A puppeteer captivates his audience in the town square. The heroes, returning from their latest dungeon, spot the growing crowd and approach with interest. The audience is mostly children and a few citizens taking a moment to see what the fuss is about. It’s easy to get a good view. Hanging from one of the strings is a demon, horned and wings licked in crimson. Hanging opposite of the demon is someone holding a sword. The fighter immediately recognizes the puppet. It looks exactly like him. The puppeteer speaks of a great prophecy; of a demon, locked away, approaching escape. Only our hero can stop him.
This is an NPC that one of my DM’s made in a campaign I took part in. It was this puppeteer, who introduced himself as Alvar, that showed me the potential for an NPC in a Pathfinder, or really any, campaign. Beyond just an innkeeper with an eyepatch, or a noble with a stuck up attitude, Alvar was a living breathing character with a purpose. With this article I want to show you 4 ways to make a memorable NPC, all thanks to inspiration I gained from this puppeteer.
1) Connect Them To Your Player Characters
Alvar was connected directly to one of our players, the aforementioned hero that was crucial to keeping the demon locked away. This connection establishes a bond and creates a reason for players to interact with an NPC more. How do they know this? What else do they know? The bond doesn’t need to be as grandiose as providing a backstory to characters or as an omenspeaker, but any sort of connection immediately makes players feel exactly that: connected.
Another approach is to make the players feel responsible for this character. A young squire who finds the heroes to be inspiring hopes to learn from them so he follows them out of town to the cave they are going to explore. The party can’t exactly leave him alone in the cave, he’ll be ripped apart, so they’ll need to keep him safe while they seek out their objective. This can be especially strong if you target a Good character in town with this specific squire, idolizing them and setting up for the moment where the character feels responsible for their safety.
2) Have NPCs Praise Or Condemn Aspects Of Your Characters
Characters make mistakes. There are times when players can make decisions in the moments that skirt the alignment of their character. NPCs that either push them away or pull them towards the other side can be compelling talking points to a character. Alvar would constantly tell our fighter that he believed in him and they he could do better in making this world a good place. The fighter was caught between two alignments and Alvar was there urging our fighter to make the right call, but the fighter was still lost in knowing which was which.
This method can create tension. Tension is good because it inspires dialogue between characters and can make them more involved in the story. Having an NPC show up and point out the divide in players’ morals can provide intriguing role playing potential for a party. Of course, this is by no means an excuse to become vindictive and outright insult a player for their decisions. Instead if someone merely asks the character ‘why?’ it has potential to open up a whole new avenue of character exploration.
3) Find The Drive Behind A Character And Have An NPC Amplify It
The fighter always imagined himself as the hero. Maybe that’s why he was so intrigued by the puppet performance and became interested in Alvar so quickly. There was this idea that he was something more: he sought out some sort of prophecy and Alvar delivered. There was heroic blood in his family’s lineage, and the fighter was the key to reopening what was locked away.
Some players may find that to be a bit too convenient, but Alvar is a particularly specific example of what an NPC can do. Each player gives a purpose to their character, something that drives them to make the decisions they make. A method of taking your game to the next level is incorporating these themes into your story, feeding back into the players what they crave. You can twist it and turn it on their head, but dangling a carrot on a stick, so to speak, will push the characters forward.
Most villains in a campaign will do this to the players, but there is no reason you cannot take advantage and have other NPCs do this. Especially if you can balance the idea of similar traits between your villain, your player, and their NPC. The villain and the hero both crave power, each must stop the other to get it, the NPC wants to see the hero gain this power, but which side will their methods align with? This gets to the final, most poignant point of Alvar’s story.
4) Have Your NPCs Be Wrong
This may sound obvious, but what exactly does it mean to be wrong? An NPC can give wrong directions to a dungeon, but is that something they can be remembered for? A strong NPC will provide an emotional connection to the players, and with the above methods you can achieve the framework to create a memorable bond. However the most important point of an NPC is that they are not omniscient. NPCs should not know the way everything flows and they can be just as guilty as anyone of being wrong.
Alvar was a victim of his own prophecy. He didn’t know the full explanation behind what he was preaching to the party’s fighter. He spoke of the fighter being the key to locking the demon away, when in reality the demon could never be free until the fighter approached the cage. Our fighter broke, realizing that he wasn’t the hero that was meant to save the world: he was the villain destined to free the beast who would end it. Alvar himself also broke from this and met the tragic end of dying knowing that he was wrong.
There is nothing interesting about an NPC that the players can never outsmart. A villain who is always one step ahead is boring so why should someone helping out the players have knowledge they shouldn’t have? Treating an NPC like a mortal who is just as in the dark as the players are, with their own opinions whether they be right or wrong, allows the players to relate to them. It forms a bond or a rivalry, providing players with a push and pull that inspires digging deep into their character.
Alvar’s end may have been hopeless, but our fighter did not follow the same path. He fought against his prophecy and returned to his own path. He would defeat this demon. He let the beast out, so he was going to be the one to kill it. Alvar never saw this, but Alvar was never supposed to see it. Multiple storylines are happening at a time during a campaign: the main story, the player character’s stories, and the NPC’s stories. Alvar’s story was about an old man who dreamt of a golden era of his youth, locked behind memories and prophecy. He always hoped that he would find his hero, unfortunately all he was left with was betrayal-- from no one but himself.
The greatest part of all this is that Alvar wasn’t even involved in my character’s storyline from this campaign, but it’s undeniable the effect that he had on me. My side of the story was full of its own characters, twists, and revelations that I’ll be using as an inspiration for a future article. I hope this has helped plant some seeds to create an NPC that will push your players. They want it.
Have you played or experienced any NPCs that were memorable for you? Who were they? Let me know in the comments or on my twitter!
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Picture Referece: https://www.bit-tech.net/reviews/gaming/pc/top-10-computer-game-npcs/1/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.