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Thursday, January 29, 2015

NPC Phenomenal Features

There’s a discussion on G+ about making city NPCs interesting. The specific question was how to make them mechanically interesting, which was later qualified as “interesting in combat”, which I’d argue is the wrong approach for city adventures. In oldschool play, combat in general, but especially combat with the local personalities and schemers, tends to be anticlimactic. You don’t want to fight… or you do, but you want to get it over with as soon as possible, so that you get to the good stuff.
If you want to make a city combat interesting, usually it’s with equipment or allies/pets. This guy attacks people with flaming oil bombs from the rooftops. This other guy’s armor has little tiny vials of sleep gas tied all over it. The head of the merchant’s guild has a bodyguard that’s really a charmed troll wearing a ring of illusion. The high priest keeps a pack of hellhounds as pets. Occasionally, there will be environmental hazards as well. NPCs who want to attack the party will triy to lure them into trapped areas, rather than just fight them in the open.
None of this requires feats or skills, but if you really, really need some NPCs to have innate powers, here’s a quick trick I’ve suggested before: use the spell list as a guide. Not only do spells work as out-and-out powers, but they can be toned down to represent extraordinary but still basically mundane abilities as well.
Here is an expanded version of what I described in a comment on G+. For each NPC, roll 2d6 and use this modified reaction roll table. Optionally, if the result is 9+ and both dice come up even, roll for a second feature. NPCs probably shouldn’t have more than two features, however.
2d6 Roll NPC Feature
2 Curse (Affects NPC)
3-5 Obsession
6-8 No Special Feature
9-11 Extraordinary Ability
12 At-Will Power
The At-Will Power result is pretty straightforward: the NPC can use one spell at will, but make a 2d6 reaction roll when used: on 5 or less, the power fails and is unusable for that many days (but on a 2, it’s lost completely.)
A Curse inconveniences the NPC in some way, instead of being useful. Beneficial spells are either reversed or affect the NPC’s attackers/enemies. Spells like Sleep, Confusion or Fear may be permanent or intermittent (5+ on 1d6 means permanent, otherwise roll during any encounter.) Attack spells attack the NPC (or the NPC’s property, for area attacks like Fireball) at random intervals. All of these are things an NPC might be looking for help to get rid of…
An Obsession means the NPC doesn’t have the power, but wants it, or is afraid of it being used against them.
An Extraordinary Ability is the closest non-magical ability equivalent to the spell. You can often turn spells into Extraordinary Abilities by simply making it take longer to use, require tools, and require materials. An NPC with Knock is a super-thief. An NPC with Contact Other Plane is an amazing sage. An NPC with Dimension Door can squeeze through ridiculously small openings and is probably an amazing burglar or escape artist. An NPC with Move Earth is perhaps the only person experimenting with explosives.
Use your preferred method to randomly select a spell, then consider the details: does the NPC keep the feature secret, is it vaguely rumored, or is it well known? How does the NPC use the talent? Is it for sale? What does the NPC want to do about any curse or obsession?
And more importantly: How do other NPCs react?
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