NPC Tactics: Commoners and Nobles

Not all the enemies player characters encounter in Dungeons & Dragons are monsters. Many of them are simply people: villagers, townsfolk, nomads, vagabonds, hermits. They’re what we refer to as “non-player characters.”

In the fifth-edition Monster Manual, the basic template for an NPC is the commoner. The commoner has all-average attributes, no special skills or features, and no weapon attack except a club, which is interchangeable with any improvised weapon.

The German psychologist Karen Horney (rhymes with “horsefly,” not “corny”) observed three tendencies in people’s behavior: moving toward others, moving against others and moving away from others. She later called these tendencies compliance, aggression and detachment. In any given personality, one of these will probably be stronger than the other two. So a commoner thrown into a conflict situation might react one of three ways:

  • Fight. This character will reflexively attack a perceived enemy. The attack won’t be sophisticated. The NPC will grab the nearest weapon (improvised, if necessary), move toward his or her opponent, and Attack (action) until either the enemy is defeated or the NPC is seriously wounded (reduced to 1 hp) or knocked out. A rare commoner—for instance, a hunter—may know how to use a simple ranged weapon, in which case he or she will Attack without moving toward the opponent, but will give limited pursuit to an opponent that tries to escape.
  • Flee. This character will turn and run. Lacking the training to know to Disengage, he or she will instead Dodge (action) while within an opponent’s reach, Dash (action) otherwise, and in either case move at full speed toward the nearest place of perceived safety.
  • Freeze. In real life, this reaction to danger is surprisingly common. The character will neither fight nor flee but stand rooted, paralyzed with fear. If the NPC can gather his or her wits (say, by making a Wisdom check against a DC equaling 10 plus the enemy’s challenge rating times the appropriate encounter modifier from page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide), he or she will form the words necessary to surrender.

Why are you attacking commoners anyway, you naughty PCs? Well, a dungeon master may have good reasons for including commoners in an encounter other than evil PC behavior. Maybe the commoners are being attacked by a monster and must be rescued. Maybe they’ve been charmed by a more powerful foe. Maybe the PCs have been charmed or magically disguised to appear as a threat. Maybe the commoners are xenophobic, and the PCs are foreigners to them. Maybe they’re embroiled in a feud with some other commoners.

Nonhuman NPCs may be nudged toward one particular type of behavior based on their ability score modifiers. For instance, a mountain dwarf commoner would have an extra point of Constitution, an extra point of Strength and one point fewer in everything else. (Why not two extra points of Constitution and Strength? Because humans are the baseline, and they get one extra point in everything. So unless you’re going to declare that human commoners actually have 11 in all their ability scores rather than 10, you’ve gotta deduct that human “versatility bonus” from the commoner’s stats before applying other races’ modifiers.) This nudges them toward the “brute” category and makes them more likely to fight toe-to-toe; additionally, their slow speed suggests that they’ll be less likely to flee. Their Dwarven Combat Training suggests that even untrained mountain dwarf commoners will at least wield hand axes (their simple melee weapon of choice) rather than clubs. Here are tendencies for other races and subraces:

  • Hill dwarves: 11 Con, 11 Wis, everything else 9. They seek safety in numbers and choose their battles carefully, avoiding fighting unless they have the advantage. They wield hand axes. Hill dwarves are also slow and therefore less likely to flee once fighting has begun.
  • High elves: 11 Dex, 10 Int, everything else 9, plus cantrips. They seek safety in numbers and snipe at range, using not just bows but also damaging cantrips.
  • Wood elves: 11 Dex, 10 Wis, everything else 9, plus Mask of the Wild. They seek safety in numbers; attack from hiding, hoping to gain the element of surprise through camouflage; and snipe at range, using shortbows. Being Fleet of Foot, they are more likely to flee if the tide of combat turns against them even a little bit. With luck, they’ll have more chances to hide and snipe.
  • Dark elves: 11 Dex, 10 Cha, everything else 9, plus Sunlight Sensitivity and Superior Darkvision. They seek safety in numbers; snipe at range, using hand crossbows; and are nocturnal and/or subterranean.
  • Lightfoot halflings: 11 Dex, 10 Cha, everything else 9, plus Brave. They seek safety in numbers and snipe at range using simple ranged weapons. But they’re also plucky, more likely to fight than freeze and unlikely to flee because of their slow speed.
  • Stout halflings: 11 Dex, 10 Con, everything else 9, plus Brave. They seek safety in numbers and snipe at range using simple ranged weapons. They’re also more likely to fight and less likely to flee, and they’ll be scrappy fighters if they’re engaged in melee and have the numbers to put up a fight.
  • Dragonborn: 11 Str, 10 Cha, everything else 9, plus a breath weapon. They choose their battles carefully, avoiding fighting unless they have the advantage, and attack from hiding, leading with their breath weapon and following up with melee attacks using clubs or other improvised weapons. Despite their ancestry, they’re more likely to flee than to fight or freeze.
  • Forest gnomes: 11 Int, 10 Dex, everything else 9, plus minor illusion. They seek to avoid fighting altogether and use Speak With Small Beasts to employ forest critters as sentries. Forest gnomes who flee will use illusions to cover their escape; forest gnomes who freeze will reflexively use illusions to try to disguise themselves as rocks, bushes, tree stumps or some such thing.
  • Rock gnomes: 11 Int, 10 Con, everything else 9, plus Tinker. They seek to avoid fighting altogether and use traps and alarms to warn them of intrusions and to repel or disable the intruder(s).
  • Half-elves: 11 Cha, two other ability scores 10, everything else 9. No specific tendency; treat as human.
  • Half-orcs: 11 Str, 10 Con, everything else 9, plus Relentless Endurance and Savage Attacks. They almost always fight, rarely fleeing or freezing. They favor melee combat, with clubs or improvised weapons.
  • Tieflings: 11 Cha, 10 Int, everything else 9, plus Infernal Legacy. Lacking both Strength and numbers, they flee from danger and use thaumaturgy to try to frighten off creatures that pose a threat.
  • Aasimar: 11 Cha, 10 Wis, everything else 9. Lacking both Strength and numbers, they flee from danger.

The noble stat block reflects that even the most useless aristocrat nevertheless has a leg up on a typical commoner by virtue of his or her education, not to mention access to better nutrition. It suggests a measure of swordsmanship training as well as courtly refinement and access to books of philosophy and fiction. All three physical statistics are higher than those of a commoner, although not particularly high in the grand scheme of things; this suggests that a noble will be selectively brave. That is, a noble will have no fear of a commoner and may consider it his or her right to give the wretch a thrashing, but faced with, say, an owlbear, he or she will promptly remember the maxim that discretion is the better part of valor. Before a noble fights, flees or freezes in the face of a sentient opponent, he or she will try to negotiate—and will have a decent sense of whether he or she is doing so from a position of weakness or strength. The noble wields a rapier and is proficient with it, but can also tell when he or she is outclassed and knows when, and how, to Disengage (action) and retreat. The noble’s sense of self-preservation is very strong, and it will take only a moderate wound (reduced to 6 or fewer hp) for him or her to retreat or surrender. He or she will then keep fighting only if given no quarter and no opportunity to escape. The role of honor in the life-or-death decisions of a noble is highly overstated.

Next: NPCs whose job it is to hit you.

12 thoughts on “NPC Tactics: Commoners and Nobles

  1. Hmm, I think the npc blocks don’t include human stat bonuses because they aren’t human by default. They’re “humanoid (any race)”. And for commoners, adding 1 to everything doesn’t change their bonuses.

      1. Yes, but it doesn’t make any difference to them. 10 or 11 would still give +0. It only has an impact when using that to calculate other stats, as you’re doing here.

        Don’t take this the wrong way, though. Your calculations here are still very useful in showing an npc’s tendencies and abilities.

      2. I agree with Al. The NPC stat blocks are raceless templates, not humans. So a human commoner would indeed have 11 in everything, if you even bother to apply the bonus.

      3. I also agree with Al. Additionally, this would allowed a skill specialized commoner to have the Variant Human template. E.g. Doctor Granny, who is very good at nurturing people back to health (Bonus to Wisdom and Healer feat); Ralph, the Tavern Bouncer (Bonus to STR, and Grappler Feat); and William Tell, the best archer in the Village (Bonus to DEX, Sharpshooter feat).

        1. For some reason I read Doctor Granny as Granny Rags. *She* would have +1 to Charisma and the magic initiate feat.

  2. The idea of human’s having 11’s in everything would emphasise the idea of them being adaptable and varied that was presented in the players handbook.

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