It can be argued the NPCs are the RPG games that we play. They’re the way the GM interacts directly with the player characters. For me, they’re at least on par with the locations and sensorial information, in making the experience of the game a bit more intense and realistic. I’ve recently changed my approach to NPC building dramatically. I’ve had really great feedback from my players, and here is what I did:
Everyone can do a different voice. Cast it higher or lower, make it distinctive. Give him/her/it a characteristic speech cadence. When you come back to the NPC in a few sessions time, the players will remember him/her/it, and what he/she/it did. I am a horrible impersonator, but I have a couple of good ones (e.g. Mr Burns, Palpatine, HAL 9000, Watto, Admiral Akbar on a good day, a posh, quiet guy from a previous game, cockney on a REALLY good day, etc). It truly doesn’t take much, heck, just an accent or a cough will do.
2) Three Times Three
Give the NPC three things they are, three things they’d want to achieve and three things that define them. Not much else, at this stage. Let’s say we have a dodgy pawn shop owner. Untrustworthy, Greedy, Astute / Money, Respect, Status / Sniffly, Hunched, Darting eyes. And there we go. I know, I know, I punched all the stereotypes of ‘dodgy money lender,’ but you get what I mean. Don’t overdo it! This is the main thing! Keep it vague so you can adapt it on the fly (more on that below).
This is the greatest change I’ve made to my NPCs. Now that I have an idea of what and who they are, I then write down tables. I make a series of numbered bullet points of events, and then I roll a die. I find this works much better for me, keeps me on my toes and forces me to roll with the punches. I used to plan too much and became much more inflexible when things - inevitably - went off track. I used to plan everything, write massive backgrounds to each NPC, and then, the players would say ‘hello!’ (if that) and move on. I then had to find another way for them to find the info and there goes Miss So-and-so background as an old merc. Don’t. Stay loose, roll with the punches.
4) Take In EVERYTHING
I am now picking up on every single silly thing me and my players say, and weave it into the narrative, no matter how stupid. Believe me, these will become the groups’ memories that they will retain years after the game is long forgotten.
5) Use The Players
Now and again, I tell the players, I need an NPC, and vaguely describe what I need. You’d be surprised how well this works and how much the players will contribute to the cause.
6) It’s All In The Past
Before the game starts, ask a few random questions of the players, about places where they grew up, people that were important to them, etc. They then basically have done all the work for you. You now have half a dozen NPCs you can bring over at any stage to destabilize things/make them more interesting.
7) Box Of Sand
Here is where my love for sandbox rule systems shines through. RPGs are a sandbox. Allow your players to play with the sand. Allow them to ask and try and do things (within reason) with the NPCs that you didn’t think of. Make it hard for them if its weird, but what are you going to lose?
8) Bringing It All Together
By definition, an NPC is not a character. It’s not ‘alive’ in the real world, but there’s no reason why he/she/it wouldn’t be so in the narrative. In this sense, I keep coming back to something I read years ago, about some long forgotten sci fi show where the characters were so forgettable and two-dimensional that one episode, when the fate of each of them was hanging in the balance, there was simply no drama, no stress. I remember reading someone’s comment on a forum, ‘If they all died, would you actually care?’ No. No, I wouldn’t.
You don’t need to make the NPC important, vivid or interesting in any shape or form, but they need to be relevant. The fact they’re imaginary is beside the point. At the time of the game, they are important.
If they died, would the characters/players care? If so, those are the NPCs that will stay with them.
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, three years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPGs came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPGs at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: http://3dnpc.com/forums/topic/3d-npc-look-overhual/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.