Hey guys, this article came up as a part of a discussion this morning with our friend @DroptheDie on Twitter. The crux of this discussion revolves around the resources that a party of characters has access to, and how do you as a GM design appropriate challenges to that kind of a group. How do you effectively challenge a group that has all the resources in the world behind them? What if they have access to powerful allied spellcasters or a near infinite supply of money to purchase goods and/or services? This turned into a quick discussion about the existence of high level NPC characters in your world, and that’s the crux of what i am planning to talk about. (I’m sure i’ll find a couple of other important topics to hit along the way, but let’s dig into High level characters in your world).
Brave Adventurers, you have spent the last year investigating this cult of elemental cultists and discovered their allegiances lay not with the elemental planes of power, but deep in the heart of the Abyss. You’ve gathered your clues, your reports and your ideas about what’s going on, and have brought them to the Tower of Elminster in Shadowdale. He welcomes you into his tower (having heard of the information you bring) and listens while you explain everything. He finally nods, and says “You’ve done good work, what are you planning to do next?”
One of the characters in your party says “What do you mean what are we doing? We brought this to the greatest wizard in the land with the hope that he could fix it.”
A lot of the fantasy settings we play in have rumors of legendary heroes or great sages that exist in the setting. Characters like the Fellowship of the Ring, the Knights of Myth Drannor, and the Heroes of the Lance all exist in our worlds and play an important role in the overarching story (hereafter referred to as a Metaplot.) These characters fill a niche in the world, but that niche isn’t necessarily what other adventurers hope it to be. Rarely are these characters going to be able to immediately take over the problem the characters have stumbled across, but they can provide assistance in other ways.
Let’s look at 4 key ways a major NPC can help a party of adventurers.
- Quests and adventure seeds: Remember that a lot of high level NPCs keep track of a lot going on in the world, and one of the easiest ways they do so is by hiring characters to investigate things. “Go check out what’s going on in this section of the forest,” or “There’s something banging around the sewers, check it out,” are some of the first quests that low level characters are likely to find. High level NPCs may not necessarily know exactly what’s going on, but they have enough of an idea that something might be going on and it needs to be checked out. However, they are very busy and there’s only so much attention a character like Gandalf can put into watching every pack of goblins in the world. They hire other characters to do it.
- Information: Characters can get stuck in their current adventure. Through missing portions of the plot or coming to erroneous conclusions, it’s very easy for characters to get lost along the path the story is heading. You can either take this opportunity to have the NPC redirect the characters back towards the path you intended, or you can have the NPC follow them off course and provide information based off of their faulty information. Either way, the NPC is giving them additional support while keeping them the focus of the story.
- Logistics: Sometimes getting from point a to point b is an issue of its own, and there are opportunities for NPCs to move them along their journey. Whether they are providing swift boats, sailing ships, horses or guides, this is an excellent way for these characters to help out adventurers. This should not be a frequent occurrence, but when it does fit the story, it can be a wonderful experience for the characters.
- Material Support: These NPCs sometimes have armies at their command, access to powerful magic, the ability to raise the dead and a host of other potentially game changing abilities. These are the most potentially gamebreaking resources that an NPC of this level has access to, so consider using them sparingly, and only when they support the story.
Important things to remember about High Level NPCs
- Schedules and appointments: Most high level NPCs have some sort of social calendar or obligations on their time that lower level characters don’t have. They have cities to rule, people to train, adventurers to manage and their own quests to accomplish. Sometimes they either don’t have to see PCs at the time of their choosing, or they have to work through intermediaries who aren’t as capable or as informed as the NPC they work for.
- Proximity: Some of these high level NPCs don’t want to be anywhere near the civilized world, and deliberately make themselves hard to find. Finding them can be adventures in their own right, and the ones that are hard to find are usually difficult enough to require some sort of quest/challenge to prove that you are worthy to even consider asking them questions.
- Respect: These characters are serious business in the world of fantasy adventure, and they expect a certain amount of respect from people that are asking them for help. Lipping off to said characters is usually not the best approach, and doing so is likely to result in either losing the support of that NPC (on a good day) or getting forcibly ejected from their presence. (bad days).
- Information: While many of these NPCs know a lot about many topics, they are most likely not Omniscient. There are some thing that they do not know, and the more esoteric the knowledge is, the less available it is. There are secrets that even the most capable High Level NPCs don’t have access to.
- The Metaplot: There are things going on around the campaign setting that often keep High Level NPCs busy during situations that otherwise they could be forces of great good (or evil as your boat floats). Whatever that particular character’s interaction with the Metaplot, your characters are free to chase their own destinies.
So you’ve been building your awesome campaign setting or writing your epic mega adventure and you’ve gotten to the point where you characters can interact with one of the major characters in the setting. You’re particularly proud of the character you’ve built and the role they have in the ongoing metaplot, but now you’re going to have to have them interact with the player characters you have banging around your current series of adventures. How are you going to put this encounter together?
Where does this encounter happen? Are the characters encountering the NPC at said NPCs fortress/tower/apartment or are they out and about in the world? Defining a home turf and figuring out where an encounter happens can lead into the next question.
Was that encounter planned or was it a happenstance? Was the NPC searching out the PCs, or vice versa? Was this an intentional encounter or a happy accident? If the characters are actively looking for an NPC (or the other way around), that is a different feeling encounter than one where the party finds the character by accident.
What resources does the NPC have at their disposal at the time of the encounter? A drunken Archmage out on the town is going to have different things available at his immediate command than a High Priestess in her temple tending to the needs of the flock.
Remember that the player characters at your table are the stars of the story you’re telling. Their plot is more important than the Metaplot in the terms of how your gaming experience goes, and if you can find a way to tie their plot to the Metaplot, you’re going to have a lot of fun. I hope that helps you guys find out ways to use high level NPCs without stealing the spotlight from the PCs. Game On, Game Fans.