Monday 22 March 2010

Mentors, Meatshields and Mary Sues

I’m running a campaign for a new player starting at 1st level; the way that the campaign is going has brought to the forefront of my mind the concept of mentors. In this post, I’ll be looking at these, why they might be needed, when to kill them off, and their cousins, the meatshield and the Mary Sue.


The mentor of a PC fills the role of a Gandalf, an Obi Wan or a Yoda. With new or inexperienced players, or parties that are new to the campaign world in question, the mentor can be a lifeline, preventing unnecessary loss or damage until the party finds their feet.

The function of the mentor is more advisory than anything else, training, developing, nudging and hinting rather than turning up with a lightsabre and cutting the opposition to ribbons any time the PCs get into trouble. That’s moving into Mary Sue territory and I’ll be discussing that later. Indeed, page 39 of the DMG specifically states that magic users serve an apprenticeship with a ‘wise old master’ of at least 6th level. Why more is not made of this, I don’t know. Does anyone keep in touch with their ‘wise old masters’?

And mentors have only a limited lifespan. Both Obi Wan and Yoda ‘died’. Gandalf died but then he came back again, albeit with a respray. Indeed, there is a specific time to kill a mentor; usually when the PCs get to about 3rd level.

Why? Well, it’s about then that they have come to rely on the presence of the mentor. They know that having a mentor is not a Get out of Jail Free card, but if played well, the mentor can become a friend, an older brother figure, even a parent in a way.

And 3rd level is an interesting level. In fact, the odd-numbered levels are, I find, the more interesting to play. I’ll be posting about that later. Suffice it to say that by 3rd level, the players are probably thinking to themselves “I’m still alive. I didn’t die at 1st level, made it to 2nd and now I’ve done sufficiently successfully that I’m at 3rd; it might be worth investing some time to personalise my character, get a set of aims and objectives together, start imagining them as a person rather than just a dead PC waiting to happen".

And that is the time that the mentor has to go. By 3rd level, the character has enough personality and history with the mentor that the loss will be all the more meaningful. If the death of the mentor can be in some way attributed to the actions of the character, a whole raft of guilt issues can be introduced. Rich pickings indeed for future adventures with the character in question.

In fact, the loss of the mentor figure is necessary if the character is ever going to become an independent and self-reliant person. To keep the mentor present, or indeed to twist the mentor into a Mary Sue is to keep the character in a permanent state of psychological childhood.

There’s something about the character of a mentor; there may be a sense of resignation, sadness even about their attitude. Their advanced age means that they have seen a lot, often so much that their philosophical approach can be mistaken for blasé. Their protégé may well be the latest (or last) in a long line of trainees but now, it’s the twilight of their career and there is a sense of handing over the baton. It’s almost as if they know they’re going to die soon. (Sooner, if their DM has read this post)


I’m using the term Meatshield for the purposes of this post to refer to big fighter-types that accompany the party for the purposes of being the first to get hit, soak up the damage that would otherwise fall on the PCs and generally show the players what danger they’re in without actually killing a character. Occasionally, they may survive, at which point they often get a sort of honorary (if associate) membership of the party.

In the current Elesalia campaign, Junior Grognard’s party has made friends with Sergeant Subaras and his town guards. It happened rather by accident; an ettin had been reported and the guards were heading off to check it out. The party had the choice of going or staying and they chose to go; the fight was going to be a tough one but Subaras was 3rd level and his two guards were 1st. Their contribution to the fight was going to be providing extra firepower and decreasing the likelihood of any of the PCs getting hit (a one in ten chance of death is a lot better than a one in six)

Subaras and his men also accompanied the party on their expedition to the Spider Farm. They were instrumental in the success of the party but not utterly essential; the party may well have succeeded but at greater cost.

There may come a point at which, purely by chance, a randomly-generated meatshield starts to take on the role of Mentor. It’s very sandbox when this happens. Suddenly, the meatshield gets a name, attribute stats, a description and a personality. In this situation, the character’s new stats should be determined by the dice. And this is the reason why.

Mary Sues

There are times when the DM realises that the party is short a character. Maybe no-one rolled up a cleric and there are undead aplenty in the dungeon. Maybe they’ll be confronted by locked doors and the only thief in the party has just collided with an ogre. Either way, the DM-controlled NPC is often the quickest way round this.

However, this route is fraught with danger. The DM will want to make sure that the NPC created is the best NPC for the job. No-one wants to have a second-rate thief trying to pick that lock, or a cleric whose Wisdom is too low for bonus spells, or whose combat skills make them more of a liability rather than an asset. So the NPC is naturally going to be the best that they can be, which is logical if they are being created for a specific role rather than rolled up and at the mercy of the dice.

Being the best NPC possible is going to make that character rather more fun to play than would be the case for an average NPC. And the more fun something is to do, the more one is going to want to do it. Unless the DM is very careful (and very self-disciplined) they’ll find themselves falling in love with the NPC and that’s a bad place to go.

Soon, the NPC is proving their worth, saving the party’s bacon time after time. The party may become collaborators in their own enslavement, initially liking the fact that they’ve got a Get out of Trouble Free card and playing it whenever they can. This not only makes them lazy and addicted to the NPC, but also gives the DM positive feedback for the use of that NPC. Before you know it, the DM has worked out that if NPC equals good, then more NPC equals better. And total NPC must be perfect. We have arrived in Mary Sue town.

Another problem with the DM playing an NPC is that, like everyone who plays a character, they’re going to start projecting aspects of themselves onto that NPC and identifying with it. Some DMs might have inadequacy issues and find a kind of fulfilment through playing an NPC who is just better at doing things than they might be.

Although it’s initially nice to have a ‘big brother’ for the party, someone who can take on the tough guys and fight through to the treasure room, leaving the party to pick up the gold pieces, this happy state of affairs can’t last for ever. There’s going to come a point at which the NPC does something that the party wanted to do, kills a monster that they had been gearing to up to defeat, makes them realise that in fact they can take no credit whatsoever for the completion of the dungeon or adventure. They’ve just become the NPC’s fanboys.

In the worst-case scenario, the players might decide that they are going to kill the offending character. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this is going to spell disaster. The DM is addicted to this character by now, and no way is he going to give it up – the buzz is too good. In fact, there may be an even greater buzz from defeating the attempts of the party – actual flesh and blood players – to kill the Mary Sue. How much cooler will that make the NPC? Of course, attempts to kill the Mary Sue are doomed to failure – the character is going to have the best stats, the best magic items, and 101 things will mysteriously ‘go wrong’ with any party plans. What it boils down to is an attempt, albeit indirectly, to attack the DM himself – or that’s how he’ll see it.

In the end, the only thing that’s going to die is the campaign itself.


  1. new player? exciting stuff. nice post BTW, just hope the DM doesn't read it!

    These remind me of the adult actors that helped the kid adventurers in 'Knightmare'

  2. The bit about mentors especially resonates, someone should have told Ed Greenwood this back in the day! Sagelike mentor = cool, Gandalf in my pocket = shoite

  3. My DM used to use Mary Sues in droves as party opponents. They would die just when he decided the plot was good for it.

  4. I think the reason "wise old masters" don't pop up as often is an intrinsic problem I've seen players having with any kind of authority figure present who could potentially diminish their agency. This also extends to stuff like religious hierarchies and military structures and the like. Short form: the fear that someone who in the story "outranks" you is gonna tell you what to do. I've wrestled with this a couple of times in campaigns I've run.

    As for the Mary Sue issue, I wrestle with that a lot as well, but I try to remember what Jeff Rients said. "Your NPC's suck and they're all going to die."

  5. @Leopardi - Gandalf in my pocket - hehehehe...

    @BigFella - authority figures do have to be handled carefully and they do have the potential to be game-wreckers. That's why I advise killing them a while into the campaign. In fact, if the PCs decide, through resentment or whatever, to do the killing themselves, their justification (to the shocked DM) might be "Just doing you a favour, man. I didn't want him to turn into a Mary Sue"

    Whilst a lot of this might be old hat to we gnarled and battle-scarred grognards, I hope that what I've outlined in the post might be read and taken on board by newbie DMs who are looking for sage advice.

  6. Fun post! I've had a few long term mentors in the game that I would just take out of circulation when I felt the party turned to them to fix too many things. Aldmir the Insane often got lost in dimensional travels and might never return. He would be around if a new group started and would offer his regrets about the other young adventurers who died too soon. Never used too many meatshields, but did have a few Mary Sues that typically died or left the group. The big temptation was for them to look for a Mary Sue healer since few of them wanted to fulfill that role in a group. I played a game with a friend who insisted on playing NPCs that were way better than all of us players, it made us all lose interest quickly and pass on any future games with him as the GM.

  7. Very nice. I've had the beginnings of thoughts about mentors, especially for Magic Users to be apprenticed to, for a few weeks now, but this post has convinced me that mentors of some sort need to be features of any new campaigns I begin, period. Thanks!