The Rival NPC Party

Back a year and a half ago or so, I introduced my players to the most irritating, burr-under-the-saddle, thing you love to hate imaginable. A rival party of NPCs; the Red Seekers.

There were as many in the NPC party as there were in the players’ party. They weren’t evil per se, but they were everything the PCs could ever hate. They were a few levels higher than the PCs (but not enough to allow them to completely steamroller the PCs), and naturally as the PCs gained levels, these guys did too. They were a little richer (making a point of renting the best rooms in the only inn in town, usually only a few hours before the PCs got there). They had slightly better magic (“oh, you don’t have magic missile in your spell book? What a pity!”). They waived around an “official charter” from the Duke of Tenh Himself, declaring them to be his official agents, treasure seekers, and troubleshooters. Oh, they *loved* that charter and the status it brought.

But worst of all, they were arrogant, and condescending towards the PCs, and constantly rubbed their nose in the fact that they were oh-so-slightly beneath the NPCs– but never in a way that was overtly insulting. Just always with the smirk and the grin amongst themselves that nobody else seemed to catch except the PCs. And they all wore those red cloaks. Those damned smugness-inducing red cloaks.

Oh, how the players hated those guys! And they couldn’t really do anything about it, because they weren’t evil. They were just… jerks. And had a habit of showing up and stealing the PCs’ thunder.

It was a great time playing encounters between the PCs and that NPC party. Not everywhere, of course; too much would spoil the broth. But every once in a while, there they’d be, and the collective groan that emanated from my players told me it was so wrong, but oh so right.

I would encourage other DMs to do something similar. It’s a not-threat; certainly they won’t pose a threat to life, limb, and loot, but rather to dignity. It also allows for an opportunity to inject a little comic relief into the game (an absolute necessity when there’s a lot of Serious Things going on; breaking the tension with humor, when done with a light touch, makes the campaign all the better). The trick is to make them essentially bullet-proof, but only because the players don’t have an excuse to knock their blocks off, no matter how hard they might want to.

Eventually, in my game, the NPCs got their comeuppance, and the PCs were able to roll a little night-soil downhill on them (figuratively speaking), and that was hailed as a great victory and was a quite cathartic episode. But they’re bound to make a comeback. And I will definitely look forward to that collective groan when they do.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

9 thoughts on “The Rival NPC Party

  1. I love it. I tried something similar in my current game. The rivals were all children of petty nobles from the Kingdom who thought the party were a bunch of low-bred, ill-mannered peasants. There were multiple run-ins, both in town and in the dungeon (most randomly rolled, at least below ground). The nobles eventually got into trouble, running into the party deep in the dungeon – the party let them "play through" and they got pulverized, losing several of their number. Later, having filled out their numbers with mercs, they once more enocuntered the party down deep, this time coming to blows when a PC was casting a spell made them think they were under attack.

    Rivals can be fun!

  2. Wonderful idea! I have used that concept only one time in the past, and only for a few sessions as the party pursued one specific goal, rivaled by another (arrogant, higher leveled, better equipped) NPC group. But I like the idea of keeping them around for the duration of a longer campaign. . . duly noted.

  3. Haha, awesome! I will definitely implement this idea, although the sketchy characters in my game may very well attempt to off them early on.

  4. Blair: Perhaps the rivals need to be the key to something the PCs really want, so they *can't* just off them in the interests of ridding the world of a pest. But it can't be a physical thing (that they could steal) or a bit of knowledge (that they could torture out of them).

    Maybe the NPCs are the entre your PCs need to get an audience with the king? Or the only way to get an invitation to the ball? Or doing them in will have repercussions that are not worth the effort, like lack of training ("you lousy PC bastards… you killed my son!"), general hostility in town, or somesuch.

    Make 'em *want* to kill their rivals, but not really be willing to pay the price for doing so. 😉

  5. Hahaha… Funny, this just came up in my game. One of those things I always mean to do and never end up doing – but "NPC party" came up on the table while the PCs were hauling ass outta Castle Greyhawk; luckily there's one detailed in CZ:UW. It nearly turned into a fight, but the PCs were pretty beat up and therefore a bit less mouthy than usual. Later on (2 sessions later), one of the "other guys" was on hand at the Green Dragon and got caught up in a little mind control incident involving the party; as a result the Red Griffons have good reason to distrust the PCs. Good stuff.

  6. In my long-running 3(.5)E campaign (currently on hiatus while we go all old-school, but I'd like to get back and wrap up the story arc someday), the PCs have gradually drifted to the dark side; they are currently part of the Special Ops branch of the Nine Hills Dairy, which seeks to enslave the population of the multiverse (straight-up Great Wheel cosmology) through its strategic deployment of specialty dairy products.

    They are opposed in this effort by the horrifically-named Monster Pals, who are essentially their opposite numbers working for Halo Farms, a dairy farmers' collective, offering artisanal cheeses at fair prices and adequately compensating their co-op members.

    The Monster Pals are what you'd expect: a bunch of monsters with class levels and all the special benefits that go with being an ogre mage, a succubus, a thri-keen with two pairs of Boots of Speed, and, well, a halfling (hey, the Monster Pals aren't bigots! Regular old humanoids can join too!).

    The Monster Pals thus get to be the irritating goody two (or in the case of the thri-keen, four) shoes who actually step in to foil the party and help grannies across the road and get kittens down from trees.

    My players really, really, really, really hate them.

  7. This is awesome. Makes me think of all those eighties american high school films where there was always the 'popular' girls that everyone wanted to be/loved/hated.

    How about a slightly lower level NPC party of complete sycophants who claw at the PCs' hems, pester them for autographs and can recite all of their adventures in chronological order? The main party might want to use them at some point, or just flush their heads down the privies (not that I condone bullying).

  8. Some of the characters on my blog needle my poor players to no end. An patrol of bugbears will have a tough time chasing you through the streets of an average fantasy town, but a bunch of scoundrels?

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