Revenge, and Why Your NPCs Want It
“O, from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”- Shakespeare, Hamlet
Player Characters are polarizing figures that tend to instigate dramatic changes to the world around them. That’s one way to describe the player characters in a typical roleplaying game. Another way to describe them would be to say that player characters are assholes, and the things they do disrupt and often ruin the lives of people around them. And when I talk about lives being ruined, I’m not talking about the players thwarting the plans of some major villain since, let’s face it, that guy probably deserved what he got. No, I’m talking about the myriad of NPCs that aren’t the main focus of the action and yet whose lives are still negatively impacted, directly or indirectly, by the actions of the PCs. It may not even be a single individual, but an entire organization that suffers a major setback or total devastation as a result of character actions. In fact, in the wake of every successful adventuring party there is probably a whole legion of folks who would like nothing more than to see those adventurers get their just desserts. So let’s talk about some of these people, and some of the situations and scenarios that could lead them to seek revenge against those self-centered, self-righteous, over-zealous, over-bearing assholes that we call player characters.
When Someone Wins, Someone Else Usually Loses
This is pretty obvious, and in most cases where an adventuring party takes sides in a dispute between Group A and Group B, it’s probably anticipated that whoever loses out, provided they are not utterly decimated, will seek some sort of retribution or revenge. In fact, the wronged party in such a dispute may literally shake their fist at the PCs while shouting: “I’ll get you! I’ll fix the lot of you – you and your meddling pseudo-dragon, too!” But what about situations where a Group C is involved, whose loss may not be immediately apparent? Such a group may have cause to seek revenge against the player characters without the characters ever being aware that the group in question has been wronged. Consider these scenarios:
The player characters have been commissioned by the City Council to address the problem of wererats in the sewers. The PCs make several successful forays into the lair of the wererats, dealing a severe blow to their numbers. However, unbeknownst to the party, the wererats are part of a larger smuggling operation that connects them to members of the local thieves’ guild and even to a few prominent noble families who are also part of the clandestine smuggling ring.
The player characters have recently had a string of successes in their campaign against the kobold tribes who infest the mountain passes to the West. More trade caravans brave the pass as a result. Commerce improves and everybody wins. Except for that one Merchant Guild, who was secretly working with the kobolds, providing them with the supplies and intelligence they needed to cripple the operations of rival guilds.
When designing scenarios, always ask questions about who stands to lose when the characters (or the people they endorse) win. This is especially critical in urban settings and games with a heavy emphasis on politics, where even the most mundane undertakings can have ripple effects that impact multiple factions. These questions force you to pay attention to the big picture in your campaign world, and the answers should give you plenty of ideas for future scenarios.
Another group that could easily fall into this category of revenge seekers would be rival adventuring parties. Such NPC groups are often in direct competition with the player characters as they race to find a valuable artifact or hidden treasure. Even if the two groups didn’t come to blows with one another, people still tend to get sore when they come in second in the race for the Rod of Seven Parts – perhaps even murderously so. And if the two parties did come to blows with one another, the rival adventurers may have an even more compelling reason for revenge (see “Killing Folks” below).
Anytime you kill someone, you run the risk of a friend, relative, or loved one of that person seeking revenge on you. And adventuring parties tend to rack up a pretty impressive body count; it’s kind of what they are known for. Of course everyone that the players have killed can’t have someone waiting in the wings to avenge them, or your average adventuring party wouldn’t get much done besides chopping down family trees. When plotting this type of revenge against your players, it is best to use a karmic approach. Surely in their long (or perhaps not so long) and illustrious careers as murder hobos your players have cut down someone who wasn’t as deserving of death as the PCs thought they were. Like this guy:
Billy the Brigand never wanted to hurt anyone, but he was desperate. Last season’s drought left him without enough food to feed his family, and he’d be damned if Billy Jr. was going to starve to death on his watch. As luck would have it though, Billy’s first day as a brigand happened to be the day that his band of not-so-merry men ambushed a powerful adventuring party. Billy hadn’t even landed a blow before things were going so poorly that he threw down his sword in surrender. The last thing he remembered was looking up at his headless body in confusion, after a battle-raging barbarian separated Billy’s head from his shoulders. Billy Jr. was in the town square with his mother when the “heroes” who had defeated the bandits returned victoriously. Cut to several years later: “Hello. My name is Billy Jr. You killed my father – prepare to die.”
For a twist, consider having this revenge seeker be a humanoid monster – because hobgoblins have feelings too, you know. Or maybe that grizzly bear that the party murdered last week when they barged into his cave to seek shelter from a storm happened to be best friends with the local druid. Have fun walking back home through those woods! Also, since we’re talking fantasy here, who says that our murder victim has to have someone else avenge them? If the NPC in question had some particularly compelling reason to not be dead, he or she could easily return as a revenant, seeking revenge from beyond the grave.
Spells or Skills that Charm or Deceive
Anytime you use skills like intimidate, deceive, and bluff, or cast spells like friends and charm person, or otherwise coerce, dupe, or manipulate others, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of revenge. Consider this scenario: the players need to infiltrate a castle/guild hall/private residence in order to kill someone/steal something/destroy something. This is a pretty common situation in roleplaying games, and a scenario like this has probably came up at least once in just about every campaign I’ve ever been involved in that lasted for any appreciable amount of time. One of the most common obstacles in this scenario is a guard, and one of the most common ways of dealing with this obstacle is by lying to the guard or charming him. The party decides how best to dupe this poor guard (let’s call him Gary) and then some skill checks or saving throws are made, and maybe a bit of roleplaying happens. Gary is successfully duped and play continues.
In most cases, this is the only time we bother to concern ourselves with Gary. He served his purpose as an obstacle and that was the end of it. But Gary isn’t just Gary the Gate Guard. Gary has a house, and a family. Gary has mouths to feed and bills to pay. And after the PCs succeed in doing whatever it is they did, someone is going to start asking questions about how the hell they got past security. Someone’s going to ask Gary questions. Gary is going to get fired.
Gary couldn’t believe it – they fired him. Fired him! This couldn’t have happened at a worse time either, because Gary’s wife was pregnant. Things were going to be tight with another little one to feed, but this new job guarding the merchant’s guild hall was the best gig Gary had ever had. Indeed, Gary finally felt like his life was turning a corner – he may have even had a shot at making lieutenant before the player characters ruined his life. Gary couldn’t go straight home and break this news to his wife. Instead, he went to his favorite watering hole and got plastered. Then, in a fit of angst, he tried to rob the place with an unloaded crossbow, and was subdued by an off duty member of the city watch. Gary was sentenced to six months in the salt mines. His wife was forced to become a prostitute for a travelling circus, while his children had to muck out the animal cages. Nobody would have blamed Gary if he had become a wastrel and a drunk after that. But he didn’t. Instead, he spent those six months in the salt mines bulking up, and plotting his revenge.
It’s worth noting that even if the characters just sneak past Gary without ever interacting with him, or they sap him, Gary could still be held responsible for the breach in security. Although in this case it may be difficult for Gary to know who to seek revenge on, unless he has some means of learning who the responsible party is. This could be a fun scenario by itself, as Gary tracks down clues or hires an investigator, perhaps even crossing paths with the party a few times while he’s on their trail.
Fights in urban areas, especially when they involve high-powered PCs, tend to cause a lot of property damage. Buildings might catch fire, fruit carts might be destroyed, and valuables may be ruined. Any of these things can cause a person to lose their livelihood, and if losing one’s livelihood isn’t a compelling reason to seek revenge then what is? Merchants tend to have powerful and influential friends, and when they start petitioning the local lord for restitution, who do you think he’s going to lean on for the money? Also, just because someone’s a shopkeeper now doesn’t mean they were always a shopkeeper.
Astrid the Assassin had finally done it – she had ran far enough and long enough that she could finally leave her life as a member of the Murderous Blades behind her. She had changed her name to Myrtle the Merchant and put all of her savings into the inventory for her candle and lantern store. Her shop had only been open for a week when those damned adventurers came scrambling out of the sewers with a pack of wererats on their heels. It was bad enough that the stupid dwarf tossed a hammer through her window, but then the wizard… Who the hell casts burning hands right next to a bunch of wooden buildings, much less a candle and lantern store? Sure, Myrtle was glad the wererats were defeated, but her shop was ruined. Myrtle had asked the adventurers to pay for what they had done. Asked nicely, even! The dwarf had acted like Myrtle should be kissing his ass for “saving her life,” and the priest just shrugged and gave Myrtle fifty gold, saying that he “hoped this would help.” The wizard wouldn’t even look at her. Fifty gold! For sending her life’s savings up in a ball of flames. Myrtle – no, Astrid – sighed. Maybe she couldn’t escape her past after all. And it turns out the fifty gold would help – it was just enough for Astrid to go pick up a long sword, a short sword, and some leather armor. Astrid wondered what inn these “adventurers” were staying at…
It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say anyway that while all of the examples above assume a fantasy setting, each can easily be applied to any setting. Collateral damage in particular lends itself really well to superhero games – anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book knows that superheroes routinely level a city block or two (or twenty) in the defense of the greater good. Anyone of those people whose car was thrown through a window (with them in it) or whose shop was destroyed by a flying car could be the next mad inventor/super-villain that the PCs encounter.
Regardless of gaming system or setting, hopefully the above examples – farcical as they are – help illustrate the fact that player characters and their adventures don’t exist in a vacuum, and that their actions have an impact that extends beyond forwarding whatever plot they are currently pursuing. Likewise, it’s important to remember that the NPCs the players interact with exist outside of those interactions. And while every NPC can’t have a rich tapestry of a life story, or an avenging angel waiting in the wings to right every wrong perpetrated upon them, adding in a few touches like this can help make the world your characters inhabit feel more real. Revenge scenarios like this are especially appropriate in situations where the players are extremely dickish, callous, or amoral in their actions, and may help them realize that the people they screw over in pursuit of their goals may not always just disappear after they’ve served their purpose as an obstacle.