Success story - players acting as NPCs

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Just wanted to share a success story from my session last week.

Background: The party is currently at a city/monastery that is about to be attacked by an army of dragonborn. The party takes orders from the theocratic council that leads the city. There are many refugees from other fallen cities, and the party has a lead on finding the eye of vecna, which the dragonborn are also after.

I was trying to figure out what to do here – there’s lots of ways for the party to be involved in defending the monastery, but perhaps the council would want to just evacuate altogether? And the refugees – is it safe enough at the monastery, or should they be evacuated elsewhere? Where to? And what about the eye of vecna? Will helping defend the monastery cost us an opportunity to get it? I was seriously blocked and just couldn’t sort it all out. I decided to have the council discuss the matter and explain the decisions they were making to the party. Of course not everyone agrees, so there were different points of view. I was writing this all down for my own sanity. But then I thought “who wants to just here the DM monologue for a half hour?”

So with an hour and a half before my session would start, I converted all my notes into one page primers for understanding the background, motives, opinions, and positions of various council members. Why should I do all this story generation, when I know for a fact that my players already love to get engrossed in “what should we do next?” discussions amongst themselves?

Before explaining what was happening, I told the party they would be speaking with the council and that one person needed to be designated as the party’s representative, with total authority to represent the party as he saw best. They jokingly chose one of our more aloof players but stuck with it. I then told them that everyone else would be roleplaying the council, and that I would not be roleplaying, but only serve as a note taker and knowledgebase for things that the council would know that the players didn’t already know. They rolled for the parts.

Our meeting consisted of the party representative, a priest of Ioun with extra background info that he could share with the council at will, a priest of Moradin with a good understanding of the tactical situation, a hardened dragonborn priest of Bahamut who sensed treachery on the council and feared that open conflict would result in a brutal defeat, a Halfling priest of Erathis with close connections and great concern for the refugees, and a priest of Pelor who didn’t get many motivations of his own, but rather a list of questions that he was responsible for answering (fight or flee, where will the party go, etc), and with final authority on the decisions to be made.

I made it clear that they would be deciding where the campaign was going next, that there were no “right” answers, and that I was ready to adapt to anything they came up with. In addition, I had printed out pictures of each council member with their name and the name of their deity, and had each player stand the paper up near them so we could all remember who was who. I encouraged them to take liberties with the council’s motives, backstories, and abilities; at one point the priest of Ioun asked if he would be able to enchant an object to serve as a decoy eye of vecna, to which I replied – “You’re the high priest of magic and lore here; you tell me what you can do.”

This was also the first time they got to see a map of the whole world, which led to learning more about familiar people groups, and put into context their decisions of “what do we do when the party finds the eye of vecna? Where should the refugees go? Where might the dragonborn attack next if we fall?”

It was fabulously successful. Everyone had enough material to work with and they understood that they were open to deviate from the primers as the discussion went on. They had met all of these council members before, but they walked away from this commenting on how they really liked this or that NPC that they had never noticed before. They came up with a detailed set of instructions for the party regarding the eye of vecna. I especially liked a moment where the party dropped out of game for a conversation about splitting the party so that our Eladrin could visit his homeland, which everyone thought was great, but once back in character, our party representative judiciously declined this assignment, feeling it was not in the party’s best interest (the players respected this; there were no hurt feelings). Sorry for the wall of text, but this was just such a great session and a great way to get the players involved in shaping the story and their own destinies, I wanted to share.

Tl;dr I let the players roleplay the questgivers during a very important discussion to determine where the campaign is going.
Tl;dr I let the players roleplay the questgivers during a very important discussion to determine where the campaign is going.

Fantastic. That's a great idea and I'm glad it worked well for you. There's a lot of concern that players faced with this kind of option would just throw it back in the DM's face, but I think that's overstated considering the opportunities it gives players and the potential boredom it circumvents.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Tl;dr I let the players roleplay the questgivers during a very important discussion to determine where the campaign is going.

Fantastic. That's a great idea and I'm glad it worked well for you. There's a lot of concern that players faced with this kind of option would just throw it back in the DM's face, but I think that's overstated considering the opportunities it gives players and the potential boredom it circumvents.



My players loved the change of pace and the opportunity to make such big decisions. I was worried before the session about how to get them invested in the fate of the monastery; I feel like this has worked better than any side quest would have. The PCs didn't make the choices and won't be there for the battle, but the players know that if the monastery falls, they're partially responsible.

I'm also interested in peppering similar scenes into the campaign going forward - movies often have scenes that reveal information to the audience to build dramatic tension, and while I want to keep the focus on the PCs, it could be a lot of fun to occasionally switch to someone or someplace else for a scene.

Also Centauri, your constant pushing for increased player participation in, well, everything, definitely helped get me to a place where I could happily trust my players in a scene like this.   
My players loved the change of pace and the opportunity to make such big decisions. I was worried before the session about how to get them invested in the fate of the monastery;

I arrived at my more collaborative mode in almost the exact same way, when faced with a drow city that I saw no clear way to make engaging to my players as written.

I feel like this has worked better than any side quest would have. The PCs didn't make the choices and won't be there for the battle, but the players know that if the monastery falls, they're partially responsible.

And I imagine they're also aware that if the monastary falls, it's not necessarily a bad thing for the players, since the game can still continue in interesting ways.

I'm also interested in peppering similar scenes into the campaign going forward - movies often have scenes that reveal information to the audience to build dramatic tension, and while I want to keep the focus on the PCs, it could be a lot of fun to occasionally switch to someone or someplace else for a scene.

I haven't tried much of that yet, but I like the idea. The DMG2 has some guidance along those lines.

Also Centauri, your constant pushing for increased player participation in, well, everything, definitely helped get me to a place where I could happily trust my players in a scene like this.  

Thanks for the compliment!

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

My players loved the change of pace and the opportunity to make such big decisions. I was worried before the session about how to get them invested in the fate of the monastery; I feel like this has worked better than any side quest would have. The PCs didn't make the choices and won't be there for the battle, but the players know that if the monastery falls, they're partially responsible.



Regardless of the specific means by which you involve them collaboratively, the point is that this approach is very good at engaging the players. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It's nice to see other perspectives on this.

I'm also interested in peppering similar scenes into the campaign going forward - movies often have scenes that reveal information to the audience to build dramatic tension, and while I want to keep the focus on the PCs, it could be a lot of fun to occasionally switch to someone or someplace else for a scene.



Consistent framed questioning at appropriate times is a good way of having this approach infused in the campaign itself without necessarily staging scenes to be played. Which is not to say you shouldn't do the latter, of course. I'm just saying that you can get the same result without any real additional prep or planning. When I am in the DM's seat, I try to ask at least as many questions as I make declarative statements. What happens as a result is that the setting and PCs become highly developed much faster than in more traditional campaigns I've seen.

Also Centauri, your constant pushing for increased player participation in, well, everything, definitely helped get me to a place where I could happily trust my players in a scene like this.   



You're deep in the rabbit hole now... I'm sure you'll enjoy seeing where it goes! Good luck!

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Absolutely brilliant idea!  Mind if I use something similar to this in my home campaign?
Great story. I may try something similar in an upcoming session. Thanks for sharing!
Can't remember where I first saw this idea suggested but I've used it many times over the years and its always been successful.  I think it provides a great change of pace and also some freedom for the players.

I think the first time I used it was in a Call of Cthullu game.  I gave each player a "normal" NPC and proceeded to murder them all, one by one, without revealing exactly "what" killed them.  Then sent the player characters in to investigate, a 100 years later  

Was that a White Dwarf suggestion?
Can't remember where I first saw this idea suggested but I've used it many times over the years and its always been successful.  I think it provides a great change of pace and also some freedom for the players.

I think the first time I used it was in a Call of Cthullu game.  I gave each player a "normal" NPC and proceeded to murder them all, one by one, without revealing exactly "what" killed them.  Then sent the player characters in to investigate, a 100 years later  

Was that a White Dwarf suggestion?



White Dwarf Magazine?  Warhammer or old D&D?



White Dwarf Magazine?  Warhammer or old D&D?




If I bought it, D&D Magazine.  Well back when it was a proper role playing mag, it wasn't just D&D.

Great Story would you like to post the notes you provided to your Players? It would be very useful reference.

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