Pining for the Fjords – NPC Edition

You put on your shrill, Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) Necromancer voice and say, “I’ll see you again, but you won’t see me!” Switching to your normal voice, you continue, “The Necromancer shimmers as shadows fold around him and he starts to teleport.”

“I use my readied action,” the Fighter says.

“What readied action?”

“I said after I beat that last skeleton that I’m using my action point to ready an action if he tries to move. He’s trying to move so I’m going to use Crack the Shell against him.”

“Oh,” you say, looking nervously at the squishy Necromancer’s armor class. The die thuds to the table, echoing in the dining room. Of course it’s a critical hit. And of course it’s more damage than the Necromancer had in HP before he took the damage from the Wizard’s zone and the Rogue’s volley of arrows. He’s D-E-D dead.

You have a mere handful of seconds to decide what to do as the next five adventures you wrote all require that the Necromancer be alive and plotting against the PCs. What do you do? What do you do?!

Well, you have a few choices. Either you can fudge the results and let the NPC live or you can let him die and figure out where to go next. Personally, as much as I agree with the Gary Gygax quote “The only reason the Dungeonmaster rolls dice is for the noise they make”,  I disagree with fudging the results in a situation like this because it ruins the accomplishment of the player in both sound tactics and pure luck. So we let him die, but then what?

If the player’s characters can be raised from the dead, why can’t the bad guys do the same? Well, you can do this, but it feels cheap to me and makes it seem as though there’s never going to be any closure to the campaign. Who cares how many hundreds of times you kill the BBEG if he’s just going to blow a few thousand gold and come back? This would only be interesting to me if he pulled a Freiza. If you never watched Dragonball Z, basically Freiza was the biggest, baddest creature ever for all time in the entire universe. Until he was defeated. Then he just became the buttmonkey of the villain world as the next villain had to be even stronger. So it’d be interesting to me to bring back the BBEG that threatened the party all through their first eight levels…after they were level 15 and just so they can feel more powerful by slaughtering him. But if the players are killing the NPC every other session and he’s just coming back more powerful, they’re never going to feel like there’s an end in sight.

Another not-as-fun option is “But you never found the body”. In the example above, the teleport spell finishes with his dying breath and the body vanishes, but it turns out he made it to the evil priestess who healed him. The only problem with this trope is that it’s turned into a cliché. If you let the body get away, your players are going to expect the NPC to come back and thus ruin any surprise you try to set up. In fact, I’d be surprised if it’s not the first thing out of your players’ mouths if you tried to pull that. Maybe you can figure out a way to pull it off creatively, but I haven’t been able to think of a single idea that hasn’t been done the hundreds of 80s horror movies and cheesy sci-fi movie sequels.

There are other options, especially in a fantasy setting like Dungeons and Dragons. Instead of being a living BBEG who gets raised, he could become an undead BBEG in the form of a Lich, Skeleton, Wright, or some other form of undead. Not only will this probably fit in better with your game world, but it will also explain away the increased power level when the PCs run into him again.

Another option is the man-behind-the-man. Leave the body sitting there, slaughtered by the players. Turns out that he was just the lackey of an even more powerful enemy! Gasp and shock! Just sub in the master for the lackey they killed in all your next adventures and you’re done. You could also have the apprentice for the NPC step out of the shadows to take over his evil organization. Maybe the apprentice is getting guidance and instructions from the original BBEG whose spirit is on another plane. Either one of these may require some re-writing of the future adventures, but shouldn’t require much fiddling or ruin any major plots. The only way this wouldn’t work is if you’d set up some story situation where the BBEG was the “last of his kind” or “only one with the forbidden knowledge”, which would require serious re-writing in order to use this idea.

A related trope you could exploit is the “this is bigger than we thought!” If you’re a quick enough thinker, you could plant a mysterious letter on the body of the BBEG for the players to find, indicating that the actions of the BBEG were actually just part of a larger scheme run by a shadowy organization. He was just a middle manager and there’s a large network out there advancing these plans. Not only will this give you freedom to keep the plots you had in mind, but also allow give you an out if another NPC you’re setting up gets killed prematurely. Until they get to the big confrontation at the end, they won’t be able to dismantle the entire organization and allowing you to keep the plot going as long as you need it to.

The worst option, though, is to completely toss your work just because the NPC died. Odds are you’ve spent several hours both in game and doing prep building up this story, so the very last thing you should do is let that work go to waste. Even if you have to scrap the entire plotline you’ve been building to keep the encounters you’ve built or vice versa, don’t let that much work go to waste. I know, this goes against my previous advice of being willing to let go of work, but there’s a difference between ditching a couple of encounters and completely trashing a campaign just because of one unforeseen incident.

Whatever way you decide to go, it’s important to allow the actions of the players have impact. Even if you steal the kill from the players and let the NPCs, think of some way to make that amazing hit still matter. The story’s all about them, not your villains. Adjusting your plans is a small sacrifice to retain the feeling that your player’s actions still have meaning in your world.

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Published in: on December 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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