When to roll for an NPC

Here is a question I’ve had for years, I’ve tried it a couple ways but feel slightly unsatisfied.

When an NPC is taking an action that doesn’t involve a player character but is integral to the situation or big picture, do you make a test or does a GM just make a choice.

Example: Would an NPC necromancer have to make the tests to maintain his undead horde?

An NPC is fighting another NPC but the players are just witnesses, say it’s a Duel between two relationships. Would you make a Blood Vs test?

I almost never roll tests for NPCs (other than vs characters). The only time I really have npc’s roll is for tests to treat character injuries (in a campaign where this has been agreed to provide risk).

Generally I’ll ask myself what’s the most interesting outcome (considering player BITs). If the necromancer is the opposition, then it’s not normally interesting to have his schemes fail without intervention from the PCs. Alternatively if players have made tests to foil his plots, then it’s part of the intent and task, and no roll needed.

In instances where I’m not sure (two npc’s are fighting), I’ll just decide on some odds and roll a single D6.


My basic answer is “If there’s player investment”.

So in the example of a duel between relationships, I might have the two players do a full Fight if it was the center of the session, or I might have the two PCs do the Bloody Vs.

I think that the reasons I don’t make an NPC roll is if it could make the session fall apart (the necromancer gets to keep their army, because the game is about the army), or the player made a roll (the player Circled an instructor, making the instructor fail sucks).

My table is really big on having things play as they fall, so weird things being caused by NPCs having weird dice luck is really important to us, we love to see Dragons fail to conquer castles and need to return with armies, and con artists suddenly be caught in the middle of the con.


It really seems like poor sportsmanship of he doesn’t.


Generally no. I’d decide what happens to NPCs in a way that helps me challenge PC beliefs. NPCs are just GM tools, so unless they’re in conflict with a PC, I don’t really see a need. Of course, if we’re interested in leaving something up to the dice for some reason, we could.


Thanks for the input everyone! After considering it, I think I’m going to go with having the NPC roll dice. You’ve all brought up good points, and the points for “not doing that” helped me understand my perspective with Burning Wheel.

For that reasons right there! I know, some folks, will feel its unsatisfying having the big bad NPC plans de-railed with some bad rolls but what I like from RPGs is the breaking of narrative expectations*. The stressors/consequence of the world, should be applied equally as feasible, within the methodology of play. So, I think I’ll apply the “Roll dice or Say Yes” rule, as one does with players, when an NPC is on-screen/pertinent to events. It might take more cognitive work at times, but hey “thats gaming”.


Very cool. I generally find myself in complete agreement with @Gnosego but this may be an honest area of disagreement. I wouldn’t even try to apply the stressors and consequences of the world equally. I don’t put much value sportsmanship in BW. I don’t particularly care about the NPCs’ struggles outside of how they affect PC BITs. I could see using the dice to determine things things in much the way that I might flip a coin, but not from the POV of sportsmanship. Interesting.


The value of sportsmanship was left deliberately unstated.

Sometimes players want to do stuff because they know their enemy’s will have a harder time and/or have to balance whatever it is they’re up to against other resources. I think something like the Faction system’s Interference rule is a good model for this idea. Burning Empires is that idea taken to its (awesome) extreme.

If we players are knights and soldiers fighting the hordes of a Lich King’s undead army, whatever. But if your character is a Death Artist, and my NPC Death Artist never has to make Will tests to maintain their creations… It may become clear that those characters are playing by different rules, which may be a problem – in the credibility of the world, if nothing else. The least I could do is give my dude a cheating trait or magic item.


This tread has been haunting me a little, so I want to expand my thoughts.

First things first, play however you want, it’s your game, you decide (you + players hopefully). My advice would just be to consider the knock on effects of choices you make.

The key point I want to make is that rolling for NPCs is a deviation from RAW, and can lead to a deviation from the intent of the system. Sometimes it feels appropriate for an NPC to roll, and sometimes it’s a deliberate choice by GM and players. For example, in games I’ve run we’ve had NPCs make wound treatment rolls on players. This was a deliberate choice, discussed beforehand, and was the only roll NPCs really made.

However, care must be taken with how these mechanics interact with PC beliefs. PCs should be pursuing and making rolls towards their beliefs using the intent and task system, to have an NPC roll is to remove agency from them. E.g. if I had a PC belief ‘find a healer to save X’s life’, they roll circles with the intent of finding a healer capable of saving X, succeed, but then the healer fails the roll and X dies. I’ve subverted the intent and task system in a way that feels unfair to the player. This whole situation is avoided at session 0 where we decided wound treatment would always be risky and involve a roll (if anyone has thoughts on this kinda thing I’d love to hear them).

So coming back to this, I’d be extremely careful about making a roll if the NPC (and their undead horde) are deeply engrained into the situation and player beliefs. If you want to lean into a more chaotic game with weird twists of fate go ahead, but if a player has a belief about stopping the horde and it just crumbles away, this can feel more unfair/unsporting than having the NPC feel like they’re playing by different rules. I’d say the players are generally aware they’re playing a game and so long as that game is internally consistent, they’ll be happy.

On the other hand, thinking about the roll in the abstract can be really helpful as the GM (and also for the players when writing beliefs). How is your necromancer able to maintain their horde? Do they have help? Magic items? Does it require a lot of time/resources? These then become avenues of attack for you players to slowly undermine a threat they can’t take head on. It’s possibly then tricky to say how much undermining is enough. I’d say enough is a narratively satisfying amount, a significant enough obstacle for the players to overcome. Or perhaps at each stage a roll is then made by the necromancer, the key this time being the players are triggering the possibility of failure. I’d definitely reserve this for some great foe.

Random chance / fate is also a great opportunity to use the die of fate, which I maybe overuse, and am guilty of calling out odds that feel right (e.g. 5 or 6 is the ‘good’ outcome, or some variation). I tend to prefer this over NPCs rolling as an NPC roll slows down the game and can often feel arbitrary. As the GM I can give the NPC any exponent/trait/help/gear I want, so at the end of the day I’m just making a call, like with a DOF. You can burn up all major NPCs, but you can’t do this on the fly, e.g. with circled NPCs. So I’d be careful.

This feels dangerous to me. In the abstract it’s fine, but NPCs are not PCs. Depending on what level of ‘simulation’ you want to run, it can be informative to burn up NPCs and make some roles out of session, but I’d be careful of slowing down the session to role for NPCs interacting with one another. I’d also advise against having NPCs roll persuasion etc on a PC (this can sometimes be fun, but only at the PC’s suggestion).

If you start applying PC rules to NPCs, do your NPCs need to make lifestyle maintenance? This might be helpful for the GM to flesh out what’s happening in the background. Do your NPCs all practise during downtime, or act on intend and task towards beliefs, do they circles up more NPCs, how quickly do they advance, do they earn fate and persona? These things can be interesting to think about between sessions (either in the abstract or as rolls if you find them helpful), but during sessions I try to focus on players. So:

Is probably the key thing, and the others in the thread have given great specific advice.

And for something bigger this feels like the way to go, but at the end of the day it’s whatever you find best for the behind the scenes simulation type prep.

So one last thing, it’s helpful to give NPCs beliefs (or belief singular on the fly), because it helps you decide how they act. Now I’ve experimented a little with giving NPCs artha (usually either in a fairly arbitrary way or when players vote to give them persona), however results have often felt unsatisfying. Yes it’s more ‘fair’ in terms of levelling the playing field between PCs and NPCs, however players have a hard time intuiting chances of success and failure when artha is involved, which can feel unfair to them. Do anyone else have a good strategy for this / and thoughts? (is this a new thread I should start?). It almost feels wrong to my to snatch success away from my players when an NPC uses fate.

Hopefully this has been somewhat coherent, and I don’t mean to be overly negative about rolling for NPCs. We all do it sometimes, the point I’m trying to stress is that you should do it consciously and with consideration of the impact it will cause on the game.

I think I should unpack a bit about my methodology on using elements of simulation to drive play. It is important to make the distinction between using these techniques and an end-goal of experiencing a minutely simulated secondary world.

I started to respond to individual points, however I started with theoretical situations and you responded with some of your own. I should’ve concentrated on experiences in Actual Play, as there is always more context and the questions gain more definition.

Many of your points assumed a far deeper level of simulation than I intended, or would ever do for any game (yes, even old RuneQuest or Pendragon). Likewise, there should be a blanket assumption of “we agree to play together in good faith, and take into consideration what we’re doing”. So, let’s brush aside all those…
To restate my initial question.

This is a better question.

When an NPC is taking an action outside the immediate circumstances of play, but the outcome would directly affect the Situation and Big Picture. Do you Roll the Dice or Say Yes?

It turns out, in Actual Play, from recent weeks that my answer was right in the Question. Roll the Dice or Say Yes. The Big Picture and the Situation are ways to challenge the player characters. The PCs exist within the Big Picture and Situation - the world exists independently of the PCs beliefs.

In the Playing the Game Appendix, it tells the GM to get across their point/vision/idea. Also it instructs the players to create and resolve situations. You can, and perhaps should, bring in challenges outside the Player’s Beliefs, to give voice to the Big Picture. This also provides oppurtunity for the player’s to make a choice about what is really important to the characters.

My home game is takes place in a small part of a duchy. I have begun to bring in new elements to the Big Picture which are indirectly complicating the immediate goals of the player characters. I’ve also brought in aspects of the Situation unknown to the players to turn up the heat.

How does this apply in practice?

I rolled for a Head Priest to undertake a Ritual before making a big Faith in Dead Gods test. The Ritual would take hours, and I wanted to see how far it would be along, if the player’s chose to go there. Likewise, success or failure could create new situations for the player’s to engage with or choose not to.

Did a player have a belief about stopping the cult? Nope, Sir Vornal had no idea there was a cult. He though the Lord of the Manor was a jackass. However, the progress the cult made, and who was in the cult, was important to challenging the player character by complicating the circumstances they were in.

Bringing in the world outside the player character’s beliefs is important to create new situations. If there is that gut feeling an NPC should make a test, use the Intent & Task, and its procedures when appropriate. You can always say “Yes, this Death Artist can easily muster 20 Dice and all the resources and time in the world” and just move on. If a player character had that many dice at their disposal, I’d probably do the same unless circumstances changed enough where it was important - BUT that is getting into theoretical territory.

Quick Note on NPCs:

I always just assign numbers as appropriate, and keep track of it on an index card. I use the Burning Rogues chapter. I don’t worry about having anything fully burned or even assigning traits or whatever, unless it’s frequently recurring. This goes for Old School Runequest, The Riddle of Steel or any sort of technical game. You rarely RARELY need super detailed NPCs, and if you do in a pinch - just grab a stat block and add one or two wrinkles.


I think this is pretty key. If only the players can push their agenda it can be hard to create a lot of conflict. By making the NPCs not just extensions of the player’s Beliefs, and having Beliefs of their own, it feels better to me, and I feel like there’s more fleshed out responses and needs.


Yeah sorry I opened things up a lot, which maybe isn’t the best forum practice. My response was meant to be more my thoughts on rolling for NPCs in general. I focused a lot on rolling during the session, which is where I’d give the most caution.

e.g. ‘you’ being the general reader you, rather than you specifically.

I think this is kinda the key thing for rolling during a session, either establishing a method with the players (when to roll any why), or saying like ‘okay shall we handle it this way’.

This is an interesting distinction, something that isn’t directly part of a belief, but provides the complication that challenges the belief. So you can use NPC intent and task to generate the urgency and strength of the challenge? Then you can also use this to feed back into those NPC, e.g. he need help/materials for the ritual, which brings in more NPCs and/or adds an avenue of discover. Are you primarily doing this between sessions as part of prep?

Yeah I agree here. I’ve had unsatisfying experiences of rolling for NPCs during a session, though a big part of that was just calling for too many rolls in general. Which comes back to PC agency, and rolls being impactful. However, I’m thinking I should try out rolling for NPCs between sessions as JC has outlined. I have NPCs with beliefs that interact with the PCs during the session, and will move to oppose them as time passes within the game. So in between sessions I’m gunna try being more rigorous with their plans, and make some rolls. Or at least think about Ob’s for what they’re trying to achieve and gather dice, which will help me flesh out any help/res/time they need.

I think I’m more the noclue kinda GM, but I’m interested in trying this methodology to flesh out how NPCs interact with PC BITs.

I actually don’t roll between sessions. I roll at the start of a session or when it’s appropriate during the game. It keeps me on my toes, and prevents the impulse to “pre-plan” a series of events which I find boring and a waste of effort. I prefer to keep my prep just “motivations and where things are now” then play my NPCs on-and-off screen as play and whim dictates.

My preparation between session looks more like Trollbabe’s Stake Questions or Circle of Hand’s Tripwires…errr…my GM’ing is heavily influenced by Ron Edward’s approach in Sorcerer & Sword, Trollbabe and Circle of Hands. Player characters are somewhere, or going to a specific place. I then look at what’s going on there in relation to the Big Picture and Situation (which beliefs are in dialog with), and then its up to the player’s to engage with it.

On NPCs…
I just think of “Who would be here, and what concerns do they have?”. If you have a very solid Big Picture and Situation, I just choose the obvious option. I do not try and be clever, or creative. In fact, any ounce of narrative consideration is entirely absent. The interactions between the GM and Players will add the texture and creative spark to ignite these into something unique and special.

The Antagonist Chapter in the Codex has great advice on NPCs in general, having the NPCs start sketchy/as-an-idea then the NPC gains definition as play happens. That chapter is vital to how I run games.

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Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look into this. Yeah my prep tends to be looking at BITs and thinking of situations that would challenge them, trying to give the players interesting character choices and/or letting them be creative in how to overcome the obstacles.

I think in terms of prep I use a similar methodology, though maybe shaping the ‘now’ more towards the narrative of player beliefs. Then in session I don’t really roll for npc’s, usually choosing the option which interacts most strongly with player BITs (e.g. NPCs not failing rolls that directly interact). For things I don’t feel I can say yes to I tend to DoF it, often letting a player pick the outcome they want then letting them roll for it (with maybe some modification of odds). Which I guess is a stylistic choice.

Anyway, thanks for the discussion. I find it interesting how such subtle choices can make a huge difference to how the game runs.

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