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I am about to run Out of the Abyss for the first time and was wondering about how I should manage the NPCs that escape with the party from Velkenvelve. My goals for them are as follows: the NPCs...

  • Shouldn't be stronger in combat than the PCs, especially once the PCs have leveled up a few times.
  • Should be seen as nothing more than assistants to the heroes.
  • Shouldn't be trivially killed due to low hitpoints. I would like them to remain alive for story purposes.
  • Shouldn't just be ignored in combat. I'd like to keep things realistic in that regard.

In order to accomplish this, I am considering allowing NPCs to "level up" periodically. Every 2 levels, the NPCs will gain 1 level worth of extra HP. Every 4 levels, they will gain 1 extra ability score point. The NPCs won't gain any other sort of "class features" the way the PCs will, so they will be left behind, but perhaps they won't be so easily killable. In case it matters, I plan on using milestone leveling rather than tracking XP.

Will allowing NPCs to "level up" in this way accomplish my goals? I am particularly interested in those who have tried this or a similar change to the Out of the Abyss NPCs in their own game.

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I've been frustrated for months with the NPCs in Out of the Abyss

I've been DMing Out of the Abyss for my group for months now, and the sheer number of followers has frustrated me for a substantial portion of that time. I actually had the very same goals that you do: keep the NPCs viable but in the background. I didn't want them to disappear during combat, but I also didn't want them overshadowing the players.

I found it impossible to balance the game around the number of NPCs that the party could have at any given time.

I tried changing health points around as you suggested, and I tried grouping up NPCs into distinct units based on the mass combat rules of in the DMG. I tried just having them fade into the background, upgrading their equipment over time, and I even tried giving each NPC a full turn in combat and letting the PCs run the NPCs in battle. And every option had the following problems:

  1. Combat was taking forever with so many creatures in initiative. Each NPC took time away from my players playing their own PCs. And if I ran all of the NPCs, I was frantically trying to keep the game moving and burned myself out within minutes just trying to keep up.
  2. NPCs aren't interesting. They don't have class features, don't really do anything all that special, are pretty weak, and it takes time away from you (the DM) playing cool monsters or the players playing their own PCs.
  3. They make fights a chore to balance. With so many extra bodies, and hit points and damage flooding the board, you either need to give enemy monsters supercharged hit points and damage, or you need to throw an army at the players to provide a challenge. Otherwise, the players can just steamroll an encounter super easy. That happened to me frequently and in every instance I felt like I had wasted valuable table time on a fight that was just plain too easy.

For all of these reasons, I switched to a support system instead of statting the NPCS and I suggest you do the same.

If you look on page 114 of OoTA there are certain benefits for completing tasks for the Svirfneblin. Some of those include benefits that the PCs can call on for free that represent Svirfneblin aid in battle without actually running any NPCs. I took this and built a system on based around it. Here is the gist of that system:

  • NPCs do not roll initiative and have no physical representation in combat. They cannot be attacked or otherwise directly harmed by monsters.
  • For every battle ready NPC companion in the party, the group gets one support point.
  • A PC can use up to one support point on their turn to get some kind of benefit for free. The benefit represents the aid of an NPC
  • Each benefit has a risk associated with it (low, medium, or high). Greater risk equals greater reward, but more chance of something going wrong.
  • After a player uses a support point roll a d20 (no modifiers) with a target number based on the risk.
  • If the d20 roll is below the target number something bad happens to the NPC, usually knocking them out until a short or long rest, or killing the NPC.

I found that this system was much better at addressing the number of NPCs in the party. It allows the players to spend more time doing cool stuff with their characters and it doesn't cause the massive combat bloat that running each individual NPC does. It also solves most of our issues. NPCs aren't as strong as the heroes, are purely supportive in nature, and stay in the background at all times to let the heroes shine. If you want, you could even give individual NPCs new benefits to show how they are developing with the players. For example, I myself gave an NPC a new benefit to add extra fire damage to a player's attack after the players gave that NPC a magic flaming sword.

Monsters in my system can't attack the NPCs though

Since each benefit comes with a risk, monsters don't directly attack NPCs in this system. Instead, when something bad happens to the NPC after providing their benefit, I simply narrate how their actions got them injured by one of the monsters, without actually using any of that monster's action economy. Still, I was perfectly willing to make that concession for all of the other benefits that this system provided.

If you want to see exactly the system I use, you can view it in this google doc

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks Adam, that's a great suggestion. I don't want to steal your idea, but I would love for you to give me more information on your idea so I can use it, lol. Are you willing to provide some more detail on the types of benefit/risk ratio the NPC support point would offer, and how you set target numbers? \$\endgroup\$ – Eumaeus Yrornvar Aug 20 '18 at 21:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user39547 I added a link to a google doc with my system in it. It's a bit of a living document. As for the target numbers, I just started with values that seemed reasonable for the benefits and might adjust them as necessary depending on how things go at the table. And if you like it, feel free to use it or tinker with it however you like! \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Aug 21 '18 at 13:26
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Not all your NPCs need to fight! The fewer NPCs you have joining in on the combats, the easier they will be to run, and the less you'll need to add house rules about leveling the NPCs up.

Keep in mind that the NPCs in Out of the Abyss are meant to be mad, crazy, weird, and wacky. They're not all strategic and tactical fighting machines.

I've been running OOTA for 2 years, and what I did with the NPCs was to simply have most of them stay out of combat.

I'd include Sarith and Derendil, and occasionally others, but Topsy and Turvy, Eldeth (in my game she went mad early), Stool, and Buppido would hang back and protect themselves during a fight. I just decided they weren't adventurers or fighters, they were just prisoners trying to escape.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Please check out the tour for an intro to how we do things around here - in particular, it's important to note that answers are expected to answer the question. This post looks like it doesn't directly address the question about whether the proposed "level up" houserule will accomplish the querent's goals, it's just some sorta-related advice on running NPCs. \$\endgroup\$ – A_S00 Aug 20 '18 at 21:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm new here, so I apologize! However, I do feel it was related to the problem the original poster was having. If you reduce the number of NPCs fighting, so that instead of 9 NPCs in combat, you've got 2 or 3, it won't be as complex to manage the combat with those NPCs. \$\endgroup\$ – isaacpriestley Aug 20 '18 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough! But "related to the problem" isn't the same thing as "answering the question." OP asks "Will allowing NPCs to "level up" in this way accomplish my goals?" (they even put it in bold for us!), so it's expected that part of any good answer is an answer to that question. It's OK for part of your answer to be "...but also, I think there's a better way of accomplishing your goals, and here's why," but that doesn't exempt you from answering the question. More on this here. \$\endgroup\$ – A_S00 Aug 20 '18 at 22:28

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