For day 6 of the Blogging for GMs project, we have a guest post written by Mike Barker (Judas, in the comments). Mike doesn’t have a blog, so I suggested that he email me his post — an offer I’m happy to extend to others in the same situation, for the duration of the project. Thanks for for writing this, Mike!

Here’s Mike’s guest post, “The Horrors of NPC Combat and How to Mitigate Them.”

(Note: this is mostly d20/D&D specific, but can be applied to other systems as well)

While the “final battle” is somewhat of a cliché in RPGs, it is generally accepted as a nice way to put a capstone on a long campaign. Since most games revolve around heroes and their great deeds, it follows that there is a great antagonist at the end that must be dealt with.

Many DMs (or GMs if you prefer) opt for a megalithic foe straight from a source with predetermined strengths and weaknesses, like the archetypical dragon or lich. However, some DMs build a campaign around evil NPCs, such as cultist, a cabal of foul Wizards, or maybe corrupt politicians, and this yields a final battle of “NPCs.” This can pose a mind-bending battle for even an experienced DM.

Herein lies the problem. To be formidable opponents, the NPCs need to be fleshed out just as the player characters are, complete with stats, skills, feats, and equipment. When the battle commences, regardless of how story driven everything was leading up to this point, the DM is faced with a brain-melting amount of game mechanics to deal with.

Beyond the obvious buffs/debuffs, each NPC probably has a unique set of gear and items that can further complicate affairs. While the players have just one full-featured character to deal with, you are essentially trying to manage several characters at the same time. What is the DM to do?

As with most RPG tasks, the DM’s best weapon is preparation, lots of it. Begin developing the evil NPCs well before the final battle. Try to establish their level at what you think the party can handle and if the party lacks enough levels/gear to have a fair shot, you can simply reduce the existing NPCs accordingly before game day. This is much faster then trying to generate the whole NPC between sessions.

Spell casters pose a problem in that they will have a repertoire of spells at their disposal. Pick a spell theme to match the NPC and choose their spells accordingly. Take each spell and try to reduce its total functionality (including damage) to just one line and put all the spells on a sheet of paper. On this line you want the “absolute” number needed to save/resist for the players.

In other words, compute all the bonuses to the spell ahead of time so you can glance at just one number when the players ask what their target number is. When the spell is used, you can simply lineout the spell on your sheet “spell book” grocery-list style.

As for long lasting buffs, it can be usually assumed the caster in question will have foreknowledge of the PCs’ arrival so he would normally have his protective spells up at the onset of battle. Pre-calculate these values and work them into the character sheet. Do note what the base value is because these buffs could wear off or be removed.

Melee provides another set of challenges. Since the NPCs are likely a mix of melee abilities and special weapons, they will have vastly differing attack values. The solution? Normally, the DM has knowledge of what the PCs’ armor values are before the fight. Create a grid of absolute values of what needs to be rolled by each NPC to hit each character. Don’t bother assigning the targets in a fashion of “NPC X needs Y to hit player Z.” The players will always do the unexpected and the melee types will end up fighting targets you didn’t foresee.

Using the grid, you can choose the NPC and simply cross reference to the target PC and know exactly what has to come up on the die face. Additionally, place all the NPC’s absolute damage capacity (figuring in all factors), AC, and HP on the same sheet. If the NPC has an ability that dramatically changes its combat values (like a barbarian’s rage), then have entries on the grid and hot sheet for both “on” and “off.” Obviously, this can’t account for what buffs/debuffs the players will elect to employ, but it’s usually a simply a matter of skewing a value one way or another.

Your ultimate goal here is to be able to run the whole battle without ever looking through the stack of NPC character sheets (but have them handy of course, if needed). Always try to think in terms of absolute values needed on the die and how to get there ahead of time. Re-computing the values each round slows the game dramatically. Any special abilities/items that cannot be summarized quickly should have the book and page listed where the data can be found. Don’t be afraid to use bookmarks here either.

Now the time has come for the battle to commence. You simply must demand that the players (or better yet, one designated player) track the party buffs for short-term buffs because you will be too busy doing the same.

After the initiative roll, form an initiative chain by creating a list of who goes when ordered with “first” at the top, and then work down the list each round. Absolutely avoid the “stock market” effect that many DM’s use for initiative: “25…24…23, on 23 the NPC attacks!” Not only will this speed up the process itself, it prevents the “Oh, wait!, I go back on 16!” when players forget their place or were distracted. Simply go down the list and call of who goes next.

That’s about it. Hopefully with more bandwidth freed up in the DM’s brain, he will have more “room” for using innovative tactics, unusual items, and chilling monologue. 🙂

Most of the delay in a game system results from number crunching or referencing materials. The DM must often do several times the players’ amount in an NPC vs. PC battle, and thus the onus to make it speedy falls on them. While the math is usually just simple addition and subtraction, the sheer volume of it can bog down even a mentally agile DM. Are there any ways you can think of to speed up such a battle? If you’re a non-d20/D&D GM, have you thought about ways to speed up your system? What do you suggest?