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When developing a new NPC, how do I ensure that they have close to the skill rankings that I would expect them to have, yet not make them more powerful than the PCs?

As an example, I want a noble that is decent in politics. He needs to be skilled enough that negotiating with him is relatively tough (even on a skill-by-skill basis), yet he shouldn't be a high level because he would never adventure and thus shouldn't be as hardy as a player character.

Or, I have a blacksmith that is world renowned for being one of the best there is. People come for miles around just to look at his wares. How do I ensure he lives up to his reputation without simply fudging numbers, and without making him as good as the player characters (or better) at fighting?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you using PC or NPC rules to stat them? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 23 '15 at 18:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Something in between, but it doesn't really matter, as proficiency modifier (the paramount ability for players and monsters in determining capability beyond stats) is still based on Hit Dice. I've seen and heard similar questions a lot, and it is common for many DM's, particularly those coming from previous editions such as 3.x, to want to see them set up similarly to player characters. Besides, NPC's normally have high hit-dice for their CR, thus it is a bad judge for rating a challenge for something that isn't supposed to be high in HD. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Mar 23 '15 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Basically, I want a robustly built NPC that fulfills the first example more than anything. My current campaign has a few NPC's that were never adventurers and shy away from a fight, but I need the political aspect of this campaign to be a challenge as well, especially as the game progresses. I just felt that the question could easily be more generalized than that specific solution. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Mar 24 '15 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah. That explains it. As a rule of thumb, you should always ask about your real problem and not try to make it more general. Notice how the other answers don't help you at all with how to build NPCs that offer a balanced political "combat" opponent. That's what artificially making a question more general does: produces answers that are useless to you. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 24 '15 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie True, and I tend to answer a lot more questions than I ask, so a mistake like this makes sense. Should I reword this? I do like the answers given overall for the questions themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Mar 24 '15 at 16:02
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Devil's Advocate Answer: Treat this as a high DC ability/skill check, not an opposed check.

For all intents and purposes, it is simply much easier to set DC checks by the handy guide reference (in PHB, p. 174) and then have the party/PCs try to make that check, rather than spend the time and effort to workup NPC skills and then spend more time doing opposed checks.

This only invites goblin dice where the highly skilled noble diplomat you spent all that time making (and finding rules justification for a level 1 NPC to have those higher skill levels somehow) rolls a 1 to his very high 15 persuasion and is beat by the PC with +2 who rolls a 15. Setting a High DC and allowing players to plan and practice arguments (grants them advantage on the check) and some really good roleplaying (they make good actual arguments for which you grant them a small static bonus) allows the party to more effectively engage with the issue.

The only edge case where it might be preferable for an opposed check versus a normal DC check would be if a recurring NPC was constantly in competition with the PCs such as maybe the NPC is also trying to persuade the local magistrate to give him/her/it the contract to enforce the new trade tariff because of X,Y and Z instead of the party's approach.

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The first thing to do is look at the overall objective of how powerful you want the character to be in combat. Worry about their skill later.

The noble would likely be a level 1 character at most, so where can he get higher level skills from?

The blacksmith may have some experience, due to a lot of training with the gear he uses to ensure it stands up to what it needs to, but he doesn't need to be high level... Maybe 1/4 of the party (as a very rough example).

Luckily,

5e gives us a couple of prime examples on how to ensure this works; Bounded Accuracy, Proficiency, Expertise, and Advantage.

Bounded Accuracy

Because of bounded accuracy, it is highly likely that the noble can be more skilled than an unskilled adventurer merely based on stats and 'trained skills'. This means that an NPC (0/1-level) with Persuasion trained and a 16 charisma will have a higher modifier than a 5th level adventurer with a 12 charisma.

Proficiency

As their training is focused, they are likely to have more proficient skills/tools than a player character that are specifically isolated to their area of training, and a simple tool built in to the downtime rules that helps to explain extra areas of training for NPC's outside the character stats.

Granted, the downtime rules cover 'tools,' and not 'skills', but it is not too difficult to state that a non-adventurer can be focused enough to learn new 'skill' proficiencies in this method.

Expertise

Although given to only classes like Rogue and Bard, expertise is extremely appropriate for a non-adventurer that tries to focus on specific skills.

Since an NPC is not as broadly trained and skilled as a Player Character (generally speaking), they can have the focus of a rogue or bard if necessary to allow their skills to shine as they should.

Expertise for a level 1 character/npc would be a +4 to the skill, thus keeping them on par with most proficient level 10-14 adventurers with similar stats. This is a great balancing factor in low level npc's that deal with high-level PC's, and still gives a great reason that the King doesn't fight his own fights (hiring adventurers instead).

Advantage

This is easy to give an NPC that little bonus that pushes them over the top. Perhaps they have better quality tools and facilities, perhaps they are working with specific resources that they have specifically trained in. Anything like this can give an already skilled NPC the home-court advantage, and thus give them advantage on the roll.

Advantage means a lot. This is especially true when NPC has slightly lower skill than the PC's.

The foppish noble has been working on the policies in the kingdom for quite a while and has the current policies set up specifically to favor him. He has advantage on checks associated with political matters in the kingdom.

The blacksmith has a dwarven-built forge and adamantine tools. The high-quality allows his work to reach a whole new level, giving him advantage on all checks associated with his forge/tools.

Summation

By understanding the bounded accuracy system, and using the tools that are already built in to the system, it is reasonable and relatively simple to give low level NPC's the ability to compete in skill with characters of much higher level. This adds a nice level of realism for those that may want it in their game.

Ultimately, it is up to the DM to figure out how to determine the levels of NPC's and their relationship to the player characters. Do what works for your game.

Post Script

It is also possible to consider an NPC as a 'leveled' character that simply doesn't gain hit points, and doesn't have many/any weapon/armor proficiencies (thus still having a higher proficiency modifier), but the above methods are likely to work without having to doctor the system much.

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Don't model your NPCs like PCs

D&D, in all editions, is remarkably bad at modeling people who are not adventurers, but are still skilled in their fields. The normal advancement systems that each edition of D&D uses tie combat skill and non-combat skill together in a way that prevents low-level characters from using skills at a high level of proficiency.

This isn't that bad of a thing, in general. D&D is about heroic adventurers, so it's most important that the system models heroic adventurers well. It's very rare that you need to know exactly what bonus a legendary blacksmith has on his blacksmithing roll, so it's typically not a bad thing that the system models this poorly.

If for some reason you really do need to know what that blacksmith's bonus is, you should probably ignore the normal advancement system almost entirely. That blacksmith would be a level 1 NPC in most respects, but when smithing, he'd have whatever the highest bonus he could get would be. In 5th, that would be +17, roughly (+6 proficiency, +5 ability, +6 Expertise). He wouldn't actually have a +5 ability modifier, or the Expertise class feature, since he's not actually a level 20 character. He's just the best blacksmith in the world, and thus should have a skill bonus commensurate with that, regardless of what the normal advancement rules say.

You can use a similar line of thinking for other skilled NPCs. A noble that is good at politics, but not world-class, probably has a bonus around +7 or so; high enough that he's better than most people, but not unattainably high.

The important thing to remember is that the normal class advancement rules only apply to PCs, and work very poorly on anything else. Monsters and NPCs use their own set of rules, because modeling them like PCs would not work out well in D&D.

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