Companions or Fodder

Party NPCs.  What do they bring to the table?  What problems do they cause?

In our Conan campaigns, they bring a lot.  They often have knowledge skills, connections, or sorcery that move the plot along.  I often try to point out how a lot of the Conan system is only really relevant to NPCs – certain races, certain classes, certain combat styles, and many, many feats.  I can’t see the attraction to a player of the noble class, for instance.  It sucks at doing anything on its own.  Yet, every party should want to have a noble to be able to move in higher social circles, to get better treatment (including by the law), etc.  Meanwhile, players don’t want NPCs overshadowing them in things like combat prowess and the noble pretty much sucks at doing anything, being vastly inferior in social skills to a social thief build and having nothing else that it even tries to compete at.  In Conan, noble = perfect NPC.

NPCs also cause problems for our Conan parties.  Sometimes, they do overshadow PCs in something they shouldn’t.  More often, the problem is that they are either really poorly designed to handle danger or are enough levels below the party to be out of their depths when dangerous stuff needs doing.  We currently have a sidekick 10 levels or so below the average party level.  Unlike our combat poor PCs who mostly just take up space in combat, this sidekick is a constant detriment to the party being functional.  Simply don’t want to constantly be carrying unconscious bodies around when running like hell.

In one of my old campaigns, a D&D 3.5 game, while I was overseas for four months, the party ended up acquiring a boatload of NPCs who completely bogged down play.  It was incredible.  NPCs were arguing with other NPCs about what the party should do, and the PCs were just following their leads.

In the Solomon Kane campaign I started running, the party has “allies” (mook level followers) that come in groups of 10.  They handle much of the logistics which isn’t terribly exciting while having the flexibility and expendability to act as more of a plot device than a character who needs to be managed.  It does require some sort of excuse to separate the PCs from their followers to have personal scenes, and they are likely to die like crazy, but then, they can be easily replaced unlike a developed NPC.

So, positive:

  1. Skills, abilities, connections that the party lacks without them.
  2. Extra hands/bodies to deal with minutiae, to be cavalry/rear sacrifices.
  3. Add another world element for the characters to bounce off of.
  4. Often are more plausible than not in games trying for some level of realism.

Negatives:

  1. More sets of numbers to deal with, can be especially bad in combat.
  2. More personalities the GM has to worry about.
  3. May overshadow PCs.
  4. May be too weak to adventure with PCs.
  5. Prevent personal PC moments unless some excuse is found to move them off stage.  Moving off stage may be hard to undo – “We just went through this wormhole, you guys wait for us to come back.  What do you mean that the only way back puts us on a different continent 1000 years in the future?”

I’m sure there are some other positives and negatives that don’t come readily to mind, but it can be very interesting to figure out how to have the right type and quantity of party NPCs to make a game better.  As with so many things, it’s a juggling act for the GM.

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One Response to Companions or Fodder

  1. Brandon says:

    What if NPCs cost more in resources and effort for the party for them to use them all of the time? Want my help? It will cost you X per day and 25% of the loot. How many NPCs can they afford to have around at that point? NPCs can also have better things to be doing than hanging around the party, giving you a plan to have them not be in every scene. NPCs be obnoxious, too. If having the NPC around is like carrying a burning hot pot of water, PC’s will only carry it as far as they have to and seek to get away when possible.

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