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When I need a run of the mill NPC I use the NPC classes which have simplified mechanics. These classes are great and make it really easy to quickly run their mechanics during combat without needing to learn/remember complex features. However I often find them a bit lacking in flavour or ability for more important NPCs.

Therefore, my preferred approach for creating interesting NPCs is to give levels in player classes to any NPC I think is important. I pick classes that are not present in the party to avoid overshadowing the players and for most of my campaign this has worked really well. The players think the NPC is cool because of the things they can do but they don't feel like they are stealing the spotlight.

My issue is that as the campaign has gone on the higher level of these NPCs with PC levels has introduced more complicated mechanics. For example I recently used a level 8 magus similar to this one as an ally for the party. I have never played or used a magus so the mechanics of the class are all new to me.

For the sake of pacing I typically only use the things I can quickly read off the stat-block for my NPCs but this leaves out many of their best abilities simply because I don't understand them or forgot about them. I don't have the time (nor really the desire) to spend learning all the mechanics of a class for an NPC that may only appear in 2-3 encounters. So I'm looking for a better way to do this.

How can I run interesting NPCs with complex mechanics without spending lots of effort to learn them?

Frame challenges that present other ways to make interesting NPCs without the complex mechanics are acceptable, but answer such as "just use simpler classes" are not.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For those answering, PLEASE remember that this is not a site for idea generation. Your recommendations should be backed up by experience. Please see this meta question. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 7 at 14:56
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Create NPCs with simplified stat blocks.

When I ran Pathfinder campaigns, I also wanted to customize NPCs to have similar abilities as PCs, especially if I saw a class feature that looked fun. But creating and running these NPCs was a time-consuming and complicated mess. And each new NPC meant a new mess. Once I learned to break the rules a bit, and approach the task like a GM, this became more manageable.

Suppose I had some fun concept for an NPC. Originally, I approached the task with a player mindset - browse the SRD and forums, and figure out which combinations of race, classes, feats, traits, et cetera would create something like the desired result. As a consequence, NPC creation was extremely tedious, and if I wanted to adjust any part of the creature, it would have a cascading effect. If I chose an unfamiliar class with weird mechanics, that may involve digging through FAQs and forums for clarification. Adjusting some minor detail could involve redoing its ability scores, saves, spell DCs, class levels, and feats, to make the numbers work. If I wanted to be "fair" by following the same rules as players, then any revision would lead to even further revisions.

Managing these NPCs in-game was also a juggling act. When I built NPCs like PCs, their stat blocks were often cluttered and confusing. Perhaps their classes gave them various conditional bonuses, which were all listed. Or they were a high-level spellcaster, and I had to populate a list of spells they might know but not really need. And if an encounter included multiple custom NPCs? What a mess. Often this meant I'd forget about the features that I intended them to use in the first place!

The problem was that I was approaching NPCs like a player character would. But the GM doesn't have the same limitations as players, and by extension, neither do the NPCs. There are plenty of stat blocks in the official bestiaries that break the rules that players must follow.

Eventually I realized: It wasn't really important how the NPC was built, all that matters is what the NPC can do. Once I started creating NPCs without following the rules for player character creation, things became much simpler. Here are some strategies that I'd use:

  • Instead of building the NPC from the ground up, use a CR guide to estimate the final value of their statistics. I used the monster creation rules and Unchained monster creation rules as a rough guide.
  • In the stat block, only include features that you intend to use, or could otherwise affect gameplay. Assume the NPC has the prerequisites for whatever it can do. If it wears medium armor while casting arcane spells, assume it is allowed to do so. If it has a feat, ignore any requisite tax feats that otherwise won't be used.
  • Instead of choosing class levels, you can pick and choose features from the player classes. Do you want the NPC to have Spellstrike, but you don't want to learn the other bits of the Magus class? That's okay - just include Spellstrike in the stat block. You can even select features from different classes. Assign whatever BAB and HD seems appropriate, and if necessary include a note like "this NPC counts as having magus and fighter levels".
  • Similarly, you can simplify a pregenerated NPC stat block. Omit the minor class features and other stuff that don't seem important.

Note that this method is extremely subjective, depending on what you consider simple or complicated. When you choose statistics for an enemy NPC, you may need to consider the capabilities and statistics of the player characters - how often it can hurt the PCs, how many hits it can take, and so on. This method takes practice and you'll improve over time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Honestly this sounds like more work than just learning the class to me. I suppose it's just a different proficiency, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Sep 8 at 2:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso The premise here is that some classes (such as the magus) may be too complicated to learn, particularly for a single-use NPC. I've had similar issues as a GM, such as lacking the time or energy to master every Pathfinder class and feat chain. But that's just my personal experience. This advice may not fit the styles or preferences of every GM. \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Sep 8 at 6:09
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I've run into this issues myself. My solution is a hybrid between yours, MikeQ's, and gatherer818's.

Build the full mechanics, then choose the ones they use.

Many PCs (and NPCs) will have a favorite spell, a favorite combat maneuver, a favorite weapon, or even a favorite class ability that they use all the time, and quite often the rest go by the wayside. So, from the full build of the class, create a simplified statblock for them as a quick-reference sheet of what they normally do.

If they need to do something else, you can refer to the full character sheet and see if they have the option. That never went away, but you don't need to know everything they can do all the time. Just the highlights of their style. Why do you need to know every spell on their spell list when their preferred trick is Spellstrike + Spell Combat with True Strike to use Trip to put the enemy on the ground so that the Barbarian and Paladin get bonuses to their melee attacks?

I prefer this method above the simplified stat blocks or only creating their favorite tricks because you know that the character you're creating is in-line with what a PC of that level could do. You also can answer a player's suggestion that the NPC do something which their class should be able to do, but you forgot about that class feature or didn't want to take the time to study the mechanics in detail. They're going to soft meta-game about what the NPC can do anyway, whether they say it out-loud or not, so use it to your advantage. If a player who's more knowledgeable about the class says "hey, what if he did this?" Do the math once, write it down, and add it to the bag of tricks on the stat block.

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Generally, for an NPC that's neither a "main character" nor a one-off, I like to come up with one or two mechanical hooks and one or two "fluff" hooks to design the character around. Two personality traits and two mechanical tricks is enough to set a character apart without needing all your focus to run.

So, something like "uses non-committal words so he sounds like he's always lying", "has a soft spot for people who care about their family", "prefers Will saves at range", and "likes to Spell Combat with shocking grasp when it has the accuracy bonus" is enough to run a major NPC. Figure out the one or two things the character will do the most first, then build the mechanics around optimizing those. Feel free to include things that aren't focused on that, of course - if they're going to be recurring, an escape route (or two) is a necessity, options for non-combat hostilities, etc. But by focusing the mechanics on a few moves, the character both becomes easy to run and feels consistent to the players. They know if they're planning to fight this guy again to prepare for Charm magic and not to wear their metal armor - or else get a Resist Energy spell before getting to melee.

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Combat Scripts

I find it helpful to write up an encounter script for complex NPCs which specifies the default action they'll take for the first 3-5 rounds of combat (and IME by then most combats are over or the number of NPCs I'm managing has at least been whittled down by to a handful). For example:

  • Round 1: Move into cover and cast buff spell x.

  • Round 2: Cast area spell x and move away from melee.

  • Round 3: Attack with ranged weapon x against the weakest enemy, or if stuck in melee then use melee y against the most dangerous melee opponent.

80% of the time, the planned script is enough and I don't have to remember other NPC abilities, I just follow the script. This frees up a lot of my attention during combats so I can focus on the 20% that does require me to think.

Spell Lists

When preparing spell lists, duplicate spells, and don't prepare contingency-type spells for niche purposes. For example, if your D&D wizard has two 3rd, four 2nd, and six 1st level slots, then "dispel magic x2, invisibility x4, sleep x2, magic missile x4" is a fine set of choices. Your NPC is equipped with four useful default options (debuff, evade, disable, or attack) and many combats won't be long enough for it to cast more than 3 - 4 spells anyhow.

Set It and Forget It

When choosing mechanical options, select static benefits you can write into the stat block and forget. If an ability requires a choice when used, make the choice beforehand, write it into the stat block, and forget it. Avoid abilities that create new options you'll have to remember and pay attention to.

For example, when making a D&D monster, I might consider feats:

  • Improved Toughness: add +x hp to stat block and forget. One of my favorite choices for almost any opponent.

  • Power Attack: Every round, take -x to hit for +x to damage. I'll decide that x=3 always, add to stat block, and forget.

  • Improved Bull Rush: Provides new options for pushing a PC using a complicated formula and rules I don't have memorized. I would never choose this option unless the purpose of this monster is to create forced movement and I want it to push someone almost every round of combat.

For Allies

Take them out of the Fight

In large groups with multiple NPCs I don't want the players to spend 15 minutes every round watching the DM roll dice against himself. I'll often convert a portion of the battle into "cinematic mode." I segregate the ally NPCs and some appropriate mook-level enemies and describe them fighting "over there" -- usually in a slightly separated part of the battlefield. I give a cinematic description of the fight, but I don't roll dice. The outcome of the cinematic fight will mirror the outcome of the part of the fight where the PCs are involved and the dice-rolling is. Once I've done that it doesn't matter exactly what the NPC's abilities are -- I'm just giving colorful but brief descriptions of combat action.

For version 2 of "take them out of the fight" literally take them out. The NPC falls in a pit, fails a save against an action-denial spell, has to spend an action every round using the macguffin, is back at camp guarding the horses, or is a noncombatant who just hides or dodges every round. None of these solutions should be over-used, but you can use all of them occasionally and every time you do you've made that encounter a little easier for yourself.

Delegate

  1. In-character: "Deonarra hesitates and looks to you. 'What should I do?' she calls out."
  2. Out-of-character: "Hey, what do you guys want Deonarra to do this round?"
  3. Long-term OOC: "Hey Andrew, you'll be running Deonarra for this combat. Here are her stats."

Phone it in

Especially in the later rounds of combats where everything is mostly decided, there's nothing wrong with occasionally just taking the obvious choice every round, like "heal the wounded" or "attack weakest enemy" or "help a PC by flanking and using the aid action."

For the advanced version of phone-it-in, optimize the NPC to be REALLY good at doing just a few things and relatively crappy at everything else, so that those few options are overdetermined -- they'll nearly always be the optimal choice and most decisions are no real decision at all. For example, a 5e mastermind rogue can do well spamming the help action, a 4e warlord can effectively spend all its actions giving the PCs free attacks, or an l5r archer with a good Water ring can continually guard and remove strife to buff and replenish the PCs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice but seems to be focused on NPCs as enemies rather than recurring allies. These NPCs should be surviving fights more often than not and therefore using a wider range of abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Sep 7 at 14:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin your question doesn't specify that you are asking about NPC allies. I suggest that you edit your question to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – jiriku Sep 7 at 15:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 7 at 18:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ It seems that all of your examples are drawn from 5e, 4e or l5r and not pathfinder which this question is about. Have you played/run a pathfinder game? Also "taking the NPC out of the fight" completely undermines the point of having a cool NPC ally in combat. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Sep 9 at 3:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have. You also seem to have overlooked the several examples taken from pathfinder/3.x. Since you explicitly stated that you have neither the time nor the desire to learn to use complex classes from pathfinder I have been making a point of not referring to them in my examples. \$\endgroup\$ – jiriku Sep 9 at 3:27

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