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D&D 5E Rivals


Hi all,

One of the supposed selling points of Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep is the rival adventuring party.

However, according to Justin Alexander, the concept doesn’t really work as written because the rivals are most likely going to wind up dead (if hostile), superfluous (if indifferent), or as challenge-breaking DMPCs (if friendly).

I do not own Netherdeep so I can’t read it for myself. I am, however, running Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and I would like to insert a rival adventuring party, but I am unsure how best to do it.

If the two parties come into conflict, one side is likely to defeat the other, and the losing side can’t teleport away due to Halaster’s restrictions on magic in the dungeon. So basically a fight between the two parties will almost surely end in defeat for one side, and that side will almost certainly be the NPC rivals unless I make them much stronger than the PCs.

So what I would like is some advice on how to use a rival adventuring party effectively (and how to keep them alive for more than one encounter).

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Doesn't "rival" imply partly conflicting goals, but not really hostile? So the groups might need the same resource, but for different goals. Or maybe the rival characters might have a reason to dislike the PCs, so they try to thwart the players while still working towards the same goal. In that case they could show up to save the PCs from a TPK, but only with the intention of getting gloating rights.

Of course, if your players think that killing the competition is a good idea and murders the rivals, then it's probably pointless to establish such rivals as NPCs.

In terms of friendly rivals, think of Legolas and Gimli at Helm's deep and their attempts to one-up each other in kill count. Or look at sports teams and their fans for less friendly rivals who still don't kill each other.

In short, find reasons for why the groups should avoid killing each other, yet refuse to help each other unless forced to and constantly get in the way of each other.

With something like DofMM I would create multiple adventuring parties each pursuing various quests, such as
  • Treasure seeking
  • Sourcing a particular known item rumoured to exist in Undermountain
  • Sourcing lore or seeking council from someone within Undermountain
  • Attempting to find a lost fellow companion or friend or their corpse.
The adventuring parties found could have interesting stories
  • Perhaps an amalgamation of several party members of an assorted number of parties.
  • Can divulge secrets or their own maps about Undermountain at a cost. This may allow you as DM to sprinkle further exaggerations and rumours about Undermountain and its residents.
  • Have been successful and on their way to the surface.
  • Might provide warning of another adventuring group (the Rivals).
  • May have encountered Halaster.
Other storylines
  • The Rivals may not like the PCs because they stole a henchman they were interested in.
  • The Rivals may seem friendly at first and instead feed false information.
  • A common threat sees the Rivals and the Party having to work together before at a later stage battling it out.
  • The Rival could negotiate with some of the denizens to delay or ambush the party.
  • The combat between the party and the rivals could be interrupted by the shifting corridors/passageways of Undermountain. Live to fight another day.


I do not have Netherdeep either but have used rivals several times in the past. I like to introduce them more as frenemies rather than just bad guys with PC stats. Maybe in the first couple adventures the PCs get into a big fight and the NPC come along and help them. They both want to kill the monsters and gain loot so it seems like the right thing to do. Later on at the bar, the NPCs buy everyone in the tavern a drink, maybe tell some tales about how they needed to rescue the PCs. A little embarrassment if the PCs are not as free with their money and upselling themselves as the better party. This can go on for a few more adventures with the NPCs stealing deeds that the PCs completed and even getting invited to noble parties instead of the PCs.

The players learn to hate the NPCs and want them eliminated. It's not that they are evil, but taking the credit from the PCs and thus players make this easy to run. Eventually both parties need to go after the same McGuffin and it comes to a fight.



I believe D&D is one of the poorer systems to try and do rival organizations. because of what the baseline gamestate of any D&D world tends to be.

At its core, D&D is built to fight and kill monsters. That's the default. Yes, you can just "defeat" monsters and knock them out, and the DM can always have the monsters retreat... but if nothing is ever mentioned, the default assumption is you knock an opponent down to 0 HP and the monster is dead. That's how the game has always worked, and that's how most players of D&D see the game playing out.

The problem with this though is that we players are so used to this gamestate and DMs are so used to just running it this way... it means that narrative and story events that should be a thing... like if you attack someone else in a town, the guards should be able to arrive and arrest you for assault... rarely get played in any sort of narratively consistent manner. How often has the party found "the bad guy" in town, attacked him and his allies in the street, killed the group (because it isn't ever said that they didn't kill them when they hit 0 HP) and the DM had guards show up only to see the GUARDS get attacked by the party because they were the next opponent up? And any attempts by the DM to arrest the party for murder get the party to go on a further murder spree (seeing as how their character sheets make them so much more powerful than most Guard statblocks), and they attack anyone who tries to bring them in?

That kind of stuff happens all the time, because D&D pushes all of us to think of the game in this way-- we are in a combat simulator, and anyone who attacks us is an opponent to defeat, regardless of how good or bad or indifferent that opponent might be. And that's why a rival party seems to me to be exceedingly difficult to run-- because unlike superhero comics, where opposing sides of good guys can come to blows and then dust themselves off after the fight is done, no harm no foul... in D&D we are all conditions to KILL KILL KILL until the opponent is dead.

If you don't have a table full of players who go along with the conceit of there still being laws and allow themselves to be arrested and such, or at least not have a default assumed death after every 0 HP (and the party doesn't go around coup de'ta-ing every creature who's unconscious anyway)... then a rival party won't survive past the first battle where the PCs overpower them (more often than not.)
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There's a difference between rivals and nemesis. I've done both in the past. A rival is an opposing football team, someone that competes with you. Sometimes they win, sometimes you do. But it's not a conflict to the death (unless your PCs are truly murder hobos) you both know that if the other was in mortal danger you'd come to their aid, not help kill them off.

Nemesis (nemeses?) are a different story and I've done them as well. Start it out as a rivalry and then slowly upgrade the stakes. At first your just competing against each other but then the nemesis sets in motion lethal outcomes, releasing a monster or giving away your location to a dangerous creature. Escalate to all-out fights. Problem is, like any returning protagonist, the odds are they won't last long once you get to open "kill on sight" level of antagonism.

One twist to all of this is to give the two groups mutual goals, one that will be difficult if not impossible to achieve without the other. Potentially have some sort of "no direct combat" rule enforced by a higher power or McGuffin. Still falls apart eventually but can lead to some interesting scenarios.

Of course there's always the rival organization. Even if you kill off a few Hydra agents, there's always more.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I am running Traveller right now. When combats are initiated, parties usually fight until a point one side has decisive advantage. Then, a surrender or retreat happens. Perhaps you can initiate a morale score or roll that can determine when the rival party has had enough. Everyone has already covered the scorched earth game state that D&D often lives in. I even had this occur on a Pathfinder game. The PCs were clever and trapped the rival party. Put their backs against a wall, and then killed them when they wouldn't outright surrender. So, its not an easy element to make work in this environment.


Assuming reasonable players, I think the best way to ensure that the Rivals don't get cut down for XP is for them to already have some positive history with the PCs when they meet instead of being strangers with opposing goals that they run into.

One rival could be a PC's cousin. Another could be a (fellow?) cleric or paladin of the second PC's faith. Yet another could be a third PC's childhood friend or sweetheart who moved to another town five years ago. A PC with the Soldier background might recognize one of the Rivals as an old comrade in arms who served in the same unit. And so on.


I agree with Justin Alexander that rival NPC groups would be very tricky to get to work well in pretty much any system that gets grittier than resolution at a scene level. Probably the best use of a rival NPC group is to create color of time pressure in that you know they are out there and if you dally too long well you'll end up chasing them or otherwise behind. Actual contact between PCs and rivals known to have conflicting goals is difficult to orchestrate in the way that any reoccurring NPC is difficult to orchestrate, with the additional problem that you have to manage the entire team being able to evade pursuit and not just one character.

As with many things, Order of the Stick presents a very realistic take on the rival party in that OotS's rival party the Linear Guild really is only Nale with a rotating cast of disposable and replaceable generic rivals so that the GM would really only have to keep Nale alive and not the entire opposing party. This would be much more doable than a full party of reoccurring characters.

One big problem I would have with rival NPC groups is characterization of multiple NPCs simultaneously is really different. You'd probably only have the 'face' of the group do any talking which means the rest of the group is going to be pretty anonymous. Scenes with multiple talking NPCs are really hard on the DM because few things are worse than talking to yourself.

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