NPC Help and Designing Modules

I was running a game last night where the players are moving to take down a white dragon that is moving against a nearby country.  The module is designed with a lot of NPC Help in the game where some of the NPC’s join the players in their push to the tower.  It is a good module for NPC interaction but I had the feeling for the first time that the NPC’s were getting in the way.

NPC Help

I entered two combats last night.  One was a tense battle against insect like foes that were a real danger to the party.  High attacks, high damage and the chance to inflict some real hampering conditions on the players.  They took to the battle as they saw a lone figure (an Adlet) that was fighting a losing battle against the creatures.  In this battle I allowed only the players to fight the creature while the assisting NPC’s “guarded the skies”.  Even still one of the players asked “Where are the NPC’s?” during the battle as if they should be helping out.

Saving the Adlet she told them of a secret path and the possibility of finding some magical items that will assist them in the battle against the white dragon.  They decided to take her up on her offer of assistance and this sent many of the other helpers back to the tower.  That said there were still three NPC’s assistting, the Adlet, a Triaxian and a Dragon kin.

There were five players in the game (there are normally 6 or 7 but the girls are out at the moment) and they entered a second battle against a bunch (9!) Ice Runners (advanced versions of Axe Beaks).  We rolled initiative (which took forever with so many involved) and what happened is my three NPC’s all rolled very close initiatives meaning their turns all happened in a row.

The immediate problem with that was not immediately apparent but as it was at the end of the round it became immediately apparent.  Because of the NPC help a large amount of each round was going to be me as the GM playing with myself while the players watched.  I am not going to lie, I felt awkward.  So much so that I made one of the NPC’s do some wasteful running around just so I could shorten this.

I realized that this is an issue with module design.  If a game is designed with the idea of receiving NPC help constantly then I am going to have to build a way that the NPC helps in different ways.

Icon Deck images NPC help
NPC’s need care

For example, with Pathfinder in particular I think that I am going to start using these NPC’s in a different way in future games so that they start to use the Aid Another action to make the PC’s the heroes.  I am hoping that the modules have not been designed explicitly with the NPC help for damage or it might be a disaster but it will save situations of me having to play with myself for a good 8-10 minutes every combat round.

Module Design and NPC Help

As I am working on a few different modules at the moment this issue is one that I need to factor into at least one of them.  Remember when you are designing adventures that it is in fact the PC’s that should be front and centre at all times.  NPC help should come in the form of ways to enable the PC’s looking cool.  If the NPC is not going to highlight an ability of a player character or is going to take on a portion of the role that really should fall to the PC’s then you should not implement the NPC.

NPC’s should be utilized to assist in the telling of the story.  They should generate drama or offer solutions that the PC’s get to implement.  The NPC help should not ever resolve a situation without the PC’s being involved.  It defeats the point of the story.  It is similar to if James Bond found out the plan and then called in the special ops division to take the baddies out while he slipped away for a quiet martini and a game of baccarat.  What a boring movie that would be.

Educating the PC’s with NPC Help

There is one other thing that you could do with the NPC help as well that is really worthwhile.  If the players are unaware of various rules you can put them on display with the NPC’s.  I did this with some hobgoblins last week when they were fighting in a D&D 5E game.  The hobgoblins started to use feints to allow their companions to gain advantage on attacks.

Sure, it nearly slaughtered the party (oops!) but I saw some of them take that on board.  It is similar to the aid another action of Pathfinder.  I am sure that many of the players will not have thought of this before.  I have had players just stand there and do nothing while they could have aided one of their companions in this easy action and so getting the NPC help to display this ability will assist in the players education of the rules.


It is so funny that you can have 28 years of experience as a GM and still learn something every game.  I need to make the NPC’s relevant and I need to make the NPC help count (or otherwise why would the players ally with anyone).  I can do this but it does not need to be done in a damage dealing way.  Having them assist the other players in combat with aid another gives the players a tangible benefit and does not take the NPC’s away so if things start going pear shaped they can then start hitting things to pull the PC’s out of the fire.

If you are involved in the designing of adventures make sure that you consider this issue.  It is not fun for a player to see a GM sitting there mumbling to themselves while they fight against themselves.  If you want to have an NPC in the thick of combat make sure that you ham it up and make it entertaining OR the NPC help comes in the form of making the players look good. Keep rolling!

1 Comment

  1. A considerable part of the blame must lay with us players Mark. We did after all take forever to set up our line where we largely hid behind the NPC’s. Not a super heroic starting point.

    The bad guys won the initiative and we got swarmed and we had trapped ourselves in behind NPC meat shields. Your options of who to attack consequently became very limited.

    Still you seemed a bit bored just playing by yourself!!!


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