During the past two sessions, the brave adventurers traveling through The Shadowfell have been without their devote Cleric of Pelor as he is on vacation worshipping the Sun in some foreign land. How typically Pelorian of him! The remaining party members are a Barbarian, Ranger, Fighter and Rogue; healers, they are not. A solution was needed to fill the gap because continuing the adventure without allowing the party access to a healer would have been a death sentence. A variety of options were available.
One option was to allow another member of the party to also play the missing player’s character. I have allowed this in the past, but it presents a few problems. First, while the missing character is still being used, his or her character cannot contribute to the story. Second, the player executing decisions for the missing character is bound to be more distracted from playing their own character, which is not ideal. And finally, it can get quite complicated if the missing player’s character is killed or suffers nasty consequences while they are absent. For those reasons, I wanted to avoid another player taking on the role of the missing Cleric.
I decided to create a NPC that would join the party as part of the storyline in the campaign while our Cleric was missing. The NPC did an admirable job of serving as the healer for the party, but she also served a number of unexpected purposes during the sessions. She increased the amount of roleplaying during a combat-heavy portion of the adventure, and she increased my level of enjoyment because I was also playing a character.
The following column is a description of how I replaced our missing Cleric in two consecutive sessions with a Non-Playable Character (NPC) who fulfilled the Healer role in our Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Below I present how I inserted the NPC into the party and the variety of functions she served during the sessions when our Cleric was out of town.
Moil, The City That (Doesn’t) Wait
Players miss sessions, and I thoroughly understand the multitude of reasons why this happens. I am perhaps the greatest offender in the campaign where I play a Rogue. The absence of one person should not hold up the enjoyment of the rest of the group. But when the missing player is the only healer in the group, then the party can come to a screeching halt. I decided the show must go on!
The party had just entered the City of Moil to pursue a doppelganger villain and end a growing undead plague pouring into Gloomwrought. The party previously received assistance from Shadar-kai servants of the Raven Queen in the Ebony Guard. It seemed fitting to have a Shadar-kai devoted to the Raven Queen and in service of the Ebony Guard serve as a fill-in Cleric for the party. The party discovered her near-death after a battle with a skeleton work crew attempting to rebuild the bridges of Moil, The City That Waits. They revived her and she agreed to guide them to a portal that she suspected led to the source of the undead threat.
I considered two options for creating the NPC. I thought about starting with a monster’s stat block and reskinning the powers to fit a Cleric. I never got far with this idea because it seemed to be more complicated than it was worth. Instead, I used Character Builder to Auto Build a Level 14 Shadar-kai Cleric who I named Olevex. A few clicks and I had a useable NPC to help the party deal with the various threats in Moil while their Cleric of Pelor was on vacation.
The first thing I did was limit her abilities so I did not have to spend too much time taking her actions during combat. Her primary role would be healing, so I eliminated the majority of Encounter and Daily powers including any powers granted by magic items. I limited powers to Healing Word, At-Will attacks, two Encounters and two Daily healing powers only to be used if the party really needed them. I discarded the remaining power options so I could not be distracted by them; she was a legitimate 4th Edition Cleric – but streamlined.
As this was a combat-heavy portion of the campaign, having a NPC “in” the party was extremely valuable because it allowed me to convey plot elements throughout the evening – both in and out of combat. Olevex was able to speak with the party to describe and elaborate on flavor text and engage members of the party in conversation. She was able to speak about local lore of both monsters and the environment including warning of a difficult series of tests before the portal. The tests were an extended skill challenge mixed with combat, and I used Olevex to add flavor to the events. For example, one of her healing powers causes her to sacrifice hit points to heal another player by touch. As a player was recovering from the meat grinder of traps and hazards, I described the following:
Olevex weaves through the fray and stands by your side. She digs her sharp nails through her flesh and blood pours through her fingers from the fresh wound. She whispers a prayer to the Raven Queen and smears the blood over your face. Her sacrifice has allowed you to regain strength. She exhales, “I cannot do that again.”
It gave me a chance to add some flavor while also serving a crucial function for the party. And it was fun!
Why Can’t the DM Play Too?
As I played Olevex during the sessions, I realized that I was really enjoying it. Partially because I’ve wanted to play a Cleric in 4th Edition and have not yet had an opportunity. And also because it changed the dynamics of the session for me; I was not only running the monsters in combat but I was assisting the players as well. Now, I realize this type of behavior on my part is fraught with peril.
First, playing a NPC as a member of the party carries the danger of overshadowing the players as they progress through an adventure. For example, any time I spend while deciding on Olevex’s actions or speaking through her takes the spotlight off of the players. Second, I know the details about the adventure; as a result I know a great deal more than Olevex should know. There is a danger of using Olevex to act in a perfect way to overcome obstacles or offer too many clues to the players when they face a challenge. Third, I could easily succumb to using Olevex as a tool to railroad the players in whatever direction I want them to go. I certainly did this with Olevex as she suggested a course of action anytime the group was unsure of where to go next.
With those possible limitations laid bare, the question remains if the DM playing a character is a worthwhile addition to a game. It is my belief it can be useful in limited doses to achieve a specific end. I think a DM playing a member of the party full-time would be counter-productive for the reasons mentioned above.
I encourage DMs to explore removing the Non from NPC for a session or two to add something different to the campaign and increase their level of enjoyment. At the very least, Olevex will become a solid and well-known hub for future quests and plot hooks – if she survives.
How have others used a NPC in this capacity? What are your thoughts on the device for a short-term fix or a long-term piece of a campaign?