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I am a DM for a D&D 4e campaign. During a recent encounter, my players took some NPC allies along with them. I allowed this, because there were only two PCs on that particular adventure, and I thought that combat might be more interesting if there were more than just a couple participants.

However, the problem with having such a skewed ratio of PCs to NPCs (like 2 PCs, 5 friendly NPCs, and 4 enemies) was that way more time was spent on the NPCs turns than on the PCs turns, which I don't think was fun for anyone. In addition, it was very hard for me to keep track of nearly ten different NPCs in the fight.

First off, I think I can reduce the number of allies that the players have. I can safely kill of 2 or 3 without making anyone especially mad. However, both in this adventure and later ones, there will probably be times with the PCs adventure alongside NPCs, and I'd like to keep those combat encounters from having the same problem.

How do I make a fight in which a lot of friendly NPCs are involved more interesting and more streamlined, both for myself (the DM) and for my players?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Jan 20 at 7:46
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Give them the fight you're paying them for.

You played these NPCs by standard companion rules, I'm assuming, and deducted their XP from the encounter payout before you gave it to the PCs. This represents the expected amount that NPC will contribute to the fight.

Instead of playing it out, you could just make that assumption directly, and only budget the fight based on the after-NPC experience total. The PCs would be the only operative presences on the battle map - a "minion" they take out in one shot is them delivering the killing blow to something the NPCs softened up. They take a scaled-down amount of damage because the NPCs are taking some of it too. The NPCs are narratively present, but not really tactically present.

If your NPCs actually had flashy things to do, you can still account for those tactically. Assuming your PCs haven't taken a character theme and gotten those bonuses, it's fair to draw up a few "teamwork powers", on par with encounter powers, that represent the notable things their NPC allies can do, and give the PCs a pool of 2 "teamwork points" to start the fight, more or less depending on how they've treated their allies. They can spend a point and the corresponding standard/move/minor action to motivate their allies to do the flashy thing.

But, assuming everybody's cool with just assuming the NPCs will pull their weight, this will make the fights simpler and shorter to run, though maybe a little denser in terms of your narration.

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Let them play the NPC's, for the most parts.

In a recent Warhammer Fantasy game, we played on a ship. So the GM had us make a bunch of NPC crewmembers. Officer Ranks mostly - Captain, Doctor, Master Gunner, Ship Carpenter, Cook, etc. - the idea was to always have someone for people to play, if their characters are off-screen at any time. We never really used it, however.

I heard of other games, where each player had 2, maybe even 3 characters - but only played one at a time. I think it was a Star Trek game, where splitting the party between Away Team, Bridge Crew and Lower Deck crew was to be expected.

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I don't know if there are any specific rules in DnD, but I had that problem quite often in my Pen&Paper party aswell. I like playing quite fleshed-out NPCs and my players became attached to a few, so simply killing them off won't do it, but although I haven't found a perfect solution here are some suggestions:

Split the Party

while players should never do this, I found it to be a valid way to reduce NPCs during fights. When your players venture into a dungeon and are just about to open the next door have your NPCs suggest to stay back and watch for an ambush. Surely your players don't want to be caught in a pincer move. Maybe you won't get all NPCs out of the fight, but you'll be able to reduce their amount. I'd also suggest to have them be attacked from time to time, so it won't seem like they are just 'dodging the fight'. Maybe in one dungeon your PCs are able to hear noises outside and realize their rear guard has really been attacked. There are a few foes already lying dead to their feet, but your NPCs look badly beaten, too. Since the other half of the NPCs was too exhausted to come with your players, you can even have 2 fights with a reduced amount of NPCs.

Let your players play the NPCs

As Christopher already suggested. Simply let your players control the NPCs. Maybe have each NPC shout something like "You are the more expierienced fighter xyz, I trust you my life. Tell me what to do.", which will also encourage your player to earn their companions trust. You still act for the NPCs, but the players get to control what they do and will also earn rewards and renown due to their performance.

Scripted battles

A tactic I often resorted to in order to keep NPC turns as short as possible is to script their battle. In this scenario I always add a few enemies just for my NPCs to kill. Then I either decide the outcome or simply let the dice decide beforehand. All I have to do now is to vividly tell my players how their companions are doing without constantly rolling dice or checking for stats. If there is anything that wasn't part of my pre-set plan I mostly let them roll naturally. It is not the best option though, as to plans never survive contact with the enemy, but it worked in some cases.

Exaggerating

Waiting for NPCs to take their turn can be boring, but it doesn't have to be. Exaggerate everything you can. The paladin didn't just swing his sword and miss, no, he valiantly charged the enemy, lashed forward in a masterful maneuver and missed the enemies head only by mere inches. "This one can dodge like a rogue" he shouted, although it was clearly visible the foe didn't dodge at all. Make your NPCs turns funny, make them awesome, make them special. They shouldn't steal your players spotlight, but they should get some memorizable moments aswell.

Reduce the ratio of your NPCs turns

I don't like to do it, because I tend to forget about my NPCs , if they don't take regular turns, but I also experimented with having my NPCs only take every 2nd or 3rd turn. You might increase their damage or just have them take multiple turns as one as compensation. It might change the balance of the fight for the better or the worst, but it will increase the 'screentime' your players might get.

Hope there are some suggestions that meet your taste. I am not an expert in this particular field, as I often struggle with it on my own, but I had quite a few times to experiment on this already.

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