Some of my favorite movies are set in high schools. Part of the appeal is the neat categories people get divided into. There are the bookish, the jocks, the rebels, the beauties, & the outcasts (Of course, depending on your region, there may be other variants of these).
[The Sorting Hat put me in ‘House of Usher’… WTF … Vincent Price? ]
Depending on your position on the actuarial table, chances are you have been influenced by the classics: Grease, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Clueless, American Pie, Mean Girls, High School Musical, 21 Jump Street, Monster High, amongst others (feel free to comment).
[I had such a crush on Alicia Silverstone; what happened to you Alicia?]
Most readers will recognize a name or all on that list, and some of those movies probably sent nostalgia gremlins digging through your memories. Wouldn’t it be nice to create those same feelings in the players at your table? Making memorable Non Player Characters (NPCs) is kind of like figuring out what makes a person stay popular in high school. On behalf of players everywhere, here is the 2016 definitive guide to:“5 Ways to Make Your NPCs More Memorable”
1. G’day Mate: Accents = Instant Popularity
Remember that boy/girl in high school with an accent? It was like they walked on rainbows the way people gravitated to them. I’m ashamed to say I had a crush on a voice in grade 11- South African to be exact. And you know why I had a crush on that voice? Well, besides the fact it belonged to a beautiful redhead who actually wore rainbow-colored shoes, it was because the voice stood out from the rest.
Now, I know, my industrious Game Masters (GMs), that you already have enough on your plate creating endless scenarios that we, the players, will undoubtedly turn our noses up at; but hear me out. Voices make a big difference. We’re not expecting Mel Gibson in Braveheart here, but a little twinge of accent for your NPCs- even if you slip in and out of it- automatically sets them apart as noteworthy. Accents create associations for players with things in the real world. Use these associations to help create depth in your fantasy one.
[It’s the difference between shouting: FREEDOM! , or (with a burr) FRRRREEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOOOM]
2- Hang Out With The Hotties or: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
As mentioned in my blog last week, it’s important to “Find a Muse”. This does not have to translate into a lot of work. In the case of NPC development, you can use what you’ve “learned” as a couch potato over the years, and create a template for a type of character. To do this, find characters or actors (I’m looking at you Liam Neeson) that you like, or think would be interesting to try to play, and watch/remember how they deliver their lines. Copy and paste into your imagination. Repeat.
[Remember Chandler from 'Friends’? “Could I be wearing any more armor”?]
I harp on using inspiration from movies, books and video games, because it encourages you to develop a means of expression of yourself. Think of a favorite character from a movie you like- now deconstruct them into pieces, and find out what it is you like/ don’t like about them. A jigsaw puzzle picture of who you are as a person lies in those pieces of likes & dislikes. It’s important to know what these pieces are- otherwise, how can you use them?
[Unfortunately, life’s puzzle doesn’t have a picture on the front of the box]
3 – Speak up, Speak your Mind
Please, please, please tell us your NPC’s opinions on things. You might think having passive NPCs are what we want, but it actually gets boring after a while. Have them speak up on an issue important to the party. I’m not saying that you start going all Leo Tolstoy on the group (well, maybe sometimes). But when an NPC tells us their opinions on things as varied as the quality of the sword we just gave her, or where we made him sleep last night, it makes us sit up and take notice.
Too many times, NPCs are little more than second-class citizens subject to the whims of the main characters. Cannon fodder, trap sense, poison testers and monster bait are some of the uses I’ve seen (though I’m sure there are many more- feel free to comment). But just doing those things shrinks the uses that this tool can possibly have for you. I know that you want the players to tell the story (and they should), but that doesn’t mean you can’t have opinionated NPCs.
4 - What’s Your Deal?
Everybody has a context, real world or imaginary. If you can create an NPC that is something more than a one-dimensional, quest-giving pylon, then you may (briefly, mind you) have our attention. Are their political or religious opinions pressuring them? Do they have family in peril? Is the farmhouse that the Player Characters (PCs) are making a stand in, an NPC family’s only place to live? Let the players feel those moral questions.
Another thing to think about, especially if it’s a recurring NPC, is giving them a motivator outside of the party. It could be a drive for fame, to get back home, or to avenge their brother’s death. If you’re feeling nefarious, perhaps they are feeling the twinge of that base human corruption: greed. It can be skimming off the top, straight up robbing them, or something subtler, such as selling information about the players, or trying to split up the party.
[Bear in mind that some parties don’t need assistance to self-destruct]
5 – Don’t Wear the Uniform
Vary your characters! I don’t care if you have a Jerry Maguire-like performance for your bartender NPC. If I see the same damn barkeep in every town I go to, sorry, I’m tuning out. Mix the soft with the hard, the loud with the quiet. Different accents, cultures, religions, and motivations scratch our neoteric itch. For example, it’s a contrast between light and darkness, which makes the light seem brighter, and the darkness blacker.
Likewise, some DMs struggle with playing characters of the opposite gender they are. I sympathize with you…to a point. You don’t have to turn into Barbie or Ken to sell the fact that your NPC is male or female. But you can use your words to describe their actions, just like Sir David Attenborough does for the BBC. If you’re a woman playing a male NPC, you don’t have to lumberjack each line. Save trees. Likewise, if you’re a man playing a female, you don’t have to turn every woman the party comes across into a ‘Girls Gone Wild’ audition. Trust me, it will help you be able to maintain eye contact with your friends afterwards. This also would have the benefit of breathing some much-needed life into women’s roles in fantasy role-playing.
In conclusion, what will make your NPCs memorable, like staying popular in high school, is more than just the way they look or the cool things they can do. It’s something esoteric, something associative, and something deeper. Think about what you want your next NPC’s ‘something’ to be.
In the meantime, I gotta get back to work
Dustinopolis, Devourer of Cheese, is an 11th level dreamer who has been rolling dice and playing roles off and on for over ten years. He currently “works” as Assistant to the Evening Custodian at the High Level Gaming Company, who “pay” him “regularly”. He prides himself on writing (*most) blogs fully clothed. If you can’t wait until next week’s post, you can follow him on Twitter @devourcheese for more questionable insights.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games