Wednesday 9 January 2019

Care and Feeding of NPCs (Part II)

Memorable NPCs
Or, “Who was that masked man?”

In Part I, we talked about how NPCs can be used in a game. In Part II, we are going to talk about methods to create interesting NPCs. Again, this is just a collection of notes and observations based on decades of running games for various people and in diverse locations.

What’s In a Name?

William Shakespeare may argue that “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet”, but in a role-playing game, the names that you give your NPCs is going to shape (in part) how your players see them. It is pretty easy to see that Sauron, although portrayed exactly the same way in The Lord of the Rings, would have been less imposing if he were named “Chester” by Professor Tolkien.

Likewise, if your game is set in a pseudo-Roman area, calling the local tavern keeper “Bob” is going to take your players right out of the setting. Names need to feel like they fit. No one can spend the time – or, for that matter, has the organizational memory – to name every stray character that might be met in the average marketplace. It is a good idea to keep a list of 10 or so male and female names common to the area, so that if the PCs take an unexpected interest in the local greengrocer you can give him a name that makes sense for where he is, and what his social position is.

I personally own half a dozen baby name books. A good book of this nature includes older versions of names, and tells you what the name means. The Internet contains dozens of similar websites, many of which break down names by culture and gender. These are excellent sources when devising such a list!

“Special” NPCs – those you want or expect the players to pay attention to – should have names assigned to them already. Truly special characters should have unique names….Vos the Spell-Thief rather than Linda, for instance.  If you are playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, Appendix S provides a treasure trove of ideas for names and titles.

If you go back to Part I, and look at the uses of NPCs, you will note that “overshadowing the PCs” is not on that list. NPCs should not overshadow the PCs, but some NPCs should seem to temporarily do so if they are intended, for instance, as a foil or a credible threat. That list might also give you an idea whether or not to give an NPC a common local name or a unique one. A service provider or an instrument doesn’t need a cool name. A patron, though, is someone whose name you want the PCs to remember.

You can also assume that any reasonably good author has named their characters using similar principles. This means that you can mine an author’s work for names – possibly altering them somewhat, and certainly avoiding obvious ones like Conan or Gandalf – to populate an area or adventure reminiscent of the author’s work. The names in Prince Charming, Reanimator, for instance, owe much to those in H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West, Reanimator. Likewise, the names in The Arwich Grinder come from Lovecraft, with only a slight amount of shuffling.


In Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Chekov’s reaction to discovering The Botany Bay comes before Khan appears on the screen.  Throughout the movie, even when he is not on-camera, the other characters spend quite a bit of time talking about him….enough that the character can be meaningfully rewritten for Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the name means something as soon as you hear it.

Likewise, in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is never “seen” until Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are on the precipice of Mount Doom. Instead, Sauron is felt throughout the narrative.

It is quite possible to have an NPC be effective in a setting even if the PCs never meet her. For instance, in one campaign there was a notable and mysterious thief called Jack of Roses. Jack of Roses always left a rose at the site of his high-class robberies, and he was terribly mysterious. No one knew his identity, and the PCs never found out who he was. This didn’t prevent the NPC from lending important colour to the urban setting. Nor did it prevent the NPC from being a reasonable riddle/foil – one of the PCs was actually mistaken for the “true identity” of the Jack of Roses.

(In fact, Jack of Roses was a young noblewoman that the PCs had met in her normal guise, and who could have been tapped for a wide variety of NPC functions within the setting. This is a case where using a relatively common name for her “civilian” persona disguised the fact that she was also the much more romantically named Jack of Roses.)

The point here is: How other NPCs react to your NPC when your NPC is off-screen is as important as how the NPC acts when he is present. You can create a credible threat by having everyone speak of “William Hornsby, the Moneylender” in hushed and fearful tones, even if the Moneylender seems cultured and polite in person. When a character’s reputation and actions do not seem to mesh, the resultant mystery highlights the character’s reputation – and importance to the setting.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words…..

What an NPC does in a setting is often far more important than what an NPC says. If you want the players to know Lord Voldemort is a serious threat, sooner or later Lord Voldemort is going to have to actually kill someone. If, instead, Lord Voldemort is repeatedly beaten by school children who escape unscathed from their escapades, Lord Voldemort becomes a joke. If you want to know why the Harry Potter series became so much darker as it went on, the answer is “Because it had to”.

….But Words Are Important Too!

On the other hand, important characters can be given a unique “voice”. This doesn’t mean that you literally have to “do voices” (not all of us are good at that), but that the character can have idiosyncratic ways of speaking. A nobleman and a ditch digger don’t sound the same. Education, philosophy, and dialect/slang (including terms related to an NPC’s trade) affect how a character speaks.

I once ran the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands, adapted to 3rd Edition rules. When the PCs entered the evil temple, they got into an argument about the ethics of sacrificing people with one of the clerics they captured there. It lasted about half an hour of real time before one of the players (my son, in this case) realized that I was using Christian theology to justify human sacrifice, including that of babies. It was, perhaps, the highlight of the session. Another highlight occurred when a group of orcs were so impressed by another PC that they shifted from his opposition to his followers.

For important NPCs, where you know or expect that there will be role-playing, it is often useful to have made a cheat sheet of dialogue snippets that you can throw into the conversation. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is try to develop and maintain good improvisational skills. See below for more on this.

Recognition Handles

This is an idea that I stole from FASA’s Star Trek and Doctor Who role-playing games. Simply put, it is choosing something that is unique to that character, which you can use as a “hook” to make the players tell which character they are encountering. It helps players to remember your various characters, and it helps you to portray them consistently. For instance:

  • Spock raises an eyebrow and talks about whether or not things are “logical”.
  • The 4th Doctor has a really long scarf and offers you jelly babies.
  • Harry Potter has a lightning bolt scar.
  • James Bond has his martinis shaken, not stirred.
  • Zorro carves his trademark Z into walls and people.
  • Superman and Batman literally wear logos on their chests.
  • Many cartoon characters (including Sylvester and Tweetie, Donald Duck, and Daffy Duck) have speech impediments.

Steal, Steal, and Steal Again!

Further to this, you don’t have to make everything up yourself. You can pretend that various characters in the game are being played by chosen actors. You can take ideas from movies, television, or fiction … just file off any obvious serial numbers and you are ready to go! You can use your best Batman voice for the Captain of the Guard, and play the greengrocer with a Tom Baker flair. Unless you are a very, very good actor, it is unlikely that your players will know.

It is even less likely if you mix & match. That nobleman is basically Spock, but instead of saying “logical”, he also womanizes like Kirk. If you watched the excellent medical mystery drama, House, you might not have noticed that House combines traits of Sherlock Holmes (analytical mind, drug problem, off-putting personality) with Watson (has a limp, medical doctor).

The goal with stealing is to not make it obvious. You can have that dwarf act as though played by Sylvester Stallone, but avoid making him yell “Yo! Adrian!”  You can play a riff off of Sauron, but don’t make him a world threat, and don’t make him manifest as a giant disembodied Eye in great need of Visine.

Use and Abuse of Stereotypes

Maybe the dwarves in your campaign world seem like they could come directly from The Hobbit. The elves have more than a nod to those in Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. The halflings would be at home anywhere in the Four Farthings or Bree.

Boring, you say? Maybe. But also easily graspable by the people who sit down to play the game. Don’t believe me? Give a listen to the Glowburn Podcast when they start talking about Manimals and Plantients. Trying to figure out examples of the same from literature or other media is part of the discussion. It helps to get a mental picture of what a particular character type is about.

The general rule is that using stereotypes as a shorthand is okay. Focusing on stereotypes is not. So, the strong smith whose back is bent from years of working the forge, or the Butterbur-like innkeeper is fine. In fact, using stereotypes is rather like using common names. They give you something to contrast the unusual types against. And they give you something to help hide the unusual types if they are meant to be a riddle.

The thing is, all of us have some expectations about what it means to be a cleric, a wizard, a warrior, or a dwarf. Whether these expectations are conscious or subconscious, they are going to creep into your depictions of NPCs. You might as well embrace them, and make use of them knowingly.

This doesn’t give you carte blanche to use harmful stereotypes about real-world groups of people, though.  Know your audience, and try to avoid hurting people. If your players walk away from your game the better for having played it, that is excellent. If they walk away from your table with a head full of bias because of the way you depict real people, that is not so good. Try to work well with others.

All Shapes and Sizes

Which leads us to this – when populating your world, try to take real people into account. The NPC tables in the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide are actually excellent for this, and I highly recommend using them sporadically. Another thing that works quite well is to characterize some NPCs as people whom you have met (although not people at the table).

Pay attention to the people around you. It is good for you as a GM. It is also good for you as a person.

And, for the sake of Crom, if one of your players tells you that his character is a gay male Ferengi who is attracted to Klingons, make use of it. That means Klingons who are not interested, and who can therefore act as foils, threats, etc., but it also means that, at some point, the player would like to Quest For the love of his character’s life. Make it so!

Creating NPCs
Or, “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.”

Finally, after all this consideration, we get to talk about game statistics. This is actually the part where I have the least advice to offer, because statting out NPCs really isn’t that difficult.

NPCs on the Fly

Have a page of NPCs available to use if you need someone unique right now.

When you are reading an Appendix N novel or story, keep a notebook nearby. Stat out some of the people you meet in the story. Now you have some premade NPCs.

Average Characters Don’t Require Unique Statblocks

Literally, use the statblock of another NPC. Your players will never know.

In the event of a truly average character, AC 10, 2 hp, no bonus to attack, damage, initiative, or saves. There you go. You’re welcome.

Many NPCs don’t need stats at all. Your PCs are unlikely to murder the local greengrocer. If they do, AC 10 and 2hp.

If you are playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, there are statblocks in the core rulebook for various types of people the PCs might typically encounter. Use them. Modify them to meet your needs, if you can, so you don’t have to start from whole cloth.

Crafted Characters

The Purple Sorcerer tools are a wonderful means for making crafted characters. Want a 5th level thief? You can have 10 options with the click of a button.

Remember when you were jotting out stats for those Appendix N characters? Change their names, modify them as needed, and supply a new recognition handle to differentiate them from their source. Now you have some specially crafted NPCs.

NPCs Don’t Follow the Rules. You don’t have to figure out a “rules legal” way to give your wizard a special power that you want, or give your thief lightning reflexes that grant him a bonus to Reflex saves and Initiative rolls. Just modify his stats, and be thankful that you are not playing a game where you have to get the math right. And, if you are playing a game where you have to get the math right, just modify her stats and treat it the same as if you went through the effort of doing the math. At the end of the day, the outcome is the same.

Death Throes are not just for monsters.

Steal, Steal, Steal, and Steal Again!

Every NPC in every module you own has a statblock that you can reuse, or modify and reuse, or convert to your current system and reuse. Unless you make it obvious, the odds are that your players will never notice.

Or, “The End Has Come. But the Moment Has Been Prepared For.”

Remember that the goal is always to get at least two hours play for every hour of prep work. If an NPC is only going to see play for 30 seconds, you shouldn’t be spending more than 15 seconds on him. If an NPC is going to see many hours of play over many sessions, it still shouldn’t take more than half an hour (at the very most) to create her.

Recycle, reduce, and reuse.

Practice your improv.

Most of all, have fun. That is why you are gaming in the first place!


  1. Daniel; I am floored by the sheer scope of your RPG know-how once again. Daniel.

  2. I don't mean to blow smoke up your proverbial chimney; I mean that this is just damn practical & user intuitive advice you're offering here. I have stolen NPCs from The Cohen brother's films (their secondary and lesser characters are always memorable without being too ham-fisted...usually), and people at my local Grocery store , to even co-workers (although I do try to be judicious about whether they are going to be people my players actually know or not; it's just best to be on top of that kind of thing) as well as the usual classic literature archetypes. Good NPCs are where you find 'em, right? And some basic ideas about how to implement them ; as you've presented in these posts, is still something I found useful. Great stuff sir; truly.

    1. LOL. I didn't mean to imply that you were blowing smoke! I appreciate your comments, and I am glad the material was helpful.


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