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