5 Tips to Handle NPC Followers

On occasion you’ll want an NPC to follow the party. Perhaps a player is missing that week and you want an NPC to stand in, or the players have hired a henchman to fill a missing party role. They might call in a favour for an epic final battle, adding extra NPCs to help fight.

Here’s some advice on making the experience go smoothly.

1. Don’t overshadow the players

Newbie DMs sometimes make the mistake of having an NPC tag along and do the party’s job for them. It detracts from the players’ victory if your NPC wins all their battles for them.

If you do have an NPC join the party, be sure he’s only assisting the party and not hogging all the glory. Especially, don’t have a high-level character step in and solve all their problems. Nobody wants to sit back while you teleport Gandalf in and fight all your own monsters.

2. Use simpler game stats

NPCs don’t need as much detail as a full player character. Unnecessary detail makes an NPC more time-consuming to generate, and can slow down play by presenting the DM with too many options.

Since NPCs tend not to have many wild abilities (damage reduction, fear auras or the like), it’s safe to write down their base stats: HP, AC, Fort/Ref/Will, Initiative, any skills you think they’ll need, and their attacks.

Don’t bother with individual feats, skill points, powers or racial abilities. With 4E NPCs, one or two at-will attacks and an encounter power should be enough. More detail only slows NPC generation and detracts from the player characters.

3. Fill missing players with NPCs

If your group is missing a player this week, one option is to fill in with a “Biff the Understudy”.

Biff the Understudy is an NPC in the PC game Baldur’s Gate who replaces any plot-relevant NPC you manage to kill. Likewise, the DM can run a quickly generated replacement character of the same class. As above, you don’t need full stats.

4. Use character generation software

Some character generation software can throw together an NPC very quickly.

A particularly useful feature of the 4E D&D Character Builderis the “Quick Character” option, which lets you auto-generate a character in a few seconds. This is actually quicker than the in the NPC generation guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Similar software exists for third edition, or you can use the quick NPC stats in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

NPCs who join a party can be generated with full treasure for their level, but hired troops and opponents should not. If a player runs an NPC henchman, don’t let the henchman hand over his equipment to the player for free. NPC allies with full treasure may take a share of XP and treasure.

5. Give NPCs some character

Each NPC should be more than a set of statistics. Pick a name and at least two distinguishing features.

Drop a comment with your own suggestions for handling NPCs, henchmen and hirelings.

Comments (11)

Pingwin (October 7th, 2009)

For me a hireling realy starts with a name and a rough physical shape. A barrel chested veteran soldier called Vanthor instantly gives me the next ideas like he would use an axe and has an authority problem but he is brave in battle. I dont really need stats for the guy as the players will not see them anyway and with low levels its usually not that big a deal anyway. Higher level hirelings I never used and probably will not either.
But it’s really about what kind of (simple) personality would they be and why would they be available for hire? To me that is more vital then their attack role, hitpoints or armorclass. If I am going to spend a few minutes on a hireling I’d rather do this then work on stats. It also prevents them from beeing just stats if they dont have stats!

For henchmen I let the player control the stats and determine the basic actions, although I often intervine in the last as it is my NPC too :) ‘Vanthor looks at you as you command him forward. “That seems a bit rash sir, there are mages around that corner.” Usually they pick up on the limit of what they can delegate and what they should do themselves pretty quickly.

Nice topic btw!

Noumenon (October 7th, 2009)

What happens if you kill Biff the Understudy?

Lugh (October 7th, 2009)

Another really nice thing to do with NPC followers is to kill them.

If your players don’t treat them as people, then use them to play up the lethality of their environment. Adventuring is a dangerous business, but PCs seem to die very rarely. Slaughter your NPCs, especially in graphic, fear-inducing ways.

I also read a neat bit a while back about a twist on the “GMPC.” It was a Feng Shui-type game, and the PCs ended up outmatched in a fight. So, the GM introduced a bad-ass ninja woman (no word on whether she was lesbian or a stripper), who single-handedly mopped up the bad guys. The next session, though, this mountain of a man shows up. The players all sit back, waiting for the GMPC to posture and save the day. Instead, the mountain picks up the ninja lady and breaks her in two. Needless to say, the PCs ran like hell, then spent several sessions trying to figure out how to stay alive with this guy tracking them…

Pingwin (October 7th, 2009)

@Lugh: I like that trick with the GMPC! :)

TheyCallMeTim (October 7th, 2009)

I never knew about that things with Biff. Maybe I’ll play through again. It’s been awhile since I’ve played BG anyway

Tyson J. Hayes (October 7th, 2009)

Personally I’ve always found even the same level NPCs generated out of the DMG to be a bit weak, I understand the concept of not outshining the PCs but they should at least be able to hold their own a bit.

I usually tweak them more to my liking if I actually chose to use them.

I don’t think I’ve ever used hirelings, my players have never seemed to think to ask!

Jonathan Drain (October 7th, 2009)

@Noumenon: Biff has an understudy, named Biff.

alaskan tarrasque (November 21st, 2009)

In this new campaign im running theres this awesome NPC that i made(purposefully) w/ all 18s. she to help them(basically steal there XP)then die horrificly and possibly over-dramatically when the PCs have either gotten used to it, taken advantage of it or get ready to kill her(its just an experiment[i do thoes a lot]).

alaskan tarrasque (November 21st, 2009)

err… she’s going to help them, not she to help them sry

Kayet Lavate (December 21st, 2012)

I have actually successfully run a party PC as a GM. It takes effort to not outshine the party, but also reinforces the idea that the game is not a battle (of wills or of might) between the players and the game master. I ran a drawly dwarf rogue in one game, and have seen a wizard played effectively to provide artillery support to a melee party and to serve as a source of world knowledge. I could see a bard done in a similar way.

It also gives your party more of an attachment to the character when you decide to kill him off in gory detail.

Cptkracker (January 14th, 2013)

I always seem to run GMPC’s as i never have a full group of adventurers and have used them fairly interestingly. They usually end up being “advisors” who guide the players but in one of my games I had a cleric who contradicted everything the players said so that they thought twice about their actions which made some really good tactical choices on there part which in turn totally blew apart my encounter. Next time I’m just going to let them go in blind

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