A year ago or so, I was DMing a DnD4e campaign in which the leader of the players' party (Sariel) managed to convince a powerful (6 levels higher) adversary (Pieter) to join them temporarily; their goal weren't too different at the moment, so he accepted.

I was both speechless, and delighted. Pieter was not meant to join them at all, BUT, the player had found an alternative solution to the problem other than fighting, so I rewarded them accordingly. However, with such a powerful addition to the party, the next dungeon turned out to be quite a breeze; they got to the boss in no time, and beheaded it in 4 turns.

Now, it is way too late to retcon it, and if anything I'm not too unhappy with the results it gave, but I can't help wondering: In this kind of scenario, should I scale the next encounters up to keep it challenging, or should I keep it as is to better show the effect of having a powerful ally?

Note that I'm not asking how to scale the encounters up, but whether I should do it or not. Usually, the difficulty in my game is rather consistent, around the party's level; there are some occasional Hardcore/EZ-Mode encounters, but those are pretty sparse.


10 Answers 10


This question seems fairly opinion based, but I think we can answer this with a basis in psychology.

Have a Cookie!

You did the right thing by rewarding your players for clever play and non-traditional solutions to problems, especially if this kind of out-of-the-box solution is the kind of thing you want the players to do more of. We have to remember that games are teaching tools- every action the players take gets feedback either from you the GM or from the mechanics of the game system itself.

If Krathor the Brave amps up his Strength score, he receives the "cookie" of seeing that he hits bad guys more often and hits them harder. Therefore, he is incentivized to continue increasing his Strength score.

If Slinky the Rogue continues to get cool magic items off of nobles that he pick-pockets, and he is never punished (meaningfully) by this action, he is incentivized to continue pick-pocketing. He gets the "cookie" of cool loot.

So what you have done here is created an incentive for your players to role play with NPCs, even ones they consider enemies, to consider non-violent solutions to problems, and to look for opportunities to make allies. You gave them a "cookie" in the form of a high level NPC ally. If these are things you want your players to do more of, great! You've done everything right so far.

So on to your actual question: should you have scaled the challenges up harder?

Well that was... disappointing.

Let's take a look at what would have happened had you scaled up the encounters. Presumably, this NPC was built up as some kind of badass. If, after getting this guy on their side, the PCs experienced no marked difference in the difficulty of their combat encounters, then their "cookie" means nothing. It is worse than the standard, it is disappointing. The NPC is failing to meet expectations. Now, instead of having neutral attitudes toward the action of gaining allies, the players have an expectation- "Well, it doesn't matter if we befriend this guy, he won't give us any actual benefit."

Instead, keeping the encounter levels the same showcases that their creative problem solving gave them a tangible reward. Success! They are more likely to look for these kinds of opportunities in the future!

This still leaves us with one problem going forward, however.

It's still a game, and the PCs are still the protagonists

The problem with your specific example arises when the high-powered NPC overstays his welcome. Even if the players don't realize it, taking him away after one dungeon (or one story arc, or whenever it is appropriate to do so at the earliest convenience) makes it so that the PCs shift back into focus. People enjoy overcoming challenges; they don't want everything coming easy to them. So while their NPC friend was great for a little while, extended use of him is going to bore the players out of their skulls- once again creating an incentive to NOT look for allies in the future.

As Neil Slater mentioned, this is especially important in D&D 4e, because combat is such a large part of what the game is focused on mechanically, and the combat sections can take up a lot of time. I would get that NPC out of there as quickly as possible after you have sufficiently demonstrated that he was a valuable asset and that the team was smart for converting him to their cause, however briefly.

Great job!

So in short, you did everything right. Give the NPC an excuse to back out at some point, and let the characters grow from the experience. The players will remember the great benefit they got from looking for a non-standard solution, the next dungeon will seem all the more harrowing without their crutch (even though it's perfectly balanced), and the players have incentives to continue role playing and looking for allies. Everyone wins!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is a good approach. I would add one thing (not worth making a separate answer). And that is system-specific. 4E combat is a strong focus of the game, it can also be incredibly time-consuming, and you don't want several battles - maybe amounting to a day's play - to be boring due to being too one sided. The solution IMO is to find ways to fast-track the combats in keeping with the change in the story (having the super-ally). Maybe re-balance the last one of them by having new ally busy with a side encounter whilst PCs deal with BBEG, to keep the most fun combat as-is. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Mar 18 '15 at 19:05

The most important factor in answering this question is, "Did everyone still have fun?"

Did the players enjoy blasting through the dungeon? Did having this happen put you in a bind story wise?

If everyone still had fun, there is no need to scale anything up, should this happen again. If not, then you may want to consider it.

Or you could always weaken Pieter for the duration. Bosses have a long and storied tradition of being weaker after they switch sides. He might have powerful AoE attacks that he can no longer use because they might hit his new allies. He could be holding back to make sure they aren't taking advantage of him, or in case they betray him.

One last thing that might discourage the party; Pieter did get his fair share of the loot, right? He did do the heavy lifting from the sounds of things...

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's actually exactly what happened; Pieter had a hunch he might be fighting the party again later, so he deliberately didn't some special items he had. And yes, he got his part of the loot, and then some. \$\endgroup\$ – Linkyu Mar 19 '15 at 10:47

Scale the difficulty a little bit if it would be too boring otherwise, but don't scale it so much that the players don't feel like total badasses for having recruited an overpowered NPC to their side.

It's like getting an invincibility star in Mario, or those flashbacks in FF7 where you have Sephiroth on your side. As @sillyputty says, it's a reward for having done something clever. And sometimes blowing through some combat can be fun as hell.

I think the main determining question is whether it felt lame when that next dungeon turned out to be a breeze. Overkill can be enjoyable and maybe even convenient if you want to advance the plot while still making it through some dungeon full of baddies and loot. Just make sure things stay interesting, e.g. gripping descriptions of their overkill, banter or bickering with their former enemy, etc.

Of course, if overpowered NPC is going to stick around for longer (probably shouldn't unless there's a really good reason for him to) then you should eventually scale the difficulty enough to keep things challenging. And if the difficulty-scaling is ever at any point noticeable, you can always create some in-universe explanation for why things are more challenging that expected. @MC_Hambone described some good options for that, or maybe once he's on board the NPC reveals that the situation isn't what the PCs anticipated ("You do realize that during the summer solstice the entire clan gathers here for their fertility rituals, right? You never would have been able to make it through without me").

You can also set things up for a dramatic shift, where the PCs have been getting used to shredding things left and right for a few hours, and then NPC suddenly scrams (turns out he was a toadwallop after all...) and the PCs are left really screwed.

This sounds like fun.


Scale the boss down.

Unlike 3.5 and similar systems, 4e doesn't treat level as an objective quality of an NPC: for 4e, level (and the minion/standard/elite/solo ranking system) is a measure of narrative importance. As a game that puts tactical combat front and centre, narrative focus is roughly equivalent to agency in combat. Minions aren't weaker; they're less important to the story.

So you don't scale the encounters up, you revise the boss's stat block.

When the players recruited the boss, his narrative position changed and you need to re-build his mechanics to reflect his new role in the story. Make him roughly the PCs' level, and probably a Standard type NPC. I'd strongly suggest giving him Leader-style abilities that put the focus on the PCs: granting extra attacks, providing bonuses, and generally making the PCs more awesome, should be the focus of his new role. Look at the eagle shaman and runepriest for inspiration, and flavour it however is appropriate--you can be very creative with this, and make it fun for everyone!


Personally I think rewarding the players is an absolute necessity, the first time something like this happens. But there are many ways to do that, I think its fine in this situation to just let them breeze through some content. I however think its important to make sure that they are actually rewarded, if you are following a script, your players might breeze more easily through the next encounters, but be faced with the fact that they now haven't gained the experience and loot they needed. Either because Pieter took quite a bit of it, or maybe the enemy simply started fleeing once it learned of the parties new power. Personally I would reward the party with a good deal of bonus experience for creative role play, and let them gain some additional information, maybe a special location, where some mutual enemies are which holds a good amount of additional loot and treasure. I think however the next dungeon shouldn't be treated like you planned to originally, make the encounters swift so the impact of the new ally is felt, make them flee, surrender, or die in hilarious ways. Also try to get a feel on your players, and how long they want to have him help them out.

I would however recommend, that if this was to happen again, the reward shouldn't be as obvious, the enemy might next time be well prepared to face off an assault from multiple parties and simply call for reinforcements. Of course it also depends on the enemy, realism is key in making players able to collect and use information. With high realism information is a reward on its own.


I agree with @sillyputty's "Have a Cookie" paragraph, but I'm unsatisfied by his suggestions on what to do next; the other answers focus mainly on "nerf this, buff that" and are not really going to solve this problem well enough.

Here's a different approach

Give the party some benefits, without including an NPC in their party.

So, they are now friends with the big guy?

Great, the big guy goes back to mind his own big business, and he gives some gifts and connections to the players.

Like, here are these magic items, here is this medallion who identifies you as an affiliate of mine, show it to the right people in the right places, stuff like that.


The reaction of rewarding players for being clever is absolutely the right one. They should get a slightly easier ride because of the quick wits of a party member. But also keep this in mind: there are likely other bad guys out there, who may here about Pieter changing sides. This might push up their timelines for the actions they take; maybe they aren't as prepared, but an under prepared, higher level bad guy could be a great encounter for the PCs and their big bad ally.

Also, you mentioned the Pieter's goals and the party's weren't that different. Maybe he spends the time working with them to try to talk them around to his goals completely, maybe convinces them to work with him even when the goals aren't so lined up any more; after all, Big Bad Guys tend to have some loyal minions, but the best BBGs also have strong lieutenants as well; maybe the PCs get recruited to be those lieutenants. This doesn't even mean turning the PCs evil; the BBG could shield them from the whole picture, knowing they might be adverse to helping him take control of the plane, or ruin the kingdom, or whatever his end game is (although as a DM, some of my favorite memories are talking a PC into an alignment change, entirely in game).


In addition to any better advice given in other answers, I could recommend stealing a page from Pokemon and having their new overpowered ally not always use his full power in combat- he might consider certain threats beneath him and not actually exert himself much in every encounter. That's not to say he never does anything cool ever, it just means he may just use one good spell early on then pick off the stragglers with more mundane combat tactics.


Unless the party knows beforehand who they are going to fight, then your players won't be aware of whether you changed the encounters after they recruited this NPC.

If it were me, I would make the encounters a little harder, but only a little so that the fights are still easier for the party than I had planned, but still not a total breeze. The level of difficulty should be such that the party needs the NPC to win, and such that the NPC also needs the party.

This way, the players still have a challenge, which they need to have fun, but are also rewarded for successfully diplomacizing™ this NPC. They can observe this reward by seeing that the encounters would have been quite difficult without the NPC.

If you don't mention that you didn't intend for them to recruit the NPC, then they might even assume that you planned this along.


My initial thought would be to keep everything the same. In my opinion, if you are building a world with a specific set of rule for how things work you shouldn't break those rules when the players circumvent your plans. In essence what I mean is, the denizens of the dungeon Peiter helped clear out, presumably had led lives before the party got there, they did things that made them who they were and got them to where they were. So, just because a really strong guy comes in and beats them up doesn't mean they would suddenly become much stronger in order to repel the bad guy. Think of it like this: I am a fat nerd who hates to go out side, If Hulk Hogan walked up to me and started beating me up he would have a much easier time than say, another fat nerd that doesn't go outside.

That said, I think there is a way you could scale it up if you wish. The first 2-3 times Peiter helps the group it should probably be with "normal" strength enemies. However, if he stays with the party and the enemies are able to think and reason, they might get wind of the party traveling with a really powerful ally, or maybe they learn that the party has turned one of their own against them and they would take measures to strengthen their defenses. If Peiter was originally allied with the people your party is fighting, the enemies would not only know to send more reinforcements, but they might even know some of Peiters weaknesses you can exploit... and maybe they kill him... and maybe the party goes back to fighting normally balanced battles...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or, the heroes are just capable of handling more powerful foes, so they are free to consider challenges that previously they would have ignored as out of their league. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Mar 18 '15 at 22:14

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