How to make party NPCs in D&D work.

Party NPCs

Non player characters (NPCs) are everywhere in the world, but what happens when you have party NPCs in D&D? Rarely in Dungeons and Dragons do NPCs go with the party. Sometimes dungeon masters give the party an NPC or the party goes out and finds an NPC to take with them.

There are two types of party NPCs. The first type is a DMNPC. This is an NPC that the dungeon master plays in the party. The second type is the follower. This NPC ends up going along with the party for some reason but is not as powerful as a normal party member.

NEVER let party NPCs in D&D become more powerful or more important than players. If you want to give party NPCs personality, read the 7 rules.

The bad of DMNPCs

The most controversial topic is always the DMNPC. These party NPCs in D&D usually start with the group when the game begins. The Dungeon master then gives the party another character that the dungeon master plays and hopefully enhances the game. Most dungeon masters do not end up enhancing the game.

Almost every first time a dungeon master gives the players these NPCs the DMNPC ends up outshining the group. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to happen. When a DMNPC outshines the group everyone gets mad, the story centers around the DMNPC, and the DMNPC becomes ridiculously overpowered.

This is why many people have formed the opinion that the best DMNPC is no DMNPC. Almost every dungeon master does this the first time that they have used a DMNPC but there are some who have not fallen into this trap.

The good of DMNPCs

A good DMNPC is a DMNPC that helps the group. This means that the character in question should have 0 personality and agency. If asked an opinion that DMNPC should not be able to make a meaningful opinion or be extremely indecisive. The DMNPC can be a soundboard for what the players have already heard but they should have no personal agency. This way the DMNPC will not outshine the group and make them do what the DMNPC wants.

Taking away the personality of a DMNPC is vital but why would you want to play a DMNPC if not to partake in the game? The answer is simple, to help the party.

Generally, most parties with a DMNPC are new don’t have a vital role filled or some other reason to allow a DMNPC. When these conditions are met the dungeon master helps the party by making a DMNPC.

The main DMNPC out there is a healer NPC, but DMNPCs can fill other necessary roles. You can play without a healer, see my video that explains why, but a healer makes the game easier.

I will tell you a story about how my DMNPC not only filled roles that were needed but made the game so much better for everyone and the players loved him.

A DMNPC done well

The world was going to go through a second time of troubles and the party was going to be part of the handful of people that could use magic. In addition, non of them had a healer or wanted to play the healer role. I rolled up an elven healer who had a bow and completely supported the group. By completely I mean that he made the magic items, healed, and provided other services that no one in the world really could.

Without this DMNPC there would be no higher level healing, vendors to craft items, or healing in combat. This DMNPC was called Lance.

Lance had no personality and acted wise by spouting complete nonsense. The rest of the party had low wisdom so he sounded like an intelligent person when he reminded them of what had already happened. Lance never made a decision, made it clear that he was not a leader, and never took the spot light unless he was dying.

Lance ended up getting beaten up a lot. Most players wouldn’t like it if their character was targeted, but Lance was the healer. Once he healed someone any intelligent person went after him and wow, it got brutal. The party tried very hard to keep him alive. They loved the long range damage that he provided and ended up getting somewhat emotional whenever Lance went down.

Lance made the party like that he was there and never stole the spotlight or made a decision for the party. Lance rarely gave opinions that would fit his god’s views, and the party had a good laugh asking what he thought of things. The party loved Lance more than any of my characters have been loved. This includes all the times that I have been a player.

Debatable DMNPC traits

When the party would do something absolutely stupid such as send the plate mailed cleric with a bow scouting, Lance would say no and tell them why that was an impractical idea. When the party would make an absolutely dumb battle plan like wizard in front and barbarian in back, Lance would tell them that this was a stupid battle plan.

Those were the only times that Lance really told the party that they were doing something dumb but many DMNPCs can go a bit further. I made a video on metagaming that essentially states ‘you cannot avoid metagaming.’ Many dungeon masters forget this and try to ‘help’ the party by making them do actions which will help them in the upcoming encounters.

A great example of this is if the party DMNPC starts picking up antivenoms because poisonous monsters will be ahead. This is not good. A worse sin than this is when a DMNPC tells the party how to play the game. Many dungeon masters use DMNPCs to not only fill a role in the party with new players, but also to ‘help’ them play the game.

This help usually involves the dungeon master teaching the players how to play the game in combat, roleplay, etc. It is good to teach people but when people are taught how to roleplay or engage in combat they do not develop their own ideas. Players will not be as creative and it is highly debatable to teach your players how to play the game.

Is it good to teach your players how to play the game with DMNPCS? Leave a comment below telling me what you all think.

NPCs that fight

Party NPCs in D&D can also be ones that are hired. These NPCs follow a few rules.

Rule #1
They will never be as strong as a PC.

Rule #2

These NPCs are relatively dumb

Rule #3

Party NPCs never outshine the PCs.

Rule #4

Party NPCs never make decisions.

Rule #5

Narrow field of expertise.

Rule #6

They want to be paid.

Rule #7

It doesn’t matter who controls them.

These are the seven major rules to follow with party NPCs.

Rule #1

‘They will never be as strong as a PC.’

An NPC should be quite a few levels lower than an PC and somewhat useful in combat. If your party is 10th level, the NPC should be 4th level. This means that NPCs are half or less than half of a normal party member’s strength.

This is very important to follow! If your NPCs are weaker their opinions will not matter as much and they know who is the boss. Your party knows this as well and will treat the NPCs like proper NPCs instead of party members. Your players are special and powerful. Make them feel that way.

Can an NPC level? That is up to the dungeon master but a party NPC should never level at the rate of the party, or if they do it is such an insignificant thing that it doesn’t matter. A party member going from level 14 to level 15 while the NPC goes from level 6 to level 7 is a great example.

Rule #2

‘These NPCs are relatively dumb.’

NPCs should not be making important decisions. If the party purchased a sage’s service that character is meant to give advice. Make that advice worth his generally low wage. If you make your party NPCs cheap then the players will get what they paid for (talked about in rule #6).

Make sure that the party NPCs in D&D do not sway the party or influence the party when making big decisions. These guys are employes, not equals. Treat them as such.

Rule #3

‘Party NPCs never outshine the PCs.’

We covered this a lot in the DMNPC section. Just make sure that you follow this rule or else the game is just you telling a story while others have no agency.

Rule #4

‘Party NPCs never make decisions.’

This was covered a lot in rule #2, but don’t let the employes make the decision. Leave it to your party and make the game about your players, not how your NPCs act.

Rule #5

‘Narrow field of expertise.’

I talked about how the party had a sage with them in rule #2 or a fighter in rule #1. Make your NPCs have a narrow field of expertise. Your players hired these people for a reason, and only that reason. If the players force the sage to fight with a crossbow the sage might shoot the bow, but he/she will not shoot it well.

NPCs should have 2 maybe 3 areas of expertise max and focus on one area the most. Remember that your PCs are an amazing group of adventurers who are quite talented. NPCs are just random dudes that you have pulled together. Keep these NPCs random, but somewhat useful.

Rule #6

‘They want to be paid.’

The most important rule of all! If your NPCs receive a better offer, they will probably take it. If your NPCs think that the job is not worth the pay, they will ask for a raise or leave. Your NPCs are employers so make them employes who are paid.

A general guide for these types of followers in 1st edition was to pay a follower 1 gp per year. Times have changed and 1gp per year is quite ridiculous. If things are cheaper or more expensive in your world then adjust the price, but this is usually what I go by.

1gp per month or 1gp per week. 1 gp is still very valuable in 5th edition. A player usually has to get to 4th level or so to earn significantly more than this, and adventuring is a lucrative business. Make that be the case to further the gap between your players and NPCs. Party NPCs in D&D are employees not equals.

Rule #7

‘It doesn’t matter who controls them.’

If a player wants to control the party NPC that is one less character that you have to deal with. Let the party control these guys if they want, but if no one wants the responsibility then it is okay for the dungeon master to control these guys.

Most of these NPCs do not have stats that are worth anything in a real fight and their turns are mostly inconsequential.

Conclusion

Party NPCs in D&D are meant to be with the group throughout the entire adventure and have a chance to overshadow the party. Make sure that your NPCs add to the game and do not EVER make your party feel like an NPC is running the show.

If you run a DMNPC be careful and make sure that the DMNPC is adding to the world instead of subtracting from it. DMNPCs are hard to use correctly and terrible if used incorrectly.

If you need help creating NPCs, here is an article to help you out.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!


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4 Comments

  1. Greate write! Was useful for me 🙂

  2. The Arctic Winter

    This was an interesting article to read. I both agree and disagree with some of the points you’ve made here, but I can certainly say that DMNPCs can water down a campaign if not done right. In the campaign I am running, the party has an NPC party member that is important to the story, but never outshines the player characters. This ally has a complex personality that changes as the story unfolds, specifically by how the player characters are changing that story as they move through the campaign. The players in my group love the NPC ally they have, and their characters share a strong bond with them too, which is something that I believe D&D 5e was made for: roleplaying

    I do still believe that DMNPCs are dangerous, so for first time DMs, maybe try to not do that until your a bit more comfortable? Metagaming is difficult to avoid, but I will say that I am lucky to have understanding players at my table.

    P.S. Rule #7 has helped me a lot. The less I have to worry about, the better the game runs!

    1. Glad I helped you out! And it is more so that they cannot have major decisions in the story. They can be somewhat important and have a personality, but they should NEVER be the ones calling the shots or even have a meaningful voice in what decisions the party should make.

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