GM Advice: 6 Reasons to Add a NPC to the Party

If only we had a cleric!” “If only we had a thief!” “What the hell do those carvings mean?” How often have you heard a variant of the above at your table?

By William McAusland

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

Sometimes having an NPC in the adventuring party is rather handy for the GM. There are many reasons, why a GM might want to add an extra party member:

  • A Voice in Discussions: Having an NPC in the party is a great way of enabling the GM to have a voice in any inter-party discussions. A GM shouldn’t use this conduit to baffle, bamboozle and mislead the party (unless, of course, that’s the NPC’s plan). Rather, he can use it to remind the PCs of information, options they have forgotten or to steer them gently in the desired direction. Additionally, it enables him to engage in discussion that could turn argumentative (normally these conversations centre on treasure distribution or arguments over which course of action to pursue next).
  • Combat Power: While this somewhat falls under the “Extra Abilities” and “Endurance” category having an extra party member often provides additional combat options. Such folk provide an extra opportunity for flanking or can protect a soft-skinned party member such as a wizard. They also present the GM a handy target, if he is feeling merciful.
  • Endurance: Having an extra member of the party means the party is tougher and can adventure longer. Having more resources is a handy thing for an adventuring party in any game system. At the absolute very least, it means the party can absorb more damage before retreating.
  • Extra Abilities: If the party is lacking skills in a crucial area – for example they don’t have a rogue or a cleric – adding an NPC with just the right set of skills can turn an impending disaster into a successful adventure. Alternatively, a party might need specific knowledge to proceed past a certain point in the adventure. Providing a NPC with the relevant skills is a great way to make certain the party progresses.
  • Fun Roleplaying: Sometimes it’s fun for the GM to roleplaying a reoccurring character. While a GM does tons of roleplaying during the average session, he rarely gets to spend a lot of time developing any given NPC.
  • Plot Device: NPCs can often serve as a useful plot device for a GM to exploit. Perhaps an NPC needs to be escorted out of a dungeon or to a far-off town. Alternatively, the PCs may need something only the NPC can provide.

One pitfall a GM should avoid like the plague (like clichés) is using his own PC as an NPC. I’ve been guilty of this in the past and it invariably went wrong. Often, it caused resentment among the players – particularly if the NPC in question got more of the limelight or better treasure than his fellows. I’d advise you to think very carefully before adding your own PC to the group.

Help Fellow GMs!

Have you inserted NPCs into an adventuring party for other reasons? Tell me what they are, in the comments below and help your fellow GMs add NPCs to their adventuring parties today!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

12 thoughts on “GM Advice: 6 Reasons to Add a NPC to the Party

  1. Yup I have. For fun.

    Let me explain. The group had gotten into some dark dangerous, serious waters, and tensions among PLAYERS started to get a bit high. I deemed it necessary to inject someone into the story that could provide a little comic relief. (actually, it was a group of low level NPC’s that were modeled on the linear guild (from Order of the stick) crossed with Team Rocket (of anime fame)

    What it yielded was a small group of Schlemiels who were always puffing themselves up, then getting themselves into trouble and having to bail themselves out. I intentionally gave them skills that made it easy for them to run away.

    I also intentionally created them to be a little annoying, as I didn’t want them to become part of te party, but they featured often enough that I got to have fun developing them.

    • I feel guilty just saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” with nothing to add, but “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I have nothing to add. You said it all.

  2. One of the first things I ask is if the DM has a PC in the group. If so, I beg off. Too many issues. Being a mostly Savage Worlds DM, there’s always one or two NPCs in the party but the players control them during battle. I’ve never been in a group where we didn’t look for an NPC to fill out a spot for a missing class.

  3. I did this for a couple sessions and it worked out really well. Then we got some more players and I was able to retire the NPC, which kind of sucked because he promptly lost most of those new players and I needed him to come back (reasons he couldn’t) I probably should bring one in again. They’re only one PC short (3 person party) but I’m running Runelords and they really need someone who might know what the squiggles mean.

  4. as far as an npc having ‘a voice in the discussion’ i’d agree this is good. but i’d clarify that the ‘voice’ should be that of the npc, not the GM. never have a character speak with the ‘voice of the GM’ it’s a major immersion breaker. make each npc unique and different with their own personality and their own goals. keep it real, don’t turn it into a game.

  5. I ran a pbem campaign (Thail for TFT), where I had a very powerful PC who was leading the party. We had one encounter, I got the party organized and well started. Then an assassin shot my character, Flinch, in the face with a cursed bolt. (The wound could not be magically healed.) With my GM PC down for a good long time, the party had to scramble and adapt.

    I knew that having a GM PC in charge of the party would suck, so I got rid of him early in a most dramatic fashion.

    Warm regards, Rick

  6. Didn’t want to put it on the main screen, but I have an NPC named Traveller. I kinda modeled him after Gandalf, but I’ve been playing with him for more than twenty years, and have gotten a few positive and negative comments about him. He also has a familiar named Fastus, he’s a ferret, I think he’s kinda neat myself….

  7. I’ve done it for years and although in my youth and inexperience I jumped into the pit falls in my last 10 years+ my PC/NPC has been a vital addition to the party. As time and life has stretched game sessions further apart my NPC is there with subtle reminders of things the players ought to know. They always have a skill the other players don’t. I’ve had more success with characters who are non physical and primarily use spells to enhance the party. The PC wizard uses all the fun spells, my NPC casts Strength and Invisibility and writes down all the important stuff they learn in his book. Etc….

  8. in a campaign i was a player in a few years ago, we were running the Saltmarsh series to start with … the DM inserted an NPC at the harbour who, when we encountered him, immediately said “Get off my boat!” we dealt with him and resolved some things, and then the NPC ended up joining us (mostly because we needed the boat … maybe it was the Sea Ghost) ,… and we affectionately named him Nipca (a phoenetical pronunciation of NPC) … and “Get off my boat” became an in-game joke for much time after that …

  9. Running through Rappan Athuk, I used to use a paladin for this role; a bit of muscle, a bit of healing, some understanding of local a religious aspects, an “irritatingly rational voice”, and the butt of the excuses when those “youngish orcs” they did kill came back. Then, when the party’s aims and objectives drifted a little and it decided they didn’t need her, she went on her way, only to reappear as a recurring villain anti-paladin, which took them a few encounters to realise, as I played her as very world-weary. She knew them well enough to be able to “almost” get the drop on them two or three times, then disappeared. Eventually I had her atone, reappear every now and then, and get the party worried whenever she did. She eventually retired properly and provided a stronghold retreat for the party to go to if ever it needed a hospital, a library, a place to train. She worked quite well, all in all, at least for me.