Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pitfalls of the Powerful NPC

Ah role playing games. They give us so many things to do, so many ways to tell stories, and so many little tropes and story norms that we're supposed to employ. And yet, when you use some of them the players cry foul. They didn't have a chance, that's not fair, there was no warning. Sometimes, in some situations, these can even be credible fouls to call. In fact, most GM blogs I've read, and most of the GM advice columns I've written have been about avoiding making those very same fouls. Sometimes however, it isn't a foul it is just a part of the game, a part of the story. One of those big things where PCs call fouls is with powerful NPCs, but these characters don't always deserve the bad wrap that they get. How so? Read on to find out.

So, lets just start off with some of the more common reactions that you'll likely see to a powerful NPC in a game. I'm going to be focusing on the 'bad' ones, as well, the good ones are good and in that case you just keep on doing what you are doing. That being said, I am going to list some of the good ones too. Now, for those reactions.

That's totally unfair!
What the hell is the point of this?
Man, I can't wait to take him down!
Oh, here comes Lord Powerful to save the day again...

There are more, but those four I think cover enough for one post on this, while also running the general gamut of things you are likely to see. Now, lets look at each of those a bit more in depth.

That's Totally Unfair!
This one usually, in my experience, comes up after the NPC has beat up on the player. The player gets a sense that they've bitten off more than they could chew, and this can come out in the backlash of emotion that they're feeling. Now, this might not actually be a bad thing on your part, though I generally don't recommend blind siding a player with a powerful NPC. Still, some PCs just don't think and leap into a fight no matter how many times you go "No really, this is an Elite Honor Guard member that protects the EMPEROR. You're a Rank 2 fighter"

Still, for the sake of arguing, let us just assume that the player has a valid argument. So what did you do wrong? Well, lets go down the check list here.

Did you give any warnings as to the NPCs power level? I don't mean telling them OOC, but showing it in character? The aforementioned member of an Elite unit? Better than normal, or even 'competent' quality gear? That swagger/confidence that the truly terrifying get? There is a lot you can do to show that someone, NPC or otherwise, is a bad ass without just telling your players. So be sure to use that to tip players off that someone awesome is there.

The other big thing, does the PC have to go through the NPC in that way? If this powerful NPC is the gate keeper to the only way through the adventure than you have problems. Especially if the PCs can't beat the person now as a team or otherwise. Try to give them other ways around, give them warning, let them make a plan, and you can avoid this issue completely. But in general, you don't want a god NPC blocking the continuation of the game. Not unless the PCs are loaded for gods.

What The Hell Is The Point Of This?
This is the reaction you get when the powerful NPC is on the player's side. It basically boils down to "what is the point of playing this game if god boy/girl over there can do everything". You see the problem right? The NPC has no need of the PC, and is essentially completely out shining them. Why do the PCs have to do these things when the other guy is so much better and more capable?

Generally, I don't recommend putting players in these situations, but if your story demands it then you need to really play up the PCs strengths that that NPC just doesn't have. Even if it is as simple as "she can't be everywhere, and these four things need to be done simultaneously". Even still, you are going to want to ramp up the PCs power level quickly. This is a very basic faux pas of outshining the PCs with an NPC. It can also be called a GM PC if done too wrong, or if this powerful NPC gets a whole lot of screen time over the course of the adventure.

Honestly, this one is one that is just best to avoid if you can. Or have some damn good reasons in place to make it feel natural.

I Can't Wait To Take Him Down
This is a great reaction, and means you've pulled off the NPC well. The players recognize the difference in levels, they see it as a challenge, and they can't wait to get to that part of the game. Now, all you have to do is deliver. Don't rob them of it, change things around if you have to, but give the PCs (or a pc) a chance to take this person out later on in the story.

That really is the big place where a lot of GMs go wrong in this situation. They do the set up, the PCs acknowledge the difference, they gear up for the fight later...and then get nothing. Someone else takes out the NPC, or they vanish, and the thing the PCs were really looking forward to is suddenly gone. Granted, it can be done right that way too, but that is much harder to pull off.

Oh, Here Comes Lord Powerful To Save The Day
This is an extension of what is the point, but the failure here isn't that the PCs don't know what they're doing, but that they have accepted the NPC as what it is. A safety blanket. In other words, the thing that comes in, fixes their messes, saves their lives, and keeps the plot moving along. Did the players miss an item? That's ok, the NPC got it. Did they bite off more than they can chew? Thats ok, the NPC has their slack. Are they refusing to go on this next mission? That's ok, the NPC can do it.

Basically, the NPC has become the replacement for failure. Without failure you have no tension (there is a lot on this blog already about why failure is important). The NPC has removed the tension from the game, and the players have caught on to that fact.

So what do you do? Let them fail. Take the NPC out, or just don't have them around to save the day. Show the PCs that you aren't afraid to let them fail, and let the tension come back in. Generally though, it is better to be doing this from the very beginning, and not as triage later on.

And So Much More
What are some other reactions you have seen to powerful NPCs? How did you handle it? How did the players react? Did I miss anything, or just go completely off the mark on something here? Let me know!

For the record, I like powerful NPCs. Done right, they bring a sense of scale and scope to the world, as well as giving the players something to measure growth against, and something to remind them that there are bigger fish out there. Course, I also like powerful PCs, and epic games....


  1. I think you're really right on with your observations. I've gotten some of those same reactions, myself— though so far I have avoided the whole 'GMPC' safety blanket thing. And those few times where I've included 'ultra powerful' NPCs in my campaign, the players have actually been in charge of rescuing them (or at the very least safeguarding them while they do something else). Yep. My players have rescued Luke Skywalker before. They've also served as escorts for Princess Leia on dangerous diplomatic missions. This almost puts them in a position of 'power' over the ultra powerful folks (i.e. they need US), that my players seemed to have enjoyed. And that sense of scale and scope is on display in adventures like these.

  2. Enjoyable read and well spotted. Balancing powerful NPCs, which make sense in a living world, with the place of PCs is a difficult task.

    I try to keep powerful NPCs to the background, they do their thing and the PCs do their thing and sometimes their paths cross. And sometimes they crash together and that is when it can go really wrong.

  3. I agree with a lot of what you have listed here, and also with the vastness of the range of reactions and variations.

    I wrote an enormous post on a related issue (The Imbalance Principle) not long ago, after a conversation with a friend about whether groups with characters at different ability levels could or could not be handled successfully.

    I especially like the point you raise about paying attention to whether or not the group makes surpassing or besting a powerful NPC a goal, and being sure to give them their chance 'when the stars are right.'