The GM’s Pet NPCs
The longer a campaign set in my homebrew Pathfinder setting of Blackwood goes on, the greater a chance there is that my pet NPC Garyl Shadowslayer shows up. That finally happened over the weekend in an adventure that ranks as one of the most enjoyable sessions I’ve ever run. Despite the fact that it ultimately went well, I was fairly nervous going into it because I was faced with the big question of how to introduce a GM favorite NPC without making him annoying.
I guess the obvious answer is to just not include pet NPCs. However, I game for my entertainment, too, and this particular NPC is as intrinsically tied to my setting as Elminster is to the Forgotten Realms. This session went well, as did the previous time I introduced Garyl as a major NPC in the campaign. By comparison, each and every time I used Elminster in a Forgotten Realms game was met with annoyance and complaints from the players. So what made this time so much more effective than all the times I’ve tried to use Elminster?
Although this was the first time that these PCs have met Garyl, the players are quite familiar with him. When they finally figured out who they were dealing with, I was very relieved to find that they were excited to have him re-introduced to the setting. If the players didn’t like him, I would have had to write him out of the adventure or kill him off as soon as possible.
Comparing this situation to Elminster, it’s pretty obvious where I failed in the past. Elminster is a character that players either love or hate, and the overwhelming majority of players I’ve gamed with hate him. It doesn’t help that he’s written poorly in most Forgotten Realms material. Check out the Avatar Trilogy and you’ll get an idea of how he typically reads. The guy is a smug know-it-all who very rarely does anything but show up the PCs. His style worked fine for his introduction back in Ed Greenwood’s Dragon Magazine articles, where he was mocking Greenwood’s narrator, but it’s not so much fun when it’s the PCs who are constantly being belittled and mocked.
Better writing from TSR and Wizards of the Coast could have turned Elminster into a more beloved character. But as it is, every time I used him the players wanted to punch him out, even if the characters weren’t supposed to know anything about him.
Use of Power
When I first started introducing Garyl as an NPC, I used him pretty poorly. He was either a deus ex machine there to push the plot around or a guy who would just randomly pop up and save the PCs. In the last few games, I’ve delayed his introduction into the campaign until the PCs started approaching him in level. While he’s still got some levels on them, he’s not nearly as omnipotent and can serve as a helper character rather than a savior.
Using Elminster as my comparison once again, I think the 4th edition Forgotten Realms made a good choice when they stripped away some of the old mage’s powers. Elminster’s primary role in the setting is essentially that of a loremaster – he doesn’t have to be 30th or 40th level to do that. Retooling the old sage to be a clever, eccentric mage who can provide hundreds of years of lore but who isn’t extremely powerful himself wouldn’t hurt the character. As the Realms moves back to its pre-4th edition state, it will be interesting to see whether Elminster remains powerful but not unstoppable or if he goes back to being a walking god.
The biggest pitfall for me when using powerful NPCs of any sort is that they are often capable of resolving the plots they’re involved in right away. This means they become superfluous to the plot, either ignoring it for a vaguely defined reason or resolving challenges in a non-dramatic way. Again I go back to the Avatar Trilogy for Elminster, where there was never a feeling that the old mage couldn’t have resolved matters himself instead of ordering around the PCs.
I’ve run some bad campaigns with Garyl where he was similarly detached from the plot, and they didn’t go well. Things got much better when I started incorporating him into the story and taking an active role in matters while still remaining separate from the PCs. Since my current campaign is dealing with the return of an evil demigod, it’s very easy for me to have Garyl active in the plot without making the PCs unnecessary. While they’re rallying troops and talking to royalty, he’s going off the set things up on the front lines of the potential war. This makes it really easy for me to make it seem like he’s doing something.
If an NPC is going to be involved in a story, he should probably be an active part of the plot. If his being a part of the plot is problematic or if he wouldn’t be interested in the goings-on of a campaign, it’s a lot easier just not to involve him in the first place.
Any story needs a risk of failure to it, so a helper NPC needs to be able to fail just like the PCs can. An ally should be vulnerable from time to time, and a villain should be formidable but ultimately able to be vanquished. In the game I’m still thrilled about, Garyl was a prisoner who needed the PCs’ help in escaping. He was able to help them out as a reward for being freed, and that in turn forwarded the plot.
Using Elminster as portrayed in the Avatar Trilogy as my counter-example once again, I think those modules would have been infinitely better if the writers had stopped giving him immunity from the magical chaos that affected PC spellcasters. Then he would have been able to show off his immense power from time to time while still needing the help of the PCs. Even the most powerful characters need to be shown as vulnerable from time to time. Otherwise, they have no reason not to be solving all the PCs’ problems for them.
I’ve been using Elminster as my published example of a pet NPC, but only because that’s the guy I’ve had the biggest experience of failing with. You can substitute pretty much any “special” character from other settings in Elminster’s place, be it Mordenkainen, Ameiko Kaijitsu, or even the Lady of Pain.
If you run a homebrew, you’ve probably got some favorite characters you want to involve. If you run a published setting, the creators gave some special attention to certain NPCs. The GM or creator having a personal favorite won’t hurt the game as long as that character is used carefully. Worked in appropriately, a pet NPC is still just an NPC.