- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Gandalf Flies in on His Gold Dragon…Again

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s post about classically bad GMing, My Girlfriend is AC 100 [1], let’s look at another slippery slope: The powerful canon NPC.

Sweet! Oh wait, no, that was actually pretty boring.

And as with the AC-100-significant-other, this is also a bit of a tarbaby — as a GM, it can feel like it’s just a chance to flex your muscles, bust out a really cool character and maybe avoid a TPK.

Those are really two separate concerns: Doing cool stuff, and trying to correct a game-ending mistake.

The problem with the first part (the cool NPC) is that the game isn’t about cool NPCs — it’s about cool PCs, and only secondarily about the world around them. It doesn’t matter if it’s D&D, Mage or Burning Wheel: The PCs should always be the center of attention, and the story revolves around them.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be cool NPCs in that world, though — just that they shouldn’t overshadow and outshine the PCs. (This is a problem a lot of GMs have with running games in the Forgotten Realms, which is why in the TT forum thread on bad GMing [2] that inspired these posts, I called this one “Elminster rides in…”)

Trying to avoid a TPK (total party kill) — an event that could potentially end your entire campaign prematurely — is a bit trickier. It’s fairly easy to misjudge what the PCs can handle, and if you misjudge it badly (or the players screw up royally), and recognize it, bringing in the canon NPC cavalry can seem like a good idea.

And it might be, if you only do it once. Doing it over and over, however, is a big problem.

Unlike the AC 100 girlfriend [1], I’ve never had this problem — although I’ve come pretty close. A few of my games have definitely featured NPCs who flexed their muscles too often, but not quite to the “riding in their gold dragons” level.

I’ve seen a fair amount of it as a player, though, and it’s been a universally disappointing experience.

Is there more to it than that? Have you done this yourself, or seen particularly egregious examples of it as a player?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Gandalf Flies in on His Gold Dragon…Again"

#1 Comment By John Arcadian On April 13, 2006 @ 8:28 am

I had a GM who used to do that in his D and D game all the time. Super NPC rushes in to save us but whenever we try to do something minimally easy it takes the whole session. Still it’s an easy trap to fall into. When you sit there at the gaping maw of realization that “Oh crap, the pc’s are gonna die. That kills the whole plot, story game idea I was building up to. How do I fix this!”

I’ve always tried these two things.

1. Keep a track of the players and their HP, etc so if I need I can make minor tweaks to things. This requires you don’t mind fudging a few rolls or limiting severity. I also institute a Brink of Death rule in some games. Unconcious until you reach -10 and you lose a HP every round.

2. The healer NPC. If I put an NPC with the party it’s usually an innefectual scribe, squire, etc. depending on setting. They can rush in with a potion but run away or take a hit in battle and back away quickly. Of course the temptation to use this npc to just get the damn party over the really simple puzzle that they’re just not getting can be just as bad.

The other thing I tend to do with uberpowerful NPC’s is the uberpowerful second enemy. At the beginning of every session after I’ve hinted at or introduced the main enemy (if the game has one) I introduce the 2nd in command or brute force. It’s the big big bad who they usually run into once, get beat down and have a goal to overcome. THe combat hauses in the party must take down this enemy while the strategists can focus on the other issues. The combat hauses who enjoy the fighting know that if they aren’t getting enough combat during strategic or puzzleish sessions they will eventually get to tangle with the big nasty thing, only with more power and more experience. That doesn’t mean they won’t get beat again but it gives them a goal and adds a bit of “yeahhhhh. I have to fight what?!!! ”

The style I play though tends to be shorter heavily storybased with varied paths to the inevitable end. In the end though if you want a realistic game, let the chance of TPK enter into it. The threat has to be there, even if you’re not going to use it.

#2 Comment By ScottM On April 13, 2006 @ 8:56 am

Amusingly, we had a little trouble with the opposite of this…

We had agreed to try out Shadowrun, with Kev GMing. He setup a one shot and we grabbed the templated characters from the book. Two of the players had some experience, two were complete newbies.

The session went well for the first few hours. Then, as the session was reaching its climax, we (and our gang of allies) heard the distinctive whirring of a mini-gun. In a few rounds our side was blown to smithereens as Kev was chortling. A troll was blasting away at us… but when we fought back magically [it should have been his weakness], he was boosted by an ally. All of the success of the session was shattered in a few combat rounds of frustration.

Afterwards he knew he’d blown it. He explained that, “It was a legal starting character– but way overpowered. I just had to try him out– get him out of my system– before the game began for real.” He didn’t get a chance; everyone had soured on his GMing stint enough that we set aside Shadowrun altogether and went back to our existing campaign.

#3 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On April 13, 2006 @ 9:11 am

I had a DM once who’s pet NPC was a winged elf (it’s so original I can feel my pancreas rupturing as I type this) warrior. This warrior, however, had a magical book, from which, as a standard action, he could cast any spell he wanted to. Which he did. Quite often. Including Wish.

In the end, we openly plotted to kill him in front of the DM. However the DM would always one-up us. “Well, if you do that he’ll just do ….”

“The theif can steal the book…”
“He’s wished that the book can never be stolen from him”

“We can sunder the book”
“He’s cast stoneskin on it.”

“O.K. we can shiv him in the back…”
“He’s impossible to suprise.”

“We’ll wait till tonight…”
“Elf. Never sleeps.”

So in the end, we just blundered about with Happypants McGee until everyone just stopped playing.

#4 Comment By lebkin On April 13, 2006 @ 9:58 am

“In the end, we openly plotted to kill him in front of the DM. However the DM would always one-up us. ‘Well, if you do that he’ll just do ….'”

You should have attacked him anyway. You would have died, but you at least did something about it. Roll up new characters, attack the NPC again. Rince and repeat till the DM gets the hint. Obviously, getting a new DM is simpler. But my method has a certain charm to it. It’d be even fun trying to guess which way your characters would die this time.

#5 Comment By MountZionRyan On April 13, 2006 @ 10:53 am

Some RPGs, including Conan iirc, have a sort of failsafe to avoid TPK. You can spend a fate point (or whatever you want to call it) to be “left for dead.” I dont remember the exact mechanics.

One way I’ve been able to have cool NPCs is have them start at a much higher level than the PCs, but not rise in level thereafter. One NPC was basically a villian of mucho power. He gave off “evil” vibes and the Priest wanted to kill him on sight. However, early in the campaign he helped out the PCs by giving them info–it suited his purposes to have them defeat another villian. Eventually the PCs had a grand adventure about killing this guy off and felt like they had accomplished something.

#6 Comment By Spleen23 On April 14, 2006 @ 4:07 am

A alternative version of this is the ultra powerfull npc who demands that the party completes a risky mission that he himself could do without any effort, the last DM that pulled this had a old super wizard magicly summon the party and from his chair tell us about the mission we just had to do to which was replied “But your so powerfull, why don’t you just do it? Are you stuck in your chair, is your butt sticky, is that your problem?”
A few lightning bolts demonstrated Stickybutt’s feeling about this, but the name still stuck.