, and after a few sessions of consistent friends in town, the characters will soon be seeking out their favorite shopkeeps and henchmen.
There are plenty of villains and story lines to follow in the fantasy realms, it might be worth your while to let the betrayal of NPCs sleep for a while and explore other options. You create players who are more invested in your world.