What do you do when the PCs start recruiting people as information sources? A game master writes:

Ask the gamemasters

Hi Mike and Johnn,

I’m running a 3.5 D&D campaign, where the player characters are largely based in a major city. Because of the structure and history of the campaign world, my major cities are quite large, which makes for plenty of nice opportunities for my players.

Recently, the group uncovered a secret shrine to a dark god, where sacrificial victims were being kept prisoner. They freed the victims, saving them from a gruesome fate, and now they have four more contacts who they can go talk to for information… Which is wonderful! Except that I am at a loss as to what to do with these NPCs that they now have “on tap.” The party has over a dozen such contacts, most of whom are simple commoners. I don’t really feel the need to create each NPC the way I would a combat NPC; but how do I keep them all organized? How do I bring them to the table? Is it better to use a sort of rough character sheet for each NPC, with room for doodling? Or try to use index cards for each one, or some third option?

Gratefully awaiting your wisdom (*grins*)

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer: There’s A Spider In The Web…

This question boils down to five inter-related issues in my mind.
• Who are these people?
• How will they interact with the PCs & the Campaign?
• What game prep is required for using the NPCs this way?
• What is the best way of keeping this campaign element organised?
• How should I use them in my campaign?

Who are these people?

There are two entirely separate groups, soon to be joined by a third if my assessment is correct, and the answers are subtly different for each.

Group 1: The Original Contacts

These are probably just what they seem – ordinary people who will take anything interesting they overhear (rumours, gossip, and intelligence in general) to the party. Most parties that settle in a fixed location for any length of time develop such contacts. Since these are just ordinary people, they will cover the entire spectrum of personality profiles. When it comes to informants, there are thirteen fairly standard profiles:

  • The Altruist: always tries to do what they perceive to be the ‘right thing’, often decided by applying an extremely narrow and prejudiced moral code. Likely to be a stalwart member of a religious group, their information tends to be petty but reliable except when it involves a member of a social class, profession, religious affiliation, or race that crosses their prejudices.
  • The Busybody: involves themselves in everybody else’s business, and tends to jump to conclusions, then proceed as though these conclusions were irrefutable. They make themselves fairly obvious, and often get themselves (and those around them) in over their heads. Information will be reliable, but misinterpreted, and it will soon become known that the busybody is a ‘stooge’ for the PCs. As they make enemies, those enemies may use the busybody to lure them into traps, feed them false information, etc. Initially useful, they will slowly become a millstone around the PCs’ necks; but they are so darned sincere it’s hard to cut them loose. Of course, if the PCs ever spurn or rebuke the Busybody, they will cross the line and become enemies instead of allies, and the Busybody is also often the vengeful type.
  • The Deceptive: A shady customer, usually up to something of a criminal nature, often relatively petty and meaningless. The Deceptive will say or do anything if it looks like it might benefit them. Their information starts off being useful and accurate, especially if they are involved with an organised criminal structure of some sort. If it involves criminal behaviour or something that the authorities are trying to hush up, this is the archetype most likely to stumble across it. They are untrustworthy, and if caught, will sell the PCs out in a heartbeat. Ultimately, they should come across some information they try to use for their own benefit, get caught, and become informants against the PCs. It might be quite some time before the information, and the change of loyalties, comes to the PCs’ attention.
  • The Idealist: this archetype is very similar to the Altruist; they believe in a Cause (always capitalised in their minds), and can justify almost anything in the pursuit of that cause. Gratitude will only carry this informant so far; to continue acting as eyes and ears for the PCs the Idealist will have to perceive the PCs as benefiting The Cause. The fun part comes when you consider the number of potential Causes that exist, which range from the benign to the bizarre; anything from ‘No child should go hungry’ to ‘Mandatory education for all’ to outright terrorism. I’ve had lots of fun with Druids who adopt a radical Greenpeace-style agenda and attempt to bring down “civilization” because its byproducts are polluting the planet. ‘Orcish Rights’ is another personal favorite. And then there was the woman who wanted to make umbrellas illegal because they came between people and the cleansing rain of the Gods…. The Idealist will rarely have access to any worthwhile information outside of events relating to The Cause, and are prone to hyperbole and overreaction to such news. Any information unrelated to The Cause is usually accurate, but may be understated or undervalued.
  • The Greedy: every collection of informants always includes one whose in it for hard currency. Their information is for sale to the highest bidder, their loyalty is to themselves. The most the PCs will have earned is preferred customer status. His information is rarely complete, but is usually spot-on – making him one of the most reliable sources of information. Of course, the PCs may not realise this! He may have to educate them…
  • The Meek: not necessarily cowardly, this archetype includes the humble. The meek will happily take any information they stumble across to the PCs if the PCs seem more reliable, more honest, or more able to act on it than the authorities, but will rarely go looking for information. They will often avoid offending anyone, and find it easy to rise to positions where they are exposed to information of value, but to get anything important, the PCs will have to push them.
  • The Naive: the uncharitable might suggest that between the Altruist, the Idealist, and the Meek, this category is rather redundant, but this archetype is reserved for those who elevate innocence to an art form. The Naive will believe anything he is told, by just about anyone, or can be easily convinced through argument. That makes their information unreliable, but by looking for the truth that lurks behind the information that these eager puppy-dogs bring to the PCs, other information can be placed in context. They are best used as an indicator that there is something for the PCs to be informed about.
  • The Opportunist: similar to the Greedy and the Social Climber in many ways, but differs from them in that those archetypes make deliberate plans to achieve specific goals. The Opportunist is more happy-go-lucky, always seeking to maximise their personal benefit from whatever comes their way, in whatever way seems most beneficial at the time. This archetype never passes on information unless there is some obvious benefit for them in the process, and their information will put the PCs into a confrontation with those who have caused trouble for the Opportunist or who stand in his way. For GMs, the easiest way to handle this character is to put the cart before the horse, and decide how they want the NPC to attempt to benefit next, and what stands in the character’s way. That in turn gives a lead as to the target and subject of the information that will be provided to the PCs.
  • The Professional: some people can’t help confessing, others can’t help acquiring information and blabbing it. This person always knows more than he’s supposed to, about just about everything, which puts both him (and anyone he might have spoken to) in personal danger. Sometimes, he doesn’t have the answer to a question; he will hear invented ‘rumours’ and ‘whispers’ and ‘hints’. This archetype makes his living selling information; he might give away one free (minor) sample, but after that he will charge all that the market will bear. Unlike the Greedy, the Professional always has some idea of the value of his information, and usually has a fairly strict pricing policy. He may even have his own code of professional conduct.
  • The Revolutionary/Anarchist: feeds information to the PCs simply because the PCs aren’t the authorities and the archetype are troublemakers. Their information will target the ruling classes and their activities, or possible future activities. Often paranoid, the revolutionary’s information will usually be reliable and misinterpreted. To determine what information this character type might feed to the characters, try to come up with a conspiracy theory linking unrelated events external to the PCs, then decide who would have knowledge of such a conspiracy if it were really true. The results will be a rumour that “person X” knows something about “event Y”, which the anarchist will gleefully provide to the PCs, even though the NPC has made the whole thing up out of whole cloth. While this archetype’s information will be correct occasionally, most of the time it is a way of throwing red herrings in front of the party. You can even make a personal rule that if the PCs believe it or act on it, then it’s a false rumour, but if they dismiss it, they should have listened!
  • The Social Climber: this archetype comes in two flavours: those who seek to use the PCs to clear their path upwards in society by causing trouble for rivals, and those who see the PCs as people who Will Be Important and who want to hitch their wagons to their coat-tails. The first is generally already a member of the upper classes, the latter is simply not as high up in society as they think they should be or they want to be. Their information is high-level gossip; what this diplomat likes for lunch, what the count’s hobbies are, etc. They are best used as plot devices to move stories forward when the PCs get bogged down, facilitating introductions to the people the PCs actually need to talk to. They are often useless unless the PCs already have a target in mind – “who do you know at the Centaur Embassy?”.
  • The Traitor: no matter what any given organisation does, there will always be people who disagree with either what they are doing or how they are doing it. If these people care enough about the situation, they will become traitors to it – joining the target organisation if they weren’t already on the inside when this opinion was formed. This archetype always has one of the others as a subtype. Their information is always reliable and top-quality but doesn’t come very often.
  • The Victim: sadly, there are those who the world victimises. No matter what they attempt, it turns sour on them. And then there are those who cannot see the glass as anything other than half-full and evaporating! The victim’s information is always about their personal experiences and what has gone wrong this week; if something’s about to succeed, the Victim will have sold his interest the week before for a pittance (or had it stolen from him). This archetype is a doom-and-gloom merchant. Their information is always reliable and usually comes too late. Make a habit of using them to fill in any blanks in the plotline that need explanation after the fact, and ensure that the NPC has always suffered in some way as a result of events (no matter how much they may have profited in other ways).
Group 2: The Rescued Prisoners

Whether or not they – or you – realised it at the time, your PCs choices have irrevocably changed the tone of your campaign. You are now running an “Action/Spy” campaign – James Bond in a medieval fantasy setting. The PCs have started setting up an intelligence agency.

These come in all flavours. Many commercial operations have them to keep tabs on what their rivals are up to. Some monitor their suppliers, backers, and sponsors/investors to be prepared for any scandals they might become embroiled in. The Baker Street Irregulars were a key part of Sherlock Holmes’ operation, as was his brother Mycroft. The French resistance are famous the world over (but for a real eye-opener, take a look at what the Danish did during WW2). While the great spy agencies liked nothing better than to ‘turn’ someone important on the other side, they weren’t averse to using ordinary citizens. They could often engineer promotions for these people until they WERE in a position of usefulness to them in their games of intelligence and counter-intelligence.

That means you don’t have to change the campaign you have planned; the events will still be the same, but the context – the ways the PCs will get into scenarios, and sometimes how they will get out the other side of them – have changed. Knowledge is power, and it is unlikely the PCs will ignore the tools that have fallen into their hands. To some extent, this change should have taken place anyway; as the PCs rise to prominence through success, many people from the archetype lists would have sought them out with information in any event.

Most of the rescued prisoners will also come from the archetypes already listed. It’s possible that they all will. But there are two more archetypes that this interpretation of what’s going on, and its significance, add to the mix that simply cannot be ignored.

  • The Traitor (type II): To quote what I stated earlier, “No matter what any given organisation does, there will always be people who disagree with either what they are doing or how they are doing it. If these people care enough about the situation, they will become traitors to it – joining the target organisation if they weren’t already on the inside.” That includes, by definition, the organisation of informants the PCs are setting up. Sooner or later, someone in the network will turn against them and become a traitor to the PCs. The reasons will vary according to the archetype subtype to which the traitor belongs. But from that moment on, there will be someone out there who knows more about what the PCs are up to than they should. And if they should consider the PCs to be enemies, or rivals… (I’ve tried to include enough information in each archetype description that you can determine who will turn traitor, and under what circumstances.)
  • The Double Agent: I have to admit that the first thought that I had when I read the original question was “How could I use this against the PCs? What a Golden Opportunity….” and that thought has coloured everything I’ve written in response. To be more specific, I thought that one of the original informants might have turned traitor, and warned someone else that the PCs were going up against the worshippers of the dark god, and that this group had then placed someone in a position to be captured by the cultists and rescued by the PCs, purely to infiltrate their growing network.My second thought was that perhaps the cultists themselves might have ‘planted’ a fellow worshipper in amongst the prisoners as a stool pigeon; this person is now amongst those rescued by the PCs and in the perfect position to use them to protect and nurture a new group of cultists. One thing is certain: once the PCs get a taste for the benefits an intelligence agency can bring them, sooner or later someone WILL set them up to rescue people purely to infiltrate. It’s inevitable, they will inadvertently acquire a double-agent in their network sooner or later.
Group 3: New Contacts

It might be that the PCs have turned the prisoners loose, and recruited the others you mention, with no clear idea in mind, and no better idea of what to do with them than you have, but sooner or later they will have a question that needs answering and someone will think of those NPCs and decide to ask them. At a stroke, the NPCs will go from adventure by-products to assets, to be exploited; and as soon as that happens, the PCs are in the intelligence game, and will start looking out for opportunities to recruit new members. This might have already happened by the time this reply gets posted. Every new recruit is that much more likely than the last to be representative of the last two archetypes.

NPC Networks – Game Prep & Admin Requirements

How do you keep track of such a network of NPCs? How much prep work should you do in generating these NPCs? Here’s how I do it:

Contact Dossiers

These are what I use to organise and track NPCs in my campaigns. The “Contact Dossiers” is just an exercise book or binder with the pages numbered. I use these to track a dossier on each character, listing name, profession/occupation, place of employment, a physical description, any roleplaying notes, and the archetype (and subtype, if necessary) they represent. Underneath these, numbered, I list each contact they have with the party, what they told the party (if anything) and what the information really signified, if anything.

I try to be as succinct as possible. “Rescued from Dark Cult by PCs” would pretty much cover the entry for the events you described. When I run out of space on a page, I just move to the next numbered page and keep going. At the bottom of the previous page, I’ll write ‘—> X’ where ‘X’ is the number of the new page; at the top of the new page, I’ll put the NPCs name and archetype, and ‘Y <—’ where Y is the previous page number relating to that character. My actual preference is for a loose-leaf binder; I’ll explain why a little later.

Contact Index

It can still involve a fair amount of page flipping to find the pages you want. To make the relevant pages easier to locate, I also create a ‘Contact Index’, using one of those really cheap personal phone books that I’m sure you can pick up from a $2 shop or its equivalent. These have the big advantage of being in alphabetical order. I’ll add an entry for the NPC by name (both first and last, if necessary) and instead of a phone number, I’ll write the page number of the contact Log that I’m currently using, slowly compiling an index showing all the pages relating to that NPC.

Event Log

The ‘Event Log’ is just another exercise book, or another section of the binder containing the Contact Dossiers. Each page details one scenario or session of play, depending on how I’m organising this campaign. I write the play date, a BRIEF synopsis of events (3-4 lines at best), and a list of the names of any NPC contacts that resulted from it or played a significant part in it (including the major villain!).

With these three volumes, I can find anything I need to know about the characters and their every interaction with the party, plus any mannerisms or techniques I employ in roleplaying or characterising them. (Players note: this technique works perfectly well from the other side of the table as well, and usually enables you to ‘remember’ petty little details your GM would rather you forget!)

NPC Character Sheets

The question asks about how much information should be recorded for each contact, suggesting that doing a complete character generation for each would seem to be overkill. I agree completely with this. Nevertheless, if the first page of an NPC’s entry into the Dossier Log is a character sheet, there are a number of neat things that you can do with it. For a start, you can leave everything blank until you NEED to add a detail. You don’t NEED to write in a strength score, but if that number ever becomes important, you can decide what it is WHEN YOU NEED IT. This accomplishes three things:

  • it makes it easy to keep each NPC consistent;
  • it permits the NPC’s details serve the needs of the plot; and,
  • it permits character archetypes as NPC character classes.
Archetypes as NPC character classes

(One of my better ideas:) Every time an NPC does something in keeping with their archetype, I rate the difficulty as an EL and determine how much XP the NPC gets for it. Every time they step outside their archetype, they also get XP, with a bonus. Eventually, they gain enough to earn a character level. The level number serves as an immediate indicator of how good the NPC is at ‘playing’ their archetype. If I ever have the need to fully generate the characters stats, this enables additional skill point allocations, etc, representing the things they have learned as part of being the character they are. A 1st level Busybody gets involved in the lives of their neighbours, a 10th level Busybody has stuck their noses into public policy, and has probably told the local priest what his sermons should be about. A 1st level criminal is a petty thief, a 15th level criminal has a gang, runs at least one racket, is well-known to the local thieves guild as a rival, a successful member, an administrator, or a provider of services. He might be a fence specialising in the sale of high-end jewellery, or of stolen artworks, or whatever, with a network of black market contacts.

You don’t need to define the details of these NPC classes; the name and level alone are generally enough of an indicator as to what they are capable of. (I just love the idea of a tenth-level busybody!)

Using An NPC Network

NPC networks can serve multiple purposes in a campaign:

  • Getting the PCs into scenarios by providing rumours
  • Forewarning PCs of enemy actions directed against them
  • Getting the PCs the answers they need to progress in a scenario when they get stuck by direct hints or facilitating contact with experts
  • Creating secondary problems for the PCs if they are getting through a scenario too easily
  • Misleading the PCs with plausible but false or unreliable information
  • Highlighting unnoticed significances within campaign events
  • Explaining mysterious events retroactively
  • Generating Scenarios in their own right (Traitors and Double-Agents)

It shouldn’t come for free

While some of these might cause problems for the PCs, for the most part an intelligence service is beneficial to the PCs, and as such it should not come for free. The opportunity to add to the service is just as much a reward as a better magic weapon would be, and this should be taken into account when you calculate treasure and other rewards.

Game Prep

Before play, look over the scenario. How are you going to get the PCs involved in the action? If no obvious way suggests itself, perhaps an NPC contact can bring the PCs’ attention to something that’s going on. If the events are not something the PCs would be interested in getting involved with, perhaps the NPC has misinterpreted the significance of what’s occurring.

If I want the NPC information to be mostly accurate, if limited, I’ll use a reliable source; if the information has to get the PCs involved in a situation they probably wouldn’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole, I’ll use an unreliable source to throw bait in front of the PCs. They might take it, they might not.

I’ll also look at what information the PCs might need to solve any mysteries, and whether or not their characters are likely to have the skills needed to get those answers on their own. Sometimes I’ll feed information to them in advance, sometimes I’ll have it arrive in a timely fashion, and sometimes they will have to dig for it.

Once the PCs have a double-agent or traitor within their network, I will also look at how much and how soon the party’s enemies can learn of their activities and try to find some way for the enemy to take advantage of it – either by involving themselves directly, or by rescuing key members of the opposition facing the NPCs to add to his own organisation, or by simply doing something else while the PCs attention is elsewhere.

In-Play

If the scenario starts to bog down, I use a member of the NPC network to drop a clue or fresh lead to the PCs. After a while, they start going to their informants’ network whenever they get stuck, without realising that this places the GM in total control of what they find out, and when.

And that’s the ultimate significance of what the players have done…. (Mike exits to crash of thunder and maniacal laughter)…

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

What a wonderfully thorough answer, Mike! The 13 NPC informant types are excellent, as is the three group breakdown you’ve provided.

The only thing that might be useful for me to add are some related links:

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