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  • Aaron K

Campaign Creation Tips: NPC Creation, Part 3 - Nuts and Bolts

Hey Reader!

Welcome back to the Zurn blog! As we continue our series on campaign creation, we will be covering the nuts and bolts of building non-player characters (or NPCs). There are a host of ways to create NPCs, so we will be covering some of them here, as different styles may work better for your gaming group, encounter, etc.

As we discuss NPCs we'll be tying back to the things we mentioned in our past posts on allied NPCs and hostile NPCs, so if you need to refer to them, you can access them.

1. NPC Creation: Advancement Point Economy

When building NPCs, some people like to give the NPC Advancement Points equal to what the players have received to date, as this will make for a "fairer" fight. Now, naturally, having Advancement Points (or "AP") does not necessarily mean getting the most for the points you spend. If you have a more theme-oriented player and a meta-gamer in the same group, the difference in dice rolled will vary substantially, even though they have the same number of AP.

Crafting and the presence of Build Phases also throws things off: if players are investing varying amounts of AP into their profession, or if they are receiving different pay per Build Phase, then the party members will also vary, making it harder to line up the value for your NPCs. Add random loot into the equation, and you suddenly have a tough time getting perfect equality of AP for the players.

What I've discovered (as I use this form most commonly), is that building NPCs this way works best with the following rules:

  • Tier 2 Adjectives: If you play a Zurn campaign written by me, you'll notice very quickly that a lot of the NPCs have Tier 2 adjectives. This is done for a few reasons, not least of which the fact that it gives a decent bonus (to keep up with metagamers) for a suboptimal cost (to keep it in-line with theme players).

  • 2 Below: I always give grunts 2 AP less than the players. This helps the theme players (as they may not be spending their points in an economical way) and the metagamers (as they have room to invest in crafting without being overpowered in other arenas), while still keeping them competitive. So if a starting character build is Strong Stats, Average Equipment, Weak Enhancements, that gives us 20 Advancement Points in equipment and enhancements, so I'll plan on giving them 18 to work with, 8 of which will be tied to two Tier 2 adjectives. For elites I typically will put them on par, and for villains I'll give them 10+ above, just to insure that no one party member can handle them on their own.

  • 3-7 Good Rolls: For grunts, I make them decent and/or good at three things, as these are the things that they should push the party on when they see them. So for a street gang thug, I might pick physical armor, melee damage, and melee to-hit. This leaves them with vulnerabilities (being charmed by a good Persuade roll, magical damage, archery, etc.), but still gives the players a moment of pause. For elites I'll shoot closer to 5 good rolls, and for villains I'm looking for 7 (with at least two of those being armor rolls of some kind, and one of them always being Willpower just in case of Charm Cannons).

  • Don't Forget Theme: The advantage of the Zurn system in building its NPCs is that you can tie the theme of your story to the NPCs that people encounter. Sure, it's more work (unless you buy a Zurn campaign from us, where we pre-build your NPCs for you), but it allows you to customize them in ways that some game systems can't do.

I find this to be the most natural way for me to balance the strength of my NPCs for parties of adventurers, especially when I'm building NPCs without knowing the party makeup (such is the life of creating campaigns for general sale, where I'm not the only GM they will have, and I don't have a chance to chat with the players in a Session Zero). But there are other ways to build NPCs that can also be of use.

2. NPC Creation: Concept-Driven

I once built a campaign around a mystery theme rather than a combat theme. Because of this, though, the NPCs had to have more character and thematic elements in their builds, rather than straight fighting ability, and I found an AP cap hindering toward that end. The result: I build the NPCs more with an eye toward their character concept without limiting myself with an AP value.

This works well in non-combat scenarios. No one minds if an NPC has double or triple their points if they are not in mortal peril simply by existing at this particular point in the story. There is a place for being well outside your league as regards AP value when you are in peril (one should not anger warlords and kings flippantly), but it runs the risk of our players (who are the main characters of the story, remember) feeling sidelined and incapable of doing meaningful things in their story.

So use this inasmuch as it is helpful for your storybuilding purposes. If you want a bit more guidelines on how to go about doing an unencumbered NPC build, I recommend the next system.

3. NPC Creation: End Rolls

If I find that I want a bit more freedom than an AP value system for building NPCs but I want an easy litmus test to tell whether an NPC is balanced, I'll build the NPC with a final goal in mind for their rolls. So instead of using Advancement Points to set the end destination, set a goal of where you want the character's rolls to end.

So for example, if we have a fire mage in the party who rolls 14 dice (or 14D in shorthand) to cast a fire spell, and her signature move (a Firecone spell) deals 12D of damage, I want my grunts to come in at 10D or less to dodge or dispel and 8D or less of armor against magical damage (as this means they won't be able to avoid it, and they'll be toasty when it's over). My elites should come in closer to 14D of dodge and/or dispelling and 12D of magical defense (so that we make the character work for their damage output), and my villain should be about 18D to dodge and/or dispel and 16D of armor minimum (as the mage will now need the help of the party priest, bard, support mage, etc. to win).

What this does is that it always insures that the party has a challenge that is properly scaled to the party's abilities. It can be hard to balance across player characters (as the amount of damage, Charm ability, armor, and mobility will vary a lot across a party), but if you pull it off right, it will insure a good challenge to your players.

4. Other Game Systems and NPCs

Now naturally this discussion is tied to our gaming system for Zurn, where NPCs are created for the adventure (often from scratch, unless you buy one of our pre-built campaigns where all of the NPCs are pre-made for you - more on that below). So what do you do if you are using another system where NPC creation is not as intuitive?

Most gaming systems (especially the big two: Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder) have a host of monster guides that have pre-built monsters in them, typically included a Challenge Rating (or "CR") that shows how hard they are. There is some math as to what level of CR and how many of an opponent you should throw at a party at Level X, and you can find a host of bloggers and YouTubers talking about CR (I personally recommend DawnForgedCast, but you can use whoever you wish), so we won't touch on it here.

The important things you need to remember are these:

  • Remember the Goal: The goal for your NPCs should be kept in perspective. If have a host of grunts led by a few elites, plan your CR to have very weak grunts with a few proficient elites to lead them. If you want a villain who is sinister and terrifying, be sure to select a villain who is both combat proficient and unlikely to be conned.

  • Variety: It is easy to always run the same types of NPCs against your opponents (as it is easier for you to remember and roll with mechanics), but be sure to vary your choice of NPCs. As more types of NPCs are presented (denizens of melee grunts, a powerful archer, a skilled sorcerer, etc.), your world will take on greater form and hold the attention of your players for longer periods of time. There is something to be said about consistent opponents (if the party keeps running into goblins they know what kinds of attacks will be best against them, and that's not bad), but variety will keep their minds engaged.

  • Theme Matters: Different "Monster Guides" and other sources for hostile NPCs will have different types of enemies, and while mixing and matching works for some stories, it doesn't work for all. So when planning out your NPCs, think within the context of theme. Who is the primary villain? What servants would he have? What agents would he be open to working with, and what would that look like in his army v. mercenary employment? Use questions to guide NPC selection.

Now I fully confess: the customization options for Zurn are part of why I created my own game system. I didn't like how so much of the math behind CR was hidden from players in games like D&D, Pathfinder, etc. so that I couldn't really build my own hostile NPCs. But the advantage of pre-built NPCs is time. It takes a lot longer to build your own NPCs, so there is a good reason to use what other game systems have provided for you.

Now thankfully, as Zurn releases its own pre-built campaigns (the first of which we hope to release by the fourth quarter of 2018, so stay tuned!), the campaigns will come with pre-built NPCs, so you will be able to quickly choose and modify NPCs off of them to speed up your NPC creation. But until then, just know that Zurn's big contribution is the ability to tie your NPCs to your theme, and grow the love of the players for the campaign through organic, unique NPC characters, whether allied or hostile.


When you build your NPCs, think holistically about them. What weaknesses do they have for the party to exploit? What strengths do they have that will challenge the players? What role do they play in the encounter? Just as each player character should fulfill a role in the party, so also all of your NPCs should fulfill a role in the encounter.

In our next post we will be discussing guidelines for character creation for the campaign, and how you can help your players build good characters that will make the story more real and impacting to them (and yourself).

Until we meet again,

Aaron K



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