NPCs in my game are all cardboard cutouts, how can I make better NPCs without having to quit my job to find the time?
Well, you could do worse than reading Ravyn’s post on her excellent Exchange of Realities blog, but since I also write a blog, and build NPCs differently, I’ll throw my two cents in as well.
When constructing throw-away NPCs like Guy On The Street, or Random General Goods Vendor, I generally pick the dominant race, and put together a rough visual matching most dudes-hanging-around. Stuff like:
- The man behind the counter is a portly human with a brown mop of hair on top of his head and doesn’t appear to have shaved for a half week.
- There is an elf in the shop who glances up from a leather bound book before nodding and returning to his reading.
- The bartender is preceded by a hearty belly laugh and residual nodding to a halfling perched atop a stool at the bar. He looks away from the stack of drying mismatched glasses to nod a friendly welcome as the characters enter the common room.
These guys could be just about anybody, and on first glance they are. If the characters have entered the general shop for 50 of rope before rushing out to save the princess, the disinterested elf is little more than a feature of his shop. On the other hand, the characters may be more interested in the news of the day and approach the shop-keep with Gather Info dice ready to roll. In that case, I’ll throw in characteristics that a person may notice while interacting with people more intimately than they would an ATM:
- You navigate your way through the stocked shelves and trays as you get nearer this unkempt proprietor. A thin layer of dust coats most of the shop, and there’s the distinct smell of liquor in the air. The man nods as you approach, avoiding eye contact, and is somewhat awkward in his silence.
- The elf breathes deeply and raises his head, though not his eyes. He coughs quietly and places an ink-stained finger on the text he is reading before his emerald eyes swivel to meet the character’s. His eyebrows twitch upward in a silent question, and with his slightly high-pitched voice he intones: ‘yes?’
- The bartender begins lining glasses up before the characters reach the bar, and without prompting his voice fills the sparsely populated common room: ‘Outta lamb today, boys,’ he pauses to make eye contact with the cleric, ‘ and lady…’, he then continues, ‘ but we got this new thing in just yesterday.. some kinda elf bake with this purple thing they got in the forest. If you don’t like it, third rounds on me!’ He smiles and rests his hands on his hips, smiling from beneath his great mustache.
So, now the characters have something more personal that ‘hey, some dude..’ to work with, but I still haven’t wasted too much time describing a dude that they’ll meet once. In the case of the dishevelled shopkeeper in the first example, I hadn’t considered making him a drunk until the characters begin to interact with him and I need a reason for his dishevelment. Perhaps this man is mourning a lost love, or child.. Perhaps he is simply not in control of himself or his life. There’s now room for the characters to lend hand to the locals, or to buy what they’re looking for and take as hasty an exit as possible. The point is that at this point joe-dude is not just some guy that fits into his city or town, but he’s a guy that has a name and a family, they aren’t particularly invested in the characters or the characters in them, but the characters should get the feeling they might be.
Usually this level of detail is enough to get me through a session, and I can begin building a more thorough story for the NPC if it seems the characters will be more involved with them as a character. So, from this point I take all of what I know, and build it into the scenario.
Let’s say that I’m running a campaign that is betrayal themed. The NPCs may work out as so:
- Our dishevelled NPC’s wife used to work for the local noble in his estate. One day, she ate from the pot intended for the noble, and died moments later from a terrible poison. Blaming the noble for the death, this NPC wants revenge on his local lord but finds himself without recourse, and has turned to the bottle as an alternative. He is short tempered, and prone to offering negative opinions when he maybe should keep them to himself.
- The elf is a washed out officer in what counts as the elven army. Being at the wrong post for the wrong battle, this shopkeep was scapegoated for the crushing loss at the hands of a small army of goblins being driven by minotaur. Though there was nothing he could have done, he has received all the blame. Suppressing his bitterness and shame, he has developed a haughty demeanor as a defence and a profound interest in ancient warfare lore. He treats anyone he thinks may be an adventurer with disdain, thinking them foolish and vain, though a sufficient sense motive can see a hurt and vulnerable elf beneath.
- The bartender is the gregarious sort, which prompted him to the profession in the first place. Nothing is more pleasing to the bartender than a room full of happy and fed patrons, and he especially enjoys gaining regular then meddling helpfully in their personal lives. The owner of the bar, however, is not quite so kind, using the facility to gather information on it’s patrons and leveraging it against them. The bartender is aware of the activity, but doesn’t know what to do about it, since if the bar is passed to the man’s son, it would be closed putting the man out of a job.
Betrayal themes are too common, though.. they’re almost the default theme to a campaign. Let’s go for something more exotic, like the Lawful battle from this post.
- The dishevelled man has been torn in his innate hatred for undead and his allegiance to the chaotic patron of merchants, but doesn’t want his home shattered by the war against chaos. Rather than choosing a side, our dishevelled proprietor has taken to drinking and imagining terrible things befalling those who have brought the loathsome undead into his city.
- Being the lawful sort, the elf has chosen his side and won’t deal with anyone he suspects hasn’t also made a conscious choice to support law. Having lived a hard life, he credits his few successes to his disciplined demeanor, and will expose anyone that threatens his way of life, whether that means the vampire in the keep will be responsible for carrying out justice or not.
- Our bartender friend has been natural arbitrator his whole life, and is needed now more than ever. Tensions in the city are rising as the undead patrol the nights and the laws are growing more and more harsh. Without a real preference either way, the bartenders goal is only to preserve life and minimize violence. His is a voice of reason in an otherwise increasingly partisan environment, but the leaders of the Order Movement are growing increasingly upset with his tolerance and temperance.
So here, the themes in campaign work out the NPCs. Doing this reinforces the themes of the game, and it helps to make random NPCs feel like pre-generated ones.
One skill that every great GM has is the ability to make the world seem alive. One of the ways this is accomplished is by making every NPC seem like they’ve come alive, and this staged method can help a GM do just that.
There are a few prep pieces that can really help a GM. The most indispensable tool is a piece of paper covered in names. The names should be split along race and sex. Need a name for a female orc on the fly? Got it. Characters encounter a family of halfings on the road? We got names for ‘em. There is really nothing better for a GM on the fly to use this.
There is a drawback on the random paper, however. If your group is anything like mine, they’ll realize you didn’t read the name off the random paper and immediately know this is a Person of Interest in the game. To combat this, I now introduce important NPCs with a pause before ‘choosing’ their name. Occasionally I’ll even simply be aware that I’ll need someone who fills a role later in the game, and when that time comes, I’ll pick a random dude they’ve met. From the players perspective (I hope) this leads to a world that seems more organic and demonstrates that even random NPCs are worth protecting for reasons other than the mechanics of your class require you to do such a thing.
I’ve gone long on this post, so I’ll just stop here, but I believe the key to a good game is good NPCs that fit a tightly wound theme.
What’re your thoughts on NPCs? Too distracting to detail, too important to leave out, too many to keep track of? I’d love to hear your thoughts.