NPC Power Bases
An excerpt from 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
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
- 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
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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
The NPC has the brains, but how does he use them to improve
his lot in life?
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?
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 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?
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?
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 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
- 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
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:
- 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
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:
- Working class
- Freed 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?
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
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?
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
- 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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