Mediocre Characters: Why NPCs Aren’t PCs

There’s a difference between players and dungeon masters. Players want to build the most awesome character possible in order to win. Dungeon masters—and here is our big secret—also want the players to win. Maybe if you’re playing Nethack style or Tomb of Horrors, the GM is definitively trying to win. Because the DM calls all the shots, however, this is far too easy.

As a dungeon master, your goal is to make sure the players have a good time. Herein lies the difference between PCs and NPCs. While player characters must be optimally built, NPCs can afford to be mediocre. Traditionally subpar feats like Combat Casting and Toughness are valid choices. Poor multiclass combinations are feasible. Not everyone is an adventurer or a hero.

Now, this isn’t to say all your villains have to be pushovers. Danger, as I’ve said before, is exciting, and a villain who can push your players until all that can save them is teamwork and luck is something to aim for. Just don’t feel constrained to munchkin every NPC. In my opinion, it makes your villain more interesting if he’s a one-eyed wizard with levels in aristocrat, than if he’s simply an all-eighteens archmage with Spell Focus in Instantly Killing Everything.

Comments (5)

Jay (October 8th, 2007)

Just wanted to add here that it is interesting to have powerful NPC’s involved in the background and your players to learn about what is happening with them. One guy I know has a problem with making it so his Powerful NPC’s are leading the party around like sheep. This gets boring to the players so try and avoid letting your NPC Super Hero save the party from dying or doing all the work for the party.

Make it so your party characters are rarely physically involved with powerful NPC’s Players that witness powerful NPC’s doing something good or bad make for a good story, but don’t keep them around the group very long. Or you will end up like the guy I spoke of in the above paragraph

Ron (October 9th, 2007)

Better yet, don’t have the powerful NPCs interact with the party directly. Or have them do it as little as possible and when they do, make it from across a desk.

But keep the stories about the NPC alive. Let the PCs get an intimidation bonus by name dropping him/her.

I’d like to also suggest the use of non-villain bad guys. You know the type. The ones that are obviously scum but keep their noses clean just enough that the PCs can’t reasonably attack them. You can really start to use these types when they give gifts or information about a more obviously evil group to the PCs. Corruption is a another good angle to play at. An official who abuses his powers just enough to obviously not be good but not enough to put him on the hit list for the gods of law.

grand admiral thrawn (March 2nd, 2009)

my group disagrees if no one goes unconscious or dies during your encounter you’re doing it wrong.

Quicksilver (August 27th, 2009)

Kudo’s to all who posted before me, very good points. The last one was a little shaky, as the difference between unconcious and dead narrows as a direct reflection of the average damage dealt per blow/spell increases with levels. But it is still good to try to reach that point.

A point i would like to add, in agreement and disagreement with some, is that you should give people little news updates. Let them hear about Grognar the barbarian riling up the tribes to the far north and fighting against Zapuleez forces. Maybe it comes out in some passing talk right before the pc’s are approaching someone for information/purchases/assaulting. Maybe the bartender hears about it and asks the pc’s since they look “well traveled”. Perhaps a local crier or bard speaks of it. Its always nice to hear that other things are going on in your world, and maybe hear that others are doing well or bad, and possibly create some competition between some other group/organization.

Bryant (October 15th, 2009)

Another great point is that NPC’s, whether good, bad or on the fence, don’t have to be powerful in mechanical terms to be powerful in the terms of your world. The King of Uberhoffen might be a level 0 noble who can’t raise a sword above his head, but tick him off and you’ll see how powerful he is as you’re led off to the gallows. Even the archfiend behind the armies burning and pillaging the PC’s home country might be physically unassuming, but wealthy and politically savvy enough to have plenty of powerful knights and wizards to do his bidding - and can sometimes cause a lot more trouble for the characters than someone who knows how to kill with a word. There are lots of different types of power, and smart DM’s (and PC’s) learn the distinction.

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