Making a setting is great and it’s a lot of fun too, but the real spice of your setting is in the NPCs. NPCs, or non playable characters, make up a lot of content for RPGs. A game can be good or bad based on how you run them. These people are quest givers, salesman, bad guys, and/or anyone else your players do not control directly. It is your job to put the life and soul into these NPCs, and through that, give your world life.
Chances are, you will have a world full of people that all have their own stories going on. That is, unless you are playing Dark Souls where everything is either dead or trying to kill you. The trick to adding that spark is keeping just enough information on an NPC to not confuse you, the GM, while at the same time keeping these characters deep enough to not break the illusion of an active setting. To accomplish, this we need to ask a couple of questions.
The most important question is how often the PC’s will encounter the NPC. This is important because recurring NPCs will need to have names, backgrounds, and maybe even stats. Of course, any random goon a player fights will need the right stats but you can even go deeper with that too.
- A good tip for any NPC is to give them some quirks. Maybe they can’t look a PC in the eye, or they think that they are very beautiful. Whatever their quirk, remember to be as creative as you can. In the same manner, in a world filled with odd, interesting beings, a character without a quirk would, ironically, have a quirk.
- Consider the accents and mannerisms for a region. If everyone is British, then a normal person is probably also British. If everyone is poor, then a NPC is probably poor. If everyone shakes left handed, then they probably do too. Only under special circumstance will NPCs violate colloquialisms. If too many do, then you will not only violate your setting, but heavily reduce your credibility as well.
- If a NPC is going to meet the characters on more than one occasion, then you need to at least have a documented name for them. In the same way, these NPCs must have a motive, or a reason, to be a repetitive NPC. A motive for the conversation or interaction with your PCs is going to add a surprising amount of depth to a character. The motive can be anything from wanting to not be in the conversation anymore, to wanting to fiscally rip off the PCs.
- If an NPC is going to show up more than five times, then they are going to be rather serious characters in your created world. These NPCs are typically people such as merchants, bartenders, or even recurring baddies. They are going to need to be set apart in one way or another, and are unique in appearance and nature. To make these characters stand out, you can try doing some of the following:
- Ask yourself, “How do these characters interact with other NPCs at any level?” Are they feared or respected? Do they know everyone, or does the NPC somehow manage to never be seen? Would this NPC know everyone’s name or not? Answers to questions such as these add a surprising amount of value to a character.
- Again, the importance of giving a NPC mannerisms and motives should be greatly stressed. Why are your players connected to the NPCs? What is it that is bonding your PCs to the non playable character? Are they just there, like the Cabbage Guy from Avatar, or do they have something the PCs want?
- The next level of NPC is a permanent character – These deserve deep thought because they are a commitment. You want to avoid having as many permanent characters as possible in part because they are a very extreme NPC. Having too many permanent NPCs can really confuse things, and get in the way of gameplay. Keep in mind that as the GM you are keeping track of a good amount of things already, so adding too much unnecessary details like permanent NPCs can be stressful. If you do commit however, a permanent would need a few special qualities that are not in the normal NPC package to set them apart and make them an everyday part of the game.
- A permanent NPC follows the above rules in character development, but adds greater detail. These NPCs need to stand out well and be memorable. You can do that by having them break some of the rules, or follow local flavors. These characters are meant to be special and can be from anywhere or have whatever mannerisms you want.
- The next thing that these characters need is a special item or mechanical trait. This is the reason you have this NPC on repeat. My favorite example of this is the ‘Adversary’ trait. This trait allows NPCs to have all combat checks against them get upgraded because they are… important.If that does not suit you, try doing something such as giving the NPC a special sword, gun, or piece of armor that helps them out in tricky situations.
- Lastly, a permanent NPC needs stat blocks. I’m not talking the normal stat block for a minion. If they are permanent NPCs they should have their base stats set on whatever they are and then those stats should be modified and recorded for reference. Ask yourself this one important question. “What makes them different?” If you have a hellspawn demon bad guy that is cool, but if he’s a permanent NPC what makes him better than any other hellspawn demon?
It is important to avoid becoming a GM that turns a NPC into a PC. The problem with this, simply put, is that having a GMPC (game master player character) makes it nearly impossible to not cheat. I am not saying that it is impossible to GM that was, or that it is something you cannot do. These games are meant to be fun and should be played in a way that makes them fun. However, if you make a GMPC, things can get extra complicated, fast. It is easy to overplay your GM boundaries whenever you hold all of the cards. You could end up short selling your game, or even diminishing your PC interactions. The self awareness to be a GMPC is too high for most people to handle, and can be really distracting when you are trying to GM a game. I strongly suggest avoiding the issue altogether and never making a GMPC.
Here are some suggestions that could help when creating short term NPCs
- Make a list of pre-generated names before a session so you aren’t caught on your back foot when a PC says, “Who are you?”
- Try coming up with a trait table. DnD and other RPGs make pre-generated trait tables that help you add a little depth to a character. Try making your own so that you don’t always end up with the same twenty people.
- Develop a couple of NPC biographies so that you don’t get surprised. Any one of your player characters could grab random citizen and attempt a dialogue with them. If you have your pre-generated NPCs on standby as a reference, when PCs run into them you have a head start on handling the situation.
I hope my NPC tips help when it comes to further developing your settings. I’m interested in other tips and tricks that you might use for making NPCs, so please make sure to leave a comment below or send us an Email on our Contact Us page. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook @nblogcollective. We’ve recently developed a Patreon page so that we can bring you more game reviews and advice. Be sure to let your friends know about us by sharing the article with the link below, and as always,