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NPC Power Bases

An excerpt from NPC Essentials

By Johnn Four

NPC Essentials by Johnn Four

What kind of power does the NPC have and how can they wield it? These questions and their answers are often overlooked in RPG core rulebooks, yet they determine how an NPC can interact in your world and what choices and opportunities they have. They can help form an NPC's personality or help figure out what it drives him to do. A power base also aids you in world creation, campaign planning, story development, and encounter generation. For all these reasons, power bases are one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of NPC design.

When To Design A Power Base

Power base design is not needed for most NPCs. You can often perform this step later on in the campaign for characters that need it. To better prioritize your preparation time for the most important stuff first before next game session, only design a power base when:

  • The NPC is a villain.
  • He or she is a major ally.
  • The NPC forms the nucleus of a campaign or adventure.
  • The consequences of an NPC's actions can significantly affect your game world during a campaign or during the world design phase.
  • You need to create a logical and realistic sequence of historical events and the NPC is an important factor.
  • The PCs will be roleplaying or significantly interacting with the NPC.
  • The PCs could possibly interact with the NPC and the campaign is high level.

As a rule of thumb, high-level player characters (9th level+) require more extensive power base planning. This is because the stakes are higher, capabilities greater, and consequences more serious than in low level adventures. If the characters attack, insult, challenge, or request the aid of an NPC, you'll quickly need to know what will happen. At higher levels the possibilities are greater and more complicated, so more pre-game preparation is recommended.

Individual Power And Scalability

When designing power bases, it's important to understand the difference between an NPC's personal power and an NPC's scalable power. Ultimately, a power base represents how competitive an NPC can be in his environment. A 3rd level mage with a fireball wand should be able to rise a rung or two on the ladder of life. Perhaps he carves out for himself a comfortable living by intimidating the local peasants or maybe he uses the wand to become a local hero. Heck, he might just sell the wand and move to the city where he buys himself a job at the library.

However, the mage can't scale his power base outward with his few spells and wand alone. Once his spell slots are used up for the day and the wand's charges are all expended, he's on equal footing with the peasants again. Also, even with his fancy wand, people in the neighboring valley won't care about him because his fireballs can't reach that far. His power is confined to his person and the immediate vicinity, he's quite vulnerable (the wand and his spell books can be lost, destroyed, or stolen--a great adventure idea right there!), and he must always initiate or do things himself in order to get ahead. This means our mage has personal power, not scalable power.

On the other hand, if the mage uses his wand to impress the leader of a gang of bandits and they throw their lot in with him, the NPC suddenly has scalable power. The bandits can go out and act for the mage, either individually or as a group. The magi can get many things done at the same time without having to perform every task himself. He's not as vulnerable and the skills of the bandits and their leader are at the mage's disposal. This is an example of scalable power--the mage has multiplied his ability to be competitive in his environment and he has a chance to jump several rungs up life's ladder if he's careful.

This distinction is important to make with your NPCs for several reasons:

  • Villains generally need scalable power to achieve their plans.
  • High-level PCs can often only be defeated or challenged through scalable NPC power versus the great personal power of a single NPC.
  • Personal power often has more affect on an NPC's personality than scalable power.
  • Most NPCs begin with personal power and then create a scalable power base for themselves. This corresponds nicely to experience levels--low-level NPCs will rely on personal power, while high-level NPCs will focus on creating scalable power.
  • Scalable power is difficult to hold without personal power. An NPC with an army, for example, better be a great leader or a smart general.
  • For roleplaying focused encounters or stories, NPCs with personal power are always far more interesting to interact with than NPCs who only have scalable power. For example, the PCs finally confront the half-orc mage who leads an army of bandits. The players don't want to meet the army; they want to confront the mage. They want to know who the person is behind the general's mask, what drives him to wage a campaign of terror against the kingdom's peasants, and why the bandits follow him (wait until the PCs learn the NPC is just a low level mage with a big stick!).

Adding A Power Base To An NPC

Power bases are one of the best places to start NPC development. It's a solid concept that forms the character's personality, background, resources, goals, strategy, and so on. It's a great seed to grow your NPC around. Conversely, you can add a base to an NPC at any point during his development (even mid-campaign) and then re-check his other information to ensure it all makes sense.

To give your NPC a power base, simply pick from the list below and integrate it with your NPC's other information, or carefully consider your NPC and pick the power base you feel best suits him, your campaign, or your story's needs.

Once you've determined an NPC's power base, ask what the character does with it, and how does it impact him? For example, think of all the ways wealth can affect a person, and the choices and opportunities it opens up for them. Do they use it for selfish personal satisfaction, help others with it, and launch an evil plan with it? How could being wealthy affect an NPC's personality? Do they stay the same or become arrogant? Does their confidence go up or down?

A power base is one of the most influential elements of an NPC; so don't be afraid to change the NPC around once you've determined his source of power.

Adding Multiple Power Bases

NPCs with multiple power bases are quite possible and even encouraged. For minor NPCs it's probably not worth your time to do this, but for major NPCs the process will pay you great campaign dividends. As a rule of thumb, the more power bases you add, and the more powerful each base you assign is, the more important your NPC is to your game world, campaign, or stories.

Stop and consider how a single power base impacts an NPC and his environment, then think of the juicy complexity multiple bases would create. How great this tool can be for creating realistic, deep, and meaningful non-player characters and campaigns. Multiple bases are encouraged, though be prepared to spend a little more time in the design stage.

A good way to add multiple bases is to layer them on one at a time. For each new base you add, go back to the beginning and weave it into all of your NPC's elements, such as ability scores, personality, background, and so on.

When you're done, it's also a good idea to step back and give your NPC an objective once-over. Is the NPC believable or have you thrown too many ingredients in? Is your NPC a circus freak (possibly a good thing, though) or is he three- dimensional and deliciously complex? Finally, is the NPC playable? Can you roleplay him during the game, or have you created a jumbled soup of messy and contradictory details stemming from poor power base design?

Crafting Stories From Power Bases

An interesting technique is to establish a power base that an NPC would have difficulty supporting and then use this conflict to create stories for the player characters to get involved in. For example:

  • A strong NPC starts suffering from a disease which will permanently weakens him. Did he abuse his strength in the past and make enemies who wait in the wings? How will he defend himself now?
  • A skilled NPC has a gambling habit and loses his tools in a bet. How will he make a living now? What will he do to get his tools back before he starves?
  • A noble NPC is rocked by a scandal, putting his family into disgrace. How does he cope with the guilt? What will he do to redeem himself and his family name?

Scalable power bases naturally impact the game world in significant ways and spawn interesting stories all by themselves. Watch how your NPC wields his power base, and maintains, grows, and defends it. Every choice affects your campaign environment and sows a seed for a new adventure.

For example, an NPC with an army cannot afford to pay his troops. Where does he get additional money? Pillage a nearby town? Send a special force out to slay the dragon in yon hills and capture its treasure hoard? Offer the services of his army to the highest bidder? Each option is an opportunity to tell a great story.

Tragedy And Power Bases

Though you might have assigned a power base to an NPC, this doesn't mean that the character is doing well and improving his lot in life. In fact, he could be in dire straights or have some extreme disadvantage that renders his power base impotent. This is tragic and creates excellent tension and story possibilities in your games.

For example, a rogue could have magic tools and great skill that makes any barrier a mere formality to him, yet his loose tongue and penchant for ale constantly gets him into trouble and holds his career back.

As a rule of thumb, the greater the potential of an NPC's power base that goes unrealized, the greater the character's tragedy--an excellent GM tool.

Types Of Power Bases

Ability Scores

Many people in real life take pride in being intellectual, spiritual, or fit and healthy. These are personal power bases where the person thinks, acts, and advances according to this perception. For example, an intellectual would focus on studious activities and become more knowledgeable over time through reading, analyzing, and learning. They gain personal confidence because their inner voice tells them they are smart, and a desire to be perceived as smart motivates them to learn even more.

This model, while over-simplified, fits nicely into the d20 system and is a great way to create personal NPC power bases from. It's worth noting that ability scores are often used as secondary power bases by NPCs--that is, they are used in combination with one or more of the other types.

Strength

A strong NPC has many advantages over his neighbors in fantasy worlds, which are generally more physically demanding than modern ones. This type of character will seek to solve their problems through physical means. They might find it difficult to scale their power outwards because they won't think beyond what their strength can accomplish. On the other hand, strong NPCs could use their strength to intimidate others, learn to channel their strength and become great warriors or soldiers, or simply be strong enough to survive conditions others cannot endure.

How does the NPC use his strength to survive, compete, or excel in your game world and campaign?

Dexterity

Characters who are quicker, faster, or nimbler than others are also blessed with good personal power bases. Many paths are open to them, however it can be even harder to scale outwards than strength-focused individuals because high dexterity is subtler in nature and makes less of an impression than great strength does. Conversely, nimble NPCs have the opportunity to take higher risks in life, knowing they can usually escape from most situations.

How does the NPC use his gift of dexterity to survive, compete, or get ahead in life?

Constitution

As a power base, this ability score is most often used to survive with greater personal well-being, or to take chances where weaker and less durable characters will not tread. An NPC who rarely gets sick and who mends quickly is indeed blessed, but not likely to launch a coup against the King based on this gift. Instead, constitution is a great power base for minor NPCs, or employed as a secondary source of confidence: "I am fit, healthy, and full of energy--I can make this business work!"

How does the NPC use his high constitution to survive or become more successful?

Intelligence

Smart, clever, and knowledgeable NPCs have many advantages. Some spell casters, for example, gain more spell slots per day over their rivals. For all NPCs, a high intellect means more skill points, and therefore more capabilities. This is a strong power base that is quite scalable, as smart NPCs have the opportunity to teach others what they know so they can do the work for them, figure out solutions to life's problems, and understand things in order plan and advance their goals.

The NPC has the brains, but how does he use them to improve his lot in life?

Wisdom

Wise people tend to make fewer mistakes, earn more allies, and solve problems intuitively. These are great advantages to have in life, thus wisdom makes an excellent power base. In addition, wise NPC clerics get more daily spells and have greater potential to advance within their organization. Wisdom also represents scalable power because others naturally tend to follow those who seem to know the best course of action to take or who make the best decisions.

How does the NPC use his wisdom to survive, compete, and get ahead in life?

Charisma

Charismatic NPCs are natural leaders, which makes this ability score the most scalable and potentially successful power base of all. On a personal level, NPCs with higher charisma scores often have more friends and have formed more valuable relationships with influential people. At the very least, these NPCs are well liked by most, and that benefits everyone from the lowly peasant farmer to the mighty king. NPCs who can win friends and influence people are a force to be reckoned with at any campaign level.

How does the NPC use his personal magnetism, ability to lead others, and physical attractiveness to survive, compete, or get ahead in life?

Skills

Skills are a common source of power. Usually, a NPC is better off focusing on a specific skill group and carving a niche for themselves than by trying to be a jack-of-all- trades. High skill levels translate into better jobs (master craftsman, for example), or allow NPCs to take higher risks (i.e. launching villainous plans).

Scalability varies with each skill. Diplomacy, for example, opens many doors and allows the NPC to gain friends, contacts, and allies and thus gives the character great scalable power. Pick pockets, on the other hand, requires the NPC to take continual risks. There's little long-term gain from regular use, except in unusual circumstances.

How did the NPC get his skills and how does he use them to improve his situation in life?

Feats

Gaining feats gives an NPC an edge in their environment and therefore make great personal power bases, especially when a character chooses feats that compliment each other. Unlike most other sources of power, feats are dependent on level and experience gains, which makes them more of a secondary power base. Feats give characters important and valuable abilities, but they are most often used in conjunction with other power bases like abilities, skills, and equipment.

Some feats allow an NPC to scale out his power as well. For example, an ambitious wizard might use his item creation feats to create magical gear for his minions and make them more powerful (thus increasing his minions' power bases).

How does the NPC use his feats in daily life? How does having feats benefit him?

Spells

Who wants to mess with a guy who can invade your mind and influence your thoughts (Charm Person spell, for example) or who can summon a deadly column of fire from the safety of a hundred feet away? Is anyone really safe in a world where this could happen? An NPC with the power of spell casting has a strong power base indeed. From a mechanics point of view, spells pack a lot of punch, solve many problems, and give a character great control over his environment. From a roleplaying viewpoint, spells are a mysterious, wondrous, and sometimes frightening ability. A person could use this to their advantage in many ways.

Some spells are quite scalable, such as the Animate Dead spell, and clever NPCs can rise in power quickly if they are clever. How does the NPC spellslinger use his spells to get by in life, get ahead in life, or even get more life?

Wealth

Wealth is one of the most powerful bases because it can be used in so many different ways. Wealth is a medium of exchange that almost everyone wants, which means it can be put to use to accomplish just about any goal or plan or to solve any problem. Wealth, for the most part, requires no special skills to spend or wield, so it's also available to nearly any NPC you design. Wealth comes in many different forms, so be creative when assigning it to NPCs: Examples of wealth:

  • Land
  • Art
  • Investments
  • Owns a business
  • Owns valuable goods or equipment

Wealth is always scalable because it can buy the services and loyalty of others, and it can be converted into other scalable forms of power. Often, simply having wealth draws other power bases to the character.

What does the NPC do with their wealth and how well do they manage it?

Followers, Minions, Henchmen

Followers are a key power base for many NPCs because there is only so much time in a day and an NPC can only do so much himself. Henchmen can be a character's eyes and ears in other places, allow him to affect other parts of the world without being there, protect him, and make life easier for him. Followers can be a mixed blessing though, as they can become dependants (they're an expense or responsibility, for example), misunderstand their boss or act independently of his wishes and create problems.

Followers represent a scalable power base. The challenge is in managing them well when their number grows.

Why and how does the NPC attract followers? How does he employ them to his benefit?

Laws, Authority, Consent

This power base gives an NPC the power to arrest, legally injure (or kill), or command others. Depending on your game world and local campaign environment, this is a desirable power base that can be used for good or evil. It's also a complex power base because it is dependent on consent. If others disobey, fight back, or ignore the NPC, then his power is gone, either temporarily or permanently.

This type of power also usually has political or geographic boundaries. Other countries, kingdoms, political groups, religions, and such, might not acknowledge the authority of the NPC. These boundaries are usually called jurisdictions and they cap an NPC's power (whereas many other power bases have no such cap). What is the NPC's jurisdiction and what powers has he been granted:

  • Arrest
  • Seizure of property
  • Freedom to encroach on private property
  • Self defense, initiating combat, the license to kill
  • Deputization of others
  • Ability to judge, assign guilt, and issue penalties
  • Ability to make laws, change laws, and break laws

This type of power base is scalable. The NPC might have the power to recruit others to his cause or command others to obey and do his bidding. Also, his authority might be such that a written note, new law, or official decree carries great weight across the land and affects many lives.

How does your NPC use these powers, and does he employ them for personal gain? Has the NPC thought about what he will do if or when his authority has been revoked (i.e. retirement, his lord or boss is removed from power, he is caught abusing his power)?

Social Class

Every society is stratified into layers of privileges and rights. This makes social class a power base for those who are a member of the upper or elite layers. In fact, unless your NPC is on the bottom rung, he will always have some power over those in classes lower than his. It's also true that the lowest members of society have nothing left to lose and can use that as a source of power. The benefits and extent of the character's power base is determined by your world's society. Examples of rights and privileges are:

  • Allowed to get a good job with high wages
  • Presumption of innocents or rights to a fair trial
  • Ability to travel freely
  • Entitled to command a certain social class, or treat that class in with impunity
  • Inherent relationships, social circles, contacts and connections

Example social classes for determining power bases are:

  • Nobility
  • Priests
  • Mages
  • Military
  • Working class
  • Poor
  • Freed slave
  • Slave

How does the NPC fit into his society, and how does he use or abuse his rights and privileges?

Reputation and Perception Versus the Truth

How would a peasant react if confronted by a powerful mage known for his short temper and ability to burn a man to death with a twitch of his finger? Would he obey? Most definitely! But what if the peasant knew the mage was weak, hardly more than an apprentice, and his firepower actually comes from that stick dangling from the mage's belt? What would the peasant do then? He might still obey, or he might go for the stick or attack the mage with his hoe.

Perception and reputation are great sources of power for NPCs, and possibly the most fun to game master. The NPC must always work at fostering his reputation and ensuring it spreads to the right people. Encounters with this NPC are usually roleplaying oriented. If the NPC's reputation is deserved, then he just needs to walk-his-talk and word of mouth will spread. Where you can have the most fun is if the NPC is trying to create a reputation that is exaggerated or false. Then he must always convince others of his reputation and never reveal the truth.

In either case, a reputation is scalable because people will learn about it and act accordingly without the NPC having to go to each person and provide a personal demonstration.

In terms of power bases, we're only dealing with reputations that could be of advantage to the NPC. However, it is still possible that the NPC has a reputation, which could be leveraged, but he doesn't want that. For example, an NPC's charisma is so low and his appearance so frightening, that word quickly spreads and all the peasants in the local area fear the character, yet most have never even met or seen him. It's up to the NPC to figure out how to use this to his benefit, but the reputation is still unwanted by him.

What kind of reputation does the NPC have or want? How does he foster it, and how does he use it to his advantage?

Defense

An NPC with exceptional defense can use this as a basis of strength to build his plans from. The form of defense can vary, but the effect is the same: if one's foes cannot hurt you, you have an advantage over them and can act with greater impunity. This isn't a scalable power base, and it's more difficult to build power from, yet it's commonly used:

  • High constitution
  • Racial immunities
  • Great speed
  • Impregnable stronghold
  • Magic armor and weapons with defensive bonuses
  • Defensive feats (i.e. Dodge)
  • Remote and secret base
  • Capable body guards
  • Magical wards, protections, and immunities
  • Defensive spells

How does the NPC use his superior defense to get through life and accomplish his goals and dreams?

Equipment and Technology

Having better equipment and technology is a considerable advantage, especially in fantasy or primitive societies.

  • Magic items
  • Better weapons
  • Better armor
  • Faster and more reliable communication
  • Tools that decrease building time or cost
  • Faster and stronger mounts

The downside to equipment is that it can be destroyed or taken away from an NPC, so his power is always tenuous. Technology can always be learned, stolen, or duplicated, so its advantage is fragile as well.

Travel and Communication

A smart NPC can turn a travel or communication advantage into a great power base. Imagine the general who can move his army faster than his opponent, or the plotting mage who can whisper in the king's ear one moment and then teleport to the neighboring kingdom's leader then next. Consider the boy who's the fastest runner and earns the prestigious job as Royal Page, or the merchant who uses balloons to ship goods more safely and faster than his land-based competitors.

The scalability of this power base depends on whether it's just the NPC who has the travel or communication advantage, or whether he can confer this boon to others.

What sort of travel or communication advantage does the NPC have, and how does he use it to improve his circumstances?

Special Ability

The NPC has a special power or ability that he uses to improve his lot in life or impress others with. The value of the power base, and its scalability, depend on the nature of the special ability.

  • Racial magical ability
  • Racial physical ability
  • Psionics
  • Permanent magical effect
  • Character class ability

What special ability does the NPC have, how does it affect his daily life, and how could he use it as a power base?

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