Role Playing a Shopkeeper – Better NPCs

NPCs are the primary way in which the DM brings direct voice into the narrative. One of the most common NPC interactions that you will have to develop on the spot is a shopkeeper. You never know when your players are going to want to go shopping. Some groups do it every time they are in a town while other players only do it when absolutely necessary. If you find yourself unprepared for a shopkeeper interaction, there are a couple of things you can do to create more believable shopkeepers in an instant.

What Makes a Shopkeeper NPC

Owners or workers in stores follow a pretty straight narrative path when you introduce them to your players. The goal of the shopkeeper is relatively straight forward: sell the customers goods. This goal is what establishes the interactions you will build with your characters. Whether or not the shopkeeper has any other traits does not particularly matter. As long as they are focused on a primary goal, you will have a stable framework on which to build up this NPC.

Other traits that a shopkeeper might have are applied value statements around the same idea. While their core objective is almost always the same, whether or not they are a “good” shopkeeper is a different question. A good shopkeeper might be helpful, knowledgeable, and informative. On the other hand, a bad shopkeeper would be unhelpful, forgetful, and curt. Each type of shopkeeper is role played differently, but they are still trying to sell your players goods.

How to Choose a Shopkeeper’s Personality

You often don’t have a lot of time to prepare when a player suddenly decides to walk into a shop. Because of this you might think your NPC’s personality would be chosen at random, just creating a character out of thin air. But that’s not the best tactic when trying to establish useful characters to interact with. Instead, quickly consider the type of shop that your players are entering and use that as a base line for your NPC’s personality.

If your players are entering a general store, your NPC can have a wide range of personalities. But since they work with people daily and carry goods for main trades, they’re likely decent at business, good with customers, and knowledgeable on value and haggling. They might be a little less specialized than keepers of other shops, but they make up for this in their broad knowledge and good connections with other businesses.

If someone is entering a craftsman’s shop or a very particular store, like a book store, the NPC will likely be much more passionate about their shop. A blacksmith, for example, might have real pride in their work and try to push wares more enthusiastically. An NPC working in a book store might be more reserved, but would also be knowledgeable.

By thinking about the location first, you can easily put together a simple idea of what you want your NPC to act like. As a rule of thumb, the more specialized the shop, the more knowledgeable and purposeful the shopkeeper will be.

Making Your Shopkeeper More Complex

Complexity in your NPCs comes from the way they interact with your players. Their voice, their mannerisms, the pace at which they speak; all of these things help create a good experience for your players, but none of these choices are important to the actual character initially. You have a surprising amount of wiggle room here, especially if you keep your first communications with your players short. A simple greeting sets the NPC’s voice, and from there you have some time to think about their communication style.

Thankfully, shopkeepers naturally get to ask a lot of questions. This gives you time to think about your answers and develop the character’s personality. If you aren’t ready to handle the interaction or the character starts to fall apart, you can backpedal easily into short questions and answer their questions with minimal effort. If the interaction is going well, you can expand the amount of communication and develop more tone.

Example Shopkeepers

Magic Shop

The players enter a magic shop and are greeted by an unkept old wizard. The man speaks quickly and with a creaky loud voice, indicating his hearing may have diminished in his old age. “Yes, Can I help you? What do you want?” The players respond that they are looking for some spell scrolls, and the NPC fires back, “You’ll have to speak up! Spell what now’s?”

The communication continues like this back and forth. The old shopkeeper replies sharply and inquisitively, genuinely trying help the players find what they want though his stock is limited. Eventually the shopkeeper finds some scrolls that will work for them and begins to haggle with players. His asking price is outrageous and fluctuates wildly.

The players quickly get the idea that shopkeeper is less interested in money than magic and offers to trade him an interesting magical item they found earlier instead. This goes well and the old wizard agrees to the trade, bidding them farewell.

General Store

The players are greeted immediately when they walk in with a deep and hardy, “Hello, how can I help you today?” The shopkeeper smiles at the players and patiently waits for them to request some general goods for their travels. After listening for a moment, he begins to make recommendations on additional products and offers to bundle things together at a better price. He honestly tells them when he doesn’t have something and offers replacements of different items or tells them where they can find what they need.

When it comes time to check out, he is firm on prices and refuses to budge, insisting he is already offering the best deal he can. Despite this, he is kind and shows a gentle friendly face the entire time. The party gets their goods and heads on their way.

Hunting Supply and Trap Shop

The players enter a dark store with many traps hanging from the ceiling and lengths of rope and chain coiled on the walls. The shopkeeper waits for the players to ask them for something rather than reaching out. “You need traps? What kind of traps?” They are gruff and unfriendly, offering little to work with and demanding the players be more specific.

Despite this, the shopkeeper actually is quite knowledgeable. When the party describes the prey they are after, she becomes more interested and offers unsolicited advice on how she’d hunt that creature. She never becomes friendly, but she does not turn the players away. Her prices are stated as take it or leave it and she insists she will charge extra if they try to haggle. The players buy some traps and take their leave.

How To Role Play Haggling

Now that we’ve looked at a few example shopkeepers, let’s move on to discussing the most common role play scenario they get into: Haggling. Haggling can be done in a ton of different ways, but can be separated into two camps: Role Play or Skill Checks. Both versions of this should have some role playing, but it is handled differently in each. Before we talk about each method, let’s consider a few things that are critical to both.

To make haggling easier you should keep the following in mind for either method:

  • The minimum price of the item
  • The standard asking price
  • How much cash on hand the shop has

If you know how much it cost the shop to make or acquire an item, you have your floor value figured out. This doesn’t need to be hard set or calculated, just choose a number based on how much you think the item costs. Typically, goods are marked up by 150% of their cost to create in real life, so something that costs 2g to make will sell for 3g assuming you use that in the game. The great thing about setting a minimum price is that it gives you a place to stand your ground.

The shop should always make a profit or at least not loose money. Knowing the standard asking price is also something you can use as your baseline if you don’t want to try and squeeze any more money out of your players.

The last thing to keep in mind is knowing how much haggling you’re willing to do. The less operational money the shop has, the more they are willing to haggle. If a shop has nearly empty coffers, it might be willing to sell goods under their standard asking price to ensure they have enough money to pay staff or buy new inventory. All of this feeds into how you role play the scenario.

Pure Role Play Haggling

The easiest mechanical option for haggling is to handle it completely in role play. You, as the shopkeeper, ask a price with a target in mind. The player responds with a counter or accepts the price. This seems straightforward, but it can get complicated quickly if you aren’t prepared. As long as you keep the basic concepts discussed above in mind, you should be able to manage just fine.

When haggling from a role play perspective, you have options for how you start and what goals you want to achieve. Goal oriented role play can be easier because you are following a framework for what you want to achieve. If you’re trying to swindle the player, you start with an outrageously high asking price and accept any lower offer above the standard asking price. If you’re trying to make an honest deal, you will refuse low ball offers and state that you’ve made a fair offer and that you can’t be expected to not turn a profit on goods.

Additionally, if you’re playing a shopkeeper in a tight spot, you don’t have to give things away, but you might try to bundle in goods and actually get more money from the players that way. If your goal is to move inventory that’s not selling, even getting rid of it at cost makes sense. You are simply trying to hit a target between two values through communication. So long as you both agree, the scene ends successfully.

If things don’t end successfully, and the player or you refuse to come to a compromise, don’t give into the players. Simply refuse to sell the goods. If the players need them, they’ll cave first or pay asking price. You can keep your shopkeepers realistic in this way by simply refusing business if they offer offensive deals or haggle to aggressively. There are other shop patrons.

While this method is pure role play, it is worth noting that you should still get an idea of your players skills and charisma score before doing this and take those into consideration when playing. Think of them like mental skill checks that still reward your players for being trained in the skill without rolling as many dice.

Skill Check Based Haggling

While this method is skill check based, it is worth noting that it shouldn’t necessarily be all based on dice rolls. If you still want to opt into a more dice heavy method, you can still engage in roll play. Asking a shopkeeper for an item at less than asking price will still fail, and you’d need to roll a 20 to get them to sell something at cost.

Since we’re talking about skill checks, what skill checks can you use? A lot of different skills, actually. The players might need to appraise an item to get a sense of it’s actual worth. They might use their diplomacy or intimidation to try and lower the price. They might need to sense motive to see if they think the shopkeeper is offering a fair value. Regardless of what you use, the DC you’re checking against is still based on the general circumstances and can be set on the fly.

When using rolls for haggling, your DC can follow some basic guidelines:

  • DC 10: Standard negotiation and a fair ask of the shopkeeper
  • DC 15: Not too unreasonable, but not ideal for the shopkeeper
  • DC 20: Unreasonable, but still in the range for slim profit
  • DC 25: At price deal for the acceptance of extreme circumstances

When setting up for skill check based haggling, you’re doing the same basic thing as using pure role play and working the whole scenario out as a conversation. The main difference here is that you are breaking the role play aspects occasionally to get dice rolls for your checks. While this can help guide things, it also makes the game play feel a bit choppy in places. This method is best used when your players either have a hard time doing first person role play or if you have a very number focused group that is all about using those skills.

If your players do a great job role playing their haggling, go ahead and give them Advantage on their skill checks. It’s important to always reward your group for role playing, and increasing the odds of a successful role translates well in a shop scenario.

Shopkeepers for DnD

Shopkeepers are one of your quintessential NPCs. Even if your players don’t return to the same store or you only use them once, getting used to what they do and how they are role played will improve your game’s immersion. A better shopkeeper can be a real asset that players remember fondly as they tell stories of their exploits. Stock up your stores, haggle with players, make some sales, and run better DnD shopkeepers!

Happy DMing!