It’s never exciting watching NPCs have a fight with each other, unless you’ve got an incredible GM. I’ve got an idea that might help change that. (As with most of my articles, this is written from a D&D/Pathfinder/13th Age perspective; apologies, as ever, if this rubs you up the wrong way. Hopefully there’s still something of use to be found here.)
GIVE THEM AN ABILITY
The core concept of this idea is that you turn the focus of NPC actions back onto the players; they’re the stars of the show, after all. Instead of you – the GM – running their actions and rolling their dice, they’re assigned to a player who’s in charge of making sure they participate, generally by giving up a minor action (or a quick action, or a miscellaneous action, or no action at all depending on your system).
Come up with an ability for the NPC – attacks are good, but there’s more you can do. If you pick an attack, balance it to be roughly around the level of the PC’s attacks; a little higher, perhaps, if this is a high-ranking important NPC, or a little lower if it’s scrappy underdog.
EXAMPLE: Jenny is the inn-keeper’s daughter – and you’ve just barricaded the inn against marauding goblins who are marching towards you as you fight. Jenny’s a dab hand with her dad’s crossbow, and seeing as he’s been injured, she wants to use it to help you out.
The average attack for the PCs is around D20+5; Jenny’s not player-character material, so let’s give her a +3 ranged attack. Crossbows do D8 damage, and she’ll get a bonus for her dexterity, so let’s call the damage D8+2; she’s good with her hands. I write down her attack on a card that reads:
JENNY, INN-KEEPER’S DAUGHTER
RANGED ATTACK (MINOR ACTION ONCE PER TURN): +3 to hit, D8+2 damage
PUT THEM IN DANGER
Although NPCs don’t have hit points and aren’t represented by models in this system, they can still be hurt. Some of the dice rolls are going to hurt them. Pick a dice result that can result in them getting hurt; the more likely this dice roll is to come up, the more reckless/unarmoured/unskilled the NPC is. If an NPC is more likely to get hurt than others and it suits, you can probably afford to give them a better ability.
Some sample results! Any even roll on a D20, 5 or less on a D20, 16 or higher on a D20, a Natural 1 on a D20; matching dice in a dice pool, a run of three in a dice pool, more than one result of 1 in a dice pool; doubles in a percentile system. You’re probably going to have to work this one out yourself, and it’ll depend on your system.
If the dice show that result, the NPC is IN DANGER. GM, narrate what happens: they could be injured, or in a bad tactical position, or trapped, or knocked over, or out of supplies at a crucial moment.
If a character’s already IN DANGER and they’re put IN DANGER again, they’re out of the fight – and potentially dead. That’s up to the GM to decide.* A PC can get the NPC out of danger by spending their turn doing something to save them on their turn, but not if they’ve been put in danger twice and are out of the fight.
EXAMPLE: I add “IN DANGER on a D20 roll of 4 or lower” to Jenny’s card.
GIVE THEM TO A PC
Let the players choose which one of them is going to be in charge of the NPC and narrate their actions. When they spend a minor action to trigger the NPC’s ability, they’re in charge of describing the action and rolling the dice.
EXAMPLE: The Ranger kind of fancies Jenny, so he volunteers to look after her during the fight. I give Jenny’s card to the Ranger’s player. As goblins attack the inn, he describes holing up on the second floor and raining down arrows; occasionally, he’ll suggest a target to Jenny and she’ll loose off a shot.
CHANGE IT UP
If you want to make the choices a bit more important, you can limit their uses per fight: a cleric, for example, could heal D8+3 hitpoints twice per battle. Or if you want them to slip into the background, you can make their abilities more passive: a psychic child that predicts the future can give +1 to the attacks of the PC that’s looking after it.
You can make it a standard action, too. Or a flat damage bonus that requires no action to use, but the dice the PC rolls can still put the NPC In danger.
That’s everything; this isn’t a huge article. It’s just the start of something else; an idea you can – hopefully – use. Maybe there’s a desire for level-appropriate NPCs, properly balanced, written up for a variety of systems in this way. I can’t say I’m the man to write it, but I’d probably give it a go if I felt it might shift a few units.
Although it seems pretty simple, I think this system can do a lot of different things in battle and speed up play as well as removing the need for that tedious part of combat where the GM remembers that the friendly NPC exists, rolls some dice, and announces that they’ve missed. Plus, it cements the connection between the PCs and NPCs, and that’s always a good thing.
Some bonus ideas for NPCs and their abilities:
A friendly witch that can cast a charm to give one character some temporary hit points
A pair of drunk city guards that give you bonuses to defence so long as you don’t move
A sneaky urchin who can steal equipment from enemies
A cowardly bard who hides behind you and sings of your glory
An overworked doctor who can stabilise dying characters
A mysterious man with a curved sword who can force your enemies to re-roll attacks
An alchemist with a strange device that produces chaotic, random effects
A young werewolf who can burst into a frenzy then collapse into an exhausted heap
A simple chap who enjoys carrying heavy objects and occasionally stands in the way of attacks
* Or you can roll on this table! I’m nothing if not generous:
1: DEAD. Dead as a doornail. Call up the nearest and dearest.
2-3: GRAVELY WOUNDED. They’ll need to miss the next few fights, unless you heal them in some way. If they fight again when they’re gravely wounded, they die at the end of the battle (if not before).
4-5: MINOR INJURY. They’ll need to miss the next fight, unless you heal them in some way. If you stick them in the next fight without healing them, they’ll be gravely wounded at the end of the battle (if not dead).
6: UNHARMED. It’s a miracle! They’re okay; a little worse-for-wear and shaken, but still fighting fit.