I was wandering around the WotC forums yesterday and ran across a thread discussing whether or not NPCs in a party were a detriment to the players’ enjoyment of the game.
NPCs as Party Members
Often a group doesn’t have enough players to put together a balanced group. Other times, the numbers are there but the character mix is lopsided. When this happens, many DMs allow an NPC to join the group to fill a needed role. As long as the NPC is no more powerful than the other characters in the group, this usually works just fine.
NPCs as Leaders
When higher level NPCs join the party to “help out” they usually end up taking over. Then you have a situation where the DM is running the monsters and the NPC who (as the new leader type) is dictating the party’s actions in how they deal with the monsters. The players are no longer in control and end up just sitting back watching the DM play with himself.
Most players seem to blindly accept this and go into zombie mode, following the NPC around and doing what they are told. That’s hardly interactive and, imo, not nearly as much fun as having the players make the decisions, good or bad, for themselves.
My Favorite NPC
I was running a game for a small group with characters around level seven. At the beginning of the session, they are sitting in a bar in town preparing to head to a new dungeon. The dungeon was actually a long abandoned dwarven city with a tunnel system leading through a mountain to a hidden valley on the other side. The characters knew about the valley but had no map to lead them through all the twists and turns necessary to get there.
An 11th level fighter approached them in the bar and introduced himself as Cedric. He said that he had overheard their discussion and stated that he had reasons of his own for visiting this valley but he didn’t know where the dungeon was. He did, however, have a map of the old dwarven city itself that showed the route through to the valley. He suggested that maybe they could help each other out.
The players immediately accepted the idea that this NPC was basically going to run things for the night and they would just collect the treasure. And that’s how things started. The week-long trek to the dungeon went amazingly quickly as the high level NPC could easily handle the random encounters single-handedly.
While they traveled, the NPC told stories of his exploits. He was from a kingdom some distance away and discovered the map, along with other trinkets, during his last adventure. Cedric had a habit of tossing a small gem into the air and catching it while mumbling a cryptic phrase over and over. The party concluded that it must have something to do with his reasons for visiting the valley.
Shortly after entering the dungeon, the party came to a stone bridge spanning a deep chasm. They were crossing the bridge, with Cedric leading the way, when Cedric suddenly fell through an illusionary section of floor in the middle of the bridge. The others could only stare in disbelief as they saw Cedric fall through the floor and disappear screaming into the abyss.
Suddenly roused from their zombie-like state, the party found themselves alone in the dark, leaderless with nothing but Cedric’s stories, their recollection of the map (which disappeared with Cedric) and the small gem Cedric had been tossing which now lay on the floor beside them.
What He Accomplished
The look on the players’ faces was priceless! That alone made it all worthwhile.
However, Cedric accomplished a number of other things as well. First off, we were able to quickly move past a number of time-wasting random encounters on the way to the dungeon while still illustrating the dangers inherent to the route they had to take. They gained some valuable knowledge of the areas they passed through without loss of life, limb, or resources. As they travelled, Cedric’s stories passed on numerous adventure hooks that would be useful in later adventures. He inadvertently set them on a mini-quest to discover the use of the gem and the cryptic phrase he was always repeating. (The gem was actually a key and the phrase was a riddle whose answer showed how to use the key). They gained some knowledge of the dungeon and the valley on the other side. And most importantly of all, the party were all made frighteningly aware that this dungeon contained character-ending traps without having to actually end a character to let them know. Now, on their toes, they were better prepared to deal with the dangers ahead. Since the party was heading to the dungeon anyway, Cedric’s leadership had almost no impact on their plans. All he really did was to help them avoid some random encounters that had nothing to do with the plot.
Not only did I have an amazing amount of fun with this NPC, and get a great deal of use out of him, but he also helped raise the excitement level through the roof before our very first encounter in the new dungeon. I also shaved at least an hour off of the time it should have taken us to get there.
Without a doubt, Cedric will always be my favorite NPC!