Preventing NPCs from Stealing the Spotlight

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I've been thinking about some of the "great NPCs" I've encountered in campaigns. Often, these guys horribly outclass the PCs, able to do amazing things the PCs can only dream of and knowing more about the world than the PCs ever could. They are never wrong, they get to do things the PCs never could, and the rules constantly bend to let them be awesome while the PCs stumble & flail amidst failed skill checks.

So, how do we bring these NPCs down to the PCs' level and let the PCs feel "important" or, at least, "competent"?

1. Give them flawed perspectives.

A flawed perspective about the world is similar to the PCs': they have certain ideas about how the world should work, but they're not entirely right. An NPC who always knows exactly how things will go down will irritate the PCs because he will always guess better than them and there's no way to argue with him.

In short, no NPC should completely agree with your viewpoint of the world, because that makes it too tempting to have the world work exactly as he thinks it would.

2. Give them a reason to need the PCs.

Every NPC you make should have some weakness they require the PCs to fill. This could be as simple as some extra muscle or as complex as requiring a group that knows how to stealth into a place properly.

In short, if an NPC (or an NPC group) is completely well-rounded and competent, they shouldn't appear in your game at all. Give them an area they're weak in that the PCs can fill.

3. Always give the PCs some way of contributing to the NPCs.

The PCs are the stars of your game, not the NPCs. If an NPC group can do everything it wants to accomplish without the PCs' aid, you've done something wrong. The PCs want to feel useful; give them every opportunity to feel that way.

4. Never, EVER make a Perfect NPC.

If the PCs wish they were your NPCs, but could never achieve that, something has gone horribly wrong. Examples include:


  • NPCs who have never made a mistake, or never make mistakes now.

  • NPCs who are always right about what will happen.

  • An NPC group who can hold their own in battle as well as the PCs.

  • NPCs who are always right, and thus the PCs arguing with them is pointless. The PCs should always be able to argue with them about something and improve their lives for the better.

  • NPCs who have an innate ability that always makes them succeed certain checks, such as "always being able to tell when someone's lying", or "always knowing what someone's crimes are". Such abilities render the PCs' skill training useless. If the PCs constantly want to rely on someone else to make decisions for them, something has gone wrong.

  • NPCs who are in perfect relationships with people the PCs could never dream of hooking up with.

  • NPC parties who never have the arguments & debates and differences of opinion the PCs have.

  • NPCs who never admit the PCs are right, unless the it's obvious the PCs are right and the NPC is just being arrogant. NPCs should always have some way they can be thankful to the PCs, whether it's providing a different viewpoint or stopping them from making a fatal mistake.


5. Give each NPC a fatal flaw.


This is the easiest way of bringing NPCs down to the PCs' level. Give them a fatal flaw the PCs can help them overcome, or which causes them to make obvious mistakes the PCs can correct. Odds are each PC has a fatal flaw as well, an area they are not well-equipped to handle or a vice that causes them trouble. Why should the NPCs be more well-rounded than the PCs?


6. Don't let the NPCs automatically succeed all the time.


A common mistake I see in many games is that the NPCs succeed all the time. If you ask them to do something, they'll do it properly. They always succeed in infiltrating the fort, finding the right intel, etc. They don't need to roll; the PCs do. I call this the "Bubble of Competence": only NPCs around the PCs need to roll to succeed at anything; everyone else just succeeds. This puts the NPCs at a level above the PCs, and makes the players feel that any mistakes that happen are "entirely their fault". The PCs should feel like the ones that accomplish what others can't, the ones who clean up the mistakes that others make. They shouldn't feel like the weak link in the world.


7. Make the NPCs weaker than the PCs whenever possible.


This is probably the hardest thing to do. You've put so much time & effort into an NPC, and now you want to make them weaker than the PCs who just spend an hour every month optimizing themselves & goof off most of the time?


Exactly.


Look, no one wants to play a weak PC in a fantasy game. No one wants to play someone who contributes little & whose job can be done better by someone else. Did the NPCs go through all the risky combats the PCs did? Did the NPCs roll for skill challenges like the PCs did? Did the NPCs risk failure & humiliation as often as the PCs did?


No. No. And no. Reward the players for taking risks and rolling the dice. Don't let them get overshadowed by NPCs who never had to roll a single dice to get where they are. Your PCs put the work into getting up to where they are, reward them for it. Let them be Awesome.

No, let the NPCs automatically succeed all the time. But a) have them do it in the service of and at the direction of the PCs, b) and have the PCs also automatically succeed more often. The vast majority of skill checks can be completely eliminated and bam: immediate jump in their apparent competence and heroism.

If you are going to include more failure by having the NPCs fail more often, for goodness sake make it interesting. Go-nowhere failure is bad enough when the PCs are the focus, but to waste time on it when an NPC is the focus would be a nigh-criminal waste of the players' time.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

If you are going to include more failure by having the NPCs fail more often, for goodness sake make it interesting. Go-nowhere failure is bad enough when the PCs are the focus, but to waste time on it when an NPC is the focus would be a nigh-criminal waste of the players' time.



The most interesting NPC failure, IMO, is if a normally-reliable NPC gets in deeper than expected and requires the PCs' help to escape. Just about any suspicion of an NPC being superior to a PC can be deflated by said NPC requiring the PCs' help to survive.

And most of the NPCs I've seen were automatically succeeding in parallel to the PCs and thus making their job easier, sometimes too easy. At best, they dump tons of intel in the PCs' laps and make everything easier for them (although sometimes that robs the PCs of accomplishments). At worst, the PCs question why they're the heroes when the NPCs are obviously more competent at everything.

The worst possible thing that could happen, IMO, is for an allied NPC party to beat the PC party in a fair fight. After that, it's perfectly reasonable for the PCs to relegate themselves to the sidelines and let the NPCs finish the main quest- the exact opposite of what the GM wants.
The most interesting NPC failure, IMO, is if a normally-reliable NPC gets in deeper than expected and requires the PCs' help to escape. Just about any suspicion of an NPC being superior to a PC can be deflated by said NPC requiring the PCs' help to survive.

Careful. If the NPC brings down trouble on the PCs, the players might feel like the DM caused the NPC to fail in order to railroad the characters.

But lots of adventures start with the NPC having made some mistake or gotten in some kind of trouble and asking the PCs for help.

And most of the NPCs I've seen were automatically succeeding in parallel to the PCs and thus making their job easier, sometimes too easy. At best, they dump tons of intel in the PCs' laps and make everything easier for them (although sometimes that robs the PCs of accomplishments). At worst, the PCs question why they're the heroes when the NPCs are obviously more competent at everything.

Yes, it's very easy to mishandle exposition scenes and NPC interaction. Don't read so much into it. The DM is trying to get the players to the adventure in what they think is both a plausible and thematic way. The king hiring the PCs to take on a threat to the kingdom is a common one, even though we'd all think the king would have the resources not to have to hire the PCs. Sometimes you have to squint past the oddness to get to the point of the game.

And all this can be avoided if the players collaborate on the design. It may not make any more sense to an outsider, but the players will be bought in and not care.

The worst possible thing that could happen, IMO, is for an allied NPC party to beat the PC party in a fair fight. After that, it's perfectly reasonable for the PCs to relegate themselves to the sidelines and let the NPCs finish the main quest- the exact opposite of what the GM wants.

Why the heck is an allied NPC party fighting the PCs?

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Yes, it's very easy to mishandle exposition scenes and NPC interaction. Don't read so much into it. The DM is trying to get the players to the adventure in what they think is both a plausible and thematic way. The king hiring the PCs to take on a threat to the kingdom is a common one, even though we'd all think the king would have the resources not to have to hire the PCs. Sometimes you have to squint past the oddness to get to the point of the game.

And all this can be avoided if the players collaborate on the design. It may not make any more sense to an outsider, but the players will be bought in and not care.

True. I've seen a lot of scenes where the GMs just tossed information in the PCs' laps, or outright told them about connections/links they had forgotten or overlooked to get the adventure going. Those always struck me as hamfisted, as it took out the joy of piecing them together and hurt my Suspension of Disbelief if I thought it was unbelievable. ("Wait, how can my fighter match a portrait he saw with a description he heard a week ago?") In those cases, I would prefer it if I could suggest a different way of us figuring out that information to the GM, one that made more sense to me.

The worst possible thing that could happen, IMO, is for an allied NPC party to beat the PC party in a fair fight. After that, it's perfectly reasonable for the PCs to relegate themselves to the sidelines and let the NPCs finish the main quest- the exact opposite of what the GM wants.

Why the heck is an allied NPC party fighting the PCs?

One of the PCs was concerned about the NPCs' safety. The NPCs decided to settle her fears by fighting the party to show they could handle themselves. The GM made the NPCs equal-level & charop; they ended up wiping the floor with the PCs. The same player who was concerned about the NPCs' safety immediately asked why the PCs were tasked with saving the world when the NPCs seemed much more competent. The GM had to immediately backpedal and make up several reasons why the PCs were still better suited for saving the world. ("The NPCs only get 2 surges a day; they don't have the endurance you guys do.")

The whole "NPC superiority" thing seems to happen whenever the GM is focused on two things:

  1. Making cool NPCs.

  2. Making the party follow the rules.

Since the GM is not worried about making the NPCs follow the rules, they are free to do cool improvised things the GM just pulls out of his hat, while the PCs need to have the proper skill or utility power or etc. Eventually the PCs feel limited & uncool compared to the NPCs, since the PCs have to fight & struggle for everything and the NPCs just get stuff without hassle.

There's also cases where the GM thinks his NPCs are cooler than the PCs, exemplified by this conversation:

GM: "So I spent a Destiny point to save the NPC from dying; he's interesting and I want to reuse him again."
Player: "So, do we get to spend Destiny to save ourselves from dying?"
GM: "No..."
Player: "Why not? Aren't we more interesting than the NPC?"
GM: "...Depends..."

"Never make the NPCs more interesting than the PCs" should be a GM Guideline somewhere...

"Never make the NPCs more interesting than the PCs" should be a GM Guideline somewhere...



Shouldn't the GM be allowed to put as much effort as he likes into making NPCs interesting, just as the players can with their characters? As a GM I wouldn't want to be restricted in my NPCs by how interesting I perceive the party to be. Especially since "interesting" is an extremely subjective term-what the players might find compelling character traits, I might find bland and dull. If their characters are interesting then the players have probably put effort into making exciting characters, and want to interact with exciting NPCs, not 2 dimensional cut-outs. If the players are less interested in fleshing out their own characters, all the more reason for the GM to help the world come to life by making cool NPCs. 

Saving an NPC using rules unavailable to the players seems off though. If the players actually found him interesting then his loss will be all the more impactful to the party, and if they didn't then you shouldn't be bringing him back anyway.

"Encouraging your players to be cautious and risk-averse prevents unexpected epic events and-well-progress at a decent pace in general."-Detoxifier

"HOT SINGLES IN YOUR AREA NOT REGENERATING DUE TO FIRE" -iserith 

"If snapping a dragon's neck with your bare hands is playind D&D wrong, then I don't want to play D&D right." -Lord_Ventnor

The vast majority of skill checks can be completely eliminated and bam: immediate jump in their apparent competence and heroism.



The other day I was playing in a game where the DM asked for checks for every little thing. In one combat scene, we were battling undead. There was a nearby bench near a rampart. The invoker decides to get up on it, in part to look over the battlement at some disturbances established below but also to be cool while fighting some skeletons. One completely unnecessary Acrobatics check later, and the invoker was sprawled out on the ground. It went from dramatic moment to Keystone Cops in a single die roll. Getting up on a bench is not a roll. It's at best difficult terrain. The rest of the adventure was similar in tone, even though we were desperately trying to escape a city thay was being ravaged by an undead apocalypse.

Not everything is a simulation, DMs!

True. I've seen a lot of scenes where the GMs just tossed information in the PCs' laps, or outright told them about connections/links they had forgotten or overlooked to get the adventure going. Those always struck me as hamfisted, as it took out the joy of piecing them together and hurt my Suspension of Disbelief if I thought it was unbelievable. ("Wait, how can my fighter match a portrait he saw with a description he heard a week ago?") In those cases, I would prefer it if I could suggest a different way of us figuring out that information to the GM, one that made more sense to me.



I'd rather an NPC toss information in our laps than sit around trying to win the DM's "hinting game." In my view, the pacing of the game is more important than the "joy" of piecing together clues nobody can seem to remember or care about. The DM almost always thinks the answer is obvious because he created it; the players frequently get it wrong or don't have a clue. Having information means being able to act; not having it means the PCs generally sit around and do nothing, or worse, have a long discussions about theories that go round and round while the players block each other on potential courses of action. D&D's not a good mystery game. It's a good heroic fantasy game. Give up the goods and get on with it, I say.

As to "Wait, how can my fighter match a portrait he saw with a description he heard a week ago?" the answer to that question is the creation of new fiction and an opportunity to say something about your character. Make something up! "Something about that description really stood out to Ragnar because it reminded him of someone he knew in his youth. It's been on his mind all week and when he saw the portrait, he just knew it was the person we were looking for..." Now we know something new about Ragnar. Who is this person from his youth and why is she important? Could the DM now use that information to make the situation more compelling? "Yes, and..." The alternative is you sit around and do nothing while trying to figure out where to go next. Boring.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

DMs: Dungeon Master 101  |  Session Zero  |  How to Adjudicate Actions  |  No Myth Roleplaying  |  5e Monster Index & Encounter Calculator
Players: Players 101  |  11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer  |  You Are Not Your Character  |  Pre-Gen D&D 5e PCs

Content I Created: Adventure Scenarios  |  Actual Play Reports  |  Tools  |  Game Transcripts

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

PCs are Leads. Important NPCs are Features. Unimportant NPCs are Extras.

CHARACTERS: This is the “who” of the scene. I find it useful to conceptually break the characters present in a scene down into three categories: Leads, Features, and Extras.

Leads are the major characters in the scene. They’re the characters who are most affected by the agenda of the scene or who are capable of having the greatest impact on the agenda of the scene.


Features are the supporting cast of the scene. They wield an influence over the Leads; or provide crucial information; or are important resources in whatever conflict is being fought.


Extras are scene-dressing. They might find themselves being taken hostage or appealed to for mob justice, but they can usually just be thought of as part of thelocation instead of as active agents in the scene.


PCs in a scene are almost always leads. You may find it useful to think of some PCs as being the leads in the scene and the others PCs as features (because the agenda of the scene is primarily of interest to the former and of less interest to the latter), but if you’ve got a scene where none of the PCs are leads you might want to take a moment and triple-check what you’re doing. Unless you’ve got some amazingly good reason for side-lining the PCs, it’s probably a good idea to find a way of reframing the agenda of the scene.


Off-hand, the only example I can think of is a situation where the PCs are deliberately not participating in a scene. For example, maybe they’re eavesdropping on a conversation. Although even then you should double-check and make sure that a secondary agenda in the scene isn’t about the PCs avoiding detection. And then triple-check to make sure that the scene isn’t really about something like, “Will the PCs stop Roberta from confessing her love to Charles?”



Original article here.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

DMs: Dungeon Master 101  |  Session Zero  |  How to Adjudicate Actions  |  No Myth Roleplaying  |  5e Monster Index & Encounter Calculator
Players: Players 101  |  11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer  |  You Are Not Your Character  |  Pre-Gen D&D 5e PCs

Content I Created: Adventure Scenarios  |  Actual Play Reports  |  Tools  |  Game Transcripts

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

1. Give them flawed perspectives.

Outside of a DM who uses a heavy handed railroading approach I can't imagine an NPC having a complete and flawless understanding of how the world works even if the DM intended it that way.

 2. Give them a reason to need the PCs.

A good premise for the most part, although I wouldn't apply that to all the NPC's in the game, specifically villians may be competent.  I hate incompetent villians.

 3. Always give the PCs some way of contributing to the NPCs.

Isn't this the same as #2?

 4. Never, EVER make a Perfect NPC.

After reading your explanation...I agree with some of it, but, exactly how does one make a perfect npc without heavy handed railroading? 


 5. Give each NPC a fatal flaw.


Not necessary.  

 6. Don't let the NPCs automatically succeed all the time.

Why not?  Seems like a waste of time not to have predetermined the results of their actions.  Unless they are targetting the PC's.

 7. Make the NPCs weaker than the PCs whenever possible.


A good rule, but there are exceptions.



You are using a lot absolutes, always, never, perfect....I would avoid doing that, it can make you inflexible. 

I prefer to view NPC's as vehicles for storytelling.  If I make an NPC I make them as novel, interesting, colorful, and often exotic as possible.  They also tend to have short exciting and brutal lives.  Once an NPC has served their purpose something horribly tragic or violent tends to happen and they are used once more as a vehicle to launch the PC's into another chapter-not always, but often. 

My games tend to be whirlwinds, I don't do slow build ups or long planned out story arcs.  I 'prepare' one session at a time and drop a series of epic setpieces in one after another with very little downtime in between. 

My method of preperation is vastly different from most DM's though.  I typically sit down and read through a monster manual or two and a few short stories or a novel, then I do a couple of writing exercises, draw up a gigantic dungeon, castle, town, etc...then I throw it all in a box and probably don't look at it again for a few years. 

Come gameday I run about 80% to 90% improv (many times 100%).  The whole purpose of my preperation is actually just practice, I practice and sharpen my creative writing sklls to the extent that I am able to create interesting content at the pace of the game, and in accordance with the actions and desires of the players. 

...and in the ancient voice of a million squirrels the begotten chittered "You have set upon yourselves a great and noble task, dare you step further, what say you! What say you!"
Those always struck me as hamfisted, as it took out the joy of piecing them together and hurt my Suspension of Disbelief if I thought it was unbelievable. ("Wait, how can my fighter match a portrait he saw with a description he heard a week ago?") In those cases, I would prefer it if I could suggest a different way of us figuring out that information to the GM, one that made more sense to me.

Yes, playing directly to the players' suspension of disbelief is a key reason for collaborating on things like this.

One of the PCs was concerned about the NPCs' safety. The NPCs decided to settle her fears by fighting the party to show they could handle themselves. The GM made the NPCs equal-level & charop; they ended up wiping the floor with the PCs.

It sounds like you're complaining here about a personal axe you have to grind. Well, we all do it, but I hope you're saying to your DM what you're saying here. It sound from this post and others you've written that you've got a lot to work out with them.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

I've been thinking about some of the "great NPCs" I've encountered in campaigns. Often, these guys horribly outclass the PCs, able to do amazing things the PCs can only dream of and knowing more about the world than the PCs ever could. They are never wrong, they get to do things the PCs never could, and the rules constantly bend to let them be awesome while the PCs stumble & flail amidst failed skill checks.



These don't sound like my NPCs at all. My NPCs are always on the brink of death, asking for the PCs help because the PCs are heroes and adventurers while the NPCs are regular people. The NPCs are just there as experts in particular fields that can answer questions or move the story along. I can't imagine a situation where a plot-device character should overshadow the protagonists. Sure NPCs can have their moments in the spotlight but these rare situations are only for the benefit of the players.

A lot of this thread seems to be about the mechanics of NPCs and I generally make my NPCs mechanically useless. I know as a player I HATE HATE HATE having NPCs around mucking things up so I keep them all on the sidelines.

I always just used the NPCs as flavor, everybody loves the wise-cracking Medical Examiner but they don't want to be him, they want to be the detective solving cases. The NPCs role is to fill in the gaps, all the exciting work goes to the players.

This just sounds like a bizarro GM who thinks his lovingly crafted NPCs are the most important part of the game.

"Never make the NPCs more interesting than the PCs" should be a GM Guideline somewhere...



Shouldn't the GM be allowed to put as much effort as he likes into making NPCs interesting, just as the players can with their characters? As a GM I wouldn't want to be restricted in my NPCs by how interesting I perceive the party to be. Especially since "interesting" is an extremely subjective term-what the players might find compelling character traits, I might find bland and dull. If their characters are interesting then the players have probably put effort into making exciting characters, and want to interact with exciting NPCs, not 2 dimensional cut-outs. If the players are less interested in fleshing out their own characters, all the more reason for the GM to help the world come to life by making cool NPCs.

Perhaps I should rephrase it as "have the NPCs play by the same rules as the PCs" or "don't let the NPCs do something the PCs can't". If you make NPCs interesting solely by their behavior & personality, that's good. If you start relying on awesome skills, powers, items, etc the PCs can't access, they're going to be envious. You normally don't want your PCs envying your NPCs.

4. Never, EVER make a Perfect NPC.

After reading your explanation...I agree with some of it, but, exactly how does one make a perfect npc without heavy handed railroading?



A combination of Can't Argue With Elves and Mary Sue, I'd say. The NPC always seems to be right about situations and any PC arguments to the contrary are shot down. The NPC has perfect relationships with his allies, who are more competent at their job than the PCs are. The NPC has special traits the PCs can't access, such as Always Knowing When Someone is Lying. There are no apparent flaws or chinks in his armor and there really isn't any way the PCs can help him.

It sounds like you're complaining here about a personal axe you have to grind. Well, we all do it, but I hope you're saying to your DM what you're saying here. It sound from this post and others you've written that you've got a lot to work out with them.

True, it's a personal axe. They all are; it's where I get most of my ideas. Most sessions I can handle it and overlook it in favor of what they get right (I mean, if they were bad GMs, I would've left their games already), but sometimes it gets to be too much and I need to vent. Often it's the same issues I've talked about with the GMs over & over again, but they always have their reasons for doing it and it doesn't seem to change.

It was just... aggravating. I latched onto an interesting NPC, I had all of these ideas about how my PC could interact with, influence, or change them, and none of them worked because the NPC turned out to be Perfect. My PC ended up being lectured on how things work, unable to really contribute, and a lot of potentially interesting interactions were scuttled in favor of showing off a Perfect NPC. It was still a decent scene, but it left a bitter aftertaste.

In my discussion with the GM afterwards, he pointed out several hints the NPC's methods weren't perfect & how the PCs were better than him, and mentioned that "of course the NPC isn't going to admit mistakes if the PC is accusing him", but it really didn't come across in-game. It's a pity; now I'm less inclined to interact with that NPC than before, except to ask him to use his Special Powers to help us with something. It's not the cooperative situation I was hoping for, where we provide each other with something vital, or the PC can provide the NPC with a vital insight (or vice versa).
The most interesting NPC failure, IMO, is if a normally-reliable NPC gets in deeper than expected and requires the PCs' help to escape. Just about any suspicion of an NPC being superior to a PC can be deflated by said NPC requiring the PCs' help to survive.

Careful. If the NPC brings down trouble on the PCs, the players might feel like the DM caused the NPC to fail in order to railroad the characters.

My NPCs always give terrible suggestions for how to do stuff. You just need to make sure that the players catch on that the idea is terrible. Thats what the PCs are for, coming up with a good solution.


"I need your help rescuing my daughter from the goblin king. Storm the main gate and kill every last goblin inside." "OK well obviously we can't do that, what are we doing instead and should we let the dude know we won't be storming the gate now, or after we get back?"


Having the NPC say "You need to sneak in the back gate, wait 15 minutes until you see the guards change shifts, then jump them. Steal their uniforms and sneak into the dungeon. From here, disable the guard monster dog with this magical flute and then sneak back out with the girl. It should take roughly 45 minutes, and the guard changes every hour. So you should have a decent window to get out." 


That just makes it seem like the PCs are only along for the ride.

"In a way, you are worse than Krusk"                               " As usual, Krusk comments with assuredness, but lacks the clarity and awareness of what he's talking about"

"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"                                                  "I'd recommend no one listed to Krusk's opinions about what games to play"

My NPCs always give terrible suggestions for how to do stuff. You just need to make sure that the players catch on that the idea is terrible. Thats what the PCs are for, coming up with a good solution.

"I need your help rescuing my daughter from the goblin king. Storm the main gate and kill every last goblin inside." "OK well obviously we can't do that, what are we doing instead and should we let the dude know we won't be storming the gate now, or after we get back?"


Having the NPC say "You need to sneak in the back gate, wait 15 minutes until you see the guards change shifts, then jump them. Steal their uniforms and sneak into the dungeon. From here, disable the guard monster dog with this magical flute and then sneak back out with the girl. It should take roughly 45 minutes, and the guard changes every hour. So you should have a decent window to get out." 

That just makes it seem like the PCs are only along for the ride.



Hmm, true, but the way you phrased it, that requires making the NPCs idiots. I would rephrase your suggestion as:

"Give the PCs problems to solve, not guidelines to follow."

You could have the NPC say this instead:

"I need your help rescuing my daughter from the goblin king. Storming the main gate is suicide; you have any ideas?"

That still gives the players a problem to solve without making the NPC look like a reckless idiot.

Or, if you're dealing with smart NPCs, have them figure out a plan... except for 1-2 holes that are outside their area of expertise. That's where the PCs come in with either the knowledge or the skills to make it work. There's no shame in a smart NPC having a blind spot; even Holmes had his Watson. (In the original stories, Watson was a brilliant combat medic who Holmes relied on for medical knowledge, a few insights he missed, and the occasional crackshot.)

I tend to phrase things to the extreme to make my point clearer in text. You are accurate in your response and that tends to be closer to what actually happens 90% of the time, with my example being 10%. 


In the original stories I always saw watson as more of his muscle. He would go do all his investigation, sneaking about and then bring watson in and say something like "I brought you in because I expect them to try to kill me soon, get your gun".  He also happened to be a doctor, and pretty smart guy all around, just not at holmes level. 

"In a way, you are worse than Krusk"                               " As usual, Krusk comments with assuredness, but lacks the clarity and awareness of what he's talking about"

"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"                                                  "I'd recommend no one listed to Krusk's opinions about what games to play"

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