Out of the Abyss: NPCs as a roadmap to a larger sandbox

In our last episode, we talked about turning the first adventure in Out of the Abyss into more of a sandbox encounter to fit into the overall module. 

As with most modules, you should read most of the way through the book before starting your adventure. I consider it especially important to read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 extensively before running a session of Out of the Abyss, and you should be really familiar with Chapter 3. The rest of the module is good to get an overall tone and sense of where the campaign expects your players to end up if they continue all the way through (But in a true sandbox setting, you never know where they’re going to go).

As we continue, we’ll focus a little more on creating an overall sandbox-style adventure, using Out of the Abyss as your reference point. 

Non-player characters (or NPCs) are pretty integral to most campaigns. Often these characters are the villains, the quest-givers, the law enforcement, and general litmus test of character behavior, alignment and scruples. 

Having a few key locations and several different NPCs at the ready can really be helpful creating an open world for your adventurers to explore. If you’re not good at coming up with your own NPCs (or even if you are and you need a handful of extra anyway), then go over to DonJon, which is a great web application that allows you to randomly generate most things. For our current needs, the NPC generator is pretty fantastic.

I recommend generating NPCs two or three times, copy-and-pasting the results into a word processing document and then saving and printing that out to keep with you. The NPC generator creates a name, race, class and a little background to have at your fingertips if you need it. Sometimes, I’ll just steal a name from it. Just be sure to mark it off, or note somewhere what you did use, so you can always reference it later. 

My favorite cheat is to pair these generated characters with face/portrait cards (example), or the portraits generated at D&D Beyond or even sculpting your own head, face and character using Hero Forge’s character designer (there’s no limit to the number of characters you create, and it gives your players more of an idea what they’re dealing with).

Back to OotA, you’re inundated with 10 different NPCs (or 9 if you count Topsy and Turvy as a singular unit). Reading their bios will give you some insight to each NPC, and how they fit into the overall frame work of the adventure.

Abyss NPCs1

I recommend making two grids: One will be a way to track on what terms (Friendly, Indifferent, Hostile) an NPC is with another (this can play into what information an NPC is ready to reveal and when; and also introduces the party to the idea of factions. The second grid is a way to track the NPCs and what they’ve revealed to the party and their motivations.

 The first grid is to help you quickly visualize the initial reactions an NPC may have with your Player Characters based on their interactions with the other NPCs. We’ll build an example grid, but you should feel free to put the characters in whatever position you want (but remember that their order should match in the first row and first column, so you can blank out their meeting square. You can also decide the frequency and temperments (just make sure that they mirror each other when you cross reference the NPCs). 

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Your own NPC interaction grid can look however you want. Designate a particular character as a number and slot them in. The grid allows you to cross reference how the NPCs woul d interact with each other.

This can be a one-sheet piece of paper. The more you prepare and the further your characters progress through the campaign, you can add NPCs (which may give you additional adventure hooks, i.e. maybe the characters meet an NPC several sessions later who is hostile toward another NPC. Now they may be curious why or how the two are related!).

The second grid is a little more complicated, but can help you seed the NPCs with adventure hooks, motives, and additional information. 

NPC help sheet

I recommend a whole row using information that’s similar to the DonJon generated content (Name, Race, Class — if necessary — stat lines, AC and HP, and a brief description. 

Under that, come of with three things the player may know. Any number of these may be True or False. Lawful and Neutral Good characters may be all True. A Chaotic Evil NPC may know all false, or maybe one True statement. Mix and match how you see fit. 

Under another column, you should list their motivations based on their interactions with someone they consider Friendly, Hostile or Indifferent.  These should be short, one-line notes.

In a third column, you can have three boxes. These can be blank for you to fill in later, or you can plan ahead and write things. I would leave one or two blank, because you may get ideas from the players. 

You can probably get four or five NPCs on one sheet of paper, so eight to 10 if you use both sides. 

From here, each tool is yours to change or rebuild how you want. But it’s nice to have a short list of (10-15) generic NPCS. a list of more detailed NPCs, and reference photos at the ready if possible. As the PCs level and grow, some of your NPCs motivations may change with them. Maybe some of them also level and grow with your NPCs, and will make villains in future story arcs. 

*****

If you see a great NPC from somewhere — another module, television, another game system — don’t be afraid to incorporate it into your game. Some of my favorite NPCs have been characters whose traits I pulled from another reference, i.e. a Sherlock Holmes-esque Investigator Halfling whipping a zombie in a brothel.

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