Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Mentor NPC

In a lot of game worlds there are classes/jobs where a low level PC would be expected to have a mentor or boss that watches over them and teaches them. In a story/movie this would be the person who, traditionally, dies about half way through the story in order to put the hero on their own to discover things for themselves. This character is older, wiser, and more experienced. In D&D terms they're usually a significant amount of levels ahead (i.e. a minimum of a level 7 Jedi character to mentor a level 1 Jedi PC) and it can be easy to have the mentor solve problems for the players. Today, I want to talk about these Mentor NPCs and ways to handle them in your adventures.

Jedi Academy Did It Right
There is a video game, an old one now too, called Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. It is the last in the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight line of games, and in it the player plays a young jedi padawan who is placed under the tutelage of series protagonist Kyle Katarn. The game involves you taking on missions alongside Kyle as part of your Jedi training and culminates with you becoming a Jedi Knight just before the last arc of the game. Now I love this game, so I could sing its praises for quite a while, but one of the things it does extremely well is handling the mentor/pc relationship in a way that allows the player to still feel powerful even while they are being "babysat" by one of the strongest Jedi Masters in the universe. As such, I'll be taking some of my queues from this game (and you should play it. It's like $10 on Steam)

Split Up, We Can Do More Damage That Way
The most common way the game handles the mentor situation for missions is to simply have Kyle need to do something else. This works out in a couple of ways. On one mission Kyle goes to meet a "dangerous contact" and asks the player to guard the ship - where a big fight breaks out and the player ends up saving the day - on another Kyle runs aerial support, keeping TIE fighters from bombarding the area you're on while you do the ground work. In yet another mission the events of the mission separate you and Kyle so you have to get back together.

The point is that it is hard for a character to shine when there is a higher level version of them right beside them at all times. To solve this, you create distance between the two characters and present the player with challenges that test them and let them shine. It doesn't matter if the mentor could have mopped the floor with all 5 gungan drug runners in one round of combat because we don't see that fight happen. What matters is that the PC took out 5 gungan drug runners and in the process helped things a long.

Small Missions That Get Very Big
The other common way that the game separates the player from Kyle is to send you on missions that seem small, but turn out to be larger than expected. All information points to a cake run, and the player has been doing well so far, so they're given a shot at a solo mission. Next thing you know instead of just landing their ship on a rock to rescue some stranded tourists, the player is fighting off storm troopers or escaping from an imperial prison. I'm not going to go into this one in too much depth, just want to point it out as another way.

Even The Odds
When the mentor and the PC do work together, and let's face it they'll have to at some point, make sure to set up the odds so that the PC can also do things. Star Wars is notorious for moments where the padawan/apprentice saves the master, even if in a full on confrontation the master would be the more capable one. Use that, let your PC have their moments to shine even while you also use it as an example of how strong the mentor may in fact be as a guardian. After all, if you're going to kill the guardian later it will feel more devastating the more respect for the mentor's strength the PCs have.

Beware GM PC Syndrome
Not quite related to the handling in game, but a worthy cautionary note. It can be easy to slip into the persona of the Mentor's player if you are the GM. The NPC then becomes a PC that is played by the GM. In very small games (1-2 players) this may even be ok, depending on how you handle it, but there is enough "bad mojo" associated with GM PCs that you want to be careful with it. Don't use this NPC to solve things for the PCs. Don't use the NPC to make decisions for them. Basically, don't use the mentor to become the star of your own game. The focus should stay on the players. The NPC should remain an NPC and when it is time, they should move out of the way to let the player have full control over their own destiny.


  1. One of earliest gaming experiences was being a player under a GM PC situation. Inexperienced as I was, I knew it was a load of horse poop, and the game didn't even make it to the end of its second session. Since then I've steered so very clear of that kind of thing, making sure any helpful NPCs only had limited use in limited situations. Looks like Jedi Academy is the way to go though.

    Have you tried this in a tabletop game? If so, how did the players feel about knowingly creating someone massively inferior to what could easily be seen as the hero of the story?

    1. I've done this and it worked well.

      Though admittedly that might have something to do with my current group of players and the agreement that they would sine in their own story while their "Hero Mentors" would take the lead in an interwoven story of their own.

      I think the clincher for my group was when the Hero Mentors started noticing their potential and quietly treating them as equals.

      I will admit that it was a challenge to make the 'Mentor to Equal' path it work for three disparate characters (I think for one or two this would be a great way to go) but the rewards were worth the effort.

  2. I've done it once or twice. The trick was the keep things focused on the PCs so that they felt like they were the ones making the calls. There is always someone stronger than you out there in a level 1 game, or other low level game. So I made the introduction then, and made sure that it was the players who had the cool ideas.

    The NPC also did a lot of things on his own (got caught, went to do stuff, etc) until the PCs were able to start catching up. Which did make things fun as the progression went from "early on he was here to help and protect us. Now he needs our protection."

    Not going to say it was done perfectly, but it got better as the game went on.