The PCs are going to be powerful and influential people in your setting. But they don’t start out that way. For a while at least, there will be people stronger than them. And even when they rise to the heights of power, there may still be others in the world who have done the same.
When running a campaign, I find it helpful to think about the relative power level of NPCs in the world. In terms of D&D, we’re talking levels. How many people in your world have any character levels? How many have more than one level in anything? How many are high level, or max level? Who are these leveled characters, and where are they? The assumption is that leveled characters are relatively rare. But they do exist. We see leveled NPCs established in WoTC canon, like Drizzt or Elminster.
Assuming that the PCs aren’t the only leveled characters around, you have a few questions to ask yourself. First and foremost, why does the world need the PCs? If there are equally capable heroes in the land, or even stronger ones, why is nobody else doing what the PCs do and saving the day? Further, what happens when your PCs meet one of these powerful NPCs? How do you handle that power dynamic. And what happens when they run afoul of them, like what happened in our opening snippet?
On that note, let’s talk about overuse. I’ve seen a not insignificant number of GMs do things like I described in our opening. The players do something the GM doesn’t like, and the GM drops the punishment hammer on them by rolling out a broken NPC to teach them a lesson. I’ve got a lot of horror stories about this. So don’t be that GM. Punishing player actions with arbitrarily inserted NPCs isn’t fun for your players, even if they’re doing something you don’t agree with. Continuing on with overuse, not every guard captain is a high level fighter. And not every enemy wizard is going to be high enough level to hurl a fireball at the party. Use these sparingly. It’s fine to present a challenge to the PCs, by using powerful NPCs, but if you overuse them, the questions presented earlier begin to force themselves forward more prominently. If there are so many high leveled guard captains, why would we ever need to hire adventurers? And if there are so many powerful evil mages running around, how have they not taken over the realm yet?
But the other option is to have to few of them. And honestly, this is my sin here. If you don’t include any powerful NPCs in your game, the PCs will level and become demigods in your setting as nobody can oppose them.
I find the a good approach is to set a ratio. Maybe 1 in 20 people have class levels. This makes the PCs a rarity, but not supernaturally extraordinary. The PCs could walk into a village and reasonably find a character or two who has at least one level in some class, living among the other NPCs who have standard statblocks. And maybe you extrapolate to determine how many people of higher levels there are. Perhaps an even better method is to sprinkle these NPCs in you world intentionally. As you worldbuild (or research your pre-written world) consider who is where. Who are the local heroes? Who is important to your setting, or noteworthy for other reasons. And maybe have a few who hide under the radar and don’t advertise their power for whatever reason. But make this decision ahead of time. Reserve it for important people who would logically have spent some time doing actions comparable to what the PCs do. That way the world feels real. Characters who can stand up to the PCs should only be able to do so with good reason, and even PCs should know that they are not alone in the world as being exceptionally gifted and powerful.
How many leveled NPCs exist in your world’s largest town?
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