Combat & NPC's (pt 2)

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Last week we looked at the question of how to put a persistent NPC into battle along side the stalwart PCs, this week we look at how to kill her.

Lightning cracks over a mountain ridge. An army of orcs howl like madmen, rushing the PC’s position with an abandon fueled by unquenchable blood-lust. It’s clear, if the PCs are going to survive this encounter they’ll have to lay it all out on the line. The rogue thrusts a sword into the hands of the rescued princess. 

“You know how to swing a sword don’t you?” he asks and shoves her to the front lines.

You, the noble, long-suffering DM, freeze in your tracks. Crap. 

Of course the princess can fight –  you know how to make a game-balanced block of combat stats for NPC’s after all – but she’s too important to the story to die. What happens if the princess finds herself facing down nine orc blades all alone? What are her defenses? How many hit points does she have? 

Without careful balance, NPC’s defenses and HP can throw all the hard work you’ve done balancing the game out the window. More to the point, if the NPC occupies an important narrative position in your campaign, you don’t want her to kick the bucket early. On the other hand, rendering the NPC too strong removes the drama of combat or, worse, opens the door for the players to exploit/hide behind her in battle. 

The easiest way around this is to make the NPC a minion, but with one twist - she returns to full hit points after each battle. Use level appropriate minion defenses for the NPC, and give her a single hit point. Unlike a minion, however, don’t kill an NPC once she takes a hit - instead consider the NPC “down” for the rest of the encounter. As long as the PC’s survive the battle, the NPC can be revived out of combat. Alternatively, a PC can use a heal check (easy DC), or expend one of their own surges, in order to revive a downed NPC in combat.

Courtesy WotC

Courtesy WotC

This 1 and down approach also helps to moderate the NPCs power. She may possess a number of interesting and helpful abilities equal to several magic items, but all that is for naught if she takes a single blow. A DM who wants to challenge PCs who are becoming too reliant on the NPC’s powers can even lead with an attack designed knocks her out in the first round. 

A final note on these topics – avoid giving the NPC powerful ranged capabilities. With only a single hit point, the player’s inclination will be to keep the NPC as far from danger as they can while still gaining access to her combat abilities. Whether or not the NPC has attack or buffing powers, limiting their range to only a  few squares will prevent the PCs from abusing the NPC abilities, and at the same time ensure they actually take the risk of bringing the her into combat

By combining these two aspects – powers that support PC’s, and vulnerability in combat, the NPC becomes a legitimately valuable resource to the PC’s -  a powerful helper who can sway the tide of battle, but only if the PC’s keep her protected and factor her into their strategies.

By way of illustration, I’ve included two NPCs I generated in this way for a previous campaign that centered on Pelor, God of the Sun. I hope you find them useful for your own game and, more importantly, useful as examples for making NPCs of your own.

Jack Lamp is the avatar of Pelor’s Lamp on earth, and has a host of light or flame related powers, in addition to a few powers that have little impact on the game but develop his theme and flavor.

Jack Tome is the avatar of Pelor’s Book of Time, and has powers that reflect his position of keeper of knowledge. 

If you have feedback of your own, or different approaches to the same issue, please let us know in the comment section below!

-By David Crennen
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