How to Run Allies in D&D

 

Mazner unleashes a fury of lightning upon the battlefield, electrocuting the sword-wielding pyrotrolls and massive magmapotamus. Schmee struggles to find his footing, surrounded by the pyrotrolls, taking slash after slash for his companions. Rhozur slams his clawed fists into a particularly nasty pyrotroll, but it’s red flesh instantly regenerates. Two more pyrotrolls emerge from a nearby pool of bubbling lava, threatening to completely overwhelm the party. Far in the back, Synri, the group’s cambion guide, cowers behind a crumbled tower. The party are the adventurers, the combatants — he’ll leave the heroics to them.

I’ve run quite a few Dungeons & Dragons games in my time. Early on, I began subscribing to the idea that the players and their characters are the stars of the story. They should get the gold & glory, not their allies that assist them in their travels.

How do we make sure that happens?

Make Them Co-Stars

When a nonplayer character (NPC) joins the party, you need to ensure it doesn’t become an outright star. Think of them as a co-star, there to assist the primary characters, shed more light upon them, and keep the story moving.

In my above example, Synri is the party’s guide. He rarely assists them in fights and only pipes up when it’s necessary. However, none of this is convoluted; this is important. He’s a scout who specializes in stealth and recon, not battle. In addition, he suffers from trauma, remnants of his time in the Nine Hells. This also contributes to his rare contributions to conversations and liking to keep quiet when confronted on any issues. Lastly, he’s not a permanent addition because he has a reason to leave. He’s helping the party reach the lair of Lazarus the Glutton for their mutual friend Tribune Garrik of Ignum and then he is done, especially since they’ve treated him poorly.

So, on top of ensuring they act like a co-star, give them valid reasons to act that way. If your party is guided by an ogre warlord who refuses to fight, that’d be ridiculous. If they’re being guided by a timid halfling trickster who won’t fight, that’s understandable.

Let Them Fight, For a Time

Sometimes, your party recruits powerful allies like renowned rangers, deadly assassins, or gold dragons. When that happens and there’s no reasonable excuse for them to not participate in battle, let them join in. This might create more chaos and work on your side of the screen but it should end eventually. Players understand that they’re supposed to be the adventurers and if they become reliant or expectant of an NPC for help, try to remove them as soon as possible. Contrarily, keep them in the group and build tougher combat encounters. I’d recommend that former over the latter, though.

I was stuck in that situation for a few weeks during my weekly campaign. My group forged an alliance with gold dragons twins and traversed the mortal world and Feywild with them. For the first few sessions, the dragons were in recovery after being tortured by a vile faction for months on end, but eventually they regained their strength and assisted the party in battle & travel.

Before the group became reliant on them, they departed the group for understandable reasons. Regardless, I was getting dangerously close to allowing my group to be dependent on the dragons. Don’t make the same mistake as me. Sure, it’s awesome to ally with dragons for a bit but the excitement dies down in due time.

Use Them as Prods

NPCs give the Dungeon Master a voice in the party. If you sense the story is slamming to a halt, use them NPC to prod the characters along. They might make the difference between four hours of debate about going down the left or right corridor and battling the voracious phase spiders who await in the tunnels' junction. Alongside this, you can use NPCs to give usually silent players a voice. If you notice someone is being quiet and no one is interacting with them, have the NPC address them. Sometimes all a player needs is a poke and they're invested in the world again.

In Summary

Allied NPCs can make a good addition to a party as long as they’re played correctly. As you play allied NPCs, remember the following:
  1. NPCs are the PCs' co-stars. They should make them shine and help the story progress, not steal the players’ spotlight and hinder the story’s growth.
  2. NPCs should have believable reasons to not assist the group in combat or make decisions for them.
  3. It’s okay for an NPC to join a battle or weigh in, but ensure they leave the group before the party becomes reliant on them.
  4. Use NPCs as prods to progress the story, spark characters to action, or invite a quiet player to join the conversation.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this shorter article, let me know in the comments below.

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