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I play DnD 5th and I find my group often has many NPCs accompanying them, like 4 players and 4 NPCs. Most have some form of tie to the group, but few are actually as useful as the group members, as the group already has healers/damage dealers/party faces/stealthy characters. From a story perspective, they have different motivations for going the same route as the PCs.

So in combat, a couple NPCs don't do much, and the others are on par with the least useful party member. So in the end, the party dismisses the NPCs because they're "useless".

On the RP side, when the (extended) party meets another NPC, I don't want to have NPC-NPC conversations where the party is ignored, so the party NPCs end up not talking much. If the external NPC says things that the party misses, I normally don't have party NPCs pick up on those things, as it feels a bit like cheating. I have party NPCs fill in lore bits and background details, but the plot connections I leave to the PCs. So again, the NPCs are "as dumb" as the players, rarely offering an key insight or a brilliant idea.

I don't want to cut the NPCs out of the game; I think they should be used to provide a nice depth to the world. They give the PCs a chance to form bonds that help enjoy the game.

So, how can I strike a balance between:

  • not shadowing PCs in combat, but still providing a useful contribution to combat?
  • not shadowing the PCs while interacting with other NPCs, but still providing a useful contribution in said interactions?
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I find my group often has many NPCs accompanying them, like 4 players and 4 NPCs" — how does this happen? do PCs hire them or what? 4 npc wandering with the party all the time are too much. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 12 '18 at 0:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Following on from @enkryptor's question: is this an official published adventure, or a third-party one, or a homebrew one of your own creation? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 12 '18 at 1:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ it's a homebrew. No the NPCs are not hired. In this case specifically they are with the party because they're members of a disbanded army in enemy territory, so they wouldn't split up much. \$\endgroup\$ – Squera Dec 12 '18 at 1:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Squera so basically it was the DM's plot to attach these NPCs to the party? Maybe this is the core problem? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 12 '18 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor yes, i attached them to the party. No, that is not the problem, a party with some NPCs going around exists in the wild too (see OotA) and it should not be a problem per se, as you can also see from some of the answers below. \$\endgroup\$ – Squera Dec 12 '18 at 18:30
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Background:I'm currently running a 5e campaign with a large number of possible NPC companions and have run Out of the Abyss (which is HEAVY on NPC companions).

Combat

The conclusion I've come to for combat is: The Companion System.

Yes, it's not part of official rules, and isn't free, but it has worked excellently.

RAW Out of the Abyss has each and every NPC use the stat block of the appropriate monster. At the beginning, there are around a dozen of these NPCs. Once I whittled it down to three, it was a bit more manageable, but still meant that I was playing a disproportionate number of rounds in combat. It felt like I was, if you'll pardon me saying so, just playing with myself. The use of multiattack from two of the characters was especially unbalanced.

I have since switched to using the Companion System from the link above. I won't go into too much detail, because the person who created it deserves your money and clicks, but it gives companion NPCs small, supporting abilities to use in combat, and puts control of them into the players' hands. Any player can choose to control an NPC at any time, as long as they aren't already "claimed".

Currently, as an example, I have a drow cleric accompanying the party. The drow can do one thing: cast Spiritual weapon, and use it. This adds a bit of damage to the 3-person party without being especially interesting, and one of the players will still get "credit" for any badassery enacted during combat. It also means one less thing for me to keep track of, which is wonderful.

Talking to yourself

As far as RP goes, I try to involve my players whenever possible. Sometimes, as odd as it is it to me (and, it seems, to you too) they actually enjoy watching the DM talk to themselves. However, in these situations, I try to paraphrase information, and then either have an NPC address a player directly, or drop hints that the party should get involved.

For example:

DM: "You come across two women in the street. They are arguing.

[doing the voice of Woman 1] This other woman has stolen my wares!

[doing the voice of Woman 2] I haven't! She's a liar!

They carry on like this for a while, arguing loudly. It looks like they might come to blows if nobody stops them."

Eventually, if your players are roleplay inclined, they'll get involved in a situation.

As for interactions with NPCs that are already part of the party, I use two strategies: the first is always asking during down time if anyone wants to talk; the second is narrating what the NPCs are doing. Often times, the response to strategy one is a resounding silence. But I like to make that space so that players don't feel like they'd be interrupting anything if they wanted to talk. As for the second option, while running OotA, making camp and resting was a common thing. I would often narrate things like:

As you settle down for the night, you can see that Eldeth is leaning against a wall and studying her battleaxe with a stony frown on her face. Jimjar seems to be practicing card tricks and looking around at everyone from time to time. Sarith is curled up with his chin resting on his knees, clutching at his head.

This helps to build atmosphere, of course, but also suggests that everyone involved has something that might be a dialogue hook; the first person is unhappy about something, the second is trying to show off and get attention, and the third seems to have a nasty headache. Now, for the record, I've never had a player whose introduction to RPGs in general wasn't through Bioware, so they all understand the idea that you should be checking up on your companions pretty regularly.

What do NPCs know?

This may sound glib, but NPCs know what they should know. The aforementioned cleric is familiar with their home temple, but not so much with the surrounding city, and certainly not the rest of the continent. The well-traveled retired adventurer, however, knows a little about everything, although it may be a little out of date. Consider the NPC's backstory first, and then decide what knowledge and skills they have.

As for bailing the party out, I count NPCs as just another tool in my box for unsticking a party. If they've gotten hung up on something long enough that they're clearly bored, I give them a little nudge. I treat these along the same lines as what I would do with any non-party NPC, and again, try to keep in mind what the NPC's skills and background are. When trying to infiltrate a temple, the drow cleric may suggest going in through a secret passage nobody else knows of, whereas a druid might suggest using their spells to bust in. This is a fiddly DM call sort of situation, and requires a good read of your players to know when they're no longer having fun beating their heads against the wall.

Final Notes

Not all companions are created equal. In order to avoid overshadowing or overpowering the party, most potential companions are at the slightly-underpowered level that the Companion System offers. Some are less useful, and might need some training and protection; some are more useful, and might be able to offer training.

Overall, my advice could be boiled down to:

  • Use the Companion System, because it will save your life.
  • Make your NPC party members integrated parts of the world, and let that inform their dialogue.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ thanks for the recommendations! i've found an alpha version of the Companion system, it turns out i already did something similar, i.e., i assign an NPC to a player in combat and it's their duty to manage them. The atmosphere-building chat is nice, i should incorporate it more! I think i made the mistake of indeed making the NPCs integrated in the world, but they're all far away from home and any part of the world they really know, so they're all PC-level clueless when it comes to some things. \$\endgroup\$ – Squera Dec 12 '18 at 1:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Squera Hopefully, they should still know something about the world. I have a paladin, for example, in this campaign, who is from a completely different continent than where the game takes place. But he's still a powerful paladin, and has insider information on how the overall plot is going, and what his particular deity is up to. This is, or can be, useful information, even though he's out of his depth. \$\endgroup\$ – L.S. Cooper Dec 12 '18 at 1:29
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I have two pieces of advice on this topic.

Don't Join the Party

The broadest way around this problem is to have interesting, involved NPCs that don't travel with the party. There are lots of ways to make cool NPCs that are reoccurring characters but that don't follow your players around. Some examples that come to the top of my mind are:

  • A traveling merchant that has a penchant for attracting both danger and secrets. Every time he turns up, your players seem to have to save him from something, but he's happy to reward them with information he's learned since they last saw him.
  • The head of the king's guard that your players work with while in the capital city. She falls in love with one of the PCs and promises to wait while they finish their adventures. She is always thrilled to see the party and periodically even joins them for battles if they are close by (she's very strong, but since her help is so rare, it doesn't unbalance things).
  • The sorcerer twin siblings of one of the PCs who are studying the arcane halfway across the world. They may never even appear in person, but they send letters frequently along with strange magical artifacts that may or may not have a purpose.

In your current campaign, I would recommend trying to trim down the party. The NPCs can each find something they would rather be doing and leave the group. If they stay in one place, then your players now have a powerful ally there. If they continue traveling separately, then they can reappear at any time and become a strategic tool for you.

Make them Abnormal

If there's some deeper reason why you really want the party to have so many tag-alongs, then you should try to find things that are out of the ordinary for them to do. DnD makes this tricky by treating all powerful NPCs as the same as PCs (they have a class, level, etc.), but you can give them quirky powers outside of that if you want.

  • Maybe a magic user has a tremendously powerful spell, but needs 10 turns to activate it. They have to be protected until then, since it requires all their concentration if they are going to cast it. This might change the flow of battle from your party taking the offensive to taking the defensive and just trying to wait it out. You'd have to play around with it to see if it could work for you and your group while still being interesting and fun.

  • Maybe one of the NPCs has a feat that lets them be really helpful with defense, which allows your PCs to be more reckless than usual since she is fairly good at popping up at just the right time with her shield between the attacker and the PC.

Etc.

The goal here is to set the NPCs apart from the rest of the party. They should have different abilities from player characters so that they stay interesting and useful. They should serve a similar mechanical niche to powerful items while being more interesting narratively.

Good luck!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh yes, i was avoiding 1 to ensure i can build up enough PC-NPC relationship to use later on when they leave and return ... but nope, i should embrace 1 :D And 2 is nice and fluff-y, that should make NPCs even more interesting to bond with. \$\endgroup\$ – Squera Dec 12 '18 at 1:22
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As someone who has also run Out of the Abyss (which, as L.S. Cooper says, is heavy on NPC companions), and someone who uses DMPCs a lot to pad out small partys when I only have 2 (or even 1) player(s), here's how I make sure NPCs or DMPCs can join the party but don't overshadow the PCs:

Remember who's in charge: The PCs

My NPCs or DMPCs that accompany the party, whilst they may be useful in or out of combat, generally don't solve the problems for the party. In combat, they will use basic tactics, such as a warrior simply charging the nearest enemy, a mage doesn't use fireball very effectively and will prefer using cantrips over using spells slots at all.

If the players want my NPCs/DMPCs to do anything more tactically sound, they can discuss tactics with them and they will adjust accordingly, either that or they can shout orders in battle ("Fireball that large group!"); that way, if the NPCs/DMPCs do something awesome in combat, the players will feel as though they are somewhat responsible, since it was they who made the tactical decision, not the NPC/DMPC. Of course, this only works if the NPCs/DMPCs are on the same power level, so my Fireball-casting mage example wouldn't work as well if the party is still only level 3, for example.

Out of combat too, the NPCs/DMPCs won't solve any puzzles or look for traps or anything, because as DM I know exactly where the traps and are what the solutions to the puzzles are, so once again control is given to the PCs and the players. I go into this a bit as part of this answer to a different question , but in short, let's say the NPC/DMPC is a rogue; the players can ask that rogue NPC/DMPC to check for traps, even though I as the DM know whether there are traps or not, but my rogue NPC/DMPC doesn't, so he checks, although it wouldn't occur to him to do so unless one of the PCs suggests it; that way, my character's knowledge and my DM knowledge do not cross-contaminate. This also means that, as with combat, if the rogue finds and disarms a trap, because it's the players that made the decision, they'll feel responsible for solving that problem, even if they did so with my NPC/DMPC's skill set.

They should still have their own goals and personalities

In Out of the Abyss specifically, there's a minor character, a Duergar named Hemeth, who you can rescue and who has no personality outside of a brief description, so I've decided (since he's become an NPC follower, then an DMPC) that he's a greedy grump who is only really interested in money, but at the same time feels that he owes the party for rescuing him, so he will always be taking the least altruistic angle, but will begrudgingly do what the party ask him, sometimes more or less grumpily depending on how well it aligns with his own goals.

If the party members ever ask his opinion on anything, his response will always be driven by his own goals, so it's always about what will make him money or otherwise whatever involves saving his own hide, even though our good party members are inclined to be more self-sacrificing. Therefore there can be a few "in character arguments", but because the players know he'll ultimately do as he's told, it simply adds to the character's flavour, but only because I've managed to endear him to the party. He doesn't know anything that the party doesn't (except for some Duergar-specific information, so he'd know his way round the Duergar city, for example) so I don't let him know anything about what I'm planning as DM, since he wouldn't have any way to know anything anyway.

Of course, with Out of the Abyss, stopping the demon lords from destroying everything is a pretty good way to motivate people, so even though Hemeth is evil but the party includes good PCs doesn't conflict too much because they have a common goal, but it's still worth remembering that, although these NPCs/DMPCs should have their own goals and personalities, there should still be a common reason to keep them together, otherwise the reason for the NPC/DMPC to follow the party doesn't make sense and breaks the suspension of disbelief somewhat.

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NPCs cover the gaps

Unless you are running for a very large party there will be something your party is bad at. Maybe they lack healing, or survival skills, or only have one tank. Find the areas your party is lacking and let the NPC shine in those areas. This way the party will still get to show off but the NPC will help them be better overall.

This fits with the traditional role of hired help. The party wants the NPC around to fill a role they can't otherwise, but they aren't so good that the PCs are overshadowed.

In Combat

Have you NPCs play off the action of the PCs in combat. In your narration of combat make sure to point out how the PC's action gave the NPC the opportunity. For example compare the following situation.

Player: "I attack the orc." Rolls 13, miss

DM: "You swing your sword but the Orc dodges easily. The NPC also attacks the orc. Rolls 17, hits, 10 damage

Player: feels disappointed and useless

vs

Player: "I attack the orc." Rolls 13, miss

DM: "You swing your sword at the orc. He manages to deflect it but your attack provide an opportunity for the NPC to slip under his guard." Rolls 17, hits, 10 damage "They smile and nod a thank you as they withdraw their blade."

Player: feels like a cool teammate

Clearly the second option is the outcome we want. The NPC can still be useful but it was the actions of the PC that allowed them to be so. The PC is still a hero even if they had a little help.

Additionally you can choose abilities or classes for your NPCs that synergize with your players. Rogue players needs advantage? NPC likes to cast Faerie Fire. Fast moving enemy outrunning your fighter? Hold Person. The exact combination will depend on your players and situation but things like that will make your players will cool while still appreciating the usefulness of the NPC.

Out of Combat

Give your NPCs unique personalities, background and knowledge. Find a reason for your players to want to engage them in conversation. It's likely that the NPC will be local to the area while the PCs may not. This gives them an edge for all sorts of information the PCs won't have.

You should avoid having NPCs that are good problem solvers however. I made this mistake early on, giving the party an NPC ranger to help investigate a problem. The party expected the local ranger to basically solve everything on their own. You need to give your NPCs limits. Maybe they aren't that clever, maybe there is some other reason why they can't solve this on their own. NPCs should expand the toolset of the party without giving them an easy out to every problem.

Don't Overstay Your Welcome

You should avoid having NPCs join the party for more than a session or two. NPCs are not an extra party member and the longer they hang around the harder it will be to find a reason for them to leave. Always keep in mind why the NPC is with your party, when that reason ends the NPC leaves with it. They can always come back later but they don't need to follow the party around.

I find it easier and more interesting to have my recurring NPCs show up only occasionally. Usually they are tied to a location and are only around as long as PCs are in town. This allows me to write character development arcs for the NPCs. The lives of NPCs continue off screen and your players will be interested to learn what happened to their favourite shop keeper since they last saw him.


In summary, try to create interesting NPCs that complement the party by filling skill or knowledge gaps. Don't join the party for more than a few sessions at a time. Give your NPCs their own lives outside the party.

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Make them all complement the PCs. Rogues and other teamwork-based or defensive classes are good at this. What this does is it makes them feel like partners, not rivals.

Examples include a rogue NPC helping a PC rogue to flank with him, an NPC cleric healing his friends, or a paladin to defend an archer. Overall, this makes the players want to work with them and helps build friendships, and if they leave/die, the players feel at a loss but not crippled.

I hope this helps, as I have had the same problem.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "I hope this helps, as I have had the same problem." - Have you used this technique in your own games? Has it worked effectively in the ways you describe? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 12 '18 at 1:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ yup, fairly well, though my players don't have to many npc's with them. \$\endgroup\$ – user55696 Dec 14 '18 at 3:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ You should edit your experience with your suggestion (ideally providing a little more detail) into your post to support it as a good solution to the problem. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 14 '18 at 3:57
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When I was running Out of the Abyss, it had a lot of NPCs traveling with the players. Something that I found helped for me was to give a majority of control to the players as far as their actions. I kept the knowledge and gave it out when necessary; I even did the roleplaying, but you could even consider giving that to the players as well. This made it easier for me to not have to keep track of the NPCs and it also allowed the PCs to become more attached.

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Best advice I can give is to treat the NPC the same as you would a player. Whatever rules apply to sharing facetime with your players, apply the same rules to your NPCs.

For example, if you have a habit of making sure your players get, say, 3 minutes of talk time during an encounter, have your NPCs adhere to the same rules.

Basically, make sure your PCs and NPCs follow the same rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you expand upon this a bit more? Have you used this technique? How did it work for you? Answers such as this are far more useful and likely to be better received if back by personal experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Dec 12 '18 at 10:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ How does this fit the the goal of not overshadowing the players? If the OP implements this in his party the NPCs will be taking literally half the time at the table. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Dec 13 '18 at 7:01

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