Getting the most use out of NPC Classes in D&D 3E

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide introduces five new non-player character classes (NPCS) to the game which provide Dungeon Masters with some non-adventuring options for the common (and uncommon) folk of their campaign. This article, inspired by a debate on the Greytalk listserv about the merits of having dedicated NPC classes, looks at how I use them to enhance combat, role-playing and meta gaming in my campaign

You can learn more about my campaign by checking out our web site: I should note that our campaign is located in the Greyhawk campaign setting; I have stripped out the Greyhawk references for this article to keep it generic (and to avoid getting slammed by WotC).

The five NPC classes are:

  • Adept: A scaled down cleric capable of casting some divine spells.
  • Aristocrat: Representative of the ruling class, including lordlings, princes and kings.
  • Commoner: You average serf, such as a farmer, or dockhand.
  • Expert: A skilled individual such as a scribe, blacksmith, or fletcher.
  • Warrior: A scaled down fighter who doesn’t get the feats of a fighter, but gains a few new skills, such as “intimidate.”

As I see it, these classes serve several roles in the game. First, they provide the DM with a way of quantifying exactly how good an NPC is. Not all NPCs need to be so quantified, and in my experience, it’s only worth doing this for frequently used or soon-to-be-crucial NPCs. Using the above NPC classes, the DM can answer questions such as “how good of a scribe is George?” or “how talented a blacksmith is Delven?”

Equally important, these classes — particularly the adept and warrior — provide a way of creating NPCs without shoehorn them into one of the conventional nine classes such as fighter, rogue or wizard. It gives the DM the ability to improve certain basic creatures — such as a human ruffian or hill giant shaman — without having to use the more powerful, more capable, fighter or priest classes. This in turn helps reinforce the fact that the adventuers are, indeed, a cut above the norm.

NPC Class Examples

The following examples detail how I would use (and have used) NPC classes can to flesh out a 3E campaign both through role-playing and combat encounters.

To start off the scenario, I’ll hypothesis that a band of orcish raiders are harassing the village of McClintock’s Corner on the Barrens, a wild, uncivilized peninsula jutting into an ocean. It’s located about three days outside of Obsidian Bay (one of only two human-controlled, civilized cities on the peninsula. The other is a city known as “Red”.)

Orcs are a low level threat — in D&D 3E terms, they have a challenge rating of something like 1. The PCs who will be engaging these particular orcs are of 3rd to 4th level, so I decide to beef up the encounter a little. In addition to creating a small band of about 10 normal orcs, I give them four more experienced superiors (Warrior 1) led by a grizzled orcish veteran (Warrior 4). The veteran, Olgath, is advised by Norgle, a shaman (Adept 3).

This turns a relatively easy challenge for a fourth level party — a war band of orcs — into a far more significant threat, one that could easily kill the party if they get cocky and think they’re up against “just orcs”. These “leveled” NPC orcs do a good job of representing the fact that the orcs of the Barrens are veterans of many battles, against humans and other tribes, but while they’re good, no one orc is as cable as any one of the PCs they’ll be fighting.

Meanwhile, we need some heroes. Caravan traffic traveling from Red to Obsidian Bay, carries news of the frontier village’s problem, and a group of Blackrazor Guild redshirts (low-level guild members who have not earned enough notoriety in the field to have been granted official “guild” nicknames) decide to do something about it. The total party level is four, but they’re a little stronger than that average implies because there are six fourth level characters involved in this adventure, rather than the typical “four” that WotC’s challenge ratings are based on.

They head east, onto the Great Southern Plain of the Barrens, and arrive in McClintock’s Corner just after a raid by the orcs against one of the town’s sheep herds. The PCs, it seems, have arrived just in time.

Being Blackrazors, they ask a minimal number of questions — how many orcs were there and which way did they go — before charging bravely and cluelessly after the humanoid scum. They succeeded in catching up with the orcs, and immediately attack the main group, not realizing that the orcs (thanks to an augury spell cast by the shaman) knew that they were going to be pursued, and have set a trap.

They spring that trap, and suddenly the Blackrazors are in a pitched battle not just against lowly orcs, but against their veteran leaders. Surprised and quickly outmatched, the Blackrazors remember their proud battle slogan. They immediately run like sissies from the field, retreating to the relative safety of McClintock’s Corner.

Back in the village, they ask the questions they should have asked earlier [insert lots of role-playing] and discover not only the size of the force, but that they seem to be led by some exceptionally crafty individuals and aided by some shaman-like orc wearing a necklace of teeth — teeth the villagers know are human.

Thus informed, the Blackrazors form a new plan. Realizing that their standard tactic of staking out a cow to lure the enemy into the open will not work, they decide to do something a little bolder. They speak with the village elder, and ask if there might be a few volunteers willing to help them in their battle against the orcs. The elder (who I do not detail, because there is no real need) nods reluctantly, and explains that there are five young men who are talented at hunting, and managed to scare off some giant bombadier beetles a few weeks back. After hearing the Blackrazors plan — which amazingly enough is not overtly suicidal — he allows the young men to join in their quest to confront the orcs.

Having anticipated that the Blackrazors might try to recruit help in the town, I have already created some generic “hunter” commoners (Commoner 2) and put their meager skill points into skills like Craft (farming), Spot, Listen and Hide (a cross-class skill). Since they get a feat as first level humans, I decide to toughen them up a bit with a Toughness feat (3 extra hit points). I also decide to give them a ranger (Ranger 1) to aid in tracking, which these particular redshirts aren’t too good at.

I’ve created most of the recruits as commoners because I personally don’t like the idea of a small village like this having four trained fighters on hand, but I do like the idea of having a few commoners who have fended off their share of giant vermin and lesser humanoid raids, and thus, are a little wiser and a little stronger then their fellows. And finally, they’ll help the PCs in their quest.

An epic battle follows in which the Blackrazors again spring the orcish ambush, but this time concentrate their attacks on the raiding party’s leaders, leaving the lesser orcs to the village folk to deal with (at least until the Blackrazors have neutralized the primary threat).

The Blackrazors win with minimal friendly casualties (surprising until one realizes that Blackrazors at this low level do not have access to fireball) and return to Obsidian Bay to happily drink themselves into oblivion using the wealth they’ve captured from the orcs.

Once back in the city, they head down to the Blackened Stump, a tavern of ill-repute in Obsidian Bay’s Wharf District and a popular watering hole for the Blackrazors. They arrive to find their customary table has been taken by a dandy of a lordling (Aristocrat 4) who’s apparently slumming it for the evening. He’s accompanied by three body guards.

The lordling has some experience in the art of intrigue and the battle of wits, even if he’s not as good with a sword as the gutter trash who just walked into the Stump . His guards (Warrior 3), hired away from the Strongarm Guild thanks to a respectable salary hike offered by the lordling’s family, are experienced brawlers, but have no formal training .

What follows is a situation replete with role-playing opportunities. Do the Blackrazors try to intimidate the lordling into leaving their table? Do they ignore him, and move on to another table? Or do they ignore diplomacy, scowl at the lordling to leave, and attack when he doesn’t? If they do decide to attack, what will happen if they kill this lordling? Will his family seek justice or revenge?

The Blackrazors decide to be diplomatic. It’s a rare decision to be sure, one not often made by redshirts, but these hardened adventurers are feeling benevolent. And they’re a little nervous after the seemingly easy-to-slay orcs turned out to be significantly more difficult to kill than they’d first expected.

One of the redshirt, Zilanderan (Fighter 1/Wizard 3) approaches. “Hail and well met sir. A good night to you.”

The aristocrat simply sneers and turns his head in disgust.

“I said, good night to you,” Zilanderan repeats, his hand falling to his sword hilt. He raises his other hand before him and a glimmer of electricity softly crackles its way across his fingers. Zil, it seems has learned a few new tricks on the trip back, including the ability to cast a spell silently (Shocking grasp, 1st level spell, cast silently, causing it to use a 2nd level spell slot).

This gets succeeds in getting the lordling’s attention, as well as that of his followers. “Now, since this is such a nice night, and my colleagues and I are in such a good mood, we won’t hurt you if you kindly move out of our seats, which we thank you for keeping warm for us. In so many different realities, individuals would not be so considerate as yourselves.” (a minor nod to Zil’s not-quite-of-this world origins — Obsidian Bay is a more magically intensive town than some of the others in the Flanaess, and has a few slightly unusually citizens).

I consider Zil’s performance here, and decide to give the player a +4 bonus to his Intimidate roll. Zil has no ranks in Intimidate — he’s a fighter and a wizard, not a thug — but his attempt deserves to be rewarded.

The aristocrat isn’t some commoner though — there’s steel beneath that dandied exterior. Zil’s Intimidate check has a Difficulty Class of 10 plus the aristocrat’s level, which is 4. The total DC is 14. Zil rolls a d20, gets an 8, adds four and gets a 12 as a final result. No dice — this lordling isn’t easily spooked.

Now it’s the lordling’s turn. “You sewer scum deem to tell me where I may sit? You, who could not have bathed within the past year, and who smell as though you just crawled out of the bilge of some fishing ship? Fool, leave me, and we won’t kill you.”

The lordling’s Intimidate skill is respectable — he’s got 6 ranks in it. The DC to intimidate Zil is a 14 (base DC of 10 + Zil’s hit dice, which is four). I roll and get a 16. I explain to Zil’s player that the lordling looks like he can back up his bravado, and Zil reluctantly backs down. As he pulls back, he turns to his fellow redshirt Durric, a dwarf who’s notorious for burying his axe into friends and opponents alike and says “I don’t think he’s going to move.”

Durric, always one for a good fight, throws down the clay beer stein he just drained, and attacks.

Combat ensues. The Blackrazors are barely victorious and manage to restrain themselves from slaying the noble and his henchmen, instead choosing to dump them naked in a mound of manure in the ally behind the Blackened Stump.

The next day Durric and Zil decide to head down to Delven & Sons, the renowned dwarven blacksmiths and stone masons who live in the northern end of the Wharf District, in an area informally known as Ironton. Zil’s seeking a new masterwork long sword, and Durric wants a nice masterwork dwarven axe. They need these weapons quickly — they’re hoping to head back out into the field in two weeks or so — and are willing to pay a premium.

Delven is far too busy to accept a request from two such lowly adventurers, but his son Duren (Expert 4) is able to help. I’ve detailed Delven and several of his sons because they are a trusted and often used resource in my campaign. In 3E, the better you are at a craft, the less time it takes to complete it. As an expert who’s spent much of his skill points in Craft (weaponsmithing) Duren can complete the weapons in the time allotted.

Durric’s player, Damon, decides to play up his dwarven heritage, and discusses with Duren not only what sort of weapon he’d like, but how he intends to use it to drive the orcish tribes from the Barrens and help to restore the dwarven fortresses that were lost when the peninsula fell.

I think Damon’s done a good job role-playing Durric’s passion for weapons and war, so I decide to knock some gold off of the final price of his new weapon. Zil, who tries to follow Durric’s lead, fails miserably. His player does a good enough job, but Zil’s talk of admiring the weaponsmmith’s ability to pull one sword design from the infinity of possible blades the multiverse offers him reminds Duren just how much he dislikes humans. Zil is lucky not to have the price of his sword increased.


And that’s how I think the 3E DMG’s NPC classes should be used, at least at lower character levels. At higher levels, I start mixing in some PC classes with the NPC ones. For example, the Blackrazor Guild’s resident scribe/sage is an 8th level character (Expert 7 / Wizard 1) while their “accountant” (and when you destroy as much property as the Blackrazors do, you do need one) is probably around 4th or 5th level (Expert 2 / Cleric (Zilchus) 2).

I haven’t converted over many of my higher-level NPCs from 2E yet, but I expect that General Stephan Warrick, current military governor of Red, is a 12th level character (Fighter 10 / Aristocrat 2). The patriarch of the dwarven clans in Obsidian Bay, Delven (of the aforementioned Delven & Sons) is probably around 13th level (Fighter 5 / Expert 8). Most of this these characters are defined simply to serve as a role-playing aid for me, or as a resource for players who want to research or create certain things with the help of an NPC.

As the characters reach higher levels, the opponents I favor start dropping the NPC classes. While hill giants might have warriors and adapts among them (and perhaps a barbarian), fire giants have fighters and clerics. Cloud giants have … well, hmmm, better not mention that, seeing as how the guys will be going up against them next.

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