D&D works best as a game when it pits four or five player characters against a series of problems or obstacles and lets them go at it. However, in the reality of the worlds we create, often the most sensible thing the PCs can do is recruit some extra help, enlisting the local militia, city watch, the King’s guard, a friendly tribe of wood elves, or whoever else, to help take care of the problem.
Most RPG players come to the table explicitly looking for adventure and the risks it entails, and, on a meta level, such players don’t really consider ‘asking for help’ a valid game option to solve their problems. Others, however, like to do the logical thing in the scenario their characters find themselves in. For example, if their PCs just helped Lord Deep-Pockets retrieve a family heirloom, why wouldn’t they just ask the same Lord to lend them 20 knights to help kill the dragon currently terrorising the nearby villages?
Whether your players sign up for adventure on the tacit understanding they have to shovel their own sh*t, or whether they are on the constant look out for spade-carrying NPCs, it’s worth giving a little thought as to why the authorities, or various potential allies, can’t help out. Because – while there is space in D&D for diplomatic efforts, wielding influence and calling in favours – having NPCs solve a problem facing the players, or lend sufficient help that their chances of success are all but assured, doesn’t make for great adventuring. At least not if you value drama at the table.
To guard against the tactic of PCs recruiting NPCs to do their dirty work, leading to a cakewalk of an adventure, consider these three tactics:
1) Prepare a solid reason why NPCs can’t help
2) Let the PCs recruit help, but then pull the rug out from that help
3) Adjust the threat / obstacle level to match the total resources of the heroes + NPC allies.
Number 3) is obviously very meta-gamey and, if you do concede that the players did well to recruit help, then making the adventure harder in proportion to the help recruited feels a bit too much like ‘DM cheating’ to me, and not an optimal adventure design choice. Additionally, if you allow the PCs to recruit help while also bolstering the ranks of the bad guys, you may find yourself running never-ending combats, with more combatants than D&D can realistically handle, grinding the session to a halt. Despite my reservations, it’s probably worth keeping this method in mind for when needs must… maybe the adventure’s villain proves as good at recruiting as the heroes do!
Number 2) can actually be a lot of fun, and I can furnish you with a good example from a recent session of The Witchlight Carnival I am playing in. We had recruited six bullywug knights to help us take Lorna the Hag, but, before we could bust down the doors and send them in as cannon fodder, our Dungeon Master described flames in the distance and screams for help echoing across the swamp… the bullywugs’ home was being attacked. The DM gave us a Persuasion check to keep them onside, but, once we flunked that, our allies plopped into the waters and started swimming for home. We were going to have to do this by ourselves, after all.
Perhaps the biggest danger of using this method is that players might feel they are being cheated of support that they won through good negotiations, and that the DM is playing a trick on them. Actually, that’s exactly how I felt… but I admired the trick. Your mileage with this method may depend on your group’s personalities.
Generally speaking, I consider number 1) as the GM’s best option for countering too much NPC involvement, and it doesn’t require much in the way of preparation. Just give a little thought to who the PCs might realistically ask to help out, and then come up with a reason why they can’t. (You can invent such reasons on the fly as well, but pre-considered reasons are likely to sound more credible to your players).
Reasons why bodies of NPCs such as city guards, a tribe’s warriors, a faction’s special agents, a Lord’s loyal retainers can’t help might be:
- They are busy combatting another threat
- They must stay and defend their city / village / Lord from an anticipated threat
- They’ve been heavily depleted on a recent mission or by some misfortune
- They are not legally / morally allowed to (maybe it’s a holy day or week, such as occurred during the Battle of Thermopylae, hence the Spartans only sending 300 hoplites to defend the mountain pass)
- Their leader refuses to give the order (maybe the leader has been paid off by the villain!)
- They haven’t been paid, or have some other bone of contention, and are on strike
- They are not qualified for this type of work, so their leader doesn’t want them involved
- The work needs to be done on the down-low, without official involvement
- They, or their leader, don’t consider the mission in question to be their problem
Reasons why powerful individual NPCs can’t help are often easier to come up with, as they only need waylay one person. Some ideas:
- They are busy / have other duties to attend to
- They don’t have a stomach for danger
- They are ill, or injured
- They are not able to help legally, or perhaps because of a promise they made, or code they have to follow
- They are not qualified
- They can’t be seen to be getting involved
Note: in order to make these reasons credible its important to refine these vague excuses, above, into something more concrete. Example: “The Watchful Order of Magists and Protectors is busy trying to track down a newly discovered clone of Manshoon that has appeared, so you’re going to have to take care of this lycanthropy break out in Dock Ward yourselves.” Just saying “they’re busy” is going to sound like you’re improvising a lazy solution to their NPC recruitment not working.
I suppose as well, there’s a final approach I didn’t consider until now, which would be make any NPCs recruited be as much of a hindrance as an actual help. Once players realise they can’t rely on newly recruited allies to pass a Stealth check, complete a watch without falling asleep, or stand firm in the face of danger, and that – despite their shortcoming – they still want their fair share of the treasure, they might baulk at using this strategy in future.
Your Experiences with NPC Help?
Have you ever had an adventure drained of drama thanks to a savvy bit of NPC recruitment on the part of your players? Or perhaps you encourage that sort of resourcefulness… in which case how do you keep your scenarios from being too easy?
Or do you take it for granted that your players won’t try to ‘cheat’ their way out of doing the dirty work themselves as part of the tacit, unwritten contract they sign when they join your table (on that point, I still think a good reason why NPCs can’t get involved is worth having, as it can make the scenario more satisfying for the players, if there’s some in-world reason for them having to go it alone!).