The Game Master’s Book of Non-Player Characters Review

There are only so many ways you can spell – or pronounce – the name Bob before your players are going to realize that you’re just making up Dungeons and Dragons characters on the fly. There’s nothing wrong with making up NPCs as you go, of course, but it’s a lot of work! You have to name them, make them interesting, and then you actually have to remember to write down what you made up or next session you’ll have players asking why Ba’ab is named Dave now. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that work done for you, in such quantity that you don’t have to make anything from scratch for a good while? How about, say, 500 characters? Think that’ll be enough? That’s what you’ll find in the The Game Master’s Book of Non-Player Characters from Topix Media Lab!

I’m going to be looking at things a liiittle out of order, so first up we have the reason the title of the book makes any sense at all: NPCs! There are four chapters worth of non-player characters for you to peruse, each covering a type of locale you would find their cast in: Big City Denizens, Small Town Tenants, Outskirts & Outposts, and Underdwellers. Each chapter is then further divided into different sections of NPCs: Common Folk, Nobles & Leaders, Lawkeepers & Lawbreakers, Oddballs & Outsiders, and a 20×6 table for random NPC generation if for whatever reason none of the ones already made appeal to you this session.

Each NPC has the following: a name, a quote, a physical description, a blurb about who they are, Wants & Needs, a Secret or Obstacle, and a list of what they’re Carrying. Each also has at least one tiny sidebar of things that a player character might notice about the NPC if the PC has the right skill or background: an Athletic PC might notice a character is built for speed but not endurance, a Perceptive PC might notice someone always checking that some item is still on their person, and an Orphan character may see the same painful history in another. Many of the NPCs are, functionally, system agnostic; NPCs with a bit more going on might get a random table of their own, a rare/magical item the players might get their hands on, or even a full D&D5e stat block.

That’s me talking about the NPCs in general, but this kind of product is the type that needs proper and specific examples in the review, so let’s meet some characters!

Big City Denizens

Urban adventures! The big city the low-level adventurers dream of, thinking ‘once we can get there, we’ll have it made.” This chapter starts with a handy table for picking what kind of government is in charge of the city the party just arrived in, from Matriarchy to Military Force, from a democratically elected leader to actually no one.

Among the urban Common Folk you can find Booker Varendolt, a social climber who is working on a manuscript, The Secret Art of Optimism, and who has been going around and asking so many nobles to invest in the book’s publication that they are beginning to assign nefarious motivations to his efforts. They’ve even got someone following him, now.

Maximilian “Max” Margaster is among the Nobles & Leaders, a precocious 8 year old noble boy who found a blood-black greatsword in his family’s library after his mother passed. Limbrender (called “Lemmy” by his new wielder), a death knight sealed within the blade, has effectively turned Max into a CR 17 threat. Max just wants to go on adventures, but the fact that he mutters under his breath in abyssal now is probably not a good sign… don’t tell dad?

Despite counting among the ‘keeper’ half of Lawkeepers & Lawbreakers, you’d think Kardina Mintleaf spends her days catching butterflies instead of hardened criminals with the way she’s always smiling – she even wants to get laws passed to make her own upbeat attitude mandatory for the rest of the city watch. She’s good at it though, using surprising strength and skill at applying leverage to drop men much larger than her – but when alone she drinks fermented tea every night, trying to forget the man who tormented her in another life.

Sissy Ontario is an Oddball & Outsider in the big city because she’s an urban druid – not the grove you’d expect a druid to keep, but there are plenty of rats, cats, and roaches that need her protection. That she uses the wooden leg of a mannequin as a weapon (and focus for the shillelagh spell) almost seems normal by comparison. She’s kind of heart and slow to judge, but she has a lot of trouble protecting a certain nest of roaches – which is a problem since the nest is keeping the Enduring Shadow busy,

Small Town Tenants

Beyond the cities, in much closer proximity to the wilderness, are less frantic pockets of civilization that nevertheless often face problems that quickly spiral. This section’s random table determines what kind of town a place might be, and what its circumstances are: truly thriving, recovering from a recent takeover, cursed, etc.

A particularly charmed member of the Common Folk is Grover Blacksburg, who recently inherited a belt buckle from his deceased uncle, along with a letter exhorting him to carry himself with confidence. Since then Grover has won 18 local dart throwing contests! However, the buckle is so obviously magical that people keep trying to steal it, subsequently perishing as the buckle bends fate to foil their efforts. Grover wonders about the series of horrible accidents in his vicinity, but so far considers it “one of those coinkidinks.”

The purple-haired Madeline Miller counts herself among the Nobles & Leaders since taking over the Miller Grain Works after her father’s passing. She wants to expand the business into a proper financial empire, but recently has to keep dealing with kidnapping attempts. Her quick thinking and quicker horse (adept animal handlers may notice that Madeline has an arcane predisposition towards adeptness with equines) have kept the attempts from succeeding, but they’re slowing her plans while also being boring. She doesn’t know her own brother is behind the efforts, trying to usurp her position.

Seamus “Cutty” McGillicutty (I had to pick him for this, I mean come on) takes his place among the Lawkeepers & Lawbreakers by virtue of working for the Thudd Clan, a notorious dwarven criminal group. The Thudd Clan operates out of the Garrenglen mine, and Cutty is one of their eyes (and ears, and sometimes fists) on the surface, usually tasked with setting up protection rackets and managing favors. He takes his work seriously, and will often kick large opportunities “downstairs” to clear them first, but he also considers restraint to be more useful (read: intimidating) than actual force. There are some members of the Thudd Clan who consider this to mean Cutty is going soft…

Jackwell and Morgotta Arabesque pleaded, begged, and finally quite literally wished for a child… which is how they ended up with their beloved but definitely Oddball & Outsider geniekin daughter, Adelaide. An overabundance of excitement, insatiable curiosity, and near masochistic alacrity aren’t the only things Adelaide is trying to contain, and her parents are hopeful that a supervised journey away from home will allow her to hone her skills… and buy them time to repair the damage to their house. They’ll pay quite well for an adventurer(s) to be Adelaide’s escort, but they may have failed to mention that she talks in her sleep: “I cast fireball.

Outskirts & Outposts

These are the far-out places, the kinds of location that take the civilized-to-wilderness balance and lean it firmly in the direction of the latter. Their problems might be varied, but often they’ll all fall under the umbrella of sheer survival. They could be a dragon lighthouse, a cenote with healing properties, a camp for adventuring children, and so on.

Carla “The Sleight” Feint counts among the Common Folk, although she aspires to the Lawbreaker category; she’s a card sharp and con artist, and the perceptive will notice that the wandering kobold’s skill with shuffling and cutting a deck of cards without even paying attention attests to just how skilled she is. When it comes to Three Card Monte, she doesn’t even roll dice; if an opponent can’t get past a DC 25 Perception check and Carla’s luck points, she automatically wins. She still can’t seem to get that big score she wants, though; she might need some muscle and some forgery to get the job done.

Even out here you still run into the local equivalent of Nobles & Leaders, such as Commander Harvash Taanwal. The gnome has seen plenty of death in service to her liege lord, and is quite capable of dealing out more between the giant armored white wolf she rides and the conduit gloves that enhance her lightning spells. When not fighting on battlefields she patrols her territory with a band of warriors to protect it from whatever might threaten it. She doesn’t trust outsiders easily, but she might need their help: she’s been tracking the yeti duo known as the Twin Blizzard for a week now, but doesn’t know they’ve turned the tables and are tracking  her.

Angelina Serrano is a technical Lawbreaker who is a Lawkeeper in all the ways that matter – following flags and following ideals are not the same thing, and while the half-elf may be lawful good she knows which of those matter the most. Once one of the king’s best commanders, she deserted long ago and has become one of his primary antagonists. While often on the run she sometimes still steps in to help those in need with her blind luck blade; she’s heard of royal troops throwing settlers off their land to make room for a baroness’s summer house, and won’t abide it. However, the king has grown tired of hunting her, and plans to draw her in by going after her wife and children…

Zug’Praxis could land nowhere but the Oddballs & Outcasts category. The two-headed ettin has an even deeper divide in personality than most of their kind. Praxis is well-read, Zug doesn’t like books as much as boulders but acknowledges you can still bludgeon people with them. Praxis wants to apply to a bard college, Zug just figured out how to knock over trees with his butt. Praxis wants to catch a remorhaz for research, Zug wants to catch one because it’ll probably be delicious. This is exacerbated by the fact that only one head is ever awake; Praxis would genuinely love to work with adventurers, but it’s a flip of the coin whether or not Zug wakes up and decides to try and eat one of them.

Underdwellers

The underground world is dangerous, ripe for adventure, and as it turns out not exactly devoid of inhabitants. The random table for this chapter is simply to determine what kind of underground area the party has descended to: an ancient elven ruin, a ragged gnome settlement, a demonic rift to the Abyss, that sort of thing.

Ramrod Mortarmiter might not look very friendly, but the insightful might notice the dwarf’s friendly nods and shoulder pats and conclude that’s not quite the case. They may also realize that, while Ramrod cannot speak and is dependent on either a local sign language or writing on the piece of slate on a thong around his neck to communicate, that he pays attention to a lot. For instance, he knows of a back entrance to the horde-rich lair of a behir. Oh, and a hag stole his voice as a baby. You’ll just need to spend the time to communicate with him to find these things out!

Zahira the Prophet is the quasi-religious flavor of Noble & Leader. The traveling mystic is on a vision quest to find his lost people, and has wandered the underground tunnels for many years, picking up a following thousands-strong along the way. This is because, while he’s never abandoned his quest entirely, he often puts it on hold to protect those who cannot protect themselves. He could probably found a new civilization, such are the number of refugees from the war-torn surface that have flocked to him, but he doesn’t care to. However, he’s got a stubborn streak, not helped by his followers calling him a vassal of the gods or his ability to peer into the future.

Marzipan “Marz” Womble is, like most wombatfolk, adept at digging. Unlike most wombatfolk she realized that could be a useful skill on the criminal side of Lawkeepers & Lawbreakers. She spent some time in the Thieves Guild as a demo-digger – several sticks of dynamo (a fireball spell without the need to take a nap after) help – but she eventually botched a big job and blew up her whole crew. A community of gnomes took her in after she went on the run, and now she spends her time helping defend them. There’s plenty to watch out for: duergar are beginning to encroach and she’s running low on dynamo, and “Scallywag” Roster knows she blew up her old crew – including him – on purpose and has come back as a revenant to settle the score.

Even by the underground’s standard, Slurrn the Resplendent is among the weirdest of the Oddballs & Outsiders. The 27-foot-long centipede-like being is a prince of the Everlasting Empire, a civilization so deep in the earth that the typical underground is the ‘surface’ as far as Slurrn is concerned. While he has a life of luxury in the Empire, there’s the slight problem of a succession conflict with his 50,000 siblings, all trying to impress the Empress Mother and become her heir. This often involves murder. Slurrn hopes to find something exotic enough in the ‘surface world’ to earn the throne for himself. Problems: he’s genuinely horrifying for most to look at, and he’s also… kind of a jerk.

One-Shots, Side-Quests, and Randomness

I started off with the characters because, let’s be honest, they’re the whole point. What’s staggering to consider is that I’ve only covered somewhere in the realm of 3% of the NPCs available! But while they’re the meat of the book, the characters aren’t actually what start it off. Instead, we get three entire one-shot adventures to work with. The first piece of bread, as it were.

Where There’s Smoke… sees a party of Levels 1-5 working with an up-and-coming adventurer to protect a rare group, after discovering ta dangerous beast lurking around a small town. Hidden Horrors is a Levels 6-10 adventure that starts off as a missing persons investigation before spiraling into a race to stop cultists from summoning an ancient evil. Upside Down is another Levels 6-10 adventure that sees the party as prisoners in an ancient drow city, forced to participate in a dark and dangerous ritual trial in order to escape. While play would be the best test, on reading through them the adventures offer a lot: plenty of sidebars, GM Notes, colorful descriptions, handy maps, and tons to do.

The other piece of bread in this NPC sandwich is a Side-Quest generator that you can plug various NPCs into, in addition to whatever side quests may already be implied by their Wants & Needs or Secret/Obstacle. First you’ve got a 1d8 table for what category of side-quest is on offer: Saving the Day, A Petty Caper, What Could Go Wrong?, and so on. A 1d6 table offers, er, what’s being offered in exchange: coin, information, a unique item, etc. Then there’s a 1d10 table for each of the different side-quest categories.

The details of the side-quests are written out like mad libs, you simply choose which character(s) to drop in. If you’re Saving the Day then Character A and Character B may or may not have left a troop of tenderfoot tykes unattended after they fled upon hearing the deafening roar of a, uhmmm, something. For a Petty Caper, Character A wants you to keep the guards busy by picking the pockets of Characters B, C, and D. Try not to get caught. Cultural ambassadors Characters A and B are looking for an escort through gnoll country, but are secretly moving illegal goods to Character C on behalf of Character D. What Could Go Wrong?

The last part of the book, which I suppose would be the chips in the sandwich-based metaphor I’ve ended up using, is a Random Character Generator. Not for creating a character from scratch, no, that’s what each chapter’s 20×6 table of random NPC generation is for. This is for picking one or more of the existing characters out of the book, which you might find difficult since there are so many good ones. You need to roll 1d12 to pick which of the tables to roll on, and then you need to roll 1d6/8/10 on the selected table to decide which page spread of the book you’re going to turn to, and then you roll an appropriate die for however many characters are on that particular spread from no die at all if if there’s a single character to a d20 if you landed on a random NPC generation table, rerolling if necessary such as if you got a 6 on a d6 but there are only five characters-

It’s quite a bit more complicated than I’d usually like my random tables to be. Maybe they’re salt and vinegar chips. Then again, it’s not like you can find a d500+ on the shelf of your local game store,  so for what was needed to make this work it does the job.

Conclusion

This is one of those books that is exactly what it says on the tin, but it could have been a dud if the NPCs within its pages weren’t interesting. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Writer Jeff Ashworth has crafted a veritable horde of characters, and while some may be more detailed than others, none of them are boring. My only problem is how long it would take to get all of them into play.

Plus, not to be ignored, the character illustrations (about 50 of them) and maps provided by Jasmine Kalle and John Stanko are excellent, and the layout and design work from the people at Topix Media Lab/Media Lab Books makes for a well-organized, easy to navigate, and easy on the eyes  tome.

You can find The Game Master’s Book of Non-Player Characters at DriveThruRPG in PDF as well as Print-on-Demand standard color and premium color softcover forms – plus combos of same – ranging from $14.99 to $59.99. It seems there has also been a more traditional print run, as there are copies available on Amazon.

So, who will you meet next?

Thank you to Topix Media Lab for sending us a PDF copy to review!

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