So you are about to start a game session….. Everyone wants to play a fighter type character. Or the Bard and Healer can’t make it to game that day. One session we only had 2 fighter types and a rogue in a particularly nasty dungeon where we desperately needed a paladin and cleric for healing and undead encounters. We got mauled and had to escape the dungeon. Mission not completed.
It happens that you may not have the core 4 classes (Fighter type, Healer/Cleric type, Thief/Rogue type, Magic user type) at every game due to one thing or the other. If you are about to enter a deep dungeon or extended campaign, you will need all the core classes represented. Loading up on healing potions or healing poultices will only get you so far. So what to do?
Mercenary / Specialist NPCs
Need a swordsman? Get a mercenary. Need some long distance attacks? Hire an archer or a rock slinger. These mercenaries are usually like level 0 or level 1 NPCs with base hit points. Monthly cost is on scale of 5-15 gp type of range. You can pay them per job, per event, weekly retainer, monthly retainer, etc. Real basic filler. They won’t get any of the party experience points or party treasure typically. They can only perform basic skills/tasks. Ie. Fight only, march forward.
If you need a specific skill set, then look for a specialist. Sometimes you need a crew to sail your boat (captain, sailers, rowers etc.) or an alchemist to brew up a potion, then you need to find a specialist. These can be NPCs with a class and level (typically each level costs a certain amount of gold). Most villages/towns will have a local healer to patch you up. Or a blacksmith to repair your armor and buy weapons. Usually you only need them for a specific task or job vs. joining the party ongoing full time. Though hiring the local bog witch of the swamp can be risky…..
These Specialist NPCs typically have 1 primary skill set and don’t have the full skill sets of a typical character class. Ie. Healing only, Lock picking only, scouting only, etc.
These are NPCs with a class and level. I’ve typically used levels 1-2 to start. They can be of any of the available character classes and have all the skills of that class. I usually have full attribute stats for them as well. They may get a monthly wage and take a portion of the group treasure. Usually 500 gp per level for monthly rate is a good starting point. I’ve used more of this type to fill in party gaps when we are missing one of the core 4 classes. It’s a little more work to prep and keep track of but can also make an interesting dynamic for role play. They will be attacked and take damage. Classed NPCs can also potentially level up pending how you divvy up experience points and are treated as members of the party. We’ve spent healing potions on them as well as hero points. In recent game, one of the classed NPCs was squashed when a clay golem fell on him while he was at the bottom of a pit. The party recovered his body and hauled him back to the ship for proper burial in his home city.
Flex existing character skills/background
OSR systems are limited on having skills in other classes (it does keep the game more streamlined). Multi-classing in OSR systems seems to be the main way of having multi class skill sets. You can attempt tasks outside of your class at a pretty high difficulty challenge roll. 5E and Pathfinder does allow some character customization with adding some skill sets outside of your class abilities via different backgrounds which I do like. It allows characters to step in and fill in gaps when the party is missing that skill set. One 5E campaign that I was in was missing a thief archetype. I played a Monk with a criminal background (Outlaws of the Water Margin concept). The DM allowed my monk to do basic thief skills (ie. Unlock doors) with DEX checks as we had not thief in the party, and it also matched up with my criminal background. I also like the Call of Cthulhu way of handling skills. Occupations have a base package of skills but you also get additional skills outside of the occupation of your choice as personal interest skills. This method seems most realistic to me.
This is sort of like the classed NPC, but all the players have a secondary entry level character of the missing classes that they can control. They are lower powered and may not participate as much in the main story line. These characters are the supporting cast when needed. I have one cleric that is a battlefield medic. He has no primary weapons and just carries a giant kite shield. All he does is shield the injured in battle and patch their wounds.
Typically hirelings are non-classed NPCs that do the behind the scenes grunt work. Messengers, porters, local guide etc. They do not substitute or replace any skill sets that the core 4 classes have and are used more as day labourers.
How to find NPCs in game
Most common place to find them is in cities / towns / areas of population. If you are mid adventure and in the wild or in the dungeon, NPC can be a ‘wandering monster’ type or solo adventurer as well. I’ve also toyed with the idea to have the NPC as a wandering spirit or ghost that vanishes at the end of the session or adventure to the surprise of the party.
What happens to characters or NPCs in story that are not used?
So a Player doesn’t show up or does show up and you don’t need that NPC skill set anymore. What happens to the character in the story line? We usually just have the character/NPC play a passive role and tag along. Game master may make some attribute / skill checks for them on ltd. Basis, but they don’t really participate in combat or any of the major actions. Some people don’t mind if their characters are played as active NPCs if they are out, but we tend not to do that. The most common excuse we have used is that the character/NPC ate some bad meat or water and has the shitts. They are holed up in the outhouse, local tavern, ship, stream, safe room, etc. getting over their poo.