I’ve been playing P&P for years and have taken my first tentative steps into DM’ing over the last year, mostly leading One-Shots. I am also a passionate world-builder and so I jumped at the chance to use one of my most developed worlds as a home-brew setting. For the most part, this has worked out well and the players like the setting - but I’ve started to notice a trend that’s troubling me.

The setting contains A LOT of NPCs and they range from “average joe” to “movers and shakers of the world” in terms of power and competence. And I find myself somewhat at loss how to handle interactions between the latter and the PCs. On the one hand, those NPCs are meant to be badass, smart and proactive and I want to do them justice. But on the other hand, I don’t want the players to get the feeling that they are being reduced to assistants or – even worse – spectators.

Avoiding them until the PCs are powerful enough to meet them as equals is an option, but I often run into the problem that the “here be cool adventures” and the “here be VIP NPCS” parts of the setting often overlap. So sure, I could send my players to clear out a monster-infested mine or retrieve stolen goods – while the NPCs prevent the brewing civil war, slay the dragon, fight a dead god… all off-screen. Yay?

I have used the “but our hands are tied!”-approach in the past, where powerful NPCs showed up but they were crippled/captured/bound by bureaucracy, which explained why they couldn’t do anything and needed the PCs help. This usually works, but I am afraid of overusing it. It gets kinda weird when characters that are usually competent suddenly can’t do anything every single time the PCs get involved. Plus, it would be rather hard to take them seriously after a while.

And the thing is: I like those NPCs. I spent a lot of time writing them. And I want to use them and I want to play them right and not reduce them to damsel/dudes in distress for the sake of the adventure all the time. (And, I admit it: I want my players to like them.) But the focus should be on the PCs. I want them to be the heroes, to have the spotlight and be awesome. They are the main characters and I want the story to reflect that.

So…. How do I manage that? How can I have a setting filled with powerful NPCs and still let the PCs be the main heroes, while still maintaining some logic?

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    I think your question would be better if you included the main theme of the universe (is it a standard fantasy one?) and more details about who those NPCs are. Different NPCs mean different ways to handle them. – Anne Aunyme Jun 13 '17 at 11:11
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    I would think it's only logical for the heroes not being the most powerful entities whereever they go. If there are NPCs who have a certain strength and nothing to hold them back, then simply letting them win battles with unparalleled excellence will be appropriate within the game world, and will give your party's characters something to strive towards. If they ask that character to join the party and fight all their battles for them, you can still come up with reasons to decline. Is there a relevant reason why you think your heroes should always appear to be the "best" I'm missing? – TheThirdMan Jun 13 '17 at 12:13
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    If you want to read a well written series of books about this scenario, read "The Dresden Files" by Jim Butcher. The main character, Harry Dresden, is exactly like the PCs in this scenario: a human with special powers (but still human) who receives orders from supernaturally powerful beings, yet deals with them while keeping his own agency and not seeming like a pawn in their hands. He may receive his orders from them, but he does not want to forsake his humanity or break his own unwritten rules. – Nzall Jun 13 '17 at 13:30

10 Answers 10

up vote 72 down vote accepted

It’s all about Agency

As long as the party is independent to choose their path, and their actions remain relevant, having mighty NPC’s involved won’t detract from the game.

NPC’s that are already in conflict have a great excuse for not “doing the thing.”

Suppose the mighty NPC heroes need to recover an item from the Chapel of Nice Things, but the evil dragon circles above to prevent entrance. Enter the lowly PC’s. When the mighty NPC’s distract the dragon by the front door, the PC’s can sneak in through the secret way — they just have to deal with whatever (appropriately challenging) monsters are squatting there.

The players will get to act independently, and what they do really matters. Sidelining avoided.

Avoid direct orders

If the party ends up being part of a wider struggle, especially a military one, it would seem to make sense for the party to have a “commanding officer,” which would be problematic if it takes away the power of the party to choose their path. Strategies to solve this include giving the party a superior who:

  • Trusts the party’s judgement and abilities, giving them latitude to act as they see fit.
  • Is incompetent, forcing the party to disobey to save the day
  • Dies at an inopportune time (etc.)

Once the party has sufficient reputation, they can be treated like (or become) military special forces, or special agents, who have broad power to act with little supervision.

Say the party is helping to defend a city from attack. Instead of just assigning a stretch of wall to them and throwing monsters at them, they might be held in reserve, or simply never receive an assignment in the chaos. When the assault comes, give the party more than one option — they might want to help the mighty NPC’s at the main gate, or rescue the levy troops at a breach in the wall as the lower city, etc.

NPC’s get to do things too

The above devices will get you a long way; however, if only the PC’s get to affect the story, the events will start to seem contrived. Let the mighty NPC’s be involved with events that impact the game world, apart from the PC’s. For example, while the PC’s were questing, the city fell, but the king and his guard held back the onslaught, allowing the populace to flee to safety.

Don’t make the party “mow your lawn”

One other pitfall to avoid is making the PC’s into “little helpers” for furthering along your mighty NPC’s heroics.

Since you want your players to like your NPC’s, be careful that your quest hooks don’t sound like: “I hate to ask, but could you clear out my cellar? Oozes got in again. I’d do it myself, but there’s this Celestial War thing and apparently they can’t start without me. Oh, and feel free to help yourself to any of the junk you find down there.”

An inglorious plot hook isn’t always bad. They can inculcate comraderie in a new party via a little shared suffering. But if you are going to be spending any significant time telling an ongoing story, then your PC’s should be involved in a meaningful way.

If the party is not ready to play a meaningful role in a particular story, don’t make the game be about that story. (A little tantalizing foreshadowing is OK.)

Mighty NPC’s can provide aid in ways that are fun and interesting

Having high level NPC’s give you options changing up game play for low-level characters. A powerful mage might polymorph willing PC’s, provide a powerful item with limited uses, send them to a different plane (or just somewhere far away) or give them magical/technological protection against certain enemies.

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    I've had success where the party had commanding officer but was treated more as a special-operations team: Objective, some information, useful equipment, then off on their own. – chrylis Jun 13 '17 at 19:52
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    For the direct orders one, it might be useful to talk about special-forces-esque groups that have existed throughout history, emulating the ideal trope PCs wish to fulfill. – godskook Jun 13 '17 at 19:54
  • That "Dragon" scenario reminds me of a tutorial mission in Dungeons & Dragons Online. You (a beginning PC) must smash the crystals that allow the villain to control a powerful dragon. While you work your way through low-level minions, you can see the high-level NPC party leading said dragon on a merry chase. At the climax you get to watch the dragon destroy his former controller. (Being able to witness these events makes you feel connected) – Shawn V. Wilson Jun 16 '17 at 1:12

A powerful NPC is more than just a pinboard for quests

I have already added a comment on a really good book series that deals with badass mortals and their interactions with powerful NPCs: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. However, I wanted to expand on that.

I have read all of the books released so far, and it really fits the situation:

  1. A small group of humanoids with supernatural powers...
  2. Enlisted by a much stronger, supernatural and extremely mighty 3rd party...
  3. To do something for that 3rd party that said 3rd party cannot do on their own...
  4. Without making the group feel like they're errand boys for the 3rd party.

The way Butcher solves this is by not just making the 3rd party act as questgivers, but also by making them act as direct allies and equals: sources of information, favors to be called in, partners in combat, even reinforcements and advisors.

For example: At one point, Harry has to save someone close to him. During this period, he enlists the help of literally everyone he has encountered before. He calls upon lovers new and old, powerful relatives both in blood and in contract, favors from people he has helped in the past. Hell, even his mentor, who is one of the 6 most powerful mortal wizards in existence, helps him, as well as a Norse god. But he doesn't do this because he's ordered by any of these. He does this because he holds the prisoner very dear to him, and he wants to do whatever it takes to save her.

Another example: While saving this prisoner, one of the favors Harry called in effectively turned him into The Dragon for a powerful being. He doesn't take this willingly though: even as he calls in the favor, he is making preparations to subvert the consequences, and even as those fail, he makes it clear to the being that he is not going to forsake his own written rules about how to solve things, no matter what she says, to the point of threatening that being, even though she is vastly more powerful than he is and can kill him easily.

The key point is that Harry interacts with these beings as equals. Both parties give each other equal respect. Both parties know that they can be a serious pain for the other party. Both parties know that they can do more as allies. But both parties also refuse to bow to each other, instead opting to view them as another player of The Game of Politics they need to deal with.

It is entirely possible to do a similar thing: Not all powerful NPCs are just quest givers or overpowered allies/enemies. Some of them may end up assisting the PCs in their quest through various means because the things the PCs want to do are favorable to them.

Low-level characters should get level-appropriate challenges. Not every adventure must be an epic battle for the fate of the world. The MacGuffin which needs to be retrieved from the dungeon can be the key to saving the world, or it can also be a deed to a family estate. The damsel in distress waiting for rescue can be the heir to the throne, or just a farmer's daughter. The warlord which needs to be stopped can lead an army of cyborg ninja mutants conquering the universe or just be chief of a local bandit gang terrorizing a village in the middle of nowhere.

Just because an adventure is too low-stakes to be of interest for the mightiest NPCs in the scenario doesn't mean it's not an interesting quest.

But if you really want some epic plot for low-level characters, then you must find some reason why the relatively weak PCs get tasked with this instead of the more able characters in the setting. Possible excuses are:

  1. The mighty NPCs underestimate the problem. They don't believe that legend about the lost artifact of doom being buried in the abandoned mine. And even if it is, isn't it very unlikely that the goblins who are now squatting in that mine have dug it up and are currently being possessed by a demon lord who wants to bring the end of the world as we know it? The PCs surely can take care of them.
  2. The mighty NPCs are the antagonists. The PC's quest involves getting something from them or getting them to stop doing something. A direct engagement would be suicide, so the PCs will need to be tricky.
  3. The mighty NPCs take the wrong approach. When they are well-rounded characters, they will have character flaws. Stubbornness, honor or preconceptions might lead them to try to solve problems in ways which aren't going to work. The much smarter PCs might be able to accomplish more with less resources by taking a different approach. When the PCs don't get that idea on their own, a weaker NPC might be required to give the PCs the idea.
  4. The PCs are "the chosen ones". Because of stuff, any of the more competent PCs can not even get close to the ultimate evil without dying / getting corrupted etc. But due to some divine (or satanic, or arcane, or pseudo-scientific... whatever) intervention, the PCs are immune. So they are the only people who can solve the problem.
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    All useful and valid info, but doesn't really address the issue: how to use the powerful NPCs in such a way as not to overpower the PCs? – Shawn V. Wilson Jun 16 '17 at 1:19

A key to making powerful NPCs like this is to recognize that powerful people are typically balanced by them trying to do powerful things. You mention the solution of having your NPC's "hands tied" by bureaucracy and the like, but quit often that which ties our hands the most are our own goals. A powerful NPC should have powerful and subtle goals of their own. Goals which are worth spending their life striving after. These goals are rarely 100% in concert with that of the PC party. Thus, it's not that the NPC can't lend a hand, it's that the NPC is trying to fit lending a hand into their greater goals. Often this helping hand comes in a form the PCs didn't expect. The great Baron of the South may not be in a position to spare 3 legions of soldiers to help the PCs, but he may have been able to provide some influence in the court that staved off the execution of the entire PC party.

The big difference between this and the "bureaucracy" approach is that the bureaucracy approach is external. It's separate from the NPC, and seems like a hindrance. This raises the question of why the NPC hasn't fixed the situation yet. However, if the NPCs own goals spread him or her thin, then it's not an external force that limits them, its internal. Every time the NPC fails to help, we get to see deeper into who they are and why they do the things they do.

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    I like this answer, as it involves thinking in terms of narrative and character development. – bgvaughan Jun 13 '17 at 18:44
  • Great answer. "Hey, I'm going off to explore the Barren Wastelands of the North again, but if you guys want to watch my castle for me you can use the observation towers to look for whatever it was you were looking for. Bye!" – Robert Columbia Jun 13 '17 at 21:14

You can have the “but our hands are tied!” for various reasons:

  • If the bureaucracy is slow, they don't want to do the things by the books, but they are too important to ignore the rules;
  • They may be guest at reception, and couldn't refuse
  • They have another task (another BBE), and have no time to spare
  • The PC may not communicate directly with them (bureaucracy, party, diplomacy event...)
  • The NPC has been sent on a false trail few days ago, by false information
  • They are marrying, or can't miss their son's/daughter's marriage
  • They have been charged with destruction of property during their last fight and must go to court, or otherwise be imprisoned, or face a fine that they can't afford.

These situation may be orchestrated or exploited by the villains. You can also turn these little inconveniences where the player need to speak with the NPC, changing the excuse into plot, and even have fun while the players try to cover for the absence of the important NPC. Or, the players have to attempt to infiltrate a noble party (and without killing anybody) just to pass a message to the important NPC and the matter is sensitive/secret.

The NPC may party with the players, and fight along side them; for the final battle, the PC should keep the reinforcements away while the overpowered NPC fights the overpowered villain :P

You may split the party: the OPNPC goes right, the PCs go left, or the OPNPC hold the bridge (You Shall Not Pass) while the PCs get to do something significant, like lose their way in the forest :P

The PCs and NPCs both have tasks fitting their capacity. NPCs at that level should chase villains way more dangerous than the ones PCs can handle. You may have a small interlude in game where the PCs witness a fight between 2 NPCs, their decision is: do they help or not? Some NPCs may think that was absolutely not chivalrous and NOT needed (even if it was), whereas others may thank them for the help.

Play a mix of all theses, and all should go smoothly.

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    Please review the edit, the prose needed a little smoothing out but I think I captured where you were heading with this. – KorvinStarmast Jun 13 '17 at 12:34
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    Yeah sorry about my bad prose, I'm way better at GMing than writing some prose, but I like sharing my ideas. Great editing btw; – Alkano Jun 13 '17 at 14:11
  • No worries, glad the edit meets your approval. Thanks for the answer. :-) – KorvinStarmast Jun 13 '17 at 14:19

With an example:

Comic books provide a great answer to your question with an example.

*When Brainiac invaded the Earth, Superman and the Justice League went off to fight him. Meanwhile, the Teen Titans go around town saving people, preventing other villains from escaping the asylum, prevent the dam from breaking, and making their high school exams. *

Your high powered NPCs are the "Justice League": Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc., and the PCs are the Teen Titans. Both are engaged in the same event (Brainiac attack) yet they deal with completely different elements.

Then as they gain XP, your party will join the Justice League while some of the "kids" stay back and deal with the "small stuff"...

Simple but an example I used myself.

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    I was going to say something about daredevil (a guy fighting for justice in his town) vs the avengers (fighting to save the world or universe), But this is the same kind of idea. – satibel Jun 14 '17 at 9:50

Your NPCs don't have to be that much more "powerful" than the PCs

Levels represent exponential power growth1, and thus, an NPC only a few levels higher than your PCs is, despite minimal "level" differences, is VASTLY more powerful, per the rules. You don't need NPCs more than 3-4 levels above your PCs for them to be quite powerful, but at the same time, an NPC 4 levels higher can't even handle what a 4-man group of PCs can because of the action economy.

Use a lower level-cap, like E6

High-level D&D 3.5 tends to be VERY disruptive to consistent and "normal" settings. Its literally a different game at that point, and a different setting. Find a level-range that suits your game, and your super-powerful NPCs only need be 2 levels above that cap to look like GODS to your PCs between the cap and my previous point.

NPCs, unlike PCs, are people

Or rather, they actually act like people. They have fears, dreams, and emotions in response to the world around them, far more than PCs do. And as real people, fear is a default reaction. Bravery(idiocy, really), on the level PCs demonstrate daily is literally superhuman, which is one of the reasons they succeed so well where others fail.

How I use powerful NPCs in my setting

I use an E6-like ruleset, but my NPCs go up to level 14(rarely).

The highest known leveled NPC had, Dominic, 150 years ago in my setting, fought and killed the Tarrasque. Now, he bankrolls the PCs on their adventures, and can't be bothered to deal with the problems he sends them to deal with. The party rarely sees him or interacts with him, but his mere name draws PCs to explain how important he is to newer players.

Another above-6 NPC is the PCs' quest-giver, Jonathan Hooker. This character is around level 10, and is more than capable of handling what the PCs handle, except he's busy. Very very busy, administrating the guild the PCs work for.

The Dragon the PCs put in charge of the nearby Dragon-nursery is a CR 16-19 Gold Dragon, Ambilax, whom they had contacted to help fight against a Human Dragonlord who commanded 3 young adult dragons of his own. The last time the PCs saw him, he was subduing another dragon before talking with them, and is quite busy dealing with all the younger dragons, dragonspawns and kobolds that the PCs put under his charge.

  1. A 4-man party of level 4s can take on 1 CR 4, or 2 CR 2s. Add +2 levels, and they can take on 2 CR 4s, or 4 CR 2s. Every +2 levels, the number of monsters double, which is literally exponential growth.

Everyone is already the hero of their own story

You must remember that you are already the hero of your own story -- because, well, who else could it be? And the same is true for your player characters.

You are asking, essentially, "what if my player characters feel upstaged by this NPC who is better than them in every way?" But here's the thing. It is fundamentally impossible for that to happen.

In the player character's own story, the NPC who has upstaged them is not the new hero, but is the usurper (and a story of overcoming your enemies/challenges/weaknesses is a good story to tell), or the golden standard (once again, a story of surpassing your mentors/dreams/limits is a good one to tell).

This is very important to understand because, one you have the gist of it, you will be able to apply the knowledge into your campaigns.

Doing it right: powerful NPCs as real, living people

So as the player characters are the heroes of their own stories, so are the NPCs their own heroes. They exist in the world not just "to be badass, smart and proactive." If that was their only reasons for existence, then they are empty, hollow shells.

Why did you put powerful NPCs there?

Your NPCs exist to fulfill some part of a narrative. This gives substance to their existence. You, the DM, must use your NPCs to deliver stories to your players that you could not otherwise deliver. Your powerful NPCs should not be there to serve just as a golden standard in relation to the PCs, because that would make them empty shells. They should be there because they have their own stories, and they are offering those to the narrative of the campaign so that the player characters can interact with them.

Doing it wrong: powerful NPCs as deus ex machina

The wrong thing to do is to introduce powerful NPCs in a way that renders the player characters' efforts obsolete. For example, after a long dungeon crawl, the last PC is about to fail their final death save. At this point, all his allies are dead. Suddenly, a random cleric appears, casts Healing Word and Revivify, and provides a chance for all the now-alive players to escape. Now, all their mistakes in that battle are invalidated, they suffer none of the consequences of their actions, and the credibility of the DM as a storyteller has suffered for it.

Don't impinge on the players' agency

The chief issue with powerful NPCs "overshadowing" the players is not that they are replacing the characters as heroes, but instead they remove the meaning from the players' actions.

When you remove meaning from players' actions, you are taking away their ability to affect the world. This is a deeper issue than just "overshadowing" the players. It is an issue that stems from your design of the world as the DM, or your understanding of what is important as the DM.

If the only meaningful things that can happen are things that can affect the plot (ie, things you as the DM have marked as important), and only the "movers and shakers" can affect that, then the players have no agency by design unless they are members of that class of people. If your campaign is suffering from this kind of design, then change it. Expand the "movers and shakers" to every living person in your world, because every person has agency and motivations.

The second issue deals with your perspective. The "cool things" happening in the world aren't necessarily going to appear in the story your players are going to tell, which means they aren't necessarily significant. You don't have to kill a dragon to feel heroic.

Bottom line: tell a story, don't worry about who the hero is

The PCs are already the heroes in their own tales. Just tell the story you need to tell. Make sure when you introduce NPCs, you're enhancing the narrative, and never introduce a powerful one just for the sake of it.

NPCs are not gods

Your NPCs are merely people. They have faults, fears, make mistakes and are not omnipotent or omnipresent. This gives you a lot of leeway. Maybe they cannot show their face in village X, or maybe they were chasing around a false lead. Most importantly, they can only be in one place at a time, so an invasion of skeletons might well force an NPC to hurry off and leave the PCs to beat up some highwaymen. Or the NPC might be off trailing another cell of the doomsday cult your characters are trying to destroy while your party raids the safehouse of another cell. Your NPCs need to be believable, and this is exactly how you do it. They are not stalking your party across the lands, ready to jump in at the slightest hint of trouble, but have their own lives, occupations, duties and troubles.

Depending on your setting, an accomplished NPC might be, for example, a commander in a conflict. It would then make sense that they are not fighting in the frontline, as the damage they could inflict is offset by the risk of losing a capable and valuable commander. In this kind of situations it is not only believable to the PCs that they get sent to do all the dirty work, but it also makes a lot of sense and is the expected thing to do. An experienced wizard, on the other hand, might be busy engaging in diplomacy or a powerful ruler might be waging a civil war or merely engaged in the day to day running of their realm. Or they may be engaged in negotiations with the other side or for some other reason cannot tip their hand by openly engaging in actions against the opposing faction.

The power of a character will always be defined as a reflection of the players' views of themselves and what they interpret as fair, earned, cheating, or broken. What the DM thinks is powerful or imbalanced, etc., may be important objectively, but to the feeling that players have, their own view are actually far more important. If they think a +3 is the bees knees, then it is.

The importance and power of an NPC will be defined by the player's interaction with it, not the NPC's stat sheet or its impact on the game world. I know that seems counter intuitive, but to put things in perspective, if you run a dream sequence for the adventuring party where they all think they become godlike amazing super heroes, what happens to the real world (nothing) while they are dreaming has no impact on their group experience unless you tell them it was all a dream. Likewise, if they see your mighty NPC as an imbecile, then that's what the NPC will be unless you force them into a game mechanic situation where they can love, hate, respect, or fear the NPC more.

I got into a habit of Hats. Whenever I described a character starting with a hat, my players knew immediately that the NPC in question was powerful and to be feared. It didn't matter if it was a level 2 or level 20 stat block. I also kept powerful NPC encounters to a minimum, and allowed players to interact with that power, and build off of it establishing their own.

A powerful feudal lord may bequeath title and land to one of the players, making them feel more connected to the NPC, but also giving them a taste of NPC influence and responsibilities. By giving players a taste, or sample of what the NPC can do, in a non threatening way, they can cultivate a respectful relationship. By not having the NPC do everything at the climactic scenes, or better still, by having the powerful NPC's weakness exploited by enemies in some other scenario where the PCs have to use their own unique abilities to rescue that NPC, the NPC becomes more 'relatable' and "human" (regardless of race or mortality) and that NPC starts to fit better into the narrative.

Players are automatically going to arrive "installed with the software package" of Trolls, Ogres, Giants, and Dragons. They have preconceived notions of these archetype NPCs and have caution rooted in childhood bedtime stories, books, and movies. You don't have to tell PCs to be cautious around a dragon or avoid a test of strength with a giant. So when constructing the myth of the NPC, your goal is to recreate that instinct the players have with other stock monsters and characters. Named NPCs are the same way. You don't have to tell the PCs to avoid a swordfight with King Arthur or a Wizard Duel with Merlin. They know those names. All you have to do is create that pillar of respect for the new NPC, and do it either with subtlety, such as several sessions of rumors and whispers, or suddenly, such as coming around a mountain bend and seeing that NPC in a clash with some more recognizable foe.

But whatever you do, don't take away the lime light from the characters, or the players will just sit back, bored and feeling worthless waiting for your super NPC to solve the quest. And if you use the excuse that the NPC is too busy, the players will start to grow agitated and hate the NPC every time they see them. The PCs should respect and or appreciate the continued existence of the NPC because they are a part of the world, rather than view them as an intruder meant to let the DM show off.

Players already know the DM is omnipotent. You don't need an avatar to rub it in their faces. They would rather have an Ivan Drago to rival, or a friendly mentor to guide them, than Captain Glory.

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