In the Land of Zero-Level NPCs a 4th Level Fighter is a Hero

One thing I really love about oldschool D&D, and which changing was a major flaw of the d20 system, is that nonplayer humanoids have fixed stats like monsters and don’t have levels like PCs. That’s not just orcs and gnolls, but also dwarves, bandits, and berserkers. Not only is this really convenient for GMs who have a lot less work to prepare for a session and can simply pull stats for any minor NPC out of the book if an unanticipated fight breaks out, it also brings with it a number of very interesting assumptions about the world and the position of PCs in it.

I have adopted the policy that every NPC too minor to get a name in advance is automatically a level zero NPC. Which means effectively all guards, soldiers, bandits, and civilians. Named NPCs have to be significantly more skilled in combat than the average soldier to become even 1st level fighters or amazing skills to have levels as scouts (fighter-thief) or specialists (thief). In such a setting a 1st level fighter is clearly a Veteran and a 4th level fighter a Hero. And of course that’s what Gygax and Moldvay intended when they put these titles next to these fighter levels. 1st level PCs are not raw recruits and 5th level characters not “low-level”.

I’ve started to get the impression that high-level characters (level 13+) were flawed pretty early in my 3rd edition days and I’ve recently seen people make good arguments that these have been tacked on later in a somewhat haphazardous way and were not part of the original design that quickly ran out after 9th level. But it’s something that is relatively easily ignored, at least until Forgotten Realms became the de facto official AD&D setting going into 2nd Edition. Forgotten Realms had this odd thing going on where high level NPCs are numerous and make their homes in quaint unassuming villages or go into semi-retirement to run a tavern. Which I can see as having some charm, but becomes a really bad influence when it’s taken as a precedent. If there are level 15 or 20 NPCs found in farming villages, what’s the point of 2nd or 6th level PCs other than being errand boys? 4th level is no longer heroic and 8th level most certainly not super-heroic.

So simultaneously you get monsters becoming stronger to compensate for 10th level being the new 5th, which leads to the really annoying consequence of players having to wait until they’ve run enough rat and goblin errands to get to the cool stuff of giants, dragons, and demons. Which in twelve years of playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder never happened to me once. Aside from the one time we started with 14th level character’s I only encountered a beholder once (last session of that campaign) and not a single dragon or demon. So lame.

One common argument I come across for the need for high-level NPCs and mid-level town guards is the question of what would prevent the players from burning and looting villages. To which I have one really simple answer: Nothing!

So the players want to fight guards that can’t stop them and plunder the local stores for anything valuable? They want to become villains terrorizing the countryside? Let them. But that doesn’t mean you have to let them get away with it. Because what do villagers do when being under constant attacks by raiders with supernatural powers? The only thing that can defeat a Hero is another Hero! They call for heroes to save them. It doesn’t need to be Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. You can start with a party of 3rd and 4th level NPCs. If the players defeat them others will trie, until eventually they become infamous and feared enough that armies a send to deal with them and then 8th level parties consider them a worthy task for themselves. If the players keep defeating them, they are certainly going to have a blast with it. And everything is good.

Retainers as local guides

Today I was watching Matt Coleville’s latest video (even as a GM of 15 years I still find them really helpful) and he mentioned that he prefers to answer any questions the players have about the world through NPCs. In fact, he finds it annoying when the players end up in situations where they have a lot of questions but he didn’t arrange for any cooperative NPCs to be around to ask. As a GM running a game, you really are the only channel through which the players can perceive and experience the world around their characters. Trying to trick the players into making mistakes based on false assumption is both trivial and cheap. There is nothing clever about it since the players can only know anything based on what you tell them and how to tell them.

Even when you have no intention to trick the players that can still be a problem. Unless the group is particularly screwed up, most players will always take their GMs by their word. Otherwise you can’t really effectively play. But very often you want the players to doubt what seems true and speculate about what’s really going on. That’s a major part of giving the players agency, which I consider the primary goal of anything a GM does. But it’s often not easy to clearly distinguish between what the characters actually see, what the characters know about their world, what the players have heard about the world, and what the GM declares to be factually true about the world. And having the questions of the players answered by an NPC is indeed a really wonderful method to clearly distinguish between what the characters have heard and what the GM is explaining to the players. Even when it’s something that is common knowledge in the setting and should be known to the PCs, having an NPC deliver an answer might often be preferable to telling the players what their characters already know. It establishes that whatever answer you give them comes from an in-universe source whose reliability the players have to judge for themselves. Very neat little trick, I think.

But always having a GM controlled sage around to interrupt the players when you think they are making errors would be a terrible idea. There are no such things as DMPCs. It’s a terrible practice that greatly interferes with the players’ agency. Because as I said, the GM is implicitly trusted unconditionally and when you have a guy following their characters everywhere and mention helpful things to them or provide assistance, it sends the clear message that you think the players are playing the adventure wrong.

But the last two weeks or so I have been rethinking my position about retainers. Named NPCs with some kind of personality who are servants of a specific player character and accompany the party on adventures and gain experience (As opposed to faceless mercenaries and laborers.) Who actually controls these NPCs has always been left largely open to interpretation. I personally think that they should be controlled in combat by the player who brought them in the first place, since the GM is already controlling enough combatants who are working against the PCs. They are also great in situations where it becomes narratively practical to split the party and one or two PCs would be gone for a good while. The players could either play a retainer for the while or perhaps a retainer could take care of the errand off screen.

But at other times it might be more practical when the GM plays a retainer so they don’t simply become a second PC for the player. And any time the players have a question about the world would be a perfect situation for this. What do the inscriptions in the Cave of Caerbannog say? Brother Maynard might know. Is there a way to disable the tractor beam? Ask R2-D2. Not only are retainers great to explain things the characters should already know, they can also provide helpful information on things the PCs would be very unlikely to know. I find that a much more elegant solution than making an Intelligence check or putting points into a Knowledge skill. It also provides a good reason why players would want to take an NPC they meet as a retainer and why the party should attempt to get a diverse team with various different backgrounds that don’t directly translate to additional firepower. The five Skullcrusher Brothers and Reverend Healbot don’t really add anything to the game that some magic items couldn’t do as well.