(un)friendly rivalries!! a guide to characters your players hate worse than villains but for super petty reasons
is your party missing a key part of the NPC ecosystem? do you need a way to remind PCs that they aren’t the only ones who are hot shit? looking for someone who isn’t exactly a Big Bad but sure isn’t an ally?
Look No Further.
you see, sometimes you need NPCs that aren’t going to give the party everything they want because of a high Persuasion roll, the NPCs who aren’t going around committing mass murder (at least, not any more than your party, anyway) but still aren’t sympathetic, or the NPCs who have goals that directly interfere with those of the party and they might just be more competent.
These NPCs come in (at least) four flavors:
- Rival Party
- Something about them just pisses you off
The nemesis is someone that at least one party member has a reason to just loathe, but hasn’t done enough to make the party consider them a threat worth killing. Take as an example the paladin Viv from my campaign. She was a target for assassination by our party cleric–but the rest of the party, unaware of his secret task, immediately got attached to her. She quickly turned from a low-level enemy to a god-tier annoyance. Because no one else wanted to kill her, the cleric was left fuming impotently as she pranced around doing whatever she wanted. To this day, the mere mention of her gets a reaction of (comedic) frustration.
To use a nemesis effectively, limit their fury-inducing qualities to one or two player characters, and make them otherwise lovely and likeable folks; they should have relatable and (presumably) nonthreatening goals and be willing to help the party out under the right circumstances. Sit back and watch the steam pour out of a player’s ears.
A competitor is an NPC that is good at the same things as one of the PCs, such as a brawler who participates in pit fights against your party barbarian–and wins. The winning here is key to the idea. Party members hate to be defeated at the stuff they’re good at. But a bard can’t just assassinate another bard that outperformed them at a karaoke concert–unless they’re a murder hobo, they just have to sit there sullenly as someone else gets the glory, and plot an elaborate revenge.
The competitor works best when they have a little bit of local celebrity. This helps to prevent the party from killing or robbing them, because there might actually be consequences. They can be insulting, they can be objectively kind of shitty, but they shouldn’t do things like kick puppies or level an apartment complex to make way for their mansion. They are typical ordinary folk, but they can be jackasses without ruining the effect. Just don’t push the bad qualities into Bad Guy territory.
The rival party can be a difficult one to run. Like the nemesis, a rival party is more likely to appear during a quest/dungeon/etc. The key here is to give them similar, but not identical goals, but most importantly, they should be slightly more competent than the party. Not by much. You don’t want your party to get demoralized and ditch the dungeon, after all. But enough to make them work for success. For example, your party wants to loot the treasure trove hidden in a warlord’s fortress. But what’s this? Another party is on the scene, trying to bring a valuable artifact in that treasure trove back to their employer? Now the race is on to find the treasure and claim the prize.
This one will be most entertaining if the rival party shares flavor with the player characters. A paladin’s Lay on Hands might be countered with a Celestial Warlock’s “Healing Light” ability, for example. While not identical, the effect is the same. An archery-based ranger might contrast with an Arcane Archer fighter in the same way. A character with the Sailor background may be irritated if they get shown up by a Swashbuckler rogue.
Then there’s the fourth type: Something about them just pisses you off. What does that mean? Well, take this example: the party has made a bar their favorite hangout spot. They have a corner booth all to themselves and the barkeep pours out their usual as soon as they walk in the door. Maybe the barkeep has a flirty relationship with a PC. Then one day the bar has been sold! To someone else! Someone who doesn’t know their drinks, who doesn’t reserve their regular table, who is all business and no pleasure! Sure, there’s nothing wrong with them. But this is a curveball the party wasn’t expecting.
This category is the most flexible. You can use it to disrupt a party’s habitual actions, harmlessly insult them (I used a high-end tailor to interrogate the party’s fashion sensibilities once. They detested her. It was hilarious), or create social obstacles (like a guard that holds a grudge for no apparent reason and makes them wait for ages to see the local lord). These characters might be recurring or might not, so don’t get too invested in them unless they’re powerful. A snarky artificer who is the only maker of enchanted items in 100 miles is more likely to reappear than a shitty bartender, because bartenders are a dime a dozen.
Now go and enjoy making NPCs your players will love to hate!
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