Adventure Builder Workshop: Allies & NPCs

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on September 21, 2010

Your villain has henchman, so it’s only right that you provide some suitable allies for your players. Allies are the useful folk who populate your campaign world, providing motivation, plot hooks and reasons for the PCs to undertake the adventure. Without allies your players would be set adrift in a world full of enemies, constantly looking over their shoulders.

This is the sixth instalment of the Adventure Builder Workshop, based on the seminar presented by Wizards of the Coast at GenCon this year. The other entries in the series are listed below:

Allies serve an integral function in any D&D game. While encounters serve to drive the plot forward, allies often start the story. Many novels and movies feature segments where the hero’s must venture out to find an old ally and ask for their help or advice. This is the same function the PC’s allies perform, they are information sources. What they are not is all knowing. No single ally should have all the information that the PCs require. One interesting example that came out of the seminar was of an ally who always provided correct information. This ally was simply in the know and her information was never incorrect. However, she didn’t know everything and rather than provide false information she simply said, sorry I can’t help you with that.

Similar to villains and henchman, allies affect the story. They are a source of dramatic interaction often involving role playing and skill challenges. The same care you give to creating your henchman should also be applied to the allies in your campaign. It is important for you to know how they impact the story. Is the ally only a source of information, do they provide the quests or do they supply the PCs with special equipment?

Allies should assist the PCs in visible and tangible ways. In other words don’t make your allies passive, have them be engaged in the world. Just as villains and henchman have plans, so do allies. One thing to be mindful of when creating your allies is to not have them overshadow the PCs in terms of ability and coolness. This doesn’t mean your allies shouldn’t be powerful individuals, but that power should be tempered to make the PCs shine. The story is about the PCs, not the allies. This is an important fact to keep in mind. As DMs we like to create, and making powerful allies and NPCs for our world is one of the ways we can express this creativity. If your players are asking why the ally doesn’t just take out the Dread Dragon Lord himself you know you’ve made the ally appear to powerful. No matter the apparent power level of the ally, the appropriate story driven motivation for the players still needs to exist.

Remember that it isn’t always the ally themselves that are powerful. Often it’s the organization they represent or are a part of that is powerful. This is especially true of monarchs, religious leaders and guild leaders. While the single individual is powerful, it is due to the organization behind them. Most kings aren’t the best warriors; instead they are focused on being the best king. Ensure you give your allies distinguishable and memorable traits, just like you did with your villain. This will help the ally stand out to the players and it will distinguish allies from one another.

Not all NPCs who provide advice are allies. It is ok to use neutral parties as a source of information. This will reinforce to the players that what their characters do is important and that other factions and power groups are paying attention to their actions. It will also raise the question of the motivation of the supposedly neutral faction.

What experience do you have in designing allies to use in your campaign? Do you prefer Wizards who start quests in taverns or are your approach a bit more mundane?

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