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D&D Burgoo: NPC creation finds a new path

So, your party is traveling through the woods or across that fantasy city, and you roll for a random encounter (‘cause, as a DM, that’s what we do, right?) You register the die roll result and refer to ye ol’ wandering monster chart. And instead of giving you a monster you can run right out of the Monster Manual, you see something like this:

3d6 bandits (Rangers level 4)

And you go, “Uh, uh … uh.” 

Yes, it’s that again! It’s time to refer to the NPC charts in the DMG, which are something of a blessing and a curse.  Experienced DMs can usually look at the entry for a fourth level ranger and run on the fly, but even they can be daunted by the need to generate equipment and select feats. Less experienced DMs can be overwhelmed by the charts and paragraphed appendices, and there’s no shame in that.  

(That’s one reason I prefer the NPC charts out of the third edition DMG, rather than those from the 3.5 edition. Feat and equipment options are pre-selected, and you only need to swap them out rather than select them on the fly.)

But all in all, NPC creation can be a hairy experience. Even if you are prepping encounters in advance, it can be a time-consuming process, often with little payoff if your party happens to turn left, where the bugbears lie in wait, rather than right, where the bandits are planning their ambush.

So, I was very interested in seeing how designer Jason Bulmahn addressed this DMing task in the Alpha 3 playtest release of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, which is Paizo’s OGL take on the 3.5 ruleset. 

Seven steps to a fully-statted NPC

This is a quick summation of the Pathfinder process. Throughout, DMs can refer to charts with the numbers and information to plug into the NPC they are creating.

1. Basics

This is the concept for the NPC, including whether you’ll be creating it from the NPC or character classes.

2. Ability Scores

This also has been simplified. There are two tiers of NPC score arrays, basic and heroic. And you refer to a chart based not on the class, but the role, the NPC is going to play in the encounter, such as melee or ranged combatants, divine or arcane spellcasters, or skill-focused characters. 

3. Skills

Skills are assigned normally, though there is a chart that gives you the skills by class at a glance. 

4. Feat selection

This has been streamlined in that there are lists of suggested feats depending, again, on the role of the NPC (such as finesse, unarmed, mounted, or two-handed fighters, for example). The feat lists are alphabetical, so you still have to keep prerequisite progressions (such as the fact Point Blank Shot comes before Far Shot) in mind.

5. Class features

Here you have to refer back to the class descriptions.

6. Gear

This could well be the most useful chart in the process. Instead of a overall gold piece amount for NPCs to play with, the value of gear is categorized. For example, a heroic NPC at third level has 1,200 gp total, of which 350 gp goes toward weapons, 600 gp goes to armor and shields, none for magic yet, 100 gp for alchemy items, as well as potions, scrolls and wands, and 150 gp for mundane gear. 

7. Details

Which here means double checking bonuses and modifiers and filling out descriptive details, too.

My take

It’s an interesting approach, one that is at least mindful of the fact that NPC creation should be made as effortlessly as possible. Itemizing the gear is a good way to ensure that NPCs are balanced against the party’s equipment, while still allowing room for flexibility.  And the feat selection lists mimics the DMG charts, but still allowing for some greater variety.

I think the process would benefit from having spell selection lists along the same lines as the feat selection lists.  Choice spell lists that pair up with specific roles of divine and arcane spellcasters would be handy. It’s been done before (the suggested best spell choices for character creation from Complete Scoundrel comes to mind). At least, there should be a quick reference of spells per day by class (allowing for basic and heroic score modifiers), just as there is for the NPC skill selections.

But on the whole, this is a positive approach, and a clear indication that innovation and vitality of the 3.5 rules set remains in play.

Check it out

I recommend to DMs playing 3.5 to check out the Pathfinder RPG playtest document and evaluate it for themselves. It’s available as a free download. [1]

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: NPC creation finds a new path"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 26, 2008 @ 9:27 am

I like the streamlined approach; it sounds like something to keep handy, or even to stat up a few parties in advance.

What I did: Made up my own encounter lists, and advanced the critters as the party advanced (either through levels/hit dice, number appearing, or other tweaks). As the party outgrew or grew into encounters, I subtracted or added them. This works, but it’s a lot of effort, and it sucks when you forget to advance something, or when the party is split or short a member or two…

Were I not deep in the throes of a Savage Worlds affair (and about to be a daddy), I’d probably be playing Pathfinder. A simplified 3.5, published open source? Sign me up.

FWIW, [2] is looking at a Pathfinder RPG edition, once things stabilize.

#2 Comment By Omnus On May 26, 2008 @ 10:49 am

The folks at Paizo certainly are going about things in the right way with Pathfinder. It’s kind of like winning on a prize at a bazaar, with WotC leaving the jewel of 3.5 D&D open for use. The Pathfinder adventures are solid, and the core rules look to be coming along nicely. I like the grass roots feel of the design, as well.

In regards to Kurt’s idea, a computer with a working database can be a godsend. You can pre-plan whole encounters by EC and pull them to the fore at the click of a mouse, and weeding out too-low encounters is a snap. Likewise, grouping all the feats into trees to make a logical bundling was easy doing the same thing for easy NPC creation.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On May 27, 2008 @ 8:14 am

It sounds like a good system– not yet perfect, but a lot better. If you have the PHB2, the quick character creation rules in the back work well for NPCs also– and include feat series and the like. The main drawback is gear, which it sounds like Pathfinder does better.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 27, 2008 @ 8:45 am

The PHB2 does have the suggested spell lists, but they’re by class, rather than party role — which I think the Pathfinder RPG identifies (correctly) as more important. But you’re right, the feat progression charts in the PHB2 are very well done.

#5 Comment By Lilaxe On May 30, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

I’d like to see a collective work where each common type of NPC has a pre stated example to use on the fly. You could even give them silly names to distinguish what they do (which is all 4th Edition has done to monsters).

Orc Frontline Welp – Level 1 Orc Warrior with melee weapon skills/feats
Orc Frontline Justicar – Level 1 Orc Cleric with healing spells
Orc Battle Master – Level 10 Orc Warrior with melee weapon skills/feats
Orc Frontline Skirmisher – Leverl 1 Orc with Bow skills/feats
Orc Battle Shaman – Level 4 Orc Dragon Shaman, etc etc

A website could have them pre-stated and on file so people could cut and paste what they need.

If enough people post up level and weapon combos most things could be available.

the only question is, would it break any WOTC rule?

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 30, 2008 @ 8:08 pm

The Lazy GM by Creative Conclave has something along the lines you’re talking about, Lilaxe.


I also think that from the 4E previews we’ve seen so far, that’s pretty much their approach to monster design.

#7 Comment By Nelapsi On January 14, 2012 @ 11:55 am

Good article and just thought I would add that there are a few applications that also make NPC Creation quick and easy. I used to use Buck’s NPC Generator (which is still good in it’s own right) but forget the address, there is also NPC Designer – 3.5 NPC Generator which I use currently. Can find out more here [4] Helps that it is free too