(Disclaimer: So, I’m going to make some claims in this article. Like saying that you don’t need background for Cannon Fodder NPCs. While 99% of the time these claims will be accurate, there are exceptions to every rule)
One of the most important duties of a Game Master is creating and playing NPCs. Players are the main protagonists of the game, but without NPC, without those supporting characters, its really hard to propel the story forward.
Impossible? No. Not by any means. You can certainly make the story completely about the PCs. But that’s a pretty limited campaign. And, unless you have a Game of Thrones size group of Players (and one inhumanly talented GM) it can be quite the strain in keeping things moving at a pace that everyone will find entertaining.
For the rest of us, this is also one of the biggest challenges for every GM. It’s hard coming up with names and personalities for literally thousands of different people. It can also be wonderfully rewarding. Especially when your players connect with those NPCs and they become a recurring character in your game. But, how do you make those NPCs? And more importantly, how do you make them come alive?
Well, almost any RPG on the market comes with a set of rules. And in those rules is, at the very least, a GM section that handles how to run the game and do things like making PCs. They sometimes even have random tables, allowing you to roll up everything from the NPCs motivation, to the quirks that set them apart from every other person.
Let me state clearly,from the beginning, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using these tables. As a matter of fact, I have used them a few times when I needed to through together a one shot or some other adventure with little to no notice.
But if you really want your NPCs to fit neatly into your story. Then, in my humble opinion, there is nothing like creating them yourself. After all, you know what fits into your world, your camp[aign, your adventure. A randomly rolled NPC might work great. Or it might not.
In my thirty plus years of GMing, I have discovered a couple of things:
- Everyone goes about it in a slightly different manner.
- No matter what I say here, there will be someone who doesn’t agree. (And that’s alright. If you do it a different way in your game, and it works for you, you keep doing it that way.
For the rest of you, who might be looking for a little guidance in this area, I’ll do my best to try and help. This is my way of going about it:
First, what kind of NPC is it?
Cannon Fodder: These are NPCs that are only going to be taking part in battle. You know the guy. Orc Warrior guarding the chest in a 10×10 ft. room? That’s the kind of NPC I’m talking about here. The sort of guy that the Players wont give two figs about, once they are done separating his head from his shoulders. When it comes to these NPCs, you’re going to need every single bit of combat statistics, treasure and equipment, and any fancy or tricky battle tactics they might use. The one thing you’re not going to need (probably) is a lot of personality or background.
Somewhere out there, I can feel a stirring in the force. There is a GM who is preparing a scathing reply to my post, saying something along the lines of, “My players engage with every NPC that I create. It’s important that I trace his every action from birth and his family tree to the 17th generation”.
Here’s my retort: OK, if it works for you, you do that. But, in my experience, it hasn’t been necessary.
A One and Done: Here’s where it starts to get tricky. These are the NPCs that you intend to appear one time in the campaign and then disappear. They have an important, if brief role to play in the story. But after they complete their task, much like the pizza delivery guy, its time for them to leave. The problem is, sometimes your players decide that they want these NPCs to have a much more substantial role in the story than you originally intended. For this reason, I suggest that you prepare them as much as you would a Recurring Character.
Recurring Characters: These are exactly what they sound like. They are NPCs that interact with the Players on a regular basis, for a campaign or even for the length of the Characters life.These are the ones that you should develop from skin to bone.
Everyone Else: Those Lords and Ladies that stand about the throne room, acting as courtesans. The Imperial Guard that stand between the Players and the Emperor of the Universe. You know… those people that are more set dressing than they are anything else. the ones that you never interact with at all. You shouldn’t have to develop these NPCs at all. They are simply to fill in empty space. Is that to say that the Players wont sometimes take an unnatural interest in them and make you improvise a person on the spot? Of course not. You can bet that they will, sooner or later. but that isn’t something that should happen to often, if your story hook is engaging enough to keep the Party on task.
A Rose By Any Other Name:
First impressions are important. And, many times, it can mean the difference between your Players taking an NPC, and your story, seriously or laughing all the way through the many layers of drama you spent the last week developing.
Shakespeare said “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. this may be true. But if it was name Skunk Blossom, instead of Rose, I would be a lot less apt to put my nose to it and take a sniff.
Depending on the world and setting that you’re running Bill, Bob, Joe, Mike, or any of the normal names we hear everyday, might be perfectly appropriate. But is it memorable? Is there something about the name that immediately brings an emotional response from you and your Players? If the answer is no, then you probably haven’t stumbled across the one your’re looking for.
If you, like myself, are not very good at coming up with original literary sounding names, don’t beat yourself up too much. The internet is filled with name generators that will help you either find a name that works, or help inspire you to come up with one yourself.
What A Man (or Woman) Is Made Of:
When talking NPCs and what they are made of, these would be two separate lists:
The first being Stats. If you like, you can build them from the ground up. But I find it is easier to simply find the stats of some pre-generated character (From either a purchased adventure, or one of the many sites with pre-gens that you can find online) and simply re-skin it to my purpose.
The second are Traits. These are what makes the NPC unique. What does this person look like? What do they sound like? Do the have a particular odor? How tall are they? How do they dress? How do they speak? What distinguishing marks or scars do they have? What do they do for a living?
I love to give my NPCs strange little tics. One that comes to mind is a carriage driver that my current group came across in the midst of a murder investigation. His name was Thomas and he had a tendency to wiggle the fingers on his right hand, whenever he was trying to remember. The party learned that when the fingers were still, he was lying. When they wiggled, he was telling the truth.
Make sure, if you can, to act these things out. It makes it more realistic and more subtle than you just pointing things like that out.
One side-note on this that I have picked up. Voices. I don’t remember who I picked up this tip from, but I do remember that I didn’t come up with it on my own:
I do voices. But, especially when you have as many NPCs in your world as I do, it can be tough to make them unique. What helps me here is simply picking a celebrity that the NPC reminds me of, then doing my best imitation of that celebrity. It doesn’t matter one bit that my imitation might not sound a bit like that person. It makes the NPC sound distinctive from all the others in my world. In my notes, I will make note of the person I am imitating so that when the Players come across that NPC again, they speak with the same voice.
What Makes Them Tick:
Just as important as knowing your NPCs name, or what they look like, is knowing why they do what they do. Is the antagonist in your story simply a madman who wants to burn the world, or is he seeking a justifiable revenge for some sin that was perpetrated on his ancestors by yours? A two dimensional mustache twirling villain can be fun for a one shot, but if you want a campaign that’s going to last for more than a couple of sessions, you probably want to make your NPCs a little less black and white.
Once you have figured out the NPC’s motivation, PLEASE, for the love of all that is holy, make them active. Don’t have them sitting in some dark throne room, waiting for the heroes to arrive. have them acting, reacting, causing even more conflict. Its important. Unless they are in some sort of Stasis Pod, or a spell that froze them, they should be doing something.
Well, I hope this has helped and that you liked it. If you have any other tips that you think might help, please feel free to leave them in the comments. If you have any questions, feel free to seek me out of Twitter @DMLeviathan.
Look forward to talking to you.