My “Worlds” entries are going to be where I talk not about general gaming ideas, but specifically ideas related to creating and running worlds that not only feel organic and alive but that also feel like a world to be adventured in. Keep in mind that these are my personal methods; I cannot speak to how these methods are applied by professional game and world developers. Also, keep in mind that this is a new thing I’m doing so it might take me a bit to get in the groove of it.
Alright, I’m going to open this up with the disclaimer that I know that the term “NPC” means “non-player character” and I know that the term refers to any character not controlled by a player. For purposes of this article though I’m going to refer to use to it to refer to characters with “NPC Class levels” in d20 games because it was the simplest term I could think of to refer to a rather large population. Before I go any further, I’m going to define what each of the terms in the title means when I use them.
NPC: The term NPC in this article refers to characters in the world that do not have Adventurer Class levels. Their class levels are instead in the NPC Classes: Commoner, Warrior, Expert, Adept, or Aristocrat. In most worlds that I run, this comprises at least 80% of the world’s population. These are your farmers, shopkeepers, most of your nobility, city guards, and even some of your villains like bandits and brigands. Members of this population should be present in pretty much every organization from the city guard to the thieves’ guild to the Emperor’s Court.
Adventurer: These are characters with adventurer class levels who, while they may be very good at what they do, are not changing the world. More often than not they have some experience with actual adventures such as dungeon delving, but even the third level cleric who is head of a town’s church falls into the category. In games I run, this group makes up about 19% of a world’s population. Adventurers usually adventure, and the ones that don’t are usually in charge of small to medium sized groups of NPCs. This means your bandit leader, your captain of the guard, and the head of the local church. This category usually tops out around level six or seven for me for a couple of reasons: If they don’t adventure, then they level up much slower and become old before they hit higher levels and if they do adventure then by the time they hit level six or seven they’ve both accumulated enough wealth to retire and have probably seen enough death and killing to have some serious PTSD going on.
Heroes: This is the group that the Player Characters fall into, along with maybe 1% of the world’s population. These are people like Beowulf or Hercules. Not only do they typically become very powerful, but they also usually have some higher calling beyond simply doing a job and getting paid. Characters in this range are built like player characters and, outside of the player characters include figures in your world like the Captain of the King’s Personal Guard, the deadliest assassins in the world, the Grand Cardinal of a major church. Keep in mind that this term does not refer to any aspect of morality and even high end bad guys fall into this group. Because usually only people in this group fall into “chosen one” territory, they are also likely to be the only ones who would both receive and accept a resurrection rather than just enjoying the afterlife that they have earned.
The reason it’s important to have different definitions for these groups is so that you understand when, where, and why to implement them in your game world so that things make sense. Whenever you build an NPC to exist in a town, you can ask yourself the question of “Which of these groups should this person belong to?” How common the answers to this question are can also help define your world and its level of power and magic.
In my world, people in the NPC category make up a huge portion of the population and people with actual class levels are a much smaller group. However, some worlds and games will have everybody who works at a church have at least one cleric level and everyone who carries a sword is also packing a few fighter levels. I never played in the Forgotten Realms but when I read about it I felt like everything was so high power that there was really no purpose to having your player characters because of all of the figurative titans walking around. This gets even worse when you look at the expectations of players, because some players expect every town to be able to take the ten thousand gold they pulled off of their last dungeon crawl and pump out magic items for purchase. The ability of the PCs to do this in communities of various sizes is a good way to demonstrate just how much power is running around in your world.
As an example, let’s say your players are in a moderately sized village and they’re going shopping. They find the Blacksmith’s shop and are greeted by your world’s example of a “very skilled” blacksmith. In my world, they’ve just run into a character like this:
Torga Shale (Dwarf Warrior 1/Expert 4)
Feats: Skill Focus (Craft: Weapons), Craft Magic Arms and Armor, Master Craftsman
Skills: Craft: Weapons +10, Craft: Armor +7, Appraise +9, Diplomacy +5, Sense Motive +5, Disable Device +4, Heal +4, Profession: Blacksmith +5.
Torga here was an actual NPC from a game that I ran. He is considered one of my world’s high tier blacksmiths. If he so chose, he could be selling his services to a wealthy noble or running a shop in a larger city. The level of warrior represents an upbringing from a military culture, and it also lets me justify him (if need be) swinging his hammer as a weapon. He even has a feat that allows him to craft magical arms and armor, simply by being SO good at it. He falls into that 80% of the population without Adventurer levels, but he’s in the top 20% of his field within that population.
Torga’s status as a master of the weapon crafting trade in my setting is very significant though. Torga cannot, and more than likely will never be able to, make any weapon that is more powerful than +1. Now this means he can make weapons of such high quality that they become magical. It also means that someone who is in the top 20% of blacksmiths in the world can’t give the players a flaming sword or anything more powerful than that.
Now let’s say the group continues their journey and they run into the mayor, whose entourage includes some members of the town guard. In a moderately sized town, these guardsmen are likely to have 2 to 3 levels of warrior and the mayor probably has several levels of Aristocrat, they’re all basic NPCs. However, let’s say that instead of a guard, the mayor is with the Sheriff. The Sheriff, being in charge of at least some of the guard, is probably a pretty powerful NPC and, if the normal town guard is level 3 warriors then the Sheriff might be a Level 4 fighter. This means that he’s one of the 19% of people in the population who fall into the “adventurer” field, even though he probably does not regularly go off and adventure. When the players run into someone like this, they should be able to understand that they’re dealing with someone powerful. Still, even though the Sheriff is a great enough warrior to protect the town from most threats and is strong enough to go toe to toe with something like a Grizzly Bear, the player characters will begin to overshadow him before most full length campaigns are over.
If that’s the case, then while the players are talking to the Sheriff he may tell them he is out of his depth. There is a group of marauding Orcs, led by a fierce warrior that tears through his men and who even he was unable to defeat. This Orcish commander is in the “hero” group. He’s a level 8 barbarian who has been built on the player’s point buy and who has progressed along the PC wealth by level chart. As heroes go he’s not that hot, but that’s compared to the 1% of the world’s population who can even compare to him. People besides the player characters are likely to tremble in his presence. Actual characters like this that are not of special monstrous or very powerful races are exceptionally rare in my worlds. This means that around the mid-levels players can count on being among the biggest baddest dudes they’re likely to run into unless they start dealing with national or international (or interplanar) matters.
I feel like that was a lot of explanation, but I also think the explanation will be necessary for any further segments I do on the subject of worlds and world building. Determining the population ratios of these different groups can be extremely important for setting the tone and scale of your world. I prefer the aforementioned ~80%/~19%/<1% ratio, but certain players and GMs may want a population that is composed differently.