Thoughts About Powerful NPCs
When it first came out, Deadlands had a fairly heavy metaplot and the big names in the world were doing a whole lot of stuff with the setting, often without the posse being involved at all. One side effect of this was that certain NPCs were flatly declared to be unkillable because they were important to the overarching story of Deadlands. (Fortunately, this has largely been avoided in Deadlands Reloaded).
At the beginning of my summer Deadlands mini-campaign through the “Devil’s Tower” trilogy, I told my players that I was willing to break the metaplot if their characters wanted to. For what it’s worth, I’m actually a huge fan of the Deadlands metaplot and think there are a lot of cool elements in there about how the world has developed. But it’s not very fun for the GM to intentionally steer things so that they meet a certain official outcome. So if the posse wanted to kill one of the big players, I was totally fine with that.
Two sessions ago, they stuck twelve sticks of dynamite next to Rock Island’s ghost rock generator, leveling the entire island. Changing the metaplot? You betcha, but it was awesome! Last session, they came face to face with two of the Big Bads in the Weird West: Reverend Grimme (a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”) and Stone (the biggest, baddest undead gunslinger of all time).
Now in the Deadlands Classic era, Grimme and Stone were flat out declared to be invincible. In fact, the entry for Stone says that he’s a plot device, that he’s not allowed to die under any circumstances, and that he’s so badass that he doesn’t even need stats. The lack of stats was rationalized in the Deadlands Classic Marshal’s Handbook by saying:
[There’s an] old rule in game design that ‘if you stat it, they will kill it.’ How many of you used to go hunting the Gods of Asgard in your high-school fantasy rpgs? —Deadlands Marshal’s Handbook, pg. 30
I get what they’re coming from and they’re right: the gods of Asgard shouldn’t be seen as common enemies to be killed. And Stone is supposed to most powerful individual in the entire setting. But I find this solution a bit hard to accept. It means that no matter how powerful the player characters are, they are never able to defeat him.
The other solution is to make them invulnerable, but still capable of dying if the heroes are able to find and exploit their weakness (in Savage Worlds, all invulnerable creatures must have a weakness). Sometimes this works and sometimes it can lead to an unsatisfying situation, as happened with my Independence Day one-shot where “The Butcher” got incapacitated and the suspense fizzled as the heroes sat around for a while not sure what to do. In retrospect, I think that since the Butcher was invulnerable to bullets, I should have ruled that he was shot down, then instantly got back up instead of being down for several rounds.
Both Reverend Grimme and Stone had an invulnerability like this. The posse could not harm them unless they could exploit their respective weaknesses, which are secret enough that finding it could be a campaign in and of itself. If the PCs planned on attacking them during my mini-campaign, my plan was to use their stats (yes, Deadlands Reloaded actually gave them stats) and just have an awesome description for how their invulnerability worked. To me, this is a good solution for the bad guys. They’re not totally invulnerable, they won’t go down like punks, and they can still possibly be defeated.
On the flip side, this solution doesn’t work at all for NPCs who are allied with the PCs. The third part of the Devil’s Tower trilogy features a character named “Jackie Wells.” Here is her description from the scenario:
Jackie’s stats aren’t listed here for a good reason. We don’t want her to get killed off. She’s a plot device, and she‘s important to moving the storyline along. In combat, assume Jackie’sa fearless dynamo. She can take out about one opponent wiih every round (deal her 1d4+1 cards each round, just to make things seem like they’re on the up-and-up). The trick here is to balance battles so that the heroes don‘t come to rely on her too much. —Fortress o’ Fear, pg. 10
Jackie is a prototypical example of a “Marie Sue” character. The name comes from the Star Trek parody fanfiction story A Trekkie’s Tale where Lieutenant Mary Sue winds up outshining Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the crew while they sit back and admire her awesomeness. Especially in role-playing games, that just doesn’t work. The heroes are the stars of the adventure and sitting back on the sidelines to watch some NPC do the work really isn’t that fun.
Fortunately, I had an innovative way of dealing with her. The posse wound up finding her journal, containing the important plot information, another way. And on their way to the Devil’s Tower, they saw a gravestone with the following epitaph:
Jackie “Mary Sue” Wells
Jackie was a “plot device”
The GM killed her out of spite
The author never gave her stats
She didn’t even have a hat.
Yep. I killed off Jackie Wells. She was a character who was a time traveller from the future, who was too awesome to have stats, who had a gun that could kill Stone even when he was incorporeal, who regularly pushed around the party, and who would attack the party if they didn’t want to do what she said to do. I just felt including her would just hurt the scenario far more than help. So I removed her from the scenario and made it clear to my players that I was doing them a favor for it because NPC allies that save the world while the PCs watch just isn’t fun.
So in summary, unkillable NPCs are bad, bad, bad! Having the biggest, baddest enemies in the world with invulnerabilities and a weakness can work out if used correctly. Having allied NPCs who are invulnerable, or otherwise are able to massively outshine the NPCs are about the worst thing you can do to your players.