Players love messing with NPCs. That’s kind of their thing, perhaps even more than petty crime and distributing loot. Whether the DM presents a haughty nobleman or a vicious warlord or even a curmudgeonly shopkeeper, the players feel it’s their opportunity—nay, their obligation to bring him down a peg. I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with NPCs the players actually care about. Given how affable some of my villains are, I sometimes go too far. But once in a blue moon the players find an NPC they actually like, one they want to see grow through multiple appearances, and they become invested in this random person’s life. When it happens, it’s not just rewarding. It’s beautiful.
Let me tell you about when Anton met “Pepper”.
The Eight Arms crafting team assembled for the third campaign in the Eight Arms universe. We’d all gamed together for some years, so we already had enough familiarity with each other to work together, and we all knew our way around Pathfinder, so we had enough healthy disrespect for the rules to come up with something clever. The players new to the setting put together a professional arsonist, a literal witch doctor, and a walking bag of Western tropes. The fourth player, who had both an Eight Arms campaign (as a different character) under his belt and a startling grasp of system mastery, wanted to play one of the summoner’s more powerful archetypes. I think his goal was not explicitly to make something broken; he just had a character concept the synthesist fit more than any other archetype and its ridiculous power level was mere happenstance.
Anton Stocke was steampunk Iron Man. By day he was a witty, intelligent craftsman who built magical arms and flirted with attractive ladies. By different times of day, he was a walking engine of destruction inside his suit of battle armor. The parallels weren’t complete; he lacked some of Iron Man’s flasher abilities, like laser beams and, at least at lower levels, flight. Instead he had metal claws sprouting from every limb to make him a whirlwind of blades. I don’t know if this was part of his original concept or if he just realized the claw/claw/claw/claw/rend build did significantly more damage than the energy-firing build. You’ll have to ask him.
The party had been tasked with finding some missing dwarven craftspeople, and part of that job involved canvassing for local gossip. During a night of gathering information, Anton happened upon an especially attractive lady and charmed her thoroughly. For comedy, I asked him to make a Fortitude save, a Reflex save, and a Will save. After I had his results, I told them how they pertained to his…let’s say performance. The party laughed at his successes and failures and a great time was had by all, and he did manage to get a bit of information besides.
While Anton was flirting with the lady, another player asked if they could call her “Pepper”, after Iron Man’s long-suffering love interest. I allowed it.
My ulterior motive wasn’t made clear until later, when we ended session four (of five; this was a short campaign). While the party was facing down the fiend and duergar kidnappers, the lady appeared again. She casually let slip that she was a succubus, and that she had used Anton and fed him just enough information for him to make it to this point. Then she ordered him to attack his allies, and I reminded the player that he had already failed the Will save against her dominate person a few nights ago, before he knew what it was. We faded to black, and the final session opened after an off-screen combat, with the party captured by the villains after Anton had weakened them too much to resist.
I want to point out that this is the same player whose character was dominated by the vampire. I’m hoping for a hat trick in Faith.
The party broke out on their own and carved a path through the enemy base, working toward the superweapon they needed to stop. Along they way they met the succubus again, but now that she wasn’t being watched by her allies, she had a change of heart and helped the PCs instead. She stepped back from the final combat, and between adventures we decided she was the team’s on-again, off-again ally. In the next campaign she held down the group’s storefront while they went exploring, and she aided them in the final battle by using her shape-changing powers to disguise herself and spread propaganda. She’s not officially a member of the team or an in-combat ally, though as the group slowly makes their way up to her power level, that becomes a possibility. But she still hasn’t told anybody what her name it. They call her “Pepper”, and she allows it.
The group really likes “Pepper”. The “bad girl turned good through the power of the hero’s flirting” works with the pulpy action these campaigns mimic, and she can slide in and out of the game as necessary so she supports the team but never steals the spotlight. They also especially like how she’s slowly pushing Anton toward the dark side. Anton’s player asked me about trying to convert “Pepper” to a good alignment, and we found the rules in the Book of Exalted Deeds to do just that. But her Diplomacy skills are slightly higher than Anton’s. Instead of converting her, he’s being converted, and because of his low Wisdom we decided he doesn’t even notice. He only sees that their viewpoints are slowly coming together and he doesn’t realize it’s because he’s the one changing, not her. In another campaign or two, should we get that far, he might become fully evil. It won’t actually change that much about him, but it would be neat to see it work itself out at the table.
“Pepper” is the rare NPC who gained relevance from interaction with the players, not despite it. They actually bring her up more than I do, and I think having her watch the store was their idea. They thought of the conversion attempts, and they decided Anton was turning evil. They even came up with her name. But it’s not a character formed by committee, only one colored by it. They still don’t control her and don’t want to. They just like having her there as a contribution to Anton’s character development, a reminder of past stories, a useful ally, and (if I have anything to say about it) a seed for future campaigns. It’s not incorrect to say they adopted her, and when players adopt an NPC instead of ignoring or snarking at it, it makes the work of building characters as rewarding for the DM as the players demand for themselves.