I have been playing PnP for some years now and also had one session GMing (my first) and I discovered that my biggest problem wasn't creating a world, inventing scenes or reacting fast if my players weren't following the intended path - It was to imagine what skills, spells and attributes my (enemy) NPCs had.

With every battle, I had to look up the attributes and skills of every enemy my players faced - and I couldn't decide which ones are appropriate to choose.

I tried to do this in advance, but I couldn't really imagine what would be hard for the group or what would be just boring because the enemies were too easy.

What is a good way of deciding how strong your NPCs are? I thought about just doing it on the fly, without any actual numeric representation of the NPCs' attributes, just decide that now would be a good time that this one dies and the other one gets enraged and does some more damage...

But that would totally kill the traceability of my actions - say, if a player wants to know if it was at all possible that this NPC had this-and-that ability --- because I don't really like to answer "It's like this because I say it is"... seems to bossy...

How do you deal with this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this question is system-agnostic. In Shadowrun, it's easy to improv; in D&D, it's hard to improv, and there are tables for challenge rating; in some other game systems, it's not really relevant. \$\endgroup\$
    – RMorrisey
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 1:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Agreed with @RMorrisey, and downvoted. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pat Ludwig
    Commented Jan 9, 2012 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed. From my experience different systems often require completely different approaches to this. Different answers are likely to favour whatever system the person is used to, and this won't necessarily be clear in what they say. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented May 6, 2012 at 9:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree, as system-agnostic there won't be a meaningful answer beyond general platitudes "tough... But not too tough!". \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented May 6, 2012 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Voting to close as too broad. Narrowing it to a specific system that you need to do this with is necessary by our 2014 standards. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:54

6 Answers 6


Short answer: Never do it on the fly, unless you're experienced.

As you're new to GMing, the best thing you can do right now is prepare. Take all the time you need to find abilities, skills, spells, gear and whatever else you need for your NPC's before the session. Build them in a believable, solid manner (and don't forget to name them all! :D )

As far as deciding how strong they are, and seeing as your question is system-agnostic, the best thing to do, I find, is to give them a challenge, almost equal to how strong they are, as far as numbers go.

Translated in math, a formula would be:

NPC difficulty = PC strength * number of PC's * 0.7

PC strength, of course, is not the common statistic Strength, that measures physical prowess, but the sheer power of one of your Player Characters.

Imagine if you pitted the players against themselves. Now mix your PC's 'evil twin siblings' you just created, so that the PC's can't tell who is who's counterpart (give them unique abilities, skills, etc.) Now make the NPC's you created 30% less efective than the PC's.

This usually works with most games out there. Especially with older games, if you pitted a monster of the same difficulty level as a player character, the player character would promptly die in a horrible manner. The 30% ensures that won't happen, but will still give the players a challenge.

That is the best you can do when preparing. When playing, however, you might discover that the NPC's you designed are too powerful/not powerful enough for the PC's.

The magic word is improvise

If you have the option, don't make all of the NPC's attack at once. Throw a few at the PC's and see how they deal with them, then judge accordingly.

If the NPC's are too strong for the players:

Intervene. Have one of the NPC's fail their spell, or their bow string break, or their sword break. Have them retreat if they see one of their own gravely injured. Make them cowards, stupid and ineffective. It will make up for the overpowered stats.

If the NPC's are not strong enough for the players:

Present 2 of each. Give each one slightly more health. Have a backup list of magical/powerful equipment (depending on the system) in case you need to buff your NPC's equipment. (Give them the items before you let them loose on the PC's, though. Don't change their weapons on the spot)


It's always better if the NPC's are not strong enough, than too strong, and people end up frustrated cause they lost their character they spent so long developing.

In time, you will learn to second-guess your players' reactions and strategies. Watch them deal with an encounter, and remember it for the next time you design a fight. Counter their most common strategies with interesting abilities, items and spells (if your system has magic) and even with terrain, weather conditions and NPC tactics of their own.

Variety is the spice of life

Hope I helped :)

  • \$\begingroup\$ You have to make NPC difficulty = PC strength * number of PC's * 0.7 to get 30 % less -- otherwise you are calculating 30 % of their power. \$\endgroup\$
    – Metalcoder
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ You spend a lot of time talking about balancing things to make sure the players are challenged but don't lose. Just wanted to mention the flipside of that. If the players can't lose, there's not really a challenge! (Yes, I realize that probably wasn't your intention. I just thought it needed to be said.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 16:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I just want to add, there is such a thing as too much preparation too. Focus on getting the most important bits prepared beforehand, but you can leave some things fuzzy. While it's important to know the primary stats and skills, or those relevant to the adventure, writing up every detail is overkill. E.g. Note that the NPC also has 2 other skills at a max level, or 4 at half-level, and pick them as needed. This also helps with npc reuse. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 10:33

The Mastercraft line (Spycraft, Fantasy Craft) by Crafty Games provides an interesting solution to the problem, and in talking about how to use it also (sort of) answers your question.

Most of the time, an NPC makes skill checks with his Competence bonus.... When you want an NPC to be especially adept with a particular activity though, you can assign him one or more Signature Skills. Only skills you expect to regularly come into play should get this treatment...

So, obviously a lot of that is system specific. (And the system deals with NPCs, particularly 'minions', REALLY well. If you like D&D 3.5 I encourage you to check it out.) But the point is, only stat what you expect your character to need. For everything else, set a default value based on how powerful you want them to be. If you find a particular situation where you haven't stated or you think that default value isn't appropriate, shift it up or down slightly, depending.


One solution that I like and that you might want to consider is the use of templates. For every game, I have some basic NPC sheets, corresponding to a character template and a power level. For example, the "magic user" (novice / expert / master), the "thief" (novice / expert / master), warrior, etc, for D&D/PFRG like games, urban samurai, rigger, mage for SR, etc.

If somehow the game get crazy, and the players end up fighting against a random NPC I haven't planned beforehand, I just take one of these templates, and voila. Usually, it doesn't pose the issue of "all guards in the world have the same sheet", since there are enough random factors to make every encounter different. However, in some case I add a few "tweaks" to the sheet to make it different, for example a special weapon, a unique spell/ability, etc.

It also means that a thief encountered in a tavern will always be more or less the same, which is good. It makes the character feel the power advancement, rather than games where the city thieves / guards are "one level less than you", which feels ridiculous after a while.

It is easier to do for some games (DD4, PFRPG, SR4) than for others (WoD, BESM, M&M), but you usually have strong archetypes/clichés that you can rely on. For example, in VtM, you can make an infinite number of unique Toreador characters; so just rely on the cliché, and give him all the skills/disciplines of the Toreador cliché, and voilà!

And finally, one option that I have used only in a few games because not all systems allow for it is the use of multiple templates. BESM is great for this, I just have to prepare "race templates", "class templates", and "origin templates", and add them together when the characters meet a new NPC. The characters meet an Elf paladin from Mars? Or a robot samurai from the Civil War? No problem, I got this. But again, most games don't allow you to do this kind of things unfortunately.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting answer. Welcome to the site. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 7, 2012 at 23:23

It's hard to say something generic, because it depends on your assumptions for the game and setting, in addition to the game system. Also, it's easier in some games than others to wing stats.

I find it very easy to improvise stats in GURPS, both because I'm very familiar and comfortable with the rules, but also because it there are so few constraints on creating characters. I can just pick what feels right. This also applies to other flexible systems.

In games such as Hackmaster or D&D, I find it more difficult because traits depend more on each other or the level, and rewards are closely tied to the challenge presented to the player. I end up usually have to find something in the Monster Manual I can tweak to suit the situation, which requires a bit of familiarity with what's available. You should never be afraid to "reskin" an monster, and tweak it a little. The players are unlikely to ever know, and you have instant ready stats. If you need a guard that's roughly as powerful as an hobgoblin, just use a hobgoblin. Simply substitute the description, and the players will never know.

But in general, I have two main approaches: a world-centric and a player-centric approach.

For the world-centric approach, I hardly consider the player characters at all. The guard is as good as a guard should be, and it's largely irrelevant if he kicks the butts of the players or visa-versa. If he is too powerful, the players should have known better than mess with people more skilled than them. If he's too weak it serves to underline how powerful the player characters are, and serves to make more powerful NPCs seem stronger. This approach works well for me in "sandboxy" campaigns, but requires you got a good feel for the system and a rough idea what is typical for various kinds of npc in your gameworld.

In games where the players usually come up against opponents and NPC at roughly the same powerlevel most of the time, e.g. adventuring in a dungeon microcosm, I use a more player-centric approach. I've borrowed the idea of a "baseline statline" from Creature Crafter from Word Mill Games (a pretty decent generic supplement for generating monsters on the fly). Basically, I calculate the average combat stats of the player characters, and use this as a baseline for picking npc stats. Often I write this up using an npc write-up, if the game has this. If I want more details, I also note the minimum and maximum values to check at a glance things like if the players can actually hit an NPC, or visa versa.

Often I use a mixture of the two approaches, but certain systems tend to nudge me towards one or the other.


This varies very heavily between systems. a game like d&d/PF it's tough to adlibb as g without lots of experience; but a fate based game like dfrpg you pretty much wing it every encounter due to the go anywhere & do anything nature of the game combined with the fact that you don't necessarily kill get killed when reaching the equivalent of 0hp unless the attacker decides to kill you once you get taken out & gets to decide your fate... but to balance that terrifying power, players (and npc's) can offer a concession at any point prior to finding out the results of the attack where they offer to lose the encounter in a way favorable/acceptable to the victor of their own suggestion. As long as it's not "rocks fall you die" & they go all the way through a losing conflict with an opponent likely to kill them without first offering a concession... they have only themselves to blame when they take two to the brainpan.


I almost never hold exactly true to materials even i have written or "modules" i used in the past. You are the GM - make whatever you want up as its needed to make the story interesting and challenging for the PC's. If you are looking for a "mechanic" for it, it depends on the system. As i tend to play loose with everything in order to make sure its interesting, i just assume an NPC is average in all things, except the one thing they are good at that makes them a character of note. If thats a high skill, it may be because of decent attributes, or it may just be a natural level of ability. I try not to focus on items with NPC's as i'm not big on "treasure"... most NPC's are remarkable because of their ability - not items. Keep that in mind when you try and decide what their power is. Keep in mind that some of it may be knowledge too, connections, and intelligence. A brain is the best weapon an NPC has... i've had adventures where minor NPC's turn out to become major ones because of some decision they made and became the center of the PC's attention. That goes to show it may have simply been luck that placed them in their position... so i would envision them and then adjust to fit the challenge needed for the group.


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