The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

Tired of the status quo? As a GM, you have many powerful tools at your disposal to shake up the campaign. Here at the Front, I suggest that one of the most powerful of these is the death of a NPC.

bard-musicNPCs are the supporting characters, both tiny and mighty, who shape the world and keep it spinning. To the PCs, the role of the NPC is to make the game world click. And the death of one of these characters can have surprising impact if done right.

A minor character’s death is a potential story lead. The characters may be hired to investigate (or their curiosity might be piqued), and depending on how deep you want the rabbit hole to go, it may expose the PCs to a vast conspiracy that may need dealing with.

Think through the implications of the following:

  • A person known for running a soup kitchen for the downtrodden is found dead. Looks like it was a mugging gone wrong, so the city watch/police doesn’t investigate. And yet, why would a someone mug (and then kill) a person known for helping those down on their luck?
  • A rival wizard’s familiar gets killed. You don’t think much of it, until you hear that it was third familiar killed this month.
  • A favorite tavern’s barkeep was found dead after closing. And although foul play is suspected, there are no obvious leads.

By themselves, these deaths don’t mean much, but depending on what the PCs decide to (or not to) do, each could have implications for future stories. Using the middle one as an example, what happens if the PCs decide to investigate and find the parties responsible for killing off familiars?  It could very well change the relationship with their rival.  And if they don’t investigate, what happens when it is one of their own PCs’ familiars that gets killed?

Another category of deaths is what happens when an adversary dies but not at the hands of the party. The party, if they hear of it, rejoices — well, until they figure out that something worse has taken the adversary’s place. Perhaps his boss was unhappy with the underling’s repeated failures at the hands of the PCs. The new minion elevated to the position is definitely going to be very hands on about resolving the thorn in his boss’ side.

Then there are the celebrity-type deaths. Everyone knows of the famous bard Amadeus … well, did you hear that a jealous husband took off his head in a duel?  How about the Queen’s brother who died under mysterious circumstances? I hear his mistress was found and fed to the animals in the pits.  (If you pick someone famous enough, the resulting power vacuum can set the stage for many changes over a long time in the campaign. The King is dead! Long live The King!)

And yes, you can really hit the players hard if you pick the right NPC. Nothing disrupts a campaign like the death of a mentor or a close friend. Suddenly the characters feel very vulnerable because it isn’t someone they’d never met or a throwaway NPC… it is someone who has probably made a number of appearances within the campaign that is suddenly gone.

So those are just a few ideas that the power of an NPCs death might have and how you might use it to further your campaign in new and exciting ways. How has the death of a NPC impacted a campaign that you have been in?

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