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My PCs are currently staying in a place with many allies including guards, soldiers and battle-hardened family members.

I have shot myself in the foot because for every mission and quest my PCs attempt, the obvious first step is to take 10 soldiers with them, or take along Sulkul, the dragonborn general to help with the battles. I want to avoid running NPCs or a mob in combat as it is just one more thing to think about. I have tried it before but I didn't really get on with it.

So far there have been valid excuses story-wise for the PCs to be unaccompanied but these excuses will only last for so long and whilst they haven't actually said 'Let's take a large detachment of armed guards with us', it's perhaps only a matter of time.

I would like to know how people avoid such a situation or if people always run allies in combat and how it works out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So the PCs can give orders to a general? Good for them, I'd say. \$\endgroup\$ – Michał Politowski Oct 21 '15 at 11:39
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The most likely reason to need the PCs to go on these missions in the first place is that either the soldiers are too busy with other tasks, or aren't up to handling the missions the PCs are being given. If the former, it's easy for your general to say something like "I'm very sorry, but because of the raids on the outlying farms and the bandit threat on the main road, I can't spare any soldiers for your mission at this time."

If the latter, the PCs should be able to tell the soldiers aren't powerful enough from other information -- perhaps they come back with significant injuries from fighting those road bandits, and the expected enemy for the upcoming PC mission is a creature or group that could eat the bandit band for breakfast.

Either way, the way to do this is to make the soldiers unavailable as backup for the PCs -- and certainly the general won't take time or (very slight) risk to himself for things other than his main mission, which is most likely what military organizations usually do: protecting the citizens.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There's also a possibility of a corrupt military organization that avoid certain issues that they have been paid to disregard. Some might even create issues for whatever nefarious purpose the DM can think of. The players would have to investigate to find this out, and asking for help and being denied is a good start. \$\endgroup\$ – DaFluid Oct 21 '15 at 15:17
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If the NPCs are a significant asset in combat, include them as members of the party for the purposes of dividing up XP. The desire to keep all the XP (and loot!) to themselves will encourage the players to do your job for you, working out reasons to leave the NPCs behind.

If the NPCs are not relevant enough in combat to keep up with the PCs, then the players will probably have to work pretty hard to keep them alive. That can actually be quite entertaining for the players, particularly if they have the right skills (e.g. Protection fighting style, Paladin auras, abjuration and healing magic, Healer and Inspiring Leader feats) but for the really dangerous missions the players should be the ones entreating the NPCs to stay at home for their own safety. If they lead the NPCs into a massacre, well...that also solves your problem.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Even if your PC's only get a couple NPC's killed their reputations would be tarnished and people would be rather reluctant to accompany them on any future quests, at least not without serious compensation. \$\endgroup\$ – Tashio Oct 21 '15 at 10:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also worth noting is considering whether the NPC's would even want to join in. If they're strong enough, why didn't they do it themselves already? If 10 extra soldiers would help the task then 15 of them could've done it without the PC's in the first place. As a DM, when you're setting up a quest you should consider why it hasn't been solved yet. Maybe everyone is too busy to handle it without outsourcing, or the quest is too dangerous for anyone to dare trying. Some NPC's may still agree to help if the PC's are convincing enough (e.g. offering payment). \$\endgroup\$ – DaFluid Oct 21 '15 at 10:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Forget XP. Think about the loot! Why do these 4 guys get to keep all the good stuff for themselves? \$\endgroup\$ – MrLemon Oct 21 '15 at 17:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, if your PCs aren't murderous cretins this breaks down quite a bit. They get less XP, but their NPC buddies level up, too. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Oct 21 '15 at 18:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MrLemon Good point about the loot; added! \$\endgroup\$ – Sebkha Oct 22 '15 at 12:13
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Make the nasty details of a troup of armed allies visible. They are loud, they are not sneaky, they stink, they have conflicts, they doubt the decisions of the party, they are hungry, they are bloodthirsty, they want gold; ok, not every aspect is useful for a situation like the one you have described - but in general I have made good experiences with this strategy: let them use it but let them pay for it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How do you gamify the smell? I'm thinking a temporary debuff to morale if there's such a thing. \$\endgroup\$ – John Dvorak Oct 21 '15 at 18:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JanDvorak Why put it in terms of rules? Bring a stink bomb or, even better, some Vieux-Lille. That should work. Well, except if the OP is running the game at her place. \$\endgroup\$ – Édouard Oct 21 '15 at 19:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Call that "immersion" \$\endgroup\$ – John Dvorak Oct 21 '15 at 19:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JanDvorak More seriously, it might not be necessary to gamify the smell for some groups. Some players respond to entirely narrative details in a reasonably in-character way, and so will avoid foul smells without any mechanical impact having been mentioned. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Oct 21 '15 at 23:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Depends on a lot of factors if you want to gamify those aspects or if it is a matter of narration. Most important, I think, is the general rpg style you and your gamers prefer. Some groups don't roll a dice for several evenings; other groups prefer to roll out every detail. Personally, I would prefer to make this work with narration, others may prefer game relevant modifications as "as they are so stinky you cannot rest at night and so you won't recover full amount of HP" etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Oct 22 '15 at 8:55
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The problem you are facing is a common one: the NPCs are adding extra baggage to the game that slows the game down and dilutes the spotlight on the players. The solution is to only use game mechanics to resolve the important stuff: actions by or against the PCs.

If you want the players to still feel that they are benefitting from the NPCs without having to run them as combatants in every encounter, then narrate the help they provide.

With this approach, only the players and the direct threats to them are run as combatants. If the NPCs are present on the battlefield, describe them fighting other adversaries cinematically in the background. This can make a small encounter against a powerful adversary feel much more epic, as the clash of friends and lesser foes surrounds the scene.

Since one of the allies is a general, you can include him in mission planning. He could suggest a two-pronged assault against the foe, allowing the NPC battle group to contribute to the overall mission without being present on the same battlefield.

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Each time the players ask for help from the other soldiers, you could make it come with a cost. If the PCs ask the soldiers for help, then the soldiers will want to be paid (perhaps upfront). If they ask family to help, then they know that they will owe those family members a favor; perhaps a dangerous favor or (worse) the completion of a menial or non-prestigious task.

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I'm not fond of either directly telling players "you can't do that" or being passive-aggressive and just piling on so many restrictions that they decide against it themselves. If they want to handle the logistics of taking an army with them, let them take an army with them.

The simplest way to handle having NPCs along for the ride is to allow the PCs to control their allies in combat. This takes the load off of you and gives them something else to have fun with.

Obviously, this works best with a small number of NPCs - and once the players decide to bring along an army, at that point you need to gloss over what the soldiers are doing unless it directly impacts the players. Battle scenes can be narrated, except for whoever is directly fighting the players (and whoever may be in their "squad").

In short, you don't really need a one-size-fits-all solution because otherwise it'll seem contrived ("Oh look, the general's suggesting a two-pronged assault again"); adapt your techniques to the situation so that the players don't feel forced into a particular plan of action and you don't get bogged down with extra work.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The only thing I disagree with is letting the PCs control the allies. You'd have to make sure to do some sort of periodic morale check to ensure the NPCs aren't simply expendable shock troops, its DND not squad leader. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim B Oct 22 '15 at 21:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm pretty surprised "let the PCs control them" is all the way down here. That's the solution I always use. It's more fun for the players and easier for me. @JimB, you don't need morale checks unless your players are butts. My players try to role-play the NPCs the same as they do their own characters. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Oct 23 '15 at 0:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unless your character is a squad leader, eh Jim? \$\endgroup\$ – Sandalfoot Oct 23 '15 at 18:35
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No soldier wants to end up dead because some VIP said "lets go". The soldiers have no allegiance to them and if I was a PC I'd be worried about some annoyed soldier deciding to frag my VIP butt after deciding this mission was an affront to his sensibilities. Even if the NPCs don't try to kill them, at the first sign of trouble they fall back and let the PCs take the brunt of the action. Just because they'd die for king and country doesn't mean they'd die for you. Add on top of that they want to bring the general? Is he expendable? Generals need heavy convincing to use resources to aid their own assets if they are in trouble unless there is a strategic need. There should have to be a very difficult roll to get the general to cooperate, with a negative modifier for every prior success.

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Try annoying your players. No, really.

"Hey boss, how are we splitting any spoils?"

"Hey Cleric, one of the men gashed his knee on a thornbush, can you use some of your healing magic?"

"This raw stuff your Ranger forages has given me food poisoning."

The players will realize that they're actually taking in a bunch of hangers-on that will expect to be treated as equal comrades... rather than disposable sword-sponges.

Make them understand the reason why so many famous characters "prefer to work alone." If you take soldiers with you on a mission, you have to be prepared to provide for them and even prevent them from dying -- that is not a commitment most players are ready for when they ask for NPC soldiers. Their unspoken modus operandi will be disrupted when they realize the soldiers simply aren't as cool or used to travelling across the world as they are. To put it in outdated slang, the soldiers are "cramping the PCs' style."

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's outdated slang now?! Aw, fiddlesticks. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 23 '15 at 17:59

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