Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to deal with Elminster and other powerful "Good Guy" NPCs

Many settings have powerful NPCs that are more or less supposed to be "on the same side" as the player characters, or at least not outright Bad Guys that are supposed to be defeated. The Forgotten Realms is especially well-known for this - Elminster, Khelben Arunson, the Simbul and many others - but they are hardly the only ones. Aberrant has Divis Mal and Caestus Pax, Trinity has the Proxies, and the old World of Darkness also had its share of extremely powerful NPCs.

Many players - and quite a few GMs - worry that these NPCs will constantly overshadow the PCs and "steal their thunder", solving every problem for them and showing the player characters how useless they are.

But that doesn't need to be the case. Properly handled, these NPCs will not harm the campaign and instead be a useful asset to the game.

I've formed these opinions after (a) reading David Rothkopf's book Superclass, which describes the livestyles of the 5,000 most powerful and influential people on the planet and (b) the past three years of my work life - I am now working as a project manager, and this certainly has given me quite a lot of insight into power hierarchies.

First of all, you need to realize that the more powerful and influential people are, the more busy they tend to be - and the most powerful people are incredibly busy. The scarce free time is highly cherished, and they go to extreme measures to make sure they aren't bothered about inconsequential stuff. This means that they will have flunkies - also called "gatekeepers" - who do little else than make sure they aren't bothered for trivial reasons. This is even canon with Elminster, whose scribe Lhaeo takes perverse delight into making visitors fill out obscure forms in triplicate!

In other words, for low-level or inexperienced parties, such powerful people should be figures that are almost never seen, only occasionally glimpsed from afar. Even a short appearance should add importance to a scene, but they will soon be gone again and leave the PCs to their own affairs - in other words, the PCs remain the protagonists of their own story.

Of course, sometimes the PCs do stumble across extremely dangerous threats where it is entirely reasonable to notify the most powerful people they can find, and where it is entirely reasonable that said people would take an immediate interest in intervening.

In that case, let them meet with the powerful NPC. And let the NPC take them seriously.

"All right, you have convinced me. I will look into this and take care of it."

But... look at this from the POV of the NPC:

"Okay, these are obviously resourceful people, to have stumbled across this problem and survived to tell me about it. I have... uses for resourceful people like that."

So after that, the NPC tells them:

"By the way, there is a small problem I can't spare the time for right now. Would you mind looking into it?"

This is not presented as a trade - the NPC will help with the first problem no matter what. There is no obligation on the part of the playercharacters. Rather, this is a test of character - and the possible start of a mutually beneficial relationship.

If the PCs say "No", then it's that - the NPC will deal with the immediate problem (though inevitably there will be a few loose ends), but he won't show them any special favors later on. If they do say "Yes", and resolve the second problem to the NPCs satisfaction, then they have just joined his informal "network". He won't be constantly there to hold their hands, but he will pass useful information to them from time to time (especially when that information is about a mutual foe) and introduce them to all sorts of useful people. Of course, he will also continue to ask the PCs for all sorts of "minor favors" - dealing with problems which he doesn't have the time for. If the PCs attempt to get too much out of their relationship, he will become more distant again - only helping out with a genuine emergency.

What the PCs gain out of this is primarily a wealth of information - and if the PCs have a problem that is outside of their own expertise, the powerful NPCs might be willing to hand it to some of their other flunkies. The PCs should always feel that they are getting a lot out of this exchange of favors - and the GM can use this to hand out the next adventure seed.

Of course, if the PCs ask for more material assistance, then that's also an option.

"Okay, let me think - there is this magic sword that I don't have any personal use for, but I think you might find it useful.

Oh, and if you find any really oddball magical stuff, be sure to show it to me, hmmm?"

Again the PCs are given a favor in advance, with hints that the NPC would like to see some favors in return in the future. If they refuse to participate, future favors will start drying up, but if they do return the favor, the trades will likely work out beneficially for both of them.

If it's money they are after:

"Hmmm... what do you need all that money for?"

If they hint that the costs of living in the area are too expensive:

"Oh, that's no problem. I have a friend in the town who would probably allow to live in one of her building practically for free if I asked her! In fact, she would be happy to do so if you helped her with a little problem..."

And now the GM has another adventure to throw at the PCs - and if they go along, they will get something useful at a vastly cheaper price than otherwise.

A party member needs to be raised? Again, another contact of the NPC - a priest this time - will come to the rescue and do it for free, but he, too, will expect a favor.

Do they want a noble title? A "unfortunate misunderstanding with the authorities" cleared up? That, too, the NPC can arrange - by simply dropping the right word with the right people that the PCs are just the right adventurers for some highly specific jobs.

The PCs get what they want - not for free, but considerably easier than if they didn't remain in the good graces with the powerful NPC. The NPC gets what he wants - all sorts of little problems solved that he doesn't have to deal with any more, and thus can focus on other things. And all the contacts of the NPC also get useful contacts in the form of the player characters...

Eventually, as the PCs become stronger, the relationship becomes less one of patronage than one between peers. Then the PCs might meet not only with their former patron, but invited to meetings with other powerful people. By this time, the PCs probably have developed expertise with a particular "problem", and these powerful NPCs will only be too happy to hand any pertinent information about this problem to the PCs so that they don't have to deal with it - "It's a drow problem, let's hand it to these guys". The PCs, in the meantime, can try to foist dangling problems that they can't deal with themselves over to them. But ultimately, they have some of the most powerful people in the setting as peers and allies - and be counted as peers and allies by the great and powerful in return.