[RPG] What do NPCs do with gained XP


I'm the DM of our group with several player characters, and often there are NPCs with the party as well (partly because the party really likes persuading friendly creatures to come join them, and partly since it helps things go more smoothly as the group is generally smaller than recommended by the published adventure we're using).

Usually, the NPCs that are going along with the party are even mostly controlled by the players at the table, particularly during combat, but it's not quite them just "playing more than one character" as the specific NPCs that go along with the party often tend to change over time. (An NPC helps the characters accomplish the objective that that particular NPC wanted them to do, but then once it's done they're not as interested in continuing with whatever the party is doing next, but then some other NPC may or may not join them in accomplishing their next objective.) But then sometimes, one or more NPCs may stick around with the party for quite some time, depending on what makes sense for the character and the story.

When the party completes an encounter and thus gains some Experience Points, NPCs share in the XP awarded, per the DMG entry on Experience Points (p. 260):

When adventurers defeat one or more monsters—typically by killing, routing, or capturing them—they divide the total XP value of the monsters evenly among themselves. If the party received substantial assistance from one or more NPCs, count those NPCs as party members when dividing up the XP. (Because the NPCs made the fight easier, individual characters receive fewer XP.)

That makes sense at a high level, but then once the NPCs have earned some experience points, what do they do with them? The rules for PCs and the rules for NPCs seem to be quite different, and there isn't a concept of "levels" or a "starting amount of XP" that an NPC has. At some point should I decide that they've earned enough XP and "level them up" in some fashion, such as changing a Guard's stat block to that of a Scout or Thug or something? Do they start gaining "real" class levels and abilities at some point? Or do they just become part of the denominator when dividing encounter XP but NPCs have no use for it and it's not even worth tracking?

Obviously, I can just make up whatever answer makes sense for the particular character and story of the campaign, but I'd love to know if there was any recommended or standard approach.

Best Answer

NPCs might gain experience points and levels, if the DM wants to keep track of that. There's no inherent reason they cannot do so. It depends on whether this is a one-shot for the NPC, or whether he might be a recurring character. Also it depends on the level of detail and amount of work the DM wants to do.

I try to build and run my NPCs as much like PCs as possible, and I do track their experience and levels if they are recurring people (as either allies or opponents). If they are just single-shot, disposable allies (or opponents), I don't bother. But I find it adds both realism, and good challenges for the players, if the NPCs change and grow (and learn, both from and about the party).

It can vary, even in the same party. As a player, in one long-term adventure, our party of 3 PCs had acquired quite a selection of allies, with several groups from each of several sources. Plus an NPC we had rescued. The rescued NPC we treated as a full party member, with the DM's consent, and we tracked her experience and levels. She also got death saves when knocked to 0 hp, and other such perks normally accorded to PCs. Most of the other NPCs were not so tracked, having been created as types from the MM such as "thug", "archer", etc. They remained constant and somewhat faceless, and died when knocked to 0 hp.

The DM gets to decide all of that. In my world, even the monsters get death saves and might survive if left unconscious.

How I handle any given NPC is a mix, depending on the importance of the NPC. I will often build a BBG, or a major recurring ally of the party, completely as a PC, and have him make his plans, and level him up as I go just like a PC, to keep pace with the PCs power and the needs of the story.

His main henchmen might be started with an NPC stat block from the MM or Volo's Guide, and I assign them an appropriate level and xp amount, and if they survive a while, I'll add capabilities and level them up from there, using the same progression as PCs. The NPC stat blocks have a few shortcuts and simplifications, but they aren't very different from a PC build of the same level.

Likewise for enemies that aren't the main bad guys, but may end up hanging round for a while. The party recently handled a problem with an orc tribe harassing some towns. The village had been built normally, with a War Chief, a Tanarukk, and 3 Eyes of Gruumsh, all on Giant Boars; 6 Orogs on regular boars, and about 70 Orcs, all according to the monster stat blocks. The party attacked them a few times and weakened them, but then had to go deal with something else. In this case, the party came back in a couple of weeks to finish the job, so the only changes to the orc village were some weapons and tactics, and the addition of a couple of Minotaurs that the Tanarukk had recruited (being of the same religion and all). But if the party had not come back soon, I would have had the orc village starting to train up, and the leaders level up, and them try to find some more new allies, in response to having been attacked by the party.

Lower level grunts I'll just use Thugs or whatever, and leave them at that.

For the leader types, I'll often roll them a couple magic items, as per the table on p.38 of the DMG for starting a PC at higher level. Magic items are more interesting, and better earned, if you have to face them first before you can get them.

This does get more complicated if the bad guys are not PC types. For example, my current campaign features a Hobgoblin Warlord, with a couple Devastators and a few Iron Shadows, as well as an allied rogue Mind Flayer Arcanist. For all of these, I started with the Monster stat blocks. For the Warlord, Devastators, and Mind Flayer, I am tracking experience, and leveling them up as we go to keep a couple levels ahead of the party (which is currently 8 PCs of 6th level). I may start tracking and leveling the Iron Shadows soon as well, if the party decides to pursue one of the other plot lines for a while, and gains some power and levels in the process.