D&D 5E Rivals

pukunui

Legend
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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Al2O3

Explorer
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.
 

aco175

Legend
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.

1658835619516.png
 


DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
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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Oofta

Legend
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.
 

payn

Legend
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.
 

FireLance

Legend
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.
 

Celebrim

Legend
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.
 

pukunui

Legend
Some good points all. Thank you for taking the time to give me lots of ideas and things to consider.

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.
This is a good point. The leader of this rival party is someone the PCs have met and worked with briefly before, and he's really the only one "important" enough for me to want to keep alive. He could indeed have a rotating crew of underlings the PCs have to wipe out every so often.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
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).
  • A reason not to go all out or use lethal force against each other. This might be an emotional reason (e.g. one of the NPCs is a family member of a PC, or you've established endearing/intriguing personalities for NPCs which your players previously fell in love with). This might be an externally imposed reason (e.g. a chivalric game with strict rules, or that area of dungeon makes the types of magic used by PCs and NPCs hazardous). This might be a pragmatic reason (e.g. there are good chances of NPCs taking action that will support the PCs' goals down the road...but killing them would prevent that).
  • Personal connections / parallels to the PCs' story beats (e.g. the rogue PC and rogue NPC studied under the same despicable guildmaster and share the scars to prove it).
  • Multiple goals with complexity, as opposed to one goal provoking binary views.
  • If conflict does break out between NPCs and PCs, then either (a) events transpire to suddenly make cooperating seem like the better idea (e.g. dungeon floor collapses, or a deadly foe emerges), or (b) the NPCs use a potent escape hatch (e.g. word of recall), or (c) you drop a plot bomb which reframes something the players thought they knew (e.g. "I wasn't in Caliyr two nights ago - I was kidnapped by redcaps - so I couldn't have killed your uncle the duke!").
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Make it so that killing the rival party may make more problems than it solves.

Perhaps they’re scions of noble houses and killing them will incur the wrath of some powerful people.

Perhaps the rival group is devout, backed by a non-evil church. Killing them may make the PCs outcasts or criminals.

It doesn’t have to be kill or be killed. Have the rival group complicate things, but not outright attack the party. Not until/unless you want it to go there.
 

Lots of good ideas already. I just wanted to add, I think the mega dungeon setting of Mad Mage might make it a little harder then usual to avoid bloodshed as the environment tends to put things into survival mode. It should still be doable, but is easier to pull off in a city based campaign for example.

I've done the rival party for minor things, like the group needs to hire a boat, but it's already been promised to the rival adventurers. Little annoyances that don't warrant straight up murder.
 

pukunui

Legend
Lots of good ideas already. I just wanted to add, I think the mega dungeon setting of Mad Mage might make it a little harder then usual to avoid bloodshed as the environment tends to put things into survival mode. It should still be doable, but is easier to pull off in a city based campaign for example.

I've done the rival party for minor things, like the group needs to hire a boat, but it's already been promised to the rival adventurers. Little annoyances that don't warrant straight up murder.
Yeah, and the way the module is written, Undermountain is meant to attract adventuring parties like moths to a flame, and yet there are barely any written into the adventure already. There's one adventuring party that has split up on levels 1 and 2 but that's about it really.

My PCs briefly joined forces with the leader of that ill-fated party, Rex the Hammer, but they left him behind after he got paralyzed for 24 hours by one of Halaster's elder runes. Later, after the PCs TPKed fighting the drow on level 3, the replacement PCs learned that a different party had come through and defeated the drow. I had it in my mind that it was Rex plus some new cronies who were that other party.

Now it's time for the PCs to meet Rex and co again. I'd really like for Rex to be a continuing thorn in their side. Based on other people's comments above, I think the best way to do that is to make it so his fellow adventuring NPCs are expendable. As long as Rex lives to annoy the PCs another day, it doesn't matter if yet more of his underlings die by the PCs' hands. (Rex is a big bully and thinks of himself as a party of one and the others are just hirelings he can boss around.)
 
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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).
Thes do seem like the most likely outcomes. It can work, if the players lean into roleplaying "I don't like you but I'm not a murder hobo" or "we are the bad guys, you are the good guys, but you are too tough to beat in a straight up fight".

But the adventure doesn't need the rivals, it will still work if they are written out early on. But note, at the start of the adventure, it's more likely that the rivals will kill the PCs, rather than visa versa, if it comes to a fight. Taken as a combat encounter the tier 1 CotN rivals are a deadly encounter for up to six level 4 PCs.
1658835619516.png

This is the way things are going in our current playthrough of CotN, but with a little less evil sneering.
 
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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.
Unless the party is a bunch of murdohobo psychopaths, simply have the party meet them in the Yawning Portal at some point. Establish who they are and their goals/motivations, so the party sees them as more than just a monster, then have them run across the rival group during an adventure. You can have them forced to work together to survive or both seeking the same goal for themselves (or their own reasons), depending on your particular needs. If you need a good example, see The Mummy (1999) with Brandon Frasier.
 

Remathilis

Legend
When I ran my hack of Savage Tide, the PCs were on retainer with a noble patron (who helped provide them a boat) but had also hired a second crew to aide her ventures, creating a race to curry favor with the Lady between the PCs and NPC rivals. They couldn't kill them, and sometimes their goals conflicted but never to the point of hostility. Eventually, the PCs got their wins by having to rescue the rival party from capture (proving that they were more capable) and later teaming up with them to save Farshore and defeat the bbeg.
 

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