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I'm designing an NPC that is meant to be a manager/mentor to the players. Contrary to the archetype I've just invoked by mentioning Gandalf, she isn't some divine force incarnate-she's just somewhat stronger and more experienced than the other players.

Since I'm new, how should I 'design' this NPC?
Do I write stats for her the same way I would a player?
If the players are starting out as level 1, what is an appropriate range of strength for her that while she can help the players against tougher threats, she also can't hold back the tide by herself?

The NPC starts out as the person coordinating operations for the NGO the players are working for. She's strong enough that local militaries need to account for neutralizing her in their tactical planning and politicians in their policy making. The players will eventually become strong enough to challenge her if the storyline goes in that direction.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Which books do you have access to? I ask because Volo's Guide to Monsters has some fine "stock" NPC's for an NPC like this, but if you don't have that book, it may not be the best reference for an answer. Is it your intent to build the NPC from the DMG's "how to make an NPC" section? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 3 '19 at 17:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That is an option, but I'm interested in whatever works, or whatever would best fit the situation. \$\endgroup\$ – Regress.arg Apr 3 '19 at 17:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ For how many levels (of PC progress) to you envision this mentor/guide to be with, or accessible to, the party? (Also, what is the party's make up of classes?) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 3 '19 at 17:21
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A "Gandalf" NPC should be someone who is more knowledgeable than the player characters but is not stronger than them. Ideally this NPC should have some disability that makes them unable to participate in combat at all -- for example they could be very old, they could be injured, they could be cursed, they might need to hide, or they might just have never spent much time in battle.

Here's why: it's not fun for players to have a friendly NPC in the battle. It's not fun when the characters have to pause taking turns so some NPC can take their turn, and it's especially not fun when the NPC upstages them and fights more effectively than them.

If you wanted, you could have a "Gandalf" NPC who has one really good spell or attack per day, and you could let the player characters tell them when to use the attack.

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Two monsters can fulfill this NPC role "right out of the box"

Both of these monsters - Couatl (CR 4) and Oni (CR 7) - have the change shape ability. (Both are in the free SRD (p. 269 and 336 respectively) and the Monster Manual).
Notes:

  1. If you choose Oni, I recommend that you modify the Oni's alignment to suit your party's alignment as needed: this is your NPC. You are the DM.
  2. I recommend the couatl first for a number of reasons. With either of them, please, avoid the GMPC trap.

Why use a change shape monster in this role?

Simplicity and suitability

  1. Firstly, you don't have to design anything. It's all right there.
  2. Secondly, and most importantly, the NPC can appear to the party as regular person: merchant, bartender, local healer, weaver, priest, magician, bard, warlock, sage, local land owner, et cetera, without tipping your hand in terms of them being more powerful than the party.

    Occasionally, their innate abilities may be useful for a particular situation. The key to this is to be utterly minimalist in applying their powers, if you apply them at all. Apply only low power skills/spells, if at all, and mostly be a mentor / friend / contact / lore source / advice giver.

    I have made mentors / contacts / NPCs with both monsters; so far, neither party is aware of the NPC being other than a humanoid.

Couatl as mentor (Better than Oni for many reasons)

Generally benevolent, innate skills are soft power, difficult to damage.
Selected items from the MM stat block.

• Damage Resistances - radiant (few monsters have this anyway ...)
• Damage Immunities - psychic; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks {this NPC is durable if something dire happens}
• Senses - truesight 120 ft., passive Perception 15 {No need to give either of these away to the PCs}
Languages - all, telepathy 120 ft. {These two make it easy for the couatl to communicate with the party, and anyone else. Very easy to appear "very wise" ... like Gandalf.}
• Challenge - 4 {equivalent to level six or seven PC}
• Innate Spellcasting -... spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 14).
• At will: detect evil and good, detect magic, detect thoughts
• 3/day each: bless, create food and water, cure wounds, lesser restoration, protection from poison, sanctuary, shield {apply sparingly, or you may arouse player suspicions}
• 1/day each: dream, greater restoration, scrying
• Magic Weapons. The couatl’s weapon attacks are magical. {Not necessary to give this away}

This last bit is key!

Shielded Mind. The couatl is immune to scrying and to any effect that would sense its emotions, read its thoughts, or detect its location.

Your low level party won't be able to penetrate its disguises, or its true nature. Until your party has gained a few levels, having a guide or mentor who is a couatl can provide access to advice, healing, poison removal, protection ... but this is very soft power most of the time.

Warning: there are some powerful innate spells here, relative to a low level party, so you need to be very minimalist in application to avoid the GMPC trap. Resist the desire to use these powers.

Oni as Mentor (alignment modified to suit the party, as needed)

Oni has the change shape ability as well, so it can hide in plain sight. It need not carry a polearm, as that may be a giveaway. (Mine carries a lute and / or a quarterstaff). This one is a bit trickier to play if things get really dangerous, but again, resist the desire to use powers!
Selected bits from the stat block.

• Skills - Arcana +5, Deception +8, Perception +4
• Senses - darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 14
• Languages - Common, Giant {not as flexible as Couatl, but Common is universal}.
• Challenge 7 (2,900 XP)
• Innate Spellcasting... spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 13).
• At will: darkness, invisibility {<--- that second one is very handy for allowing the mentor to get places, to get to the party, at need.}
• 1/day each - charm person, cone of cold, gaseous form, sleep {Also handy for getting to them, if they need help.}
Magic Weapons. The oni's weapon attacks are magical. {Party does not need to know this}
Regeneration. The oni regains 10 hit points at the start of its turn if it has at least 1 hit point. {Lasts a long time if bit trouble arrives, but not transparent to the players}
Change Shape. The oni magically polymorphs into a Small or Medium humanoid, into a Large giant, or back into its true form. Other than its size, its statistics are the same in each form. The only equipment that is transformed is its glaive, which shrinks so that it can be wielded in humanoid form. If the oni dies, it reverts to its true form, and its glaive reverts to its normal size.

As noted above, my Oni has a quarterstaff and often carries a lute. The risk with the Oni is your characters getting suspicious, as it does not have the shielding against detection / mind reading that a Couatl has. Oh, and cone of cold can be a giveaway if your players are experienced in D&D. I could have had the Oni appear as a Fighter in chain mail, carrying a glaive, sure, but I didn't. That is an option that does not seem to fit your "Gandalf" needs.

Recommendation

First choice: Couatl. Gandalfesque. (But for an evil party, maybe not a great fit. Adjust alignment if needed.)
Back up: Oni. Hiding in plain sight. A better choice for a more evil or less good party.

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