Thursday, February 23, 2012

Supporting Cast Part 1 - NPC Cards and the Dwarven Florist

So I promised a helpful NPC this week, and I had a bit of trouble motivating myself to write tonight, because I couldn't find a hook for this blog post without just blurting a stat block out onto the screen.

Fortunately for you, I've figured something out.

NPC Scene Stealers

One of the most universally reviled concepts in table top games is the "GMPC" and "Pet NPC" syndrome. Where a GM forces a party to take a tag-a-long NPC character, and the NPC either solves puzzles or steals spotlight from the players. Even GMs with the best of intentions can cause annoyance among their players because a lovingly crafted NPC won't die or fade into the background faster. As a GM you might believe you've crafted an awesome Captain Jack character, but in doing so you've forgotten your NPC is supposed to be Gibbs. The old guy with the side-burns who occasionally spouts exposition when the main characters fail a knowledge check.

Sometimes though GMPCs or NPC tag-alongs are a necessary "evil", they may fill a role the party doesn't have (such as healing or wilderness expertise), or might be plot vital (your quest is escorting the prophet Trippitaka across the country so no you may not leave him behind in the nearest tavern to go find hookers and blow).

Giving Players Control

Many games use some manner of Hero Point system nowadays, and this method is somewhat similar.

Essentially at the beginning of each session or adventure I ask the player which friendly NPC they'd like to have tag along with them, (my players in my Kingmaker games know how a party can fluctuate from week to week as they have alternate characters and I have a pool of players to draw from different members of which show up each game), they usually choose an NPC who can fill a hole in the party; "Latrecia has decent tracking and wilderness skills and everyone took their urban characters this session", but sometimes they make their choice purely for role-playing reasons; "I want to see how the Jhod reacts to finding a temple of the elder god!"

I then hand the players out a number of NPC Cards depending on how many players show up in a session:

Number of PCs - Number of Cards
3 - 3
4 - 2
5 - 1-2*
6 - 0.5-1*
*Depending on Session length, longer sessions merit more cards.

I usually use the Paizo Plot Twist or Face Cards to represent this, but they are just as easily represented by Poker Chips or M&Ms. (Eating the token counts as using it).

During any point in the session players may hand me a card in order to have the NPC do one of the following:

Attack - The NPC begins attacking foes to the best of their ability. If the PC makes a physical attack it counts as an automatic hit, and the player who spent the card may roll to confirm it as a critical hit. If a second card is spent this critical is automatically confirmed. NPCs do not attack for more than one round, or perform full attack actions. They do count as flank buddies though.

Cast - If the NPC is a spell-caster she casts a spell the player may choose any spell on that NPC's class spell list up to the maximum level they can cast. If a PC doesn't know what spell to cast they can ask the GM to decide. If a second card is spent then the DC is increased by 5, or if the spell is touch it is counted as an automatic hit. It is automatically assumed an NPC prepared whatever spell the PC selected.

Skill Check - The NPC can take a 10 on any skill they are trained in. If the GM doesn't have stats handy for the NPC assume the NPC has a bonus equal to APLx1.5 in that particular skill if it's on their class list or Equal to APL-2 if not.

Rescue - If a PC is at negative hit points the NPC can perform a rescue. Pulling the PC's body out of melee range of any opponents and feeding them a bottle of a Cure X Wounds (the exact cure spell determined by the PCs level (Cure Light 1-2, Cure Moderate 3-4, Cure Serious 5+). If two cards are spent its a Maximized potion of Cure.

Aid Another or Incredible Aid - A player may spend a card to have the NPC use the Aid Another action. If two cards are spent the bonus increases to +5. PCs must describe the manner of aid they want the NPC to provide.

Use a Class Feature - Sometimes it's handy to have a class feature that the players don't have covered available. When facing a wave of skeletons there's nothing like turn undead, and a bardic performance is always welcome. Any class feature which is measured in Rounds/Level lasts for a number of turns equal to the group's APL - 2.

Activate a Boon Ability - A Boon ability is a powerful ability unique to each NPC, unlocking such an ability requires the players to earn complete trust and friendship (or rivalry), or complete some manner of special quest on that NPC's behalf. Roughly speaking a Boon ability should be equivalent

Provisos and Limitations: Only 1 of the above functions can be activated a round, multiple cards can only be spent to boost an ability. A GM can veto any action he feels the NPC might disagree with or just not want to do, furthermore a GM can make a suggestion about what an NPC can do to help in a situation but the NPC will not act on the suggestion unless a player spends a card.

These are quite potent abilities and increase the player's arsenal by a lot. Consider though, that players can't just drag any NPC they meet along to traipse through deadly dungeons and fight dangerous monsters. NPC followers must be earned through role playing, taking an active interest in an NPC and recruiting them through the use of Diplomacy, bribery, guile, quests or friendship. By giving the PCs a tangible reward that has a game mechanic behind it the players feel rewarded for taking an interest in the NPCs around them and making friends with these imaginary people that populate your world.

Secondly, the cards are actually the player's way of telling you as a GM that they want an NPC to take the spot-light for a moment (2 cards means that players are incredibly invested in seeing an NPC succeed). It also adds an element of resource management to the party (do we spend a party now to have the NPC cleric cast cure serious wounds, or should we save the card in case there's more ghouls and we need a quick remove paralysis). As a GM you can use the NPC as the occasional mouth-piece or exposition-spouter without turning the NPC into a problem solver for the players unless that's what the player's want. Furthermore the more players spend their cards, the more an NPC is appreciated as they help out when the players need, and doesn't butt in when not.

When designing recruitable NPCs try to keep them within 1 or 2 levels of the PCs, if an NPC is higher level than the players they should not be recruitable until the players are of equal or higher level, and shouldn't level up until after the players.

In any case here's a couple of versions of Balley Keth N├╝ttonsdotter. Assuming a 5th level party.

Quick Balley Keth: Hp: (APL-2) x 6.5 (19); Attack Bonus = APL (+3); AC = 10 + APL (15); Skills: Druid List; Spells - Druid List 0, 1, 2. Spell DCs: (APL -2) x 1.5 + 10 (14). Special Boon: Plant Growth (Balley Keth can throw seeds and cast a modified entangle spell anywhere including indoors). Class Features: Druid 3.

Balley Keth N├╝ttonsdotter CR 2

XP 600
Female dwarf druid of the green faith 3
NG Medium humanoid
Init +1; Senses Perception +5


AC 18, touch 10, flat-footed 14 (+4 armor, -1 Dex, +1shield) (+4 dodge vs. giants)
hp 23 (3d8+6)
Fort +5, Ref +0, Will +6; +2 against poison, spells, and spell-like abilities


Speed 30 ft.
Melee mwk club +3 (1d6+1/×3)
Ranged sling +1 (1d4+1) or club +1 (1d6+1)
Special Attacks +1 on attack rolls against giants, Boon Ability (Entangle Seeds - Can cast Entangle indoors or outdoors).
Domain Spell-Like Abilities (CL 3rd; concentration+6)

6/day—wooden fist

Druid Spells Prepared (CL 3rd; concentration +6)

2ndbarkskinD, fog cloud, tree shape
1stcure light wounds, cure light wounds, hydraulic push, entangle (DC 14)D
0 (at will)detect magic, guidance, resistance,stabilize

D Domain spell; Domain Plant


Str 13, Dex 8, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 16, Cha 13
Base Atk +2; CMB +1; CMD 12 (16 vs. bull rush, 16 vs.trip)
Feats Combat Casting, Brew Potion
Skills Diplomacy +5, Heal +7, Knowledge (history) +4 (+6 dwarves or their enemies), Knowledge (nature) +6, Perception +5 (+7 unusual stonework), Profession(florist) +7, Survival +9, Spellcraft +4
Languages Common, Dwarven
SQ aura, giant hunter (replaces hatred), lorekeeper*
Combat Gear scrolls of longstrider (2), scrolls of magic fang (2), scrolls of obscuring mist (2), wand of cure light wounds (50 charges), tanglefoot bag; Other Gear hide armor, wooden buckler, masterwork club, sling with 20 bullets, healer’s kit, spell component pouch, holly, bag of roses 19 gp

PC Gear +1,350 gp

Description: This dwarf girl has long brown braided hair, and bright green eyes. She seems a little shy, but seems intent on selling her flowers to any who will buy.

History: Born in dwarven lands Balley Keth N├╝ttonsdotter has always been fascinated with the way things grow. Born the daughter of archivists her family pushed her towards books and study, but Balley would often find excuses to avoid class and stay out in the woods studying and cataloging flowers. It was in the woods near her mountain home where she met a human hermit, a wild lady with long grey hair named Avilon. The two struck up a friendship and taught Balley about the names of flowers, and how to unlock the most potent perfumes through the art of flower arrangement.
Her family was shocked to find out about this love of flowers, and forbade Balley from speaking with the old woman. Unable to survive in her stifling home environment Balley set off to find her own fate, and has taken odd-jobs in that time. Her dream is to open a flower shop of her own and send money home to her parents to prove once and for all that floristry is not some silly longshanks dream.

Meeting the NPC: PCs can come across Balley selling flowers anywhere in Middle Ground in Haighwall. If a PC buys one of her flower arrangements Balley grows quite excited as the PC is her first sale. She thanks the PC profusely and gives them her card with the address of the inn she is currently staying in case the PC might like more flowers.

Recurring Hooks:
If a PC takes a romantic interest in an NPC flowers might be a good way to woo him or her - Balley can put together a lovely bunch of flowers, but if the PC wants to go that extra mile Balley can give a PC the location of a rare flower that grows within Blackwode. She'll only share the location if the PC agrees to take her along.

A dwarven PC might take a romantic interest in Balley, in which case she is a shy girl who appreciates gifts of flowers, or hand-crafted items, but dislikes gaudy things like jewellery and stonework .

Balley might strike up a friendship with a female NPC, appreciating their choice in clothes or their style of hair, Balley's inexperience with human cultures might have her asking the PC's advice.

PCs might encounter Balley randomly in the city arguing with a conservative dwarf NPC, perhaps about her choice of wearing dresses and keeping flowers in her hair, open expressions of gender that stodgy dwarven culture is uncomfortable with.

Unlocking her Special Boon: If the PCs have made Balley friendly or helpful, Balley offers the PCs a quest: A rare flower grows high in the mountains to the East, The White Winter Blossom. This rare flower could he encouraged to grow domestically with the right kind of magic, but Balley needs a live specimen. Balley is happy to accompany the PCs on such a quest.

In any case, I hope y'all liked tonight's blog. Let me know what you think about this house-rule. Credit where credit is due, I did borrow ideas from these folks over at 4th Dimension Games. You can read the blog that inspired this idea here. As always you can always comment right here, or on my Facebook Page, or on this thread at, love to hear your feedback, critiques, praise or questions.

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