Since I have an earlier post about some viable necromancer builds in D&D 5e, as well as a post on questionable uses of magic, I thought I'd hone in on a smaller topic that our hosts talked about today. Today there was a brief discussion of letting NPCs do things that players can't, where thematically appropriate. So let's talk about that.
Our hosts took the stance that it is permissible for NPCs to be able to do things PC's can't. It can easily be handwaved away as "preparation time" or "magic." personally, I'm not a fan of this by itself. We need to have more to this. My gripe comes from a sense of fairness. PCs are the star of your show. In most settings, the average person doesn't have class levels, let alone power beyond that of the PCs. And for good reason. NPCs, even antagonists shouldn't be upstaging the party without a good reason. And when they have the ability to do something a PC just can't, that's a problem.
So let's approach this using tonight's example of a necromancer with ogre zombies. We'll move through it and fix it to make it something more agreeable to a player's sense of fairness, and introduce some interesting plot points to work off of.
First up, preparation time. Yes, this is necessary. But we should allow for this time. If the PCs have been relentlessly pursuing this antagonist, he likely wouldn't have time for such a thing. Likewise, if the necromancer has been terrorizing the village for a week, he probably wouldn't have time to develop this. In short, make this believable. To do something the rules say isn't possible, there should be a good deal of effort involved (not that it shouldn't be possible.)
Next, provide a process. We need an internally consistent system of logic here, otherwise it feels like the power is just being handwaved in because of "plot," which is lazy and generally just poor storytelling. Maybe have the necromancers ritual texts lying around. Perhaps with the powers of some ancient and obscure tome, he found the secret process needed to do this insanely weird thing. The existence of an explanation provides a proof that it isn't just being pulled out of thin air for convenience.
Lastly, make this power accessible to the PCs. As mentioned previously, they're the star of the show, so anything that anybody else can do (within reason) should be attainable for them if they're willing to put in the effort. Maybe one of the PCs grabs that ritual text the necromancer used. It might take a long time of deciphering the text written in a long dead language, and an even longer time finding the right components for the ritual, and so on. But it should be possible. It's okay to place barriers of entry on the power. Even enough that it might discourage the PCs from pursuing it. But the path should be there. It shows that this NPC did choose to pursue that path, even if the PCs themselves won't. Again, it shows that this thing they initially thought impossible is in fact possible in the campaign you are running. And making it accessible, even in extreme circumstances, makes the PCs feel a lot less powerless. Because there are few things that suck more than the sheer disappointment one might feel to when they want to do something and are told "no" despite any good reason and evidence to the contrary.
Assuming those conditions are met, go nuts with throwing around plot-driven powers. And You honestly don't even need all three of these all the time. It might be appropriate to pull the path to entry from the players. maybe the person has some esoteric knowledge that the PCs won't be privy to. Or maybe the NPC found some way to streamline the process and circumvent the prep time. This might be narratively interesting. Just don't overdo it. Each instance of that is something of a small breach of trust with the players. Every instance of that is saying "I'm changing the rules on the spot right now." Which might suit your needs in the moment, and that can be weighed against the long-term impact. After all, you are the Gm, and it's your game to run. But take the players perceptions into account. Having a set up and an explanation will satisfy the curiosity of those players who explore and investigate. And allowing access to the power can drive more achievement-oriented players to do great things. Maybe using the power can even result in some interesting things down the road. As always, my words here constitute advice, not law. Do with the what you will, and I wish you the best in your games.
I hope you enjoyed this and the rest of the content by Digital & Dice. For more from me, feel free to check out my personal blog. Until next time…Game on Internets!
- Draconick, Digital and Dice Contributor
I, Nick “Draconick” Johnson, am a writer and roleplaying enthusiast with over ten years of experience in various tabletop roleplaying games both as a player and as a GM. I am also somewhat involved in other forms of tabletop gaming such as wargaming, board games, and card games. It is my hope that by creating and maintaining this website that I can share my unique take on all things within our hobby and to foster a community of like-minded individuals.