I create a lot of memorable NPCs. The pirate captain with no sense of direction who follows the advice of a trickster monkey is one fine example. The warforged monk who acts a lot like Olaf from Frozen because he spent most of his existence serving as a pillar in a king’s castle is a beloved returning character. The barbarian half-orc who dresses in proper Samurai coats and seeks perfection in fighting is an excellent part-time ally for a party.
There’s one character who came about very organically, however. I planned out my pirate captain, my warforged monk, and my half-orc ronin. They were intentional decisions. I found pictures of them if I could. I wrote down their histories and their beliefs and their goals. But sometimes an NPC appears that changes a group forever. This NPC has come back time and again no matter the setting and no matter the group dynamic. He is a wise individual, eternally helpful and beyond beloved.
His name is Gregor.
He is a goblin.
Some games ago, I was a humble player. We had a halfling rogue in the party who was a wee bit eccentric. While trying to sneak into a goblin cave one night across hundreds of yards of open grass that halfling managed to evade the sight of the goblins for a good long while. And then one spotted her. And then another. And another. Until finally all but one goblin had seen a nimble halfling sneak up to their cave entrance to cut their alarm wind chime down. The goblin that hadn’t spotted her had failed every check to see her until the other five party members came roaring out of the forest to descend upon the goblins.
He spent the fight picking his nose. We kept him and named him Gregor and he was a good goblin.
Another party found themselves in the Mines of Madness: a PAX module produced by Scott Kurtz and Chris Perkins (my hero!). Within the mines was a goblin trapped by a group of cockatrices beneath a mine cart. The party saved him, changed his name immediately to Gregor, and kept him with them until they found themselves trapped in a deadly room. They would have to sacrifice one of their number to move on. They argued and bickered and consulted divination spells for some time until finally a quiet, high-pitched voice called out “I’ll do it, friends.”
The party nearly came to blows. Only one of the eight players was willing to sacrifice Gregor. The halfling monk leapt upon the altar and promised to kill anyone who dared touch Gregor with a blade. As a dungeon master, I was very pleased. Finally the barbarian (who had carried the party through many of their fights) climbed upon the altar and stabbed himself in the heart, freeing the party from their dilemma.
They gave Gregor all the copper in the dungeon and a reduced share of the total loot including a handful of gems. He went on to greatness.
My newest group, running the new Dungeons and Dragons 5 system, is working their way slowly through the Lost Mine of Phandelver (HEAVILY MODIFIED, OF COURSE). Since my groups can never leave well enough alone, they cast some charm magic on one of the goblin ambushers in the very first encounter. Guess what his name was?
It was Gregor. I wanted to give you more time but we’ve got things to do.
He led them through traps, convinced the goblin sentries that he was there alone, and warned them about upcoming wolves. All of it done in a sing-song, high-pitched, child-like voice that couldn’t sound threatening if you tried.
They’re gonna keep Gregor. Every party keeps Gregor. Everyone loves this freaking goblin. And I think I know why.
- Helpful NPCs are a party’s best friend. I’ve been reading a lot of articles about agency lately. Basically you always want your players to be making informed decisions so that when there are consequences they blame themselves and not you. Having a helpful NPC among the party who knows something about upcoming dangers but is vague, ill-informed, or purposefully mischievous gives the party more options and opportunities. Plus it gives the dungeon master an agent among the party who can help lead them to the right thing or the wrong thing. It speeds up games and takes out a ton of unnecessary guesswork.
- Funny NPCs help lighten the mood. Some people take tabletop gaming too seriously. I don’t mean that they spend too much time or money on it (our favorite saying is “We have a problem, and that problem is too few minis”). What I mean is that they treat this world of halflings, goblins, orcs, dragons, dungeons, magic, and snake-people very seriously and expect it to function like a real world. Well the real world has mildly helpful hilarious people in it and sometimes those are the people you meet. A funny NPC who helps the party can help alleviate tension between a group that has mixed alignments or to help calm down the person who takes roleplaying a barbarian far too seriously.
- It gives players something to protect. Players are protective of their character. They are protective of their character’s stuff. They are protective of their NPC allies. I have noticed, among my players, that they aren’t all that protective of other people’s characters (I may be guilty of convincing other player’s characters to test dangerous routes and poisons). Giving them an NPC who is willing to do dangerous work forces them to sort out their priorities. Someone has to be sacrificed upon the altar but Gregor sure has been nice and helpful so far with his advice and knowledge about the dungeon. Maybe we should sacrifice a player character.
- It can unite the party. Gregor the Goblin has a unique ability to bring people together. Evil characters like having a goblin minion who will do their grunt work. Good characters like having a redeemed goblin who is helping do good work. Neutral characters tend to like having anyone helping them acquire their gold or their justice (depending). Gregor’s motto is “I’m helping!” and he helps people accomplish their dreams whether they want to raise a dracolich or end the reign of the Bonemaster. Gregor just wants you to be happy no matter what.
Farmane, Papa Dungeon Master.