How to Play an NPC Party Member without Ruining the Game

NPC (Non-player Character) Party members serve two big roles: assisting the player characters and providing a link to the world of the campaign. They must accomplish both of these things without ever taking glory away from the players. The story is about the player characters’ conflicts and these long time NPCs serve as part audience and part participant in those conflicts. NPC Party members can be butlers, pets, long time allies, hired companions, or any other number of options. They will often have a distinct identity as defined by the player characters. If the party hires a thief to cause a distraction, then the thief becomes well-liked and is invited on further adventures, the party will likely expect the thief to serve a similar purpose each time. 

NPC Party members should accompany the party at the behest of the player’s goodwill. These characters should not stick around if players are annoyed with them or if they are stepping on another character’s role. If the NPC Party member is the thief from the previous example and is actively competing with the party’s rogue in sneaking and stealing, it may not be a good long term fit. 

NPC Party members also serve as a general indicator of what the game world as a whole thinks of the player characters. The NPC’s attitudes, behaviors, and fears all have some bearing on the society they come from and help inform the setting. 

How do we build an NPC Character? With Tasha’s Sidekicks!

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything provides us guidance on how to mechanically make characters with the Sidekick System which allows Dungeon Masters to upgrade naturally weak NPC Party members. In TCE, Sidekicks can be anything so long as they are a ½ Challenge Rating. This system does not apply to creatures who independently have a large suite of abilities. TCE also recommends that the sidekick start out at the average level of the party and level up at the same time. Their hit dice are not dependent upon their Sidekick class, but instead whatever they start with and they level up their health like a player rolling and adding their Constitution modifier. They gain ability score increases and proficiency bonuses mostly the same as players, dependent upon their class.

The three class-options available are Spellcaster (which takes after Wizard, Cleric, Druid, Bard, or Warlock), Expert (which takes after the Mastermind Rogue), and the Warrior (which takes after the Champion Fighter). Each one of their ability sets is designed to provide a gentle incline in terms of power, while always making sure the players are flashier and more powerful in almost every way. 

The Experts

The Expert mostly takes after the Mastermind Rogue but replaces the sneak attack damage factor with traces of Bard so that it can more effectively support the party. They do gain additional proficiencies at 1st level. 

  • One saving throw (Intelligence, Charisma, or Dexterity)
  • Any five skills 
  • Light Armor. If they are a humanoid or have a simple or martial weapon in their base stat block, they gain proficiency with all simple weapons and two tool proficiencies

Key Features

  • 1st level- Helpful: can use the Help action as a bonus action
  • 2nd level- Cunning Action: can Dash, Disengage, or Hide as a bonus action
  • 3rd level- Expertise: double proficient at two skills, adds 2 more at 15th level
  • 6th- Coordinated Strike: can use the Help action on a target of an attack at 30 ft. After using the Help action this way, the Expert can deal an extra 2d6 weapon damage to the target on a hit before the end of its next turn. 
  • 7th- Evasion: When making a Dexterity Saving throw against damage, it takes half damage on a failure and no damage on a success 
  • 11th- Inspiring Help: when a creature uses the Help that the Expert provided to hit a creature, it can add a d6 to the attack roll or to the damage roll. At 20th level, this help is 2d6. 
  • 14th- Reliable Talent: when the Expert makes an ability check that uses its entire proficiency bonus, it can treat a roll of 9 or lower as a 10
  • 18th- Sharp Mind: gains proficiency in another saving throw (Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma)

Despite being made in the mold of a Rogue, the Expert seeks to provide an edge to players in combat. Having advantage on an attack roll is everything, especially for a player with bad luck. The general approach of a Rogue is to attack from the shadows, then hide or escape depending on the circumstances. The Expert has a similar approach but gets in close to help an ally and then bails out before they can get hit. At 6th level, they can do this without getting in close and even add damage on top of that. After that, they only gain more defensive abilities and the ability to always roll well on their skill checks. 

The role of the Expert is something like a spotter or the guy who makes himself a bench so a friend can push an enemy off their feet. They have the capacity to use skills the party does not have and can always help provide advantage for a player trying to succeed on a check. Experts make the party’s life easier by leaps and bounds by simply providing another dice roll each time they try something. 

The Spellcasters

The Spellcaster is the lighter on features, but highest on customization thanks to their spell options. They do gain additional proficiencies at 1st level. 

  • One saving throw (Intelligence, Charisma, or Wisdom)
  • Two skills (Arcana, History, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, Performance, Persuasion, or Religion)
  • Light Armor and/if they are a humanoid or have a simple or martial weapon in their base stat block, they gain proficiency with all simple weapons

They choose one spell list to pull from based on their highest spell casting statistic. For example, if they are highest in Wisdom, they are a healer. They also have a corresponding role with 1st level spells. 

  • Intelligence: Mage (Wizard); Mage Hand, Ray of Frost, Thunderwave
  • Wisdom: Healer (Cleric or Druid); Cure Wounds, Guidance, Sacred Flame
  • Charisma: Prodigy (Bard or Warlock); Eldritch Blast, Healing Word, Light 

Key Features

  • 6th level- Potent Cantrips: ability modified added to damage rolls for cantrips
  • 14th- Empowered Spells: ability modified added to damage rolls for leveled spells 
  • 20th- Focused Casting: damage cannot break the NPC’s concentration on a spell

While they gain spells from the lists of full casters, they only gain spell slots at the speed of a half-caster (Ranger, Paladin, Artificer) meaning they cannot cast a 3rd level spell until 9th player level vs a player Wizard that can cast a 3rd level spell at 5th player level. They know far fewer spells on average, with 3 cantrips and 4 leveled spells at 5th level and 4 cantrips and 11 leveled spells at 20th level. Whichever spell list they choose from does not change their spell progression. There is one chart for all Spellcaster Sidekicks. 

All of that being explained, the Spellcaster suggests a number of healing and damage spells. Their constrained rate of spell growth means that they will never be ahead of a full Wizard in blasting capability, but the spell lists they can choose from mean they will likely do a little more damage than a half-caster with a spell. Each spell list has Area of Effect choices so they are ideal for softening up groups of smaller enemies. This puts them in a position where they will likely weaken smaller enemies so the crushing force of a Paladin or Fighter or Barbarian can enjoy taking out two minions in a turn. 

The Warriors

The Warrior is the sturdiest of the Sidekicks and also is the closest to a normal NPC. They do gain additional proficiencies at 1st level. 

  • One saving throw (Strength, Dexterity, Constitutions)
  • Two skills (Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, and Survival)
  • All Armors. It gains proficiency in all weapons and shields if it has a simple or martial weapon in its stat block or is a humanoid. 

Key Features

  • 1st level- Martial Role: choose one
    • Attacker: +2 damage to all attack rolls
    • Defender: the Sidekick can use its reaction to impose disadvantage on an attack roll targeting a creature who is not the Sidekick coming from a creature it can see within 5 ft. 
  • 2nd level- Second Wind: can use a bonus action to regain 1d10+ Sidekick level health every short rest. Can be done twice per short rest at 20th level. 
  • 3rd level- Improved Critical: score a critical hit on a 19 or 20 on a d20 roll
  • 6th- Extra Attack: when the Sidekick takes the attack action it can attack twice. This increases to 3 times at 15th level. If the Sidekick has the Multiattack action, it can choose between the Attack Action with extra attack or the Multiattack action, but cannot use both on the same turn. 
  • 7th- Battle Readiness: Advantage on Initiative rolls
  • 10th- Improved Defense: +1 to AC
  • 11th- Intomidtable: when the sidekick fails a saving throw, it can reroll it and must use the new result. This ability works once per long rest until 18th level, where it works twice per long rest. 

Warrior Sidekicks hit and get hit. They can recover quickly and have an additional critical chance. The Warrior has two major approaches. Firstly, they wear the heaviest armor they can handle, use a sword and shield, and get in close to distract the enemy. Secondly, they can function as a support sniper adding additional damage where the party tells them to. If the sidekick is an animal companion, they may have a feature, like Pack Tactics, that changes their approach such as always walking up with an ally every time to help them fight. 

Players have the opportunity from the first level to influence how they develop and help them grow in their Sidekick class to fill the role the party has in mind for them. The Warrior lends itself well to roleplay as the players will be able to see the Sidekick grow much faster than it will as a spellcaster and in more visual ways than the Expert. 

NPC Party Member Philosophy: Never do things the party should do for themselves

The story of many campaigns generally calls upon the players to do something no one else can. That task is too dangerous, too logistically complex, too taboo for anyone else. How the players succeed or sometimes fail is the story itself. What players do and how they act is the drama. Their choices must matter. 

NPC Party members, as part of the story world, should not change things in a way intended for the players. The easiest example is that an NPC Party Member should never get the final hit to kill a boss monster. It’s deflating for all the players that threw their all at a creature trying to get it to break only for the tag-along to kill-steal and have the claim to fame. It’s not to say their choices up to that moment did not matter, but they will feel like they didn’t and the catharsis isn’t the same. 

The same is true of puzzles and story moments. An NPC Party member should, at the most, provide a hint. For big battles, challenging moral dilemmas, and choices made at the climax of a story, the NPC Party member can have an opinion but it can’t be by default 100% correct because it knows the mind of the DM. The emotional response from players isn’t the same. Even if it is what the NPC would do or it is within their skill set, it takes a choice away from the players. Feeling like choice and strategy matter in the game is critical to an expansive, realistic feeling.  

The exception to this philosophy is if the players are actively changing and molding the NPC. If the NPC is given a task by the players, the NPC should do their best and the dice decide how the attempt goes. The NPC party member can join the players in battle and can have a self-preservation instinct. It can defeat minion enemies, light torches, open gates, express concern about a seemingly suicidal plan, bicker with the Rogue that keeps stealing from them, or even leave if it suits them. The NPC can make choices that matter, but not in the way player choices do.

The players should not use the NPC so much they are complacent, but training and trusting an NPC should matter. If the party casts Haste on the NPC then provides him the best armor and weapons to kill a Goblin, the NPC should kill that Goblin.

The difference between an NPC Party Member and a Dungeon Master Player Character (DMPC)

A DMPC is another player character who follows all the same rules of character building and progression including leveling up that happens to be run by the Dungeon Master of the game. They also likely stick around for the entire campaign. They will generally expect their fair share of the loot and attention devoted to them in the main story. 

An NPC Party Member is a Non-Player Character that may join for a portion of the party’s campaign using a very basic, weak stat block that may or may not grow as time goes on (see the previous heading). It is not unheard of for them to stick around for a long time, but they have the flexibility to leave and return as the story needs without anyone feeling sidelined. It is up to the DM to decide whether or not they care about any of the loot, but usually not. 

At Halfling Hobbies, we broadly don’t think DMs should have a player character because the role of player and DM don’t mix. The DM is the one setting a challenge before the party while the party works to overcome it. Overcoming a challenge or task that you set before yourself is reasonable and even good in real life. Within the context of the game, however, the players want to be the ones slaying the dragon not watching the same guy who plays the dragon slay the dragon.  

NPC Party members should always be waiting in the wings to set up a player character for success. That’s their purpose. Be it combat support, more lore about the world, casting Heroism on the Barbarian, or being their carriage driver so they can sleep during a trip, the NPC Party member serves to further the player characters. 

Player characters exist to make the player feel awesome while NPC party members are there to provide context, support, and value to the players. 

NPC Party Members as tour guides for the setting

The NPC Party member will know customs and laws that the player characters may not initially, not as meta-gaming, but by being a product of those societies. The NPC Party Member lives in the mind of the DM and is a manifestation of the world the DM has dreamed up; it is natural that they might have more native information. These kinds of characters may know that a certain city is 100% ok with duels that end with both combatants being murdered and a different city may have a law that all parties in a duel must be arrested for 24-hours without due process. They should provide that information to the player characters in a natural way so that the players can make informed decisions in the game. 

However, they are still bound by the conventions of their character. Their perspective is only one of the trillion or so available in any world. They are privy to a lot of information, but their experiences bind them just as much as it enlightens them. When designing the NPC Party member, consider what misconceptions they might have of the world. Why do they have that? Who taught them that? It shouldn’t be a “gotcha” moment for the party but naturally stemming from superstition, bad experiences, and misinformation.

In closing…

NPC Party Members should add to the player’s experience not detract from it. If that’s the only thing you walk away from this article, we are happy for you! 

DMs should check in with players about the NPC Party Member. “What did you think when he did X?” is always a good one to get their true thoughts about the character out there. How the players feel about an NPC does not necessarily reflect how they feel about you. They are responding to a character you are creating and you should feel good when they pick up the emotion you put out. That’s why it’s important to make sure what you are doing is having the effect you are aiming for. If an NPC’s roguish attitude is coming off as dangerous or annoying, then you may have to rework them. 

As always, work with your table for the best results and learn from how your players respond. We hope you remember our advice and that it helps you on your path to Dungeon Mastery!

Until next time,

May your game, have advantage my friends!

-Halfling Hannah

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