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As I was working on my D&D 4e campaign, I created a few NPCs to connect with my players, some of them intended as travelling companions of the PCs. Their backstories and knowledge hook into the story, and they are meant to let me introduce new plot hooks as I wish, and to expose my PCs to recurrent characters that they might care about, in order to enrich the story.

But I am unsure of how to balance NPCs and PCs in a party. I don't plan to ever have more than two NPCs travelling with the PCs, but even then I fear stretching it. I don't want the NPCs overshadow the PCs.

I'm not looking for actual mechanics or rules, but rather for 'soft' advice on the integration of NPCs. My question is motivated by two main worries:

  1. Do I risk overshadowing my PCs by introducing plot hooks mainly through their NPC companions?

  2. If I have more than one NPC travelling with the PCs, will it be taking away too much 'screen time' from the players (in combat and roleplay)?

Those are the two main issues that I would like to see addressed in an answer. I would like to know if my concerns about such possibilities are founded, and if so how I can best deal with them.

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Hi derp, would you please clarify if you're looking for a mechanical help, for a more general fluffy help or for both? It will really help us to answer your question better. Thanks. – Yosi Apr 5 '14 at 14:10
Thanks. The clarification is done. – derp Apr 5 '14 at 18:44
Why is this a dnd-4e specific question? Chances are you'd get more answers if you removed that tag... or if you explained a bit more thoroughly how your problem is system specific. :) – OpaCitiZen Apr 5 '14 at 20:14
@OpaCitiZen Tynam (re-)added that in the last edit. I'm not sure that this is specific to D&D 4e in the way that we have established on Meta as relevant... it's relevant background info an answerer should know, but the substance of the question is not specific to the game's rules. I'd lean toward not having a [dnd-4e] tag. – SevenSidedDie Apr 6 '14 at 19:00
up vote 3 down vote accepted

So first of all, I really like this idea. I tried it once or twice a long time ago and I'm still fantasizing about it. With that out of the way, let's move to my 2 cents.

Make the NPCs well-rounded characters

These NPCs aren't just some recurring characters, not to mention some one-time ones. They're gonna be with the party for a very long time. Whole adventures, actually, which is quite a lot. This means that they should be really well rounded. Your players should get to the point of distinguishing between them after just a few words, especially when the NPCs are the ones who spark the conversation.

More than that, though, they should be more than cardstock characters. You want them to express feelings, you want them to have goals, and you want them to react. Otherwise, your players will have hard time connecting with them, and this is far less good. As a rule of thumb, make them round and distinguishable from each other. A wizard is different from a fighter, true, but we want a greater difference. The prince will have hard time adjusting to the wilderness and to the bugs in his bed. The merchant will always stop to collect the better loot so she'll be able to earn much from those bargains. Classes are a dirty way to distinguish, but they're better when accompanied by some other traits.

Don't let them speak right one after the other

The players aren't coming for the game as an audience for a theater, they're here to play, and hearing NPCs talk with each other is far less fun. If you must make them speak between themselves, make it as quickly as you can and immediately move on. If you can narrate the conversation instead ("they're talking about what happened, Elsa thinks that they should go east and Hans thinks that they should go west…"), it is far far better.

Give the players the center stage

The players and their characters are the real stars of the campaign. The NPCs are extras, and should always be seen like for you that when you're playing them. If they're far cooler than the PCs, or if they have much more screen time, something is off with your campaign. It's better to not have the NPCs with the group than to let them illuminate and shadow the PCs.

They're not all knowing

Think for yourself what is more important, a character who knows everything or a character who knows only part of them. For me, it is the latter. That comes from one simple thing: There's no drama when everyone knows everything (it is not entirely true, but that's for another time). Make them say sometimes stupid or idiotic things, make them come to wrong conclusions, let them make mistakes. They're not a kind of supernatural deity who knows everything, but humanoids who are as humane as the characters, and they should be played this way.

Make them important for the story

They should always be important to the overall story, in one way or another. In one of my more successful D&D campaigns, the characters had to escort a princess to a neighboring kingdom through the forests. Having to keep her safe from one hand, and dealing with all of her complaints from the other one made the game so much richer. They don't have to be important to each and every one of the scenes, but they should always be important for the overall story. Otherwise, the characters may just leave them to rot one day, when things will turn the wrong way.

And an end

Hope I succeeded with helping you a little bit.

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While this is all great advice, I think the asker was actually looking for help giving the NPCs combat stats. – Oblivious Sage Apr 5 '14 at 14:02
@ObliviousSage I don't know, actually. He didn't mention specifically what he's really looking for, in that matter, and based on the tags it seems centered on the both of them. When he'll comment on my answer or will edit his original question it will be far easier to adjust. – Yosi Apr 5 '14 at 14:07
Thank you very much. I really liked the parts about them not being all knowing and limiting the talk they have with each other in particular. – derp Apr 6 '14 at 20:37

You have several options here, depending on your style of play. You could use one or more of these techniques in different situations...

  1. Make them relatively useless in combat. They might be physically weak, or have bad eyesight, or be cowards, maybe they're aristocracy and think they're above doing the "dirty work" of combat. Or maybe they just have a tendency to zone out, or wander off.

  2. Make them useful in combat but subordinate to the PCs. Maybe the NPCs don't really do anything in combat unless a PC tells them to, or maybe you turn to a player during combat and say "What do you think Elfboy the NPC is doing?" That way even if the NPC does something show-stoppingly-awesome, it was still a PC's idea.

  3. Let players just directly play them in combat.

  4. Make them into full GMPCs, with complete character sheets. Give them experience points and everything. If a PC dies, they can take over playing one of them.

  5. Wound one of them; preferably the most valuable one. Make them weak, anemic, recovering from surgery, whatever. PCs usually put themselves in a position to protect the "less able" members of their party.

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