Disclaimer alert, all of my GMing experience is actually in Shadowrun, not D&D, but I play both and I think the same storytelling elements that make this trick work are present across systems and settings.
The gist is this: Do you have a player character, for whatever reason, isn't present in this scene at this moment? Does your scene have spare NPCs? Give one to that player to control during the scene! (And give them some discretion over that NPC's personality, background, appearance, etc.) Doing so helps make sure all players are engaged, and also creates opportunities for your players to contribute to your worldbuilding.
Example one: I once GM'd a game of Shadowrun in which the time was tracking down a bug shaman, which are real bad news. One character, Jerome, had split off from the time to go out with his drinking buddies. He gets a call from the rest of the team (who have still been working), who tell him to go investigate a magic shop that might be connected to the plot. Jerome agrees — and makes the (probably ill-informed) decision to bring his drinking buddies with him. So I give each of my players control of one of the three drinking buddies, letting them banter some on the way over to the magic shop.
When they arrive, there's a figure in the shadowed doorway of the magic shop: a human partway through transforming into a vessel for an insect spirit. Think Cronenberg's 'The Fly'. The insect-man attacks, gouging his hardened mantis-like implements through one of Jerome's drinking buddies' gut. The drinking buddy falls to the ground, spurting blood and gasping for air. Jerome tries to perform first aid and tells him to hold on, but the injury is too severe. He's going to die. "Jerome, listen to me, before I die," my other player says, deep into the scene by now. "Please tell your wife…. tell Jenny, I always loved her…" And then he dies in Jerome's arms.
Now, the team was able to find and stop the bug shaman in a couple more sessions. But that moment between Jerome and his dying friend had major, long-term consequences. Was Jenny cheating on him? Had she and his friend ever been together behind his back? Was everyone he cared about lying to him? Jerome and Jenny's relationship became strained, contributing to Jerome's increasing mental distress that ultimately drove him to become a domestic terrorist who kills the mayor of Seattle and shifts the power balance of the entire setting.
All because I gave my players some random blue collar drinking buddy NPCs so they could participate in that scene.
Example two: In my current team (different players), I had to introduce a new player character who was joining us partway through our current adventure. He plays Bloodhound, a well spoken but somber orc street samurai specialized in martial arts and finding missing people.
Here's the scene — The team (sans the new member) is describing to their fixer where they are in their current job. They explain that, for plot reasons, they need to find a young girl who's being manipulated by a trog-supremacist organization. Their fixer says, "Well well well, I do just so happen to know an expert at finding the lost and missing. The man's something of a bloodhound, but I'm afraid I have him indisposed on a routine business meeting this evening…"
The camera hard cuts to Bloodhound, standing outside a trailer in an unspecified location. He's surrounded by four combatants, each with a different melee weapon. I give complete control of the actions of each enemy NPC, as well as their appearance and personality, to each of my players.
The enemy NPCs they come up with, on the spot, are:
- "Hackerman" — Who, despite his name and being covered in decker tattoos, is not himself a decker, doesn't own a cyerdeck, can't hack anything, and is a total poser. "I'm about to disconnect you from the Matrix," is his signature threat.
- "Gojira!" — A Japanese doppleganger of another NPC in the same universe named Gasket, right down to the bright pink mohawk and gaudy, flashing LED tattoos. His signature move is to pull a Leroy Jenkins and scream his own name.
- "V." — This player (my fiance) actually described my own Cyberpunk 2077 character to me in my current playthrough, so V. is a purple-haired woman in a bulletproof vest given to sarcasm, who is known to beat people up using a dildo as a club.
- "Nuke Dukem" — A tall, broad-shouldered, heavily muscled human in a tank top, sunglasses, and with blonde flat-top hair. No copyright infringement here. An important cannon personality trait is that Nuke Dukem is a voracious reader, preferring in-depth articles to video essays. Okay!
Of course, Bloodhound quickly (but non-lethally) wipes the floor with them and finds the fixer's macguffin briefcase he was sent there to retrieve. They were low-level goons meant to quickly introduce my new player to combat and let him get a feel for his martial arts tricks. Not necessarily meant to be recurring characters.
But, as my players quickly got invested in these silly joke characters they invented, I now plan for them to reappear in the future — as a team of comic relief rival Shadowrunners, always one step behind the team. I have no doubt that they will love this development.
TL;DR — Let players control random NPCs sometimes! This trick has enriched my setting and engaged my players every time I've used it, and it gives your players an opportunity to contribute to worldbuilding, creating a deeper sense of shared investment and ownership in the table's collaborative storytelling.
- 5e Which Magic Items can I give my Magic Store owner to make him frustratingly unkillable to my players?
- Using “Play by Text” to give yourself some space to take a breath
- Expose characters by singling out players for one on one interactions
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Give idle players NPC’s to control" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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