Thinking about NPC levels in an Old World campaign

So here I am again, writing about RPGs. Even though I am creating the Old World as a fiction setting, I can’t shake the constant thought that it also would make for a really great campaign setting. And once more I am finding myself getting back to B/X, specifically LotFP. Yes, I know: Oh, the irony! Aside from the magic system (for which I have a complete replacement almost ready) I just really love the game in all its simplicity. Combat, character advancement, and monsters are just exactly the way I really want it.

With my experiences in fiction worldbuilding, my look on preparing a campaign setting for an RPG also changed a lot. In the past I used to attempt to emulate the structure of settings like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Golarion, and for a long while really didn’t know what to make of things like Red Tide, Yoon-Suin, or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. But having learned a lot about Sword & Sorcery worldbuilding in fiction, this very much changed and I am seeing what’s the deal with the later and how it fits my own purposes. Often less is more, and in this case it is much more less that is so much more. I am no longer interested in precise maps, borders, or population numbers for cities and countries. Making up new villages and dungeons as I go will be good enough.

But even when you have a setting that is defined by culture and environments and not by specific places and organizations, to have a campaign in which the players have real agency is that you know who the movers and shakers in the campaign area will be. And one topic that none of the many guides and introductions for running unscripted campaigns ever touch upon is the creation of NPCs. What class level should the major NPCs in the campaign have?


Now one very easy solution would be to not set a level for NPCs until the players run into them for a fight. But that causes a pretty major problem. The decision of the players to fight an NPC or not is based on whether they think they can win such a fight or not. Chosing to start a private war with a powerful local leader is as big a choice as players are going to make, and it can only be an informed and meaningful decision if the strength of the NPC is fixed before the decision is made. If you create stats for an NPC only once you know that the players are looking for a fight, their choice will have been meaningless. When you decide to make the NPC beatable or unbeatable for the party at its current strength, the players are completely without power to influence the survival and victory of their characters. Over the years there has been a lot of talking over what makes the differences between the videogames Morrowind and Oblivion (and now Skyrim as well), and one thing that really changed how the games play is the adjustment of enemies to the level of the player, or the lack of it. In Oblivion and Skyrim it has become irrelevant what places you chose to visit and what quests to try, because the difficulty will always be the same. When you discover an area that seems too dangerous for your character, you might choose to leave and go somewhere safer for now. When you then return a long time later, after lots of great adventures and getting many powerful new weapons, and it’s still just as hard as it was the last time, then it really feels like you didn’t make any progress at all and didn’t become more powerful in any way either. What’s the point of reaching higher levels and gaining better weapons and armor if it doesn’t make any difference? In Morrowind monsters and NPCs are always the same strength, regardless of how powerful your character is. While this does mean that you will occasionally have to admit defeat and retreat, it really makes a huge difference to the sense of accomplishment and progress, that is an important part of unscripted videogames and RPG campaigns alike. Losing is good, because it tells you that any victory you gain has been earned.

So it follows that the major NPCs of the campaign will need to have their basic statistics defined before the start of the game. Only then can the players really chose which fights to pick and have a real sense of accomplishment when they defeat their enemies. But how to assign a level to an NPC? What does it mean for a character to be 3rd level or 10th? One thing I very much like about the old D&D games (in clear contrast to the new ones) is that the health and armor of both player characters and NPCs rarely gets so high that they don’t have to worry about attacks by even the weakest of creatures. Unless you have really great magic protection (which in the Old World you won’t), everything could hurt you, and you won’t be able to survive a great number of injuries at once. (Something I only realized yesterday is that the Hit Dice for monsters and NPCs are all d8s, while most weapons deal 1d6 or 1d8 damage. As such the number of Hit Dice is the average number of hits you can take before you die. That’s why they are called Hit Dice.) Someone pointed me to this helpful post, that sheds some light on how much mayhem average characters of the Fighter class of different levels can cause. One of the most interesting numbers of the chart is that a group of four 2nd level fighters is about evenly matched in power to one 9th level fighter (listed as a Lord). While their combined Hit Dice are roughly equal between both sides, the four little guys get four times as many attacks per round as the lone big guy while their chance for an attack to hit is much lower. And these numbers are for an “arena fight” where it’s as fair as it can get. But one much loved style of oldschool gaming, which I am very fond of myself, is to do everything you possibly can to make the fight as unfairly tipped in your favor as you can. If the players set up an elaborate ambush or assassination, even a low-level party has a good shot at taking out any single NPC. The large numbers of guards are likely to be a much greater threat than the big boss himself. And no, things probably won’t get more difficult if the high level NPC is a wizard. Even going with the standard B/X magic system, wizards have little means to protect themselves against daggers and swords, very few hit points, and are unlikely to get off more than one or two spells before being overwhelmed. If a wizard has allies to prevent PCs getting close, he can cause a huge amount of havoc. But when surrounded by three or four guys with knives, he’ll just end up shanked.

So the first thing to consider when assigning levels to NPCs is that any NPC will be defeatable, regardless of level. (At least when staying within the maximum of 14 levels of B/X.) It might take considerably effort and come with heavy casualties, but nobody is ever unbeatable. Since I am also very much in favor of the players fighting as unfair as possible, I actually want major NPCs to be pretty high up the scale, just so there will be a fight at all. Won’t be as fun if every sorcerer king goes down without casting a single spell.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the low-level NPCs of the common guards and mooks, peasants, and slaves. I very much like the idea of treating even 1st level player characters as outstanding people and relying very heavily on level 0 NPCs for the common folk. There’s a scene in one of the Austin Powers movies where Austin’s father talks down to a random henchmen who threatens him with a gun. “Have you got any idea how many anonymous henchmen I’ve killed over the years? I mean, look at you. You don’t even have a name tag. You’ve got no chance.” I like using this as an approach to assigning stats to NPCs. If they don’t have a name or special role, all NPCs are level 0. At 1st level, both PCs and NPCs are already members of the elite. NPCs have to be relevant as an individual to earn a class and levels.

But that still leaves a very considerable span of levels for all the various henchmen, bandit leaders, guard captains, and so on. “1st to 13th level” is not really narrowing it down. That’s barely any better than where I was at the start. So I went to look at the rules again to find something to guide me. In both the Expert rules and AD&D, characters stop gaining more Hit Dice at 9th level and at the same time gain the ability to build a stronghold and gain a large number of loyal followers. In LotFP this is also where the attack bonus for Fighters stops increasing. Now the idea that every local lord should be a 9th level fighter really doesn’t sit well with me. Building a house and hiring servants is just a matter of money, not of combat skill. And except for selfmade warlords, thrones are usually inherited or more rarely elected, and again combat skill is no requirement for either. But it is true that at 9th level something changes with character progression. Except for wizard spells, it more or less stops. You get a trickle of additional hit points and better saving throws, but that’s it.

So what I decided is that 9th level is the top of the ladder. The difference between a 9th and 12th level character is marginal and there is no real distinction between them. When a character reaches 9th level, he has reached the most exclusive ranks of people in the campaign setting. Even if they have no land, no wealth, and no soldiers, they still rank among the members of the most powerful movers and shakers, simply because of their martial and magical might. It makes me think of the ancient Greek concept of heroes. Individuals who have reached a level of excelence that elevates them above ordinary mortals. What they say gets heard and what they do makes a difference, simply because  they have achieved a level of fame and respect that society has decided they are impossible to ignore.

I think that makes for a pretty good benchmark. Characters of 8th level and lower wield power because they have wealth or many soldiers behind them, or because they are serving a lord who does. When losing these resources, an 8th level fighter is simply some guy who happens to be quite good with a spear or bow. 9th level characters have reached such a level of might that they can take control simply because of their reputation. Even when they have lost everything, people will still recognize them as great men and women whose words matter. This almost halves the range of levels for NPCs of intermediate martial and magical skill from 14 down to 8. Going with that, I would put the mightiest warrior in an average village at around 7th level and give him two or three lieutenants of 5th level. All the other warriors with names worth to be remembered by players would be 3rd level or lower. This does make player characters into pretty influential poeple of considerable power quite early in the campaign, but this is just in line with the overall concept of the setting after all.

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