[RPG] How to use powerful NPCs without overshadowing the player characters


I’ve been playing P&P for years and have taken my first tentative steps into DM’ing over the last year, mostly leading One-Shots. I am also a passionate world-builder and so I jumped at the chance to use one of my most developed worlds as a home-brew setting. For the most part, this has worked out well and the players like the setting – but I’ve started to notice a trend that’s troubling me.

The setting contains A LOT of NPCs and they range from “average joe” to “movers and shakers of the world” in terms of power and competence. And I find myself somewhat at loss how to handle interactions between the latter and the PCs. On the one hand, those NPCs are meant to be badass, smart and proactive and I want to do them justice. But on the other hand, I don’t want the players to get the feeling that they are being reduced to assistants or – even worse – spectators.

Avoiding them until the PCs are powerful enough to meet them as equals is an option, but I often run into the problem that the “here be cool adventures” and the “here be VIP NPCS” parts of the setting often overlap. So sure, I could send my players to clear out a monster-infested mine or retrieve stolen goods – while the NPCs prevent the brewing civil war, slay the dragon, fight a dead god… all off-screen. Yay?

I have used the “but our hands are tied!”-approach in the past, where powerful NPCs showed up but they were crippled/captured/bound by bureaucracy, which explained why they couldn’t do anything and needed the PCs help. This usually works, but I am afraid of overusing it. It gets kinda weird when characters that are usually competent suddenly can’t do anything every single time the PCs get involved. Plus, it would be rather hard to take them seriously after a while.

And the thing is: I like those NPCs. I spent a lot of time writing them. And I want to use them and I want to play them right and not reduce them to damsel/dudes in distress for the sake of the adventure all the time. (And, I admit it: I want my players to like them.)
But the focus should be on the PCs. I want them to be the heroes, to have the spotlight and be awesome. They are the main characters and I want the story to reflect that.

So…. How do I manage that? How can I have a setting filled with powerful NPCs and still let the PCs be the main heroes, while still maintaining some logic?

Best Answer

It’s all about Agency

As long as the party is independent to choose their path, and their actions remain relevant, having mighty NPC’s involved won’t detract from the game.

NPC’s that are already in conflict have a great excuse for not “doing the thing.”

Suppose the mighty NPC heroes need to recover an item from the Chapel of Nice Things, but the evil dragon circles above to prevent entrance. Enter the lowly PC’s. When the mighty NPC’s distract the dragon by the front door, the PC’s can sneak in through the secret way — they just have to deal with whatever (appropriately challenging) monsters are squatting there.

The players will get to act independently, and what they do really matters. Sidelining avoided.

Avoid direct orders

If the party ends up being part of a wider struggle, especially a military one, it would seem to make sense for the party to have a “commanding officer,” which would be problematic if it takes away the power of the party to choose their path. Strategies to solve this include giving the party a superior who:

  • Trusts the party’s judgement and abilities, giving them latitude to act as they see fit.
  • Is incompetent, forcing the party to disobey to save the day
  • Dies at an inopportune time (etc.)

Once the party has sufficient reputation, they can be treated like (or become) military special forces, or special agents, who have broad power to act with little supervision.

Say the party is helping to defend a city from attack. Instead of just assigning a stretch of wall to them and throwing monsters at them, they might be held in reserve, or simply never receive an assignment in the chaos. When the assault comes, give the party more than one option — they might want to help the mighty NPC’s at the main gate, or rescue the levy troops at a breach in the wall as the lower city, etc.

NPC’s get to do things too

The above devices will get you a long way; however, if only the PC’s get to affect the story, the events will start to seem contrived. Let the mighty NPC’s be involved with events that impact the game world, apart from the PC’s. For example, while the PC’s were questing, the city fell, but the king and his guard held back the onslaught, allowing the populace to flee to safety.

Don’t make the party “mow your lawn”

One other pitfall to avoid is making the PC’s into “little helpers” for furthering along your mighty NPC’s heroics.

Since you want your players to like your NPC’s, be careful that your quest hooks don’t sound like: “I hate to ask, but could you clear out my cellar? Oozes got in again. I’d do it myself, but there’s this Celestial War thing and apparently they can’t start without me. Oh, and feel free to help yourself to any of the junk you find down there.”

An inglorious plot hook isn’t always bad. They can inculcate comraderie in a new party via a little shared suffering. But if you are going to be spending any significant time telling an ongoing story, then your PC’s should be involved in a meaningful way.

If the party is not ready to play a meaningful role in a particular story, don’t make the game be about that story. (A little tantalizing foreshadowing is OK.)

Mighty NPC’s can provide aid in ways that are fun and interesting

Having high level NPC’s give you options changing up game play for low-level characters. A powerful mage might polymorph willing PC’s, provide a powerful item with limited uses, send them to a different plane (or just somewhere far away) or give them magical/technological protection against certain enemies.