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What do the NPCs do when the heroes are out of town?

Fauchard1520

Explorer
The easy answer is "they live their lives." But if you just assume that that farmers farm, the tavern keepers sell grog, and the blind oracle tells fortunes, your towns and cities begin to feel stagnant. Nothing ever changes.

So in the interest of building better game worlds, what say we invent a few interesting plots for townies? What are the ongoing struggles, long-term plans, and daily dramas of the little people in your campaign?

Comic for illustrative purposes.
 

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Dioltach

Adventurer
Infesting their cellars with rats, raising skeletons and zombies in the graveyard, letting monsters loose in the sewers, plotting to take over the kingdom, and generally creating plothooks so the heroes with the big bags of loot keep coming back.
 


Jeremy E Grenemyer

Feisty
Supporter
As I have no campaign running at the moment, let’s assume a small town at the start of Springtime…

The local temple is readying three of its priests to travel in three separate directions. Two will carry small parcels, while the third will transport a scroll case. The contents are known only to the priests and the master of the temple, the former having sworn by the altar of their deity to make the promised deliveries, on pain of their lives. Absent the three, a score of acolytes and the master are all that remain to conduct services and mind the temple vault where locals keep their savings. Healing services will be in short supply for a month at least.

The town’s smith is furious at the news of delayed coal shipments. His supply is renewed within a week of the roads opening at Winter’s end. Already the price of iron goods has gone up in town, from simple ironmongery to the pair of shining steel swords for sale at Alebar’s Curios.

As for Alebar (ALE-bar), she has no plans to offer more of her secret supply of metal goods for sale than normal. She views the local smith as skilled enough—for a human—and doesn’t wish for him to lose his business and be forced to leave town. Though not the only dwarf living in town, Alebar and the others have no interest in wielding a hammer or setting foot in a forge again. Each remembers their collective failures under the mountain and all the lives lost as a result. All of this won’t keep her from earning extra coins with each knickknack she manages to “find” in the sprawling—and private—cellars beneath her shop and sell to someone in need.

Of the two apprentices to the smith, one has come of age but has no plans to seek out her fortune by wielding a forge hammer into old age. Instead, she plans to acquaint herself with the adventurers (assuming they survive their latest quest) and offer to carry gear in exchange for a share of treasure and a chance to see the more interesting parts of the world. The other apprentice would gladly join her, but fears the wrath of his parents if the boy were to fail at adventuring and be forced to beg the smith for his place back at the forge.

The town’s lord has waited all winter to send word of the murder of his herald—one that remains unsolved. Lord Rothgar had planned to make use of an altar sworn priest of the temple to deliver his missive, but the town guildmasters—devious and selfish, the lot of them!—had already reserved the temple’s services before the first winter snow buried the town. And buried the sound of his herald dying a violent death at the gates to the lord’s castle, come to think of it. The king’s lord trusts his remaining servants, but knows none of them could hope to make the long journey to the King. Yet word must be sent. Whom to trust outside the walls of his castle?

If they know anything about the murder, the guildmasters are keeping that knowledge to themselves. Though each affects an outward air of disdain in public while in the presence of one or more of their fellow guildmasters, the six men and women that run the town’s guilds have long cooperated in private for their mutual benefit. The guildmasters have kept local merchants from buying properties and expanding to run new and varied businesses, convinced nobles to use their influence within King’s Court to ensure only the most amenable and easily manipulated individuals are sent to serve whomever fills the post of king’s lord of the town, and have occasionally resorted to murder as a last resort when court officials, townspeople, and adventurers have proved unwilling to accept how the guildmasters believe the town should be run.

That’s a good start.
 
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Fauchard1520

Explorer
As I have no campaign running at the moment, let’s assume a small town at the start of Springtime…

...

That’s a good start.

Yeah it is! These are all great. But for me, the big question is "what next?"

For my money, making a full progression of events for any of these could easily fall into the "more effort than it's worth" category, especially if the PCs didn't pay much attention the first time around.

So in practical terms, I bet the best way to make this fly is to take a wait a see approach to the party. Whoever they interact with the most progresses to their "next step" the next time they're in town. For example, if the "other apprentice" interacted with the group, they've been moonlighting as a vigilante recently, trying to earn a bit of adventuring experience before deciding whether to quit or not. Progressing the other plot points can wait until they become relevant to the party.

In my mind, the key is to wait and see what the players are interested in, and then make that interesting.
 


Jd Smith1

Adventurer
I generally always have a Rumors & New page on our campaign website. The PCs are a tiny bit of a much larger world, and it is important to remind them of that.
 

Benjamin Olson

Adventurer
Look for bargains on random used junk the shopkeeper bought from you for some reason. Practice their bad accents. Think of new ways to be helpless.
 

Tonguez

Legend
My settings (Towns) are created with a list of factions (always includes Townsfolk) and a list of Seasonal Holy Days.
Sometimes Ill play my own little minigame where I’ll roll on a seasonal events table to see what things might happen and then using the Holy Day as a start point decide how the NPC factions might react. The reactions are what the PCs will encounter should they visit town during the relevant season and plots might result.

Eg I remember one game in which my random events were Bumper Crop, Infestation and Flood. So I decided that the Farmlands were expanding during to a bumper crop but were starting to encroach on to the edge of the stirge infested swamp, leading to peasants and livestock being attacked. The local Baron wanted to drain the swamp and reclaim more farmland, however the swamp was home to Ye Old Swamp Hag who didnt take kindly to tresspassers...
 
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uzirath

Adventurer
Even in random pickup games, I always try to make the world feel like it’s in motion around the PCs. NPCs have goals and fears, successes and failures, friends and enemies, etc. If the group returns to a community, I’ll quickly decide on a few notable changes: births or deaths, new construction or a recent fire, a bit of local intrigue or scandal. These may or may not connect to the larger plots of the game, but I’ll wait to see what, if anything, the PCs show interest in before figuring out all the details.
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
My settings (Towns) are created with a list of factions (always includes Townsfolk) and a list of Seasonal Holy Days.
Sometimes Ill play my own little minigame where I’ll roll on a seasonal events table to see what things might happen and then using the Holy Day as a start point decide how the NPC factions might react. The reactions are what the PCs will encounter should they visit town during the relevant season and plots might result.

Do you have an spreadsheet or maybe a blank worksheet for this sort of thing? I imagine that i could be a useful tool for GMs.
 

In general, I try to detail out as many of the NPCs as I need to keep things interesting. Knowing the motivations and goals of them, I can create various events that occur. In my current Saltmarsh D&D campaign, there are a lot of events going on that have nothing to do with the players. Sometimes the players look into them, and they become mini-adventures. Other times, they're just background flavor to make the world seem alive (reminding the players it's not all about them).
 

aco175

Hero
I have some semi-random stand-bys such as; out of town for business, unavailable to meet until tomorrow, dealing with customers- please have a seat, and if I need to move the game - please come in- we have been waiting for you.

It may seem that some NPCs are always the same like the innkeeper. He may be always be solid and the players will come to expect the same. When one day he is not, the players will clue in and ask questions. This can lead to something simple like having marriage problems to shortage of goods, or blackmail from a competitor.
 

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