It’s only natural to break things down into classifications and categories. In fact, it’s usually pretty helpful. Hell, I do it all the time on this very site, so you know it has to be a good idea. But people – and by people, I mean wrong GMs who aren’t me – people also have a tendency to create disparities where none exist. And when those people rely on those stupid made-up disparities, they f$&% things up.
Why do I bring this up? Well, because I’ve been talking about NPCs over the last whole bunch of articles about running games and building adventures. And I’ve been breaking them down into useful categories like resources, patrons, allies, and so on. And this article will lay down a new category. Actually, it will lay down three closely related categories of NPCs. Well, one category and three sub-categories. And they are useful categories. Because I’m not a wrong GM who isn’t me. I mean, by definition, I am me. And therefore, by definition, I am right.
The problem is this particular category is one that runs smack-dab into the middle of a false disparity GMs LOVE to make. And it f$&%s them up. A lot. It’s a false disparity I discussed several times when I was talking all about encounter building. And, while I would hope that people would be smart enough to recognize that the same issue is coming up in this article and simply apply the same reasoning, I’m not that much of an optimist. I’m a realist.
The category is antagonists. That is to say, the NPCs that aren’t friendly allies or helpful resources or plot-driving patrons. We’re going to be talking about the NPCs that exist to get in the way of the PCs. And the disparity that needs to be dealt with first is the difference between monsters and NPCs. Yes. The FALSE disparity. Because monsters are NPCs.
An NPC By Any Other Name
A long, long time ago, I used to play these online RPGs called MUDs. Well, MUDs, MUSHes, MOOs, MUCKs, they had a lot of different names. And frankly, the differences between those abbreviations were as pedantic and useless as the difference between NPCs and monsters. Now, this was way, way back in the distant past when the internet was young and came through the telephone wires. This was also a time when telephones needed to be attached to each other with wires. So there weren’t any fancy graphics. It was just text. You interacted with the world by reading on-screen descriptions of your surroundings and typing commands. It was way more engaging than it sounds.
Anyway, I actually used to work as an Implementor and Builder on one or two of the things. Those were our pretentious terms for “programmer” and “level designer.” So, I tinkered with the programming code and I created game spaces and adventures inside the damned things. Just as a hobby. But, here’s the thing, if you’ve ever referred to a monster or enemy in a video game as a “mob,” that term comes from those old text-based games. In fact, it comes from way back in the days when ALL video games were just text. And it stood for “mobile object.” All of the NPCs and monsters were basically just little chunks of the computer program that could move around the game on their own. Even if they never did.
The difference between a shopkeeper, a quest giver, and a monster was just how the mobile object interacted with the world. And what commands it would respond to. But they were all based on the same basic framework and had the same basic mechanical statistics. And that’s actually a really useful way to look at living things in D&D.
See, nowadays, we tend to differentiate between creatures that the PCs are meant to fight (monsters) and creatures that the PCs are meant to interact with in any other way except fighting (NPCs). And the reason for that is that combat is complicated and GMs are lazy. Seriously. That’s the only reason. See, combat – and the mechanics surrounding combat – has grown more complex in each iteration of D&D. And so, in order for a creature to engage in combat, it requires an increasingly long and complex set of mechanical statistics. Once upon a time, three or four lines of text was all it really took to summarize everything you needed to know to run a combat with a creature. But now, the simplest creature requires several paragraphs worth of “stat block.”
The problem is, creating those stat blocks takes time. And they take up a crap-ton of space in adventures and adventure notes. Even just tweaking an existing stat block is a pain in the a$&. So, as GMs, we really don’t want to be bothered with stat blocks unless we are sure we’re going to need them. So, instead, we divide the world between creatures the PCs will fight and creatures the PCs won’t. Even game designers do it. They don’t provide stat blocks for townsfolk the PCs aren’t expected to get into brawls with. And so, over time, that has created this implication that there are two types of creature in the world: monsters and NPCs.
Now, this is WRONG. I’m not saying it’s wrong not to bother with stat blocks if you aren’t expecting a fight. That’s not the real problem. The real problem – and I addressed this in an earlier NPC article – is that GMs don’t think of monsters as NPCs. And so, they don’t think of them as having motives and goals and desires. And they also don’t entertain the idea that the PCs might interact with them in any nonviolent way.
So, as we talk about antagonists, which we’re doing today, it’s important to remember that every living thing that can act autonomously, however simple it’s desires and motives and however sentient it may or may not be, every creature is an NPC first and foremost. Every orc, every bandit, every skeleton and zombie and giant spider and dire rat, every living thing that can make any sort of decision for itself is an NPC.
Every Pro Needs and Anti
So, let’s get down to this: what are antagonists and how do you build them and run them? Now, you’ve probably heard the terms protagonist and antagonist before. They are more of this bulls$&% literary words that actually have more value than most GMs realize. Both come from the same Greek root: agoniste. Now, agoniste is usually translated as “actor” – as in one who takes action not one who is acts out a part. But the more proper translation is “contender” or “competitor.”
The protagonist takes its name from the word “proto.” That means “first” or “primary.” The protagonist of a story is the primary actor. That is to say, the protagonist is the main character. The one who the story is about. The one who is incited to action and motivated to reach a resolution. The protagonists are the PCs.
Antagonists take their name from the word “anti.” That means “opposed to” or “against.” The antagonists in a story are the characters who oppose the protagonist. They are the characters who are in the way of the resolution of the story.
But it’s more helpful to think of antagonists a little bit differently. Recall that the PCs – the protagonists – are driven by a motive to seek a particular resolution to an adventure. Now, if there is nothing preventing the PCs from getting the outcome they want, there really isn’t a story. Imagine an adventure in which the PCs have to deliver a box from Alfonse the Box Maker to Corella the Shopkeeper. They receive the box, walk it across town, and hand it over. Nothing gets in their way. They have no issues. That’s not much of an adventure, is it?
That’s because somewhere between the motivation and the resolution, there needs to be some sort of conflict that makes the outcome uncertain. The PCs have to overcome something or else the adventure is just walking a box across town. An antagonist is just a living, breathing conflict.
I mean, think about it. Imagine that the PCs have to retrieve another, different box from an ancient tomb. Along the way, they might encounter a ravine that bars their path. They might have to overcome a trap that threatens anyone who enters the tomb. And they might get attacked by skeletons. All of those things are conflicts. They are things that must be dealt with in order for the PCs to get what they want. The skeletons are just living, breathing conflicts. Well, unliving, unbreathing conflicts. But you get the idea.
What makes antagonists more interesting than traps and other obstacles, though, is that antagonists have an inherent complexity and mutability. Generally speaking, because they are thinking things, they are open to many different forms of interaction. And they can respond to different forms of interaction in different ways. They aren’t static, like a ravine or a scything blade trap. They are dynamic.
And THAT, by the way, is why treating your antagonists as monsters instead of creatures kind of sucks. Because you’re giving up some of the dynamic nature of the conflict. A giant spider that the party must kill or be killed by has less inherent depth than one that the party can kill OR sneak past OR befriend OR evade. Even if the party simply chooses to kill the giant spider, the fact that they had other options still lends itself to a deeper gameplay experience.
From Motivation to Conflict to Encounter
Once upon a time, I explained that an encounter is merely a chunk of the game that begins with the posing of a dramatic question, ends when the question is answered, and involves one or more conflicts that prevent the PCs from answering the question right from the beginning. And, if you’re smart, you’ve probably noticed a lot of similarities between what I said then and what I’m saying now. Because I’ve also gone on record as saying that the thing that makes an NPC an NPC is that an NPC has motivations, desires, and goals. And that’s where this all comes full circle.
See, the truth is this: if you create an antagonist AS an NPC, you also do all of the heavy lifting of creating the encounter with the antagonist.
So, let’s say you’ve decided to shove an owlbear in a cave for the PCs to stumble across. You could just stick the stat block in the cave, tell the PCs they are being attacked by an owlbear, and then play out combat number 17 out of 20 of your Bland Adventures in the Caves of Boring. But WHY is that owlbear there? Obviously, it’s there because the cave is its lair. And it wants to defend its lair. I mean, it only takes an extra second to figure that out. But why is it important?
Well, what happens if the PCs get into a scuffle with the owlbear and they decide the owlbear is too powerful. When the PCs run, what will the owlbear do? It’ll probably let them leave. After all, it just wanted to protect its lair. The lair is no longer in danger when the PCs leave. Therefore, the conflict is resolved. And what if the PCs seriously injure the owlbear. Well, the owlbear will probably flee. After all, a creature generally won’t risk dying for shelter when it can find another shelter. And that also means, if the PCs try to scare it off, they might succeed. Hell, it also means that the owlbear might not open with violence. It might just open by trying to scare the PCs off.
Of course, the situation might be different if the owlbear’s den has eggs or cubs in it. Or if the owlbear is starving. Or already injured. Or if it’s a guard creature that has been cruelly conditioned to guard this cave by its bugbear masters. The point is that treating the owlbear like an NPC involves very little additional work but it opens up a lot of deeper possibilities and makes it far easier to run the encounter at the table.
One of the great things about NPCs is that their motivations, their desires, their goals – those things write the encounters with the NPC. IF you do it right.
Obstacle, Enemy, or Villain
So, an antagonist is a conflict with a brain. It has a motivation and that motivation brings it into conflict with the PCs. Pretty straightforward so far, right? And to be honest, I’m not breaking any new ground saying that. It’s all s$&% I’ve said before that you SHOULD have been able to figure out for yourself. But when it comes to creating antagonists, it isn’t as simple as slapping a motivation on a stat block and calling it a day. Because antagonists come in different flavors. And they have different toppings.
The three basic flavors of antagonists are obstacles, enemies, and villains. And I’m just going to warn you right now, villains are complicated. So complicated, they get their own article. Right now, we’re just going to cover obstacles and enemies.
So, what’s the difference between an obstacle and an enemy? Well, it comes down to the TYPES of motivations that drive the antagonist. An obstacle is an antagonist whose motivations ACCIDENTALLY oppose those of the PCs. Take, for example, the owlbear in the cave we discussed above. The PCs might have any number of reasons for passing through that cave. But they probably have nothing to do with the owlbear. And the owlbear really doesn’t care who the PCs are. The only thing that brings the PCs and the owlbear into conflict is that the PCs want to get through the cave. It’s basically an accident of incompatible motives. And the incompatibility is usually temporary.
An enemy is an antagonist who is motivated to oppose the PCs. That is to say that, somehow, in some way, their opposition IS their motive. Or rather, their motivations are such that they cannot achieve their own goals without depriving the PCs of one of their goals. For example, an orc hunting party that seeks revenge on the party for murdering their warchief? Those orcs are enemies. Their goal – kill the PCs – is incompatible with the PCs goals – in this case, the goal to continue being alive.
Now, the difference between obstacle and enemy is usually a subtle one. For example, an orcish hunting party willing to kill and eat a group of PCs that stumbles across their path is merely an obstacle. But, an orcish hunting party hunting the PCs because they want to eat their hearts and gain their powers, is an enemy. And the difference usually comes down to whether both parties can walk away from the encounter with their motivations intact.
The PCs can evade the owlbear or sneak through the cave. Once they leave the cave, they get what they want (they got through the cave) and the owlbear has what it wants (the party has left the cave). The incompatibility between their goals was temporary and can be resolved without either side having to give up everything. Even if the PCs actually kill the owlbear, the owlbear was a mere obstacle. Likewise, if the PCs escape from the orcish hunting party that just wants to kill and eat whatever crosses their path, the PCs survive and the orcs will just wait for the next meal or find something else to eat. But the vengeful orcs? Or the orc heart-eaters? There really isn’t an easy, obvious way for both parties to walk away with their goals intact. If an encounter occurs and both parties walk away from said encounter with their goals intact, there’s going to be another encounter. And another. And another. Until one side gets what they want OR until someone’s goals change, the conflict remains ongoing. Now, there is a little more to a enemy than just a permanent and unresolvable conflict. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
A simple way to sum it up might be this: obstacles BLOCK, enemies OPPOSE.
In case you’re wondering, by the way, a villain is an antagonist whose motives the PCs oppose. That is, a villain is to the PCs what the PCs are to an enemy. But we’ll discuss that in another article. Basically, if you have a situation in which the PC’s motivations are to oppose the goals of another NPC, rather than having their goals opposed, you have a villain.
Designing Obstacle Antagonists: Motivations, Approaches, and Limits
Essentially, obstacle antagonists are encounter-level antagonists. The party ends up in conflict with them because the antagonist is in the way of something the PCs need to get from motivation to resolution. Most of what you might think of as standard monsters are obstacles. They just want food or treasure or to protect their lair or whatever. And that means that designing an obstacle antagonist is fairly easy. You need to define its motivations and its limits.
Motivations? Well, you already know what those are. Or you should. I mean, holy f$&%, we’ve only been talking about motivations for months. Motivations are the things that the NPC wants. More specifically, it’s the things that the NPC wants that create a source of conflict. Approaches? Those explain how the NPC would ideally like to achieve their goals. And limits? Limits represent how far the NPC is willing to go to achieve its goals.
For example, the owlbear defending its lair? It wants to keep intruders out of its warm, comfy cave. It would prefer to frighten intruders away. It is willing to get violent, but it is unwilling to sustain serious injury. On the other hand, the owlbear defending its young? It wants to keep intruders far from its eggs. It would prefer to frighten intruders away. It is willing to get violent, get seriously injured, or even risk death to protect its young. See how this works?
Now, this goes for all obstacle antagonists. It might SEEM like we’re focused on violent encounters, but consider the greedy merchant that has something the party wants. He has an artifact, but he has no interest in the artifact itself. He just wants the money it will bring. And he wants as much money as possible as easily as possible. So that’s his motivation. He’d prefer to barter. To make a deal. That’s his preferred approach. And he won’t let it go for less than 50 gold coins, but he won’t risk his safety to keep the artifact.
And that tells you everything you need to know to design and run the encounter with the NPC. And it also tells you how to respond to the different approaches the PCs might throw at the problem. If they try to cut a deal, he’ll try to barter them up, but he’ll be happy with 50 gold coins. And if they offer something else worth 50 gold coins, he will probably take that instead. He probably can’t be persuaded to give it away. But he can be threatened or robbed.
A keen understanding of the motives, preferred approaches, and limits of an NPC also helps you decide how much work you need to do to prepare for an encounter. Or at least, what you need to be ready to improvise. That owlbear is going to need combat stats. There’s probably going to be violence. But that merchant probably isn’t going to fight back. On the other hand, the owlbear doesn’t need the trappings of a social interaction encounter like objections and stuff. But that merchant might.
Motivations, approaches, and limits are AIDS to designing an encounter with an NPC. And they are also a safety net that help you run that NPC when something unexpected happens during the game. You might not expect the PCs to attack the merchant, but if they do, you know he’s been pushed beyond his limits and he’ll give up the goods.
Designing Enemies: Motivations
To some extent enemy antagonists aren’t much different from obstacle antagonists. They also have motivations, approaches, and limits. But the major difference between obstacles and enemies is in their motivations.
An enemy antagonist – and this is where we get into the really fine distinction about what makes an enemy an enemy – opposes the PCs goals. Their motivations are somehow DEFINED by the PCs’ goals. If the PCs are tasked with murdering an orc warchief, the warchief and his orc buddies MUST oppose that goal. It isn’t merely an accident that the PCs’ goals temporarily bring them into conflict with someone. The PCs’ goals ARE the conflict. Thus, enemies are antagonists on the ADVENTURE level, not just on the ENCOUNTER level.
What does that mean? Well, it means you need to think and plan a little more dynamically. Obstacles are a fire-and-forget sort of NPC. They show up, have their conflict, and then vanish. But enemies tend to stick around until the adventure itself is resolved in one way or another. So, their approaches and limits need to be broader. And their actions need to be a bit more far reaching.
Let’s take, for example, the same greedy merchant. Suppose the PCs beat him up and took his stuff. And now he’s vengeful. He wants the PCs brought to justice. He is not a fighter himself, so his preferred approach might be to send people after the PCs. His limits? Well, he’s willing to spend money for revenge, but he’s still not willing to endanger himself. You can imagine how that might play out in an adventure. Hired thugs accost the PCs when they hit town. Or maybe a tracker follows the PCs and tries to kill them.
The thing with enemy antagonists is that their conflicts tend to fester in the background and pop up occasionally, creating scenes and encounters. The encounters are resolved, but the conflict itself generally ISN’T resolved until something major changes or until the adventure is over. The merchant might continue to be a threat until the PCs leave the city, for example.
Enemy antagonists are reactive. They respond to the PCs with opposition. And THAT, by the way, is the major difference between an enemy and a villain. If you want another way to think about it, look at it this way. Obstacles create conflicts within a scene. Enemies create scenes. And villains create adventures. But we’ll get to that later.
When you create an enemy antagonist, you need to think a little bit bigger in terms of approaches and limits. A preferred approach
Designing Enemies: Approaches and Limits
Now, approaches and limits work almost the same for obstacle antagonists and enemy antagonists. The difference is that you tend to have to think a little bigger for enemies. Because obstacles generally exist only within a single scene, a simple approach and a simple limit is all it takes. One sentence is everything you need to know about the owlbear or the scene-level greedy merchant. The owlbear wants to protect its lair by scaring away intruders and is willing to get violent as long as it is not in danger of serious injury. That’s a long sentence, but it is still just one sentence. The merchant wants at least 50 gold pieces for the artifact and prefers to barter, but won’t risk his safety to keep it.
Approaches for enemy antagonists need to define how the enemy will CREATE scenes or encounters or how the enemy will IMPACT scenes or encounters. For example, once the orcs realize the PCs are hunting for the warchief, they will bolster their defenses. They might set up ambushes. They might follow the PCs back to their camp and attack in the night. Bolstered defenses change existing encounters. Ambushes create new encounters. See?
As for the greedy merchant? Well, let’s suppose the merchant prefers sabotage and subterfuge. His preferred approach might be to turn the town against the PCs. He does so by spreading rumors, calling in contacts, and bribing people. That might manifest itself in penalties to social interaction checks in town, particularly with other merchants. Merchants might even be unwilling to deal with the PCs, forcing the PCs to cajole or convince merchants to sell them even basic supply. Suddenly, a simple trip to the market for rope and pickles that would normally happen in the background becomes a social interaction encounter wherein success means the PCs get to buy their stuff at an inflated price and failure means the PCs have to go without supplies or resort to theft or strong-arm tactics.
Because the approaches tend to be more far reaching, the limits need to be a little more well-thought-out too. It’s important to understand that an NPC’s limits, what it is willing to do oppose the PCs, reflect both what the NPC is WILLING to do and what the NPC is ABLE to do. The greedy merchant might be able to hire some thugs, but he certainly can’t afford an army. He just can’t raise the money to do anything he wants. Likewise, the greedy merchant might be willing to sabotage the PCs and make life difficult, but he might be unwilling to actually see the PCs killed. That depends on his moral stance.
Designing Enemies: Stats
Just as with obstacle antagonists, you’re also going to need to figure out what statistics and mechanics you need for an enemy antagonist. And that includes stats for any resources the enemy might have. WITHIN REASON. You DO need to figure out the combat statistics for the thugs the merchant might send against the PCs. But you DON’T need to figure out exactly how much gold the merchant has to hire thugs and how much it costs to hire and arm each one. The general rule is pretty simple: if the PCs will interact directly with something, it is going to need game mechanics. Otherwise, you can just figure it out. The PCs WILL fight the thugs. But they probably WON’T be doing the merchant’s tax returns. And if they DO decide to, say, try to buy out the thugs, well, that’s more about what the thug is willing to accept.
The thing is: you can’t predict everything that the PCs will do, but if you understand preferred approaches and limits, you can get a general idea of what will probably happen. Plan as best you can for those contingencies, or be ready to improvise for them, and just make your best guess if something else happens.
Organizations as Antagonists
Remember how I said an organization is just an NPC with a lot of different bodies? Well, that means that when an organization becomes an antagonist, you just need to do the same thing you would do for any antagonist: motivation, approaches, and limits. Simple as that.
NPCs can think for themselves. At least, they need to be able to appear as if they can. You, the GM, actually do the thinking for them. I hope I don’t need to explain that. You should know how this works by now. What I’m saying is that, for practical purposes, NPCs have brains. And that means they will make decisions dynamically based on what happens in the game. The PCs can change an ally into an antagonist with the right combination of stupid moves. An obstacle can become an enemy. And the conflict that creates an enemy can be resolved. And that’s why it’s always important to PLAY THE NPCS, NOT THE PLOT.
The most common way antagonists change is when an obstacle becomes an enemy. For example, when the PCs are first hired to kill the orc warchief, the orcs have no idea about the PCs motives. The first encounter with the orcs might treat the orcs as obstacles. They simply want to drive the PCs out of their lair. Or they might want to kill the PCs for their own glory. Whatever. But as the PCs press their invasion, the orcs will realize the PCs’ goals are a threat to them. And the orcs will shift to enemies.
A change like that is easy to foresee. In fact, most adventures of the “invade the lair and kill the baddies” type of adventure includes a shift from obstacles to enemies. They just don’t phrase it that way. Instead, they list all of the changes that happen as the PCs “raise the alarm.” And, sure, that’s fine. That’s a way to handle it. But if you, instead, have a sense of the approaches the orcs will take when they become enemies and what their limits are, you’re prepared to respond without a long list of changes to the adventure. Because you’re playing the NPCs, not the adventure.
In general, if you KNOW or are REASONABLY SURE an obstacle might turn into an enemy, it’s helpful to plan ahead for that. Figure out how the orcs behave as obstacles and how the orcs behave as enemies.
The second most common change is the resolution of a conflict with an enemy. Conflicts with enemies tend to sit around in the background creating trouble for the PCs. And they generally don’t get resolved until something major changes, until an NPC has been pushed beyond their limits, or until the PCs resolve the conflict. For example, the conflict with the spiteful merchant might disappear when the PCs leave the kingdom. They are beyond the merchant’s reach. Or you might realize the merchant has expended so many resources on the PCs that he’s bankrupt and ruined. Or the PCs might go hunt the merchant down, pay him off, kill him, or somehow make things right.
Remember too that just because the conflict changes, that doesn’t mean the enemy is gone. The destitute merchant who can’t afford any more thugs might remain an enemy. He might shift tactics. He might go from violence to sabotage. He might spread rumors and make it difficult for the PCs to do business once he realizes he can’t kill them. Or he might be penniless and destitute and get so desperate that he will outright attack the PCs, willing to die for a chance to take one of them with him. Or he might frame them for a crime.
When it comes to enemy antagonists, you need to keep an eye on them and look for changes. And you need to consider them as potential resources for future adventures and encounters. The PCs might go beyond the reach of the merchant, but if they ever return to that city, he’ll remember them and start things right back up again. And who knows how things might be different. What if, in the interim, the merchant has become a powerful crime lord?
The other other common change for antagonists is for an NPC that wasn’t an antagonist to become one. PCs are always f$&%ing things up, making enemies out of friends, and that sort of thing. And sometimes encounters escalate. Sometimes, the PCs take a dangerous approach and turn a simple guard into an enemy with a careless threat or insult. And when that happens, well, you can figure out what you have to do. Now that there’s a new antagonist in the game, you need to figure out whether they are an obstacle or an enemy and what their motivations, approaches, and limits are so you can run them accordingly.
And sometimes, the PCs might create a villain. If you want to know what to do about that, you’ll have to wait until the next article.