10 November, 2014

NPC Parties

One of the most dreaded results on the random encounter table is the NPC party. Not for the players, but for me when I’m GM’ing. I am suddenly responsible for randomly rolling five or more characters right in the middle of a game. The best solution I’ve found, for wilderness encounter tables, is to pre-generate several NPC parties, and then randomly determine which one is met.

Nabonidas of Akhdar
Not every dungeon has an NPC party but some should, unless the GM has determined that the players are pretty much the only adventurers in the area. For dungeon encounters, it makes more sense for me to pregenerate one or possibly two parties of NPCs for that specific dungeon. Then they can appear by name on random encounter tables for dungeon levels appropriate to their abilities, or more rarely on other levels where they’re either passing through or in over their heads. You can also roll a check (1 in 20 works well) to have them be in a room the players are about to enter.

Below is a party of NPCs that I used in a slightly different way. I placed them in one of the rooms of the Temple Catacombs under the ruined temple at the corner of Castle Nicodemus. But then I put one member of their party on the random encounter chart for the Catacombs. That way they might run into him first (chasing a polymorphed but defeated green slaad), giving the players the opportunity to interact with him, trace his steps back to the rest of the NPC party, or some combination of the two (or ignore him altogether, of course). The players also might run into the main body of the NPC party first, thus hearing about their recent defeat of a green slaad who bolted and ran rather than giving over the soul gem embedded in its forehead. The players could then choose to interact with the NPC party, help them track down their “ranger” who chased off after the slaad, try to avoid them, attack them for their loot, or anything else the players might think of. (You might recognise the ranger, the green slaad polymorphed into a raven, and his party of companions. If you do, please let me know in the comments or on G+. The basic idea for them, though not their party composition, is lifted from some old pre-WOTC TSR product, but I can’t remember which one.)

The first question I addressed about them was “why are they there?” I decided they were a professional treasure hunting company hired to find a specific item. In addition to providing some variety from the usual simple lust for loot, this choice also snuck in some incidental information about the campaign world. Anglia and other nearby kingdoms and locales are rich enough in ruins to support a professional company of delvers. The ruins are known to hold highly valuable or powerful items, widely enough that multiple patrons would seek to hire delvers. The ruins are known to be dangerous; dangerous enough to warrant hiring professionals instead of delving on one’s own.

Another factor I consider when putting a party of NPCs into a dungeon is time. Just how long are they going to be in there? There’s obviously a limit (unless the dungeon is big enough to get lost in), but until the players have some clue they are down there, there probably isn’t any reason to start their clock ticking. For this party, the clock started when the players found their tracks heading down into the Temple Catacombs entrance. After that, they would be leaving the dungeon after a maximum of 1d10+14 days. (If I was stopping time between game sessions, I probably would have made that quite a bit less.) I had them camp in the temple ruins just above, but if the Catacombs had been larger I would probably have had them hole up in an empty room down below. Being professionals, they were fastidious campers who left no glaring evidence. Each day a game session occurred, they had a chance to notice the players, modified by how close the players got to the ruined temple, or how loud and obvious the players’ characters became.

The last question I wanted to answer before they encountered players was “how will they act toward another group of adventurers?” Even though I knew I wanted to come up with one or two basic character traits for each member, I wanted an overall party MO as well. Although their alignments differ individually, on the whole they will work toward good ends, beneficent to most of society and the innocent, and will do their best to limit the amount of chaos caused (or Chaos unleashed) in getting there. Being professionals working on a contract, they will do their best not to reveal their current employer, or what they’ve been hired to retrieve. If they can “foil some evil” without risking their contract, they’ll do it.

Jovaell the Monk
Now it was time for the individuals. The foundation here is that they are not player-characters. Just as I don’t allow players to choose “wyvern” or “bugbear” or “king” for their class, other things players can’t choose are open to NPCs. In essence they are all “monsters,” just like the Druids found in the monster section of the original 3 little brown books of OD&D. Thus, for players “ranger” is just a varied combination of background skill (e.g. the Secondary Skills table, page 12 of the 1e DMG) and flavour, potentially applied to several different character classes. However, for the NPC in this party “ranger” is what type of “monster” he is. He possesses and uses special abilities in the same way any other “monster” does. Since I had chosen an “off-standard” class to base this NPC on, I decided it would be amusing to do that for the other members of the NPC party as well. Thus: assassin, druid, monk, illusionist. 

The next big consideration for the individuals is what their hit dice should be. Again since I knew they were professionals, I decided they would have researched the item they’re after and its location as much as possible. Therefore, they’d be unlikely to be in over their heads in the Temple Catacombs. Other monsters down there included wights, wraiths, several areas where glyphs are set up to summon red slaad, a medusa, and at least one summoned green slaad. 6 to 8 hit dice (9 for the leader) sounded about right, while still making it difficult enough for them to progress so that they wouldn’t end up clearing the dungeon instead of the players. This would also determine things like their available spells and other special abilities.

  • Darius Ravenwood, Ranger, 8hd. Jovial and boastful, which interferes with keeping contracts confidential.
  • Nabonidas, Assassin, 7hd. Soft-spoken, pleased with himself. The “common peoples’” antics amuse him.
  • Tasha, Elf Illusionist, 9hd. The Company Leader. Friendly, but all-business underneath.
  • Jovaell, Monk, 6hd. Quiet and introspective. Hard to tell if she’s observing or meditating.
  • Cormac O’ Connacht, Druid, 7hd. Old and sort of senile. Prone to confusion and revealing secrets.

I’ll give more details about some of these NPCs later on, as at least one has another function in Anglia. Tasha is one of several possible mentor choices for 1st level magic-users.
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