Creating a powerful NPC

Hey guys, so I have a bit of a dilemma. Let me briefly outline the situation so you have some context:

My group used to only play one-shots due to us living far apart, this OL campaign is our first campaign ever. Because of this the party are used to adventures being custom built for them, where victory is almost certainly assured (as long as they aren’t dumb) and I think this no-risks attitude is affecting them in the campaign. They don’t feel threatened or like there’s a risk of death, they assume that every encounter they find is surely customised to their current level because that’s what they’re used to, even if only subconsciously.

I want to change that. The point of creating a campaign world is to have gears turning in the background and characters that pose a threat to the PCs in the long run, not just to show up for one session and be defeated because everything is scaled relatively to the players. Here’s how I plan to do that:

  • I’m going to introduce my PC’s to one of the generals of the BBEG, they’re at an appropriate point in the campaign where it’s time they see what’s going on
  • We’re going to have a mission where the primary objective is not affected by whether this general lives or dies, so if they choose to fight him, fleeing is an option that can still achieve ‘victory’
  • I’m going to make it clear that this is a general and therefore the guy behind the scenes must be even stronger

I’m hoping that this will give me the opportunity to have them lose a fight, perhaps for the first time ever without necessarily ‘failing’ their objective and it feeling like a complete loss and frustrating them.

With background info out of the way, I was hoping you could help me come up with an NPC that will be almost unbeatable to my players (I’d like to point out that if the dice are on their side I still want them to be able to win, but I imagine they would need insane luck for this to happen). There are three of them, 5-6th level, so we’ll say a combined level of 15 for simplicity.

My issue is that the players will find the fight frustrating and feel cheated, but they really need to know that there are forces in the world that dwarf them. The fight will not be mandatory and I’ll make sure that they see this NPC in action before having the option to fight him, this way they can avoid him completely and I’ll take that as a sign that they get the message.

One option I’ve considered is an Orc chieftain they’ve encountered before but chose not to fight, not because they thought he was too strong, just because he wasn’t in their way at the time. They killed most of his tribe so he has a personal grudge against them - the problem with this is if they fight and lose I don’t see why he’d let them live so this is only my first idea, I’m open to other character concepts and ideas.

In my world Orcs are grey-skinned and their hides are like armour, so naturally I’m leaning towards a very high guard, but I’m concerned just giving the character ‘big numbers’ will feel cheap.

I’m also unsure of whether to make him a 20th level normal npc or a boss npc. Since the party’s combined level is around 15, an NPC of CR 20 doesn’t seem all that threatening in theory so I’m not sure whether this would be a good time for their first ‘boss’ or if that should be saved exclusively for the BBEG behind the scenes.

This is where my inexperience running campaigns starts to show so I’m hoping someone could point me in the right direction - I’m hoping for at least a character concept because otherwise I know I’ll put this off until the day of the session and have to pull something lacklustre out at the last minute. If I can’t dedicate some serious time to planning this out then I run the risk of creating a frustrating encounter rather than a dramatic one.

way don’t you male it a wandering swordsman only looking for a good fight, that way you can have someone appear as a random incounter or something and when they lose you can have him mock the party and leave.:dart:

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I considered something like this but I’d like it to be plot relevant rather than just a random encounter - there’s a group of mage killers hunting one of the PCs so I could do something with them but again I’d like it to be linked to the main villain somehow.

It’s more the mechanics I’m having trouble with, I’m not sure if just giving an NPC higher numbers than the players will feel cheap so I’m looking for the right balance where they might get a few good hits in but not enough to really pose a threat to the NPC.

There are definitely some extremely powerful things you can do if you’re not bothered about being fair to the party. Boon Focus is definitely your friend when it comes to this, there’s a few boons that you can really exploit, like Haste, Invisible or Insubstantial. Lethal Strike can also help them feel more dangerous, even if the party wins they won’t come out unscathed. Don’t worry too much about “giving an NPC higher numbers” feeling cheap, as long as you don’t overdo it the players will be more in awe, and begin looking forward to when they can get access to attrtibutes/advantage that high. The one exception is defenses, which is a fine line to tread. If the players never hit then they’re going to feel cheated, but if you don’t increase the defense at all then the NPC won’t last nearly half as long as you expect.

A key factor for powerful individual NPCs is action economy. If the NPC is three times as strong as any member of the party, but there are three PCs, then that doesn’t work out equal; it works out heavily in favour of the party because they have more actions and more options. This is why Boss NPCs have Boss actions, to tip the scales back in their favour. If you decide not to use a boss then make use of tools like Multi-Attack Specialist or Summon Creature to give them more actions and more versatility.

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Have you never used a Boss before at these Levels? They are designed to be scaleable so even three Level 1 Heroes can beat a Level 1 boss without too many problems. They can be used as “mini-bosses” just as well.

In case it slipped your mind, a Boss’s Levels need to be quadrupled before being used for Encounter Difficulty calculation.

That is the mechanical side though. As for the actual enemy you need the party to fight, would you care to describe the BBEG a bit? You can do so via DMs if you fear your players trying to spoil themselves here.

That’s exactly what I was worried about, thematically speaking I’ve presented orcs as having incredibly tough skin so was going to give him a very high guard. That was until I watched a Matthew Colville video where he explained that with defences, if the players should be hitting around 60% of the time otherwise the encounter isn’t fun.

Would raising the HP instead be a better way to achieve this ‘tough skin’ vibe? almost like he’s reckless and allowing himself to be hit because he knows the PCs can only really chip away at him?

Very good point - I’m thinking either a (relatively) low level boss or a level 20 NPC with multi-attack specialist like you’ve pointed out.

I haven’t no, I don’t think I’ve ever used a boss actually! I was given advice early on to use them very sparingly but I think a general is perhaps a good time to use one?

Honestly I don’t have a solid BBEG just yet - I can explain the setup of the story and my current ideas for a BBEG but it could be quite long so I’ll bullet point it:

  • PCs are investigating the appearance of a red comet in the sky
  • Investigation has lead them to discover that a green and blue comet hit the earth millenia ago (they’re currently locating the crash sites)
  • This has lead them to temples constructed by ancient people - the first men in the current cycle, gifted with incredible magical powers
  • (side note, some lucky people are born with a ‘pure’ bloodline to these first men and are gifted with some of their power, but it’s incredibly rare and more common in noble bloodlines, even then you’re looking at one person per noble family per 3-4 generations)
  • I’ve implied, but I don’t know if they’ve put it together yet, that this is a natural cycle
  • The red comet will hit, it will wipe out all life and raise up an underground race of creatures who feed on heat, the red comet acts as a food source for them so it burns up relatively quickly, once it’s weakened…
  • The green and blue comets return, impact and spread life (as the players know it) until they run out of power and the cycle repeats
  • The comets are sentient and so are actively trying to prevent the return of their counterparts but are trapped in this endless cycle

Current important NPCs/Organisations in the campaign are:

  • A cult that think the red comet will purge everyone who is unjust and leave the faithful in a paradise
  • The Orcs, who are being manipulated by the aforementioned cult into believing that the comet is their god of war so they’ll work with them to please it
  • A Nobleman who had nightmares and visions of the comet decades before it showed up, the PCs hate him because he’s pretty ruthless and very corrupt but unbeknownst to them he’s actually trying to prevent the impact and thinks that he was somehow burdened with the responsibility to stop the comet - the PCs are currently in his employ, investigating under his orders
  • A group of mage killlers hunting a PC, don’t know if I want to make them main plot relevant yet or just keep them as a side thing

So there are a ton of different directions I could go for a BBEG, but since there are multiple organisations at work and deception seems to be a big theme in my campaign I’m considering using something like an Illithid. I’ve never used one before but it would be plausible to me that a creature like that is not only trying to bend the power of the comets to his benefit but also has the means to manipulate all of the above groups of people. If he’s not the BBEG, I think I still want one as a general, pulling the strings of at least some of those groups.

I’d love to reveal to the PCs that the Nobleman has been having these visions and is actually trying to do something good by stopping the comet because they all assume he’s evil (and I’m planning to reinforce that belief).

I’d also love to then reveal that the nightmares and visions have been the work of an Illithid manipulating him for over a decade. But as of now, there is no concrete BBEG, unfortunately we started playing before I had finished planning and I’ve been playing catchup ever since.

Ha, fingers crossed they don’t stumble across this but as far as I know they don’t even read the rules in their spare time. They’re probably completely unaware that OL has a forum.

Ah, Fire and Destruction. A BBEG that benefits from a comet that radiates heat and gives rise to heat-consuming life?
That sounds like a powerful Efreet to me (fire Djinn). In DnD and Pathfinder these are mostly evil beings from the plane of fire, living in the city of brass. Lots of inspiration to get from there at least.

I like the Ilithid idea, Influence is fun, but it most of any strategy runs the risk of taking away control from the players. Because a certain helplessness and powerlessness is what you seem to need, this might not be a bad thing though.

A Boss certainly sounds like the NPC for the job here.

Mechanically, what @SamWilby said and maybe something unexpected. If they’re an Ilithid and use all sorts of Charms and dominations, using Hallucinations to disorient them etc., what if they suddenly start throwing around fire via a gift from their benefactor/boss?

A general or other intelligent foe is likely to gather intel on their adversaries before engaging. Is there a certain tactic, a certain Bane or Damage type that gets thrown around a lot? Have them be prepared, resistant/immune to the Bane or Damage type, maybe via an item the party could possibly attain if they are to be successful.

There could be other factors as well, like hostages. Keep your players on their toes, make them think.

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This sounds like an interesting idea, I’ve never played actual D&D before so a lot of the lore is lost on me when it comes to things like this - I should probably look into it more just for inspiration if nothing else.

Interesting idea, the PCs are a healer, a necromancer and a swordsman - so generally speaking they all use different tactics. Perhaps a way to cut off their healing? That seems to be used a lot to keep the other two alive, but maybe that’s too mean…

You talk about why the orc would let players live after defeating them. One suggestion could be that the main big bad orders the orc to let them live. Maybe he (main bad guy) wants the players captured, and if you tpk, then you can have the party wake up in cages on carts on the way to the bbeg’s fortress.

Just a suggestion take what you like ignore what you don’t.

I really like this idea and hope to use it in future but for this specific encounter I kind of want to create the impression that the players are beneath the BBEG so he wouldn’t really value keeping them alive - a spin on it I’ve thought of is that the general gets called away on urgent business and decides not to even bother finishing the players off.