Seeking GM Advice: NPCs having powers the PCs don't get.


Advice


So, I've got some interesting adventures in my head I'm trying to plot out for the eventuality that I will be GMing. I know it's coming, my play group gets tired of GMing every few months (yet we never seem to set up rotating GMs), and I was thinking of trying my hand at it next time we scrap campaign and switch.

Problem is, some of these ideas are going to be using NPC villains with spells and abilities that the PCs don't have access to. I know it's a slippery slope, relatively hard to balance, and so forth... Yet they're for a more cinematic, heroic feel to the game.

An example would be a 'puppeteer' spell, which gives one of my villains the capability of animating the suits of armor and life-sized puppets in the tower. The spell is only dispelled when the strings are cut, though it takes a fairly high perception check to notice them. Until they notice the spectral strings, the PCs are meant to believe they're animated objects, or constructs. Even if they damage and sever an arm holding a sword, the string will keep it animated (and floating) and attacking, so now they have another small creature attacking (They'll have to completely destroy the objects, or cut the strings which can happen with a small, GM-rolled percentage on slashing damage attacks).

I'll likely never develop this into an actual spell. It's a dungeon & encounters, though fluffed as a complicated custom spell the wizard designed. Though, I will design some qualities into them to replicate a spell, to keep the feel (Dispel magic, for example, will snap the strings on a controlled puppet).

That said... I recall some debates at my FLGS about GMs using custom creatures, spells, and so forth that the PCs don't get access to. Some are for it, others hate it ('Good for the goose, good for the gander'). Personally, I think it's more 'heroic' for the PCs to be facing things that they could never really do, or maybe get to at higher power levels. Brings back the whole "Heroes are underdogs" feel I myself enjoy.

What are your guys' thoughts on the subject? I believe we can all agree it's a slippery slope and oft times hard to balance.


Give them templates or custom spells. PCs can research these (with DM permission), so can NPCs (with your permission, and you don't need to ask yourself).

Said spells could be in the caster's "home" spellbook and not their traveling one, so when the PCs gank him, it's not there.


The "Good for the goose, good for the gander" argument is fundamentally flawed. No matter how you slice it, GMs get access to things players don't. Most monsters in the Bestiary have access to powers the PCs have no way of getting. Having an appropriately balanced NPC with unique or homebrew special powers is no different than having an appropriately balanced unique or homebrew monster.

That said, I've met players who don't like anything (including adventures) that's not published by paizo.

Liberty's Edge

The 3.5 family is built on the idea that the rules apply equally to PCs and NPCs, and that game effects (spells, special abilities, etc.) are defined. It is not part of the 3.5 design that all PCs must be able to obtain access to all of those possible game effects.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I don't have the slightest problems with this. Not all things are meant to be known. And villains should have the ability to do things because as Xykon would put it, they're willing to abase themseles without the limits that others would set.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber
Quantum Steve wrote:

The "Good for the goose, good for the gander" argument is fundamentally flawed. No matter how you slice it, GMs get access to things players don't. Most monsters in the Bestiary have access to powers the PCs have no way of getting. Having an appropriately balanced NPC with unique or homebrew special powers is no different than having an appropriately balanced unique or homebrew monster.

That said, I've met players who don't like anything (including adventures) that's not published by paizo.

Then tell those players to remove that long shaft of wood that someone seems to have inserted up their rear orifice. You're running the game, not them. And they either trust you to be consistent, fair, and reasonably challenging or they don't.


First, I whole-heartedly endorse the idea that, as GM, you can create powers and abilities for monsters/NPCs that are outside the easily codified rules-set. So, I agree with the folks who've already posted.

Personally, my group is fine with me inventing all kinds of effects that don't have concrete rules, as long as I'm consistent, fair, and willing to answer questions about it after the game. I've been able to have cremated zombie corpses produce a life-draining fog, for example. But, they were able to intuit that it was probably dangerous, I provided clear escape routes, and entertained the possibility of any solutions they concocted to stop the fog. Because these features were there, and they knew I'd put it in more to let them flex their creativity than to "trump" the rules, everyone had a good, fun, time.

That being said, if you have some players who are particular sticklers for defined rules, consider the following alternatives to a spell:

1. If they don't mind house rules, so long as "everybody plays by them", then introduce a "ritual magic" system that allows people to enact awfully convoluted spell-effects that are not germane to the normal spellcasting rules. Take a look at the 4e ritual magic system, or the 3.5 incantations variant.

I'm a particular fan of Ritual Magic, my players all know that it's an option for "hedge wizards", bored aristocrats, and librarians to replicate powerful spells, or custom effects. And it lets me inject some "true name" magic into the game that has a stronger feel than that presented in Ultimate Magic.

2. Custom magic item. Like a custom spell, but generally more accepted by players. You don't need to spend as much time worrying about an appropriate Spell Level, just Caster Level & GP value (also, whether they're Conjuration or Transmutation). You even have the base spell "Animate Objects" to work from.

3. If you want this to be a major focal point of the campaign, and you have rules sticklers to worry about, you can always give him Asmodeus' Marionette Wire. This artefact is believed to be the produce of Asmodeus' first wife, who wanted to ensure her lord always had a trump card to use against his enemies. As the aeons passed, Asmodeus grew weary of her, and her lackadaisical attempts to scheme against him. As such, he bound her up in her own wire, and cast her forth to the mortal plane. There, the wires held her fast, but the task wore at them. Now, the twisted remains of the original wires that could hold a Queen of the Devils can barely make a castle dance...
I've never had even the most strident of rules lawyers balk at an artefact. These things can get away with murder. For an added twist, give the things the personality of the scorned wife & the ultimate purpose of laying Asmodeus low. In fact, one of the ways to destroy it is to use the artefact to bind Asmodeus and cast him down from his throne.

4. Give up and call the spectral strings a side-effect of the BBEG's version of permanent Animate Objects, then hand-wave the costs of permanency. This is the worst solution, from a story perspective, but keeps you nearly 100% RAW.


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In my game, Ultimate Combat and Magic are NPC books unless I approve. No problem whatsoever. The entitlement effect is a major problem with D20 players. DMs only succumb when they need players.

GURPS advised that you only need to stat up NPCs to the point where they will be used in an encounter and no more depth than that is needed. D20 GMs would do well to adopt such philosophy. Otherwise it's a DM v. Player scenario. GURPS releases you from that mentality. And it's made my Pathfinder games multiple times better for it. I'm not tied to "fairness." Fairness is a waste of time. I'm not competing with my players. I'm SUPPOSED to lose as the GM most of the time. The key is entertainment. If "fair" or "even" costs me more time to create or entertainment value, I have no problem with throwing it out the window...and doing so quickly.


When I GM the PCs are Core Rulebook only, but the NPCs get to use the other the books, including Yellow Clearance Black Box Rules.


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LazarX wrote:
(T)hey either trust you to be consistent, fair, and reasonably challenging or they don't.

Amen.

I won't play with a GM I can't trust, and I won't GM for players who can't trust me.


This kind of thing has turned into a bit of a running joke in my group.

We were fighting a dragon riding sorceress and she pulled some shenanigans (I honestly don't even remember what it was anymore) and since we're all really familiar with the game mechanics we were wondering amongst ourselves how she was doing it. Without skipping a beat the GM announced "She has an ability." and kept on running.

So now, if an NPC pulls a trick out of his hat "Oh ****! He's got an ability"


Quantum Steve wrote:
LazarX wrote:
(T)hey either trust you to be consistent, fair, and reasonably challenging or they don't.

Amen.

I won't play with a GM I can't trust, and I won't GM for players who can't trust me.

While I agree with this as a general rule, ultimately trust is earned. Our OP is a new GM, so he might have to go a little farther out of his way (even if it means a bit more work to combat "player entitlement" by providing a rules-basis for his cool idea) in the short term, if he wants to GM long-term.

The players extend trust for a little while, but in the old Reagan mantra of "trust but verify". And that level of verification correlates positively with the degree to which a player wants the rules to be hard-set.

Of course, Artemis, you know your group, even if you haven't GMed for them before. You've probably got a better bead than you think for how much they'll balk at your ideas. It's more important that your approach work for them, than that the regulars of your FLGS approve.

And, in reverse, your gaming group knows you pretty well, so a lot of the "verify" part of my commentary should already have happened.


Seems this isn't as much of a problem as I would have thought. It gives me hope for D20! Thank you all for the encouragement :)

@ Scourge: Lol, sounds like a chant that'll pop up at my table.

@ Riggler: Best GMing advice I've heard in years. Wish my group tended more towards that design philosophy.

@ BillyGoat: Yeah, I know my group. My group is a group for the 'outcasts', the people that no other group wants in their games. Admittedly, they can get extremely frustrating (such as the primary GM excising a grudge he had with me, and nullifying 3 feats worth of Godless Healing just because my character use a deity's name in a slang curse, without the option for retraining or 'atonement' of any sort). They also fight tooth and nail when rules could turn against them (one cites part of rules or spells, rather than the whole things, as examples of why such-and-such works. This is the same player who in a gestalt campaign I wasn't a part of was playing a basic Summoner/Monk, and the primary GM banned the summoner. The player was summoning his eidolon in 1 round, and changing the evolutions, base form, and size at the drop of a hat)...
I'm torn GMing for them and putting my heart and sweat into a campaign (something I am incapable of not doing), and GMing for myself because I'm sick and bloody tired of games getting dropped after five to ten sessions because the GM gets 'bored', or some argument puts a bad taste in mouths. They're fine when they don't have a bug up their butt, but there have been more and more anal dwelling butt-bugs in recent months... I keep playing with them for the fact that there are some gold moments every other session or so, and there are quite a few laughs to be had. Still looking for a more stable group though (would have been in one or two, but there were never any slots open and the campaigns were fairly far along enough to not allow in a new player, all home brew).

That said, I'm mainly looking for how people tend to look at it. I've got some ridiculously ambitious campaign ideas in mind that are basically games I wanted to play in. One that a friend told me about that he played in, for example, being a multi-group (party) campaign, where the events of each party actually has effects on the homebrew world it's played in. That one of course being much, much later in my GMing career.

Now, as for another question on this... Is there an 'upper limit' ya'll would place on such a thing? I plan to spread the home-brew, cinematic/thematic NPC/Creature abilities through the game (usually, only mini bosses and bosses).... But how much do you think would be too much?


Artemis Moonstar wrote:
Now, as for another question on this... Is there an 'upper limit' ya'll would place on such a thing? I plan to spread the home-brew, cinematic/thematic NPC/Creature abilities through the game (usually, only mini bosses and bosses).... But how much do you think would be too much?

My own upper limit is when the game hits either of the following:

- Players no longer have any means of anticipating what their opponents might do, or belief that most of the game works based on the rules they already understand. This usually leads to disengagement on the player's part, which starts that death-spiral of game fatigue you're worried about.

I've found that a lot of minor one-shot rule-bending/ignoring rarely triggers this, but having every (or even every-other) "boss battle" (what I'd call a major encounter) feature creatures that have special powers that can't be held by PCs or that ignore the established rules & conventions does.

Generally, if it's just implementing house rules (ritual systems, custom spells/magic items) that the PCs theoretically could exploit themselves, keeping an available reference of these goes a long way to appease people's loss of a sense of consistency.

- When the cinema/thematic aspects are so reliably produced that they lose their feeling of cinema and become just another mundane game element. This can lead back into that same cycle of fatigue I mentioned, where players (and even the GM) start to disengage.

It comes back to knowing your players and addressing their preferences.

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