Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to be talking about fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons NPC relationships and reputation in D&D, something some player characters are very good at and others…not so much. Some PCs take the attitude that NPCs are basically just Popsicle sticks with faces painted on them who are supposed to vend gold because they were charming enough. Your job as the Dungeon Master is to make those NPCs feel like real people, and sometimes real people aren’t going to pay you more no matter how well you rolled because they just don’t have it.
PC-NPC relationships in D&D
The NPCs are everyone in the world that isn’t the players’ characters. No matter how powerful your PCs are, there’s always a bigger fish, and if they go around killing everyone pretty soon they’re going to become the big bads of their own campaign. As the DM of a game like that…lucky you. That could be incredibly fun as long as everyone is on board for it.
The other side of this coin is sometimes you’ll have PCs who want to play nice with everyone and have a lot of friends in a lot of places. Strings to pull. That can be incredibly fun, too, because it gives you room to play with a lot of NPCs of your own making.
Most of the time, however, your PCs are going to be somewhere in between. Making some friends, making some enemies. And keeping track of the people who like them and the ones who don’t can be a labyrinth in and of itself.
So let’s get cracking, shall we?
Keeping track of reputation in D&D
Some people have gifted memories, and know everything their PCs have done in the past. I am not one of those. I have to write things down. Of course, this isn’t a video game where reputation gains keep track of themselves! We have to do it by hand at the tabletop.
First, you want to decide how you want to go about this, and how important reputation is going to be in your game. In some, ones without a lot of factions, it won’t matter quite so much.
In other games, it matters a lot. Some players are going to want to pick and join a faction and you might find yourself having to provide them with quests for that group.
If you’re playing in the Forgotten Realms, you might, for example, have a Harper in your party, or if you’re playing in Ravnica odds are at least one of the characters is trying to climb the social ladder of their guild. These D&D factions have ranking systems. One rank of reputation could get you lodging with this group for a night, and five ranks could mean you’re basically the boss whenever you walk in. I highly advise checking out Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: In the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 1 details renown and faction ranks, too. DMG to the rescue!]
The game Root has a pretty elegant solution to this, as well, and one that doesn’t require a character to be initiated into a faction to gain or lose reputation with them. There’s a tracker, a line of boxes, and if you accumulate enough of these boxes in one direction or another you get buffs and debuffs to your interactions with this faction.
For example, three ticks in the nice direction gets you +1 on your rolls with that faction (a much bigger deal in Root since they’re using a d6 based system).
You could even just play it by ear and note if something your PCs do is good or bad enough they could just pop right up to exalted or down to reviled respectively. As long as you’re writing it down somewhere.
Incentive to play nice with D&D factions
They probably have goodies, right? Maybe a certain kind of weapon only members of this faction tend to carry but they’re willing to part with them if they really like you. Or a certain mount. Or a spell exclusive to this faction, but if you get in good with them they might be willing to teach it to you.
You don’t want this to feel like a grind, of course. It’s just a plot hook like anything else. If one of your PCs wants something this group has, they become a good way to get them in the door of the dungeon you want to run.
Their Harper contact wants them to go retrieve a magical tome from this deep dark dungeon, for example, or an Izzet liaison wants some kind of battery. If you find yourself making things up just for faction things, take a step back. Instead, figure out how your factions can work for you to get your PCs where you want them to be.
And be careful. Because there will always be that one player who sees the Jedi don’t want to give them a lightsaber and tries to sneak in and steal it anyway. Know your players. If you have to cover your butt with some kind of magical lock the rogue can’t pick, cover it — just make sure you show this thing exists before they go into heist mode.
Negative reputation exists, too
In Fallout: New Vegas, you can both be hated and loved by a faction. You can max out both love and fear and it leads to some really interesting interactions. You’re running a tabletop roleplaying game. You’re making all of their dialogue up on the fly, so it’s going to be way easier for you to pull something like that off than it was for them.
On the other hand, it’s also not necessary. Most people will remember a sleight long after favors have faded from their minds. And to that end, you ought to give some thought to how your factions behave towards people who have crossed them.
This can come in the forms of putting bounties on a character’s head, refusing them service in shops, or giving them the stink eye on the side of the road. There might even be a bard somewhere just badmouthing them in every tavern.
Actions have consequences. Think about what those consequences are.
NPCs should want things!
NPCs are characters, too. And everyone has a price. Sometimes that price isn’t measured in gold.
- Your NPCs should want something. Whether it’s money, glory, or to think they’re doing the right thing, the NPCs should have something driving them. And no, the thing shouldn’t be “not letting the PCs through this door because it’s what the DM needs them to do.” Think about why they’re not letting the PCs through the door. What are they getting out of it? Paid well? Then a sizable bribe should work. The love of their boss? Well that’s going to be harder to get around, but it gives them concrete motivation.
- The PCs should be able to leverage it somehow. Even in the case of a paladin massively dedicated to her order, there should be a way to pick at that. A well placed lie, like “your master doesn’t actually want you to do this,” might get her out of the way and make her come back angrier later.
- The PCs should be able to figure out what it is. No seriously. Even a subtle hint is still a hint. When you have an encounter where talking their way by is a reasonable option, give hints as to how the PCs might manage it with this particular NPC. If he’s holding a worry stone he’s almost worn all the way through, intimidation should work.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten into a social encounter that the DM just really wanted to be a combat so the NPC obstinately stood there and refused to engage in conversation on any level. For a player who likes to talk their way out of trouble, this is the worst.
Everyone has a price. Know what the price is for your NPCs. Maybe it’ll be a massive pain in the butt, but sometimes it should be. As long as it’s possible.
Whew. So that was a lot to unpack and I feel like there’s as much here I haven’t said as I have. Of course as always some parties just aren’t going to be into diplomacy, but if you have one that is, or someone in your party is, there’s just some stuff to think about.
What notable situations have you gotten into with NPCs? Got a story about reputation or a good solid way to track it? Let me know in the comments below, and as always, stay nerdy!