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Why The Authorities Can’t Help Out…

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?

I’ve had an idea! Why don’t we just ask another dragon to kill the dragon…? (Art: WOTC).

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!).


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  1. Highland Troll

    5. Go old-school, and design adventures where the PCs *need* to recruit help in order to survive.
    6. Let the wookiees win occasionally. If they’re smart enough to recruit help, great!

    Options 1 and 2 smack of railroading, “You have to do this challenge my way, you can’t be creative about how you solve the problem.” But really you want to keep all the above options in your toolkit.

    • Rick Coen

      Absolutely #6.

      Sometimes #5 – they bite off more than they can chew, and seek help. And maybe they owe a Favor (or straight up cash) for that help…

    • duncan

      hi HT

      Good points.

      Regarding old school can you recall if recruiting help was built into official adventures from early editions? I.e. the players were expected to recruit help to succeed? Or you mean more the open style of play that people adopted in those days (and many still do!).

      I know there was a tradition of building up retinues and strongholds in higher tiers of play, but I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘sending henchmen into a dungeon to set off traps’ style of play, for example. That’s just unheroic.

      I do like a bit of political intrigue (of which recruiting allies is a big part), but I remember one specific homebrew D&D campaign where the DM (a medieval historian) gave each player a political role in a city we’d aided. After a couple of sessions, as a group, we were desperate to cast off our responsibilities about taxes, food supplies, negotiations and get back to dealing with monsters, traps and actual D&D stuff.

      • Highland Troll

        I think in 1e the whole purpose of Charisma was to determine how many henchmen you could have? And yes, you were expected to hire men-at-arms for every expedition (not that we played like that). In a sword-and-sorcery, loot-and-run style game, heroics is not the point so it’s totally legitimate to have your henchpersons trigger the traps for you. But you’ll be expected to front for the raising spell.

  2. Eric

    Two more ta tics:

    4. there are no authorities — maybe the area prides itself on self-suffiency, or there’s a culture of community policing (e.g. early Saxon period)

    5. the authorities are actually the problem — either obviously (Sheriff of Nottingham style), or covertly (e.g. Thief Catchers of London, prior to establishment of “police”)

    • Love the ideas. Maybe they need someone with a very specific set of skills and they are hard. Maybe they need to do a favor for them or complete a challenge to prove they are worthy of their help.

    • duncan

      Thanks Eric… number 5 is fertile grounds for any “heroes needed” style of campaign!

  3. PK

    Hi Duncan,

    There most parties “like” to solve things first hand – DIY so to speak.
    Authorities, Factions, and Powerful Allies are almost always done in towns and cities, so most of this comes down to fidelity and adventure pacing.
    So when a party first agrees to using authorities it just becomes an extra piece on the intrigue board.
    If I want to expand play, I lean into it by developing NPCs for them to interact with; if I to speed up play, I lean away from it and resolve it via a die roll (usually 2d6) – using others isn’t a sure sign of success by any means.
    The most important thing is how the PC’s respond to the outputs: meaning the information and developments that arise.

    • duncan

      Hi PK, yes I think you’re right, and taking your comment, together with some of the others, I think we can say that recruiting allies shouldn’t be any guarantee of success. It behoves the DM to come up with developments and complications and catches.

  4. Rick Coen

    Recent experience in my campaign. The party is tracking a warband of giants, trailing them from the giants’ mountain home. The giants seem to be making for a known detachment of Frontier Guard (2 HD NPC soldiers, this group mostly “dragoons” – mounted, but dismount to shoot). However, on the same path further away, the travelling dwarven army heading to liberate a town from the giants’ allies.

    HOWEVER, there is a really bad storm in the area. This was a natural occurrence, not *caused* by the giants, but certainly fortuitous: the human archers’ arrows, firing into the wind, would be horribly short-ranged and inaccurate. The giants’ boulders, on the other hand, were unaffected by “mere winds”. So the party could have tried a tactic to slow the warband down, so the storm would clear out. Or they could have worked up an ambush so the soldiers were firing *with* the wind. They ended up coordinating the evacuation of the soldiers, and (mostly) dealing with the giants themselves. I was perfectly willing to let them get the benefit of the soldiers, if they worked it out – I considered the soldiers a strategic resource they could use or not, no different from setting a trap, or making good use of terrain.

    The party has also made use of soldiers to guard a couple locations they cleared out and wanted to keep from getting “reinfested”. But there are only so many soldiers; they’ve already been warned by their patron to not waste the soldier’s lives. *And* the baron has had to step up recruitment of the main army, which has impacted the lives of the commonfolk… and reduced what’s available in the market as commerce slows!

    So yes, I let them bring in help, but it has consequences. (And limits – they couldn’t hire any Guard to come with them to investigate an ancient ruin north of the Kingdoms. And leveraging their Favors to buy out a separate barony’s stock of healing items backfired when that barony ended up at war!)

    • duncan

      Hi Rick

      Thanks for the insight as always. It seems to me that you’re inherently addressing the problems of recruiting help by having a very broad picture of what’s going on in your world…. meaning that every PC action might solve one problem but cause another!

      I guess my adventures up til now tend to be about designing rather tighter scenarios, designed to challenge an adventuring party, but not an entire city’s resources for example. As such my technique is more based around encouraging them to take on the challenge head on, where your technique might be based around changing the challenge completely, based on their actions. Yours is the purist’s technique I confess! Mine serves my purposes though… I’m playing a series of one shots atm, so there’s a limit to how much freedom I can give my players, as one shots tend to me quite linear (although naturally I try to build in as much player choice as possible).

      • Rick Coen

        That’s a good point, Duncan – perspective matters. I do try to have a “living world”; in this case, those Frontier Guard were there for the “level 7 encounter” because of actions taken by the PCs back at level 2 and 3. In fact, for Story reasons, the detachment was originally 100 Baronial Guard, 3HD heavy infantry; the detachment changed over time as the barony’s needs outweighed the party’s concerns – especially (and ironically!) because the PCs’ later actions made it so nothing tried the Guard’s defenses, so what were they really accomplishing out there?

        To give an alternate example: In another campaign, way back in 2e, the PCs did a favor for the local city lord. In exchange, he lent them twenty crossbowmen. The PCs then staged an ambush for some stone giants (huh… a pattern?) where they lured the giants into a kill box where the crossbowmen could slaughter them. (Like Faramir turning a corner in Osgilliath in the LotR movies, dropping, and a dozen archers feathering the orcs that were chasing him.) In that circumstance, though, I think about half the crossbowmen died, and the city lord refused to help the PCs again!

        With your perspective on a one-shot situation, or tight boundaries though… I might still err on the side of “they got the allies, let ’em have them”. But – no different than acquiring a magic item, laying a trap, or gaining a level – they need to earn the allies.

  5. Keith

    I have used all of the above before. Once #3 got so involved it was like Cold War Detente that some hot head then ignited. The PC’s would get some allies and the baddies would get some allies…and again,,,,and again. It ended up being a WAR with thousands of casualties and the whole region was devastated. Then the PC’s had to help keep the region civilised and of course after a war here came the goblins and orcs and such(that didn’t join the fight). Made for a campaign that went so far off the rails that it was nowhere close to what I had planned, but it was fun. Think Risk with a D&D motif.
    And once I had players recruit some NPC’s from the local lord who demanded 75% of the loot or a certain amount of gold to fund the troops and the baddies were literally some low level bandits that rumors had spread all out of proportion. The PC’s ended up broke paying for the troops AND owing the lord a favor.

    • duncan

      Haha I really love that last example. I think my replies to PK and Rick probably apply here as well!

  6. Jose

    I like another couple of options as well.

    -#3 a: The PCs get some NPCs to help them, but not many, due to all of the possible reasons that you give on #1. I tend to like to give them assistance with a Cleric or Druid that can be more healing spells to help the group. Having an extra helper in the gang tends not to overwhelm any combat.

    -#3b: The PCs seem not to get any NPC to help, but they can get there last minute to get them out of trouble (on the 5th morning look to the East kind of thing). Timing here is of the essence. If you get a TPK and the help shows later to revive the characters is way more difficult to buy by them.

    -#3c: The PCs get the cavalry to help them, and the combat gets simplified (one knight helping neutralizes 2 goblins, or one orc, or similar). You concentrate on the fight against the boss and maybe one or two minions, while hell breaks loose around them. If done well, it can feel epic. Every few turns you can throw in the odd minion for good measure, as a straggler, and it doesn’t need to be at full health either. Depending of how many turns they took, there are less surviving NPCs to help out.

  7. Mighty Biscuit

    What I do is take the NPC allies my players recruit and use them in the background during a fight. That paladin they picked up is in the doorway behind the players, holding off re-reinforcements. The mage is trying to dispel the magic McGuffin the players are there to stop while the players fight off the BBEG. The ranger isn’t there because he’s drawing away a ton of the enemies. Everyone has a part to play, it just so happens the players are the ones who are fighting the main encounter.

    Just, in general, I keep a thing for them to do that doesn’t affect the main fight too much. At the top of the round, I roll a hidden d20 and make up what’s going on based on that. I feel its a pretty elegant solution to the NPC problem.

    • duncan

      Definitely a good trick to have up your DM’s sleeve! That would also enable you to adjust the difficulty of the fight, should you wish to. The paladin successfully holds the door if the players are struggling already with their own work, but fails to hold the door, if they are doing too well.

  8. Spetzel

    In my campaigns the players quickly realize that the “help” is so weak that they are a hindrance (as you say, failing Stealth checks, or dying quickly).

    You don’t directly address the question of sidekicks or DMPCs, but there are a few wrinkles on this. In my last campaign, the generally good Fighter just got tired of trying to keep their Sidekick alive. The reverse, when you have a higher-level DMPC, is that at least one character will feel powerless or superfluous. I dealt with that by having the DMPC be a complete coward, but it still wasn’t great. Lesson learned: later on the DMPC was much lower level than them, and was just there for flavor and lore – worked much better.

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