The Mechanics of Running an Organization of Guards in D&D
Guard mechanics can vary depending on the size of the city, bureaucracy in place, and general mission, but all guards share a similar structure, organization, and functionality. Combining these details allows you to create an immersive and realistic city guard for players to interact with.
The size of the guard is one of the first things to consider when characters go into a city. If something goes awry, how many guards are available to respond? How many patrols are spread throughout the city and how quickly will guards be able to arrive on the scene?
A good rule of thumb is one guard per 50 citizens. This number may increase in larger cities where crime runs rampant or in outposts which are largely staffed by militia. Alternatively, the guard may be much smaller in farming outposts or outlying villages. Consider both the size of the city as well as the necessity on a day-to-day basis for guard members in order to determine how many guards a city may have.
Larger cities may have guard shifts that are 'round the clock, whereas towns may only have guards operating during the daytime and a skeleton crew during the night. Usually, cities with walls have guards at the gate or on watch at the wall at all times.
Location, Location, Location
When running city-based adventures, it’s important to know not only how many guard members there are, but also where they are stationed. It’s common for small patrols of troops, consisting of 3-5 members, to be roaming the streets. If a travelling carnival comes to town, extra guardsmen may be posted in the area. Additionally, there are hot-spots in the city where characters should expect to find the guard, such as the walls, watchtowers, guarding key nobles, or at the jails.
Structure can also affect not only where guards are stationed, but also how characters interact with guard members. For instance, a small town may consist of a single captain with a handful of troops. However, a large city will have a captain, followed by several ranks of officers, and general guards at the lowest level.
Cities may be segmented into districts or regions, each of which is overseen by a different officer. Because the presence of guards in cities is so large, there can be information siloing and politics within the guard itself. Perhaps some criminals may be notorious in one region of the city, but unheard of in another. A small town would offer no such benefits.
Similarly, characters may encounter different factions within a large city guard, including political squabbles, soldiers trying to move up in rank, and other motivating factors that need to be considered. This can allow for interesting role-playing opportunities as well as allow characters to affect the balance of power.
NPCs of different rank may have very different reactions to characters. For instance, when questioning a low-level guard, they may try to defer characters to their commander or captain, rather than answering questions. If asked to abandon their post or do other non-standard duties, guard members may refuse because they need to follow orders.
Higher-ranking NPCs have more freedom to react to varying conditions and give characters more information. They are also more likely to have pertinent information to share with the characters.
Of course, the guard exists to enforce the laws of the land, meaning that a guard’s mission statement, and the way they treat the characters, can vary widely depending on which city they serve. For instance, an elite Drow squadron from the Underdark will certainly treat characters differently than an elite human squadron from Waterdeep.
Not only does the guard enforce local laws, but individual members may be involved directly with government leaders or different government factions. This could lead NPCs turning a blind eye to the breaking of laws, as long as it serves their purpose. Creating diverse ranks and unique NPCs within the guard creates a more rich and realistic world for characters to interact with.
Guards Are People Too
This is one of the more commonly forgotten truths when role-playing guards; they don’t exist solely to enforce the laws, because they are people with their own flaws and ideals. A guard is first and foremost a person, who happens to work in the guard. Because of this, guard members may be open to bribes or staunchly refuse bribes based on their character. They may be willing to let someone off on a first offense or wholeheartedly believe justice must be served. When considering what a guard NPC may do, imagine the person first and then add the job onto that image.
The average person is not willing to fight to the death just because their job tells them to. If confronted with lethal force, the average guard member is most likely to surrender or run. Guard members have lives, pets, friends, and families to go home to at the end of their shifts, and the way they are role-played should reflect that.