Combat & NPC's (pt 1)

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The non-player character - the perfect tool for getting the players from Point A to Point B, divulging the whereabouts of the Magical McGuffin, or simply doing some good, old fashioned story building. But what if you want your NPCs to become more than just the Old Man at the inn, or King in the castle, what if you actually want to flesh out a character that develops and grows with the PCs, who is with them through their trials and tribulations? 

This is one conceit I have a particular weak spot for. I’ve written previously on how to build a game mechanic for lovin’ up your princess  and the best way to threaten castration against a player, but what do you do with these hangers-on do when battle breaks out?
 

You’ve got two choices, really:

  1. Keep them out of battle entirely.
  2. Let them wade into the melee.

In terms of simplicity of bookkeeping at the table, you can’t beat option 1 - but how is a PC supposed to really connect with an NPC, how can you build a deep and intriguing character, if she just stands around twiddling her thumbs while a beholder incinerates the wizard. 

Option 2 has issues of it’s own: How do you maintain game balance with another player on the field? How do you make a good NPC stat block? What happens if the NPC is stomped to death by a troll before she has a chance to unlock the Vault of Dreams – or whatever she’s supposed to do?

Over my articles this week and next, I’ll be delving into these nitty-gritty issues of persistent NPC in combat. We’ll look at some simple methods of creating a managing a combat-ready NPC and then go through the process for a few sample NPCs of my own devising (free for download, of course). 

Today, we examine game balance.

When I added Dovana to our game I chose to generate a full stat block (based on the companion monster statistic for Sir Oakley) and simply adjusted the encounter difficulty up to accommodate. That said, this is rarely the preferred solution for a variety of reasons - most importantly because it takes the focus off the players. By making an NPC equivalent to the heroes  you’re forcing your players to share the spotlight with an entity both beyond their control and, ultimately, beyond their agency to effect. This is doubly troublesome if one of the PCs is burdened with controlling the NPC in addition to their own character. In the short term you can probably get away with it, but a full-powered NPC hero who accompanies the PCs in session after session is eventually going to become more regretted than beloved.

Instead, try approaching a persistent NPC as you would a powerful magic item. The NPC’s powers, and role in the party, should be to aid and enhance the PCs when called upon. If we approach the NPC in this way we not only have a away to ensure game balance, but also a way to level up the character alongside the players.

When choosing the combat powers of an NPC, look to find magic items of the appropriate level for the players and use their attributes as the template for the NPC’s abilities. Don’t be afraid to combine the powers of many different magic items to flesh out your NPC’s stat block. In effect, the NPC will serve as a bundle of walking magic items that accompanies the PCs on their journey. By taking this route, ensuring game balance is as easy as tallying the effective magic item level of the NPC and removing the appropriate number of magic items from the PC’s future treasure payout. As your PC’s climb in level, you can have the NPC follow suit by adding pluses as laid out in the magic item advancement track (going from +2 to +3, say, at 11th level).

Of course, unlike standard treasure the persistent NPC doesn’t occupy any item slots on the players and, what’s more, has her own set of actions to activate her powers upon. In order to balance out these factors, we’ll have to come back next week and address NPC mortality.

-By David Crennen
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