Daring Adventures: NPCs
Non-player characters are often handled as just a flip side of the player characters by most systems. I tend to think that for a truly amazing, cinematic feel, the threats have to be broken down into categories. You have faceless Minions, competent Cohorts, and Enemies. The way this engine handles minions is similar to a few existing games, but I think I have a solution that allows for granularity in minion quality without needing a large statblock. Cohorts are given stat blocks like PCs, but they aren’t as powerful, nor as hardy. Enemies are like PCs in every way, and archenemies are just a little bit better.
There are only a few decisions necessary for designing minions. You answer 3 questions. How dangerous are they? How well do they work together? Is there anything unusual about them as a whole? The answers to these questions correspond directly to game stats. Threat translates to a modifier, while Teamwork is the number of dice they throw on each roll. If the minions are Tenacious or Devoted, these Traits affects how players can affect them. Lastly, minions are meant to be faced in groups. You wouldn’t defeat an entire group of nameless palace guards in a lengthy confrontation in the genre of pulp fiction.
You can defeat a single minion out of the group by besting a TN based on one of their two stats. It doesn’t matter if that is through trickery or force of arms. They are defeated for the duration of the scene, and they potentially get a little weaker as a group. Groups of minions act as one: they attack the same target, etc., or they suffer a penalty for splitting their forces. It’s the same penalty they suffer if you pick off half of their number. So minions acting by themselves potentially have to overcome a hefty penalty, while minions acting in concert at full strength (a group of 6) reap the full rewards of their teamwork. But what do you do when the scene calls for faceless enemies with more detail, or special powers? That is where cohorts come in.
Cohorts really differ from PCs in only two ways. They have half as much Health, rounded up, and they only throw 2 Dice by default. That means, they aren’t exceptional like PCs or Enemies, so they will miss most times when attempting a 9 TN unless they have bonuses etc. Cohorts can be named and unique, or they can be generic and faceless. The only thing they share is less competence than the heroes. This is the caliber of foe you face until you reach an enemy, and it is also the caliber of ally you can depend upon. Some might ask why there aren’t any allies that are better than this? Surely the PCs superiors or past legends have to be on equal footing with them? The simple answer is no. They do not measure up to the heroes, or they would be the heroes.
The game enforces a world different from one where the Gods of Deus Ex Machina are always available to pull the heroes out of a bad situation. Sure, Cohorts can have amazing statistics to explain their positions and history, but they are nowhere near as hardy as enemies, so in this system, Gandalf can be mighty indeed, but he’s not going to cut down Smaug, the Balrog, or Saruman for you without potentially great personal cost. You are the hero, figure it out or find the power within yourself. The very fact that Gandalf is probably an exceptional Cohort with 4 Health is nothing compared to the fact that Saruman has even more and gets the options of a third die for even his mundane actions.
As stated, enemies are pretty much the same as PCs. If you prefer, they are the Game Master’s Personal Characters, and they drive the story in most games. Aside from a complete lack of XP restrictions, they aren’t that different. Now, Archenemies on the other hand have access to pretty unfair powers which make them more of a match for teams of heroes, that and Initiative and Health bonuses, just because they are that much more dangerous.
How do you decide?
Let’s look at these divisions through the view of one of the most popular movies of all time: Star Wars: A New Hope. The heroes (Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca) are accompanied on their quest by three cohorts (C-3PO, R2-D2, and Obi-wan Kenobi). The jawas the droids run into are faceless cohorts, the Tusken raiders and Stormtroopers are minions, the higher up naval personnel, including Tarkin, are enemy cohorts and Vader is an enemy. Yes Tarkin is somewhat scary and impressive with a legend to match. However, he isn’t spectacular enough to compare to Vader’s role, or his recurring threat. If Vader’s fighter had gone down and Tarkin had commanded the attack on Yavin from a ship instead of the bridge of the Deathstar, then perhaps their roles would be reversed. Tarkin is a perfect example, along with Kenobi, of a powerful cohort.
If you are wondering what to make of Return of the Jedi, its still simple. The Emperor is an Enemy, because he couldn’t be anything less, and Vader remains the same, even when he turns on his master. You can upgrade a cohort into an enemy, but you shouldn’t downgrade an enemy into a cohort unless the change is longterm, and the character will be in the story for many sessions to come. The third movie ends with Vader’s death. However, if he had survived and he and his son went on several adventures to cement the resurrection of the Republic, he would be downgraded so that he did not outshine Luke,d espite his much better statistics, or he would be made into a player character, depending on the flow of the game.