I break up development of a campaign into three blocks-- Plot, Setting, and People. Plot includes the kinds of specific adventures which are going to happen as well as the themes and ideas I want to work through in the course of the game. Setting means both concrete places and locations as well as the cultural or genre tone I want to get across. I usually do a little bit of work on those two elements before turning to People, but I don't like to wait too long. I find the process of creating interesting NPCs develops more and richer elements for Plot and Setting than simply brainstorming on those things. I know writers talk about characters who write themselves. In the case of games, I think well crafted NPCs reveal the dynamics of the game world.
Sidebar: a couple of times now I've tried a technique for campaign prep that has worked reasonably well. What I've done is to write up an entry every day for the players to read-- alternating between people, places and things. I try to keep them brief (less than a page). In each entry I try to reference at least two other things I haven't written about yet-- like an organization the NPC works for, or philosophical movement which comes out of an institution. I send these things on to the players or post them to be read. The process works well in a couple of dimensions. It makes me write something everyday. It develops a lot of concepts for future use while at the same time providing some significant detail on one thing. It also serves as a daily teaser for the players about the upcoming campaign. This process works for me because I tend to be running several campaigns at the same time. I can budget myself an hour a day to think about the upcoming game-- but I don't focus on it at the expense of the other campaigns I'm running. I used this treatment for the Crux (Exalted) campaign and I think it worked well for some of the players. I did a variation on it for a short supers campaign and I was happier with the material I generated than I was with the resulting campaign. Again, that's another story.
I have a cheat method for coming up with NPCs. It comes out of a couple of things. I remember in the old, old Dungeon Master's Guide there being a table for “Hireling” traits which always stuck with me. Of course that was the era where NPCs usually wore a sign around their necks saying exactly what their role was, rather than having a real place or personality. At least, given my age when I was playing this (grade school) that's what it looked like. The second piece of the puzzle came in an article my sister gave me a copy of. It talked about a “Neural Tarot”-- the idea that you could make a your own version of a tarot deck reflecting the ideas, images and concepts most important to you. I liked the concept, but this would have been '92 when access to easy desktop publishing was limited. And I didn't want to scrapbook or badly draw a tarot set. The third piece came when I watched an old-school GM use a standard ten card tarot draw to generate a character-- or at least his backstory. A lot of what he drew got translated mechanically (X card means an item, etc), but I liked the idea. The fourth piece came when I was spending far too much time and energy working on the history and gazetteer for the Third Continent setting of my campaign world. I was spinning off down really odd and useless alleys-- figuring out the various languages and their relation, what the historiography of the places looked like and so on. A good deal of that material is still in the back of my mind, but in general that was the kind of stuff that would never actually make it to the table or if it did, it wouldn't make a better game. One of the strange tangents I went down was to come up with a tarot for that world. I took the idea of the Neural Tarot and tried to work with that-- using the cards to help define the differing ethos of this world.
A lot of fantasy novels have their own variation on the tarot and later the Ravenloft setting would include a special deck, but at the time it seemed pretty novel to me. My original approach of three suits would eventually become expanded to nine suits with nine cards each (plus a wild card). I worked out the general meanings for each card in its upright and reversed positions. The card names, of course, reflected the elements of the game world itself. For example, Seven of Archetypes is called The Sorcerer, a negative card since mages are generally outcasts having once tried to control the whole of the continent. So it refers to unchecked power; power which corrupts; dislocation. The reverse of that card is called The Covenant which carries the idea of binding together for a purpose or progress, unity, a positive bond. So now I had a tarot set which I understood but which only a few people in the game actually got some of the details of.
Eventually I came up with an idea that managed to use the cards on a constructive, beyond simply being a prop at the table. I was working on background details for another campaign set on the Third Continent and I realized I that in the background for each area the players were likely to be going to I wanted to mention one or two famous or infamous characters from there. I made a list of the areas and then drew three cards for each personality to come from there. Then, based on the ideas presented by the cards, I came up with and wrote up little stories for each one. This made coming up with things very easy-- in the same way that having a picture sparks your imagination. I began to use the system in all of my campaigns to generate characters, especially at the beginning of the game.
To facilitate this I put all the cards into an Excel table with each card (and their reverse) having a separate entry and number. I used a lookup function on a separate worksheet. Then I'd generate a list of random numbers (using one of the online number generators), plop the values into that worksheet and get the results. I'd break them up into sets of three, and then copy and paste the sets of three into a table in a Word document. Half the table would have the names and interpretations and then the other half had large blank merge boxes to fill in details. I can get about 8-9 of these on one sheet. I used the system to generate important city characters in my Exalted game. In my Vampire campaign, I knew that the city was divided into two factions so I generated a separate sheet for each one and then came up with the characters. I've used it in a handful of other games as well, including my recent Changeling game. Most notably, for me, I really used the system to build the Scion campaign I just finished running a couple of months ago. I knew the basics of the game concept and the setting and I also knew it would probably last about a dozen sessions. I generated a sheet for male and a sheet for female NPCs and developed stories from those. That probably shaped my vision of the campaign more than anything else and each character sparked new stories and ideas.
I'll give you a couple of examples of how this works, drawn from the Scion list:
Sun (Lord of Days) Open revelation, Enlightenment
The Prisoner (Ace of Archetypes) Captivity, bondage, the dampened, a caged self
Iron (Two of Metals) Value or success through endurance, maintenance
What I wrote: Fixer and professional killer with a bad head for money, constant debt. Burdened by a curse in regards to this. Manages to keep her head above water.
I also knew at this point that there was something in her background she was hiding-- the captivity having come after enlightenment. Later in the game that would develop in the the revelation that she'd originally been another mystical person, but had buried herself in this identity to hide away from the Big Bads in the city. I imagined her as a careful, practical and persistent person both in her financial dealings and her occupation as a hit person. She recognized her own knack for losing money and tried to limit this by wasting a little of everything she got at the gambling tables, since this was set in a relatively mystical Las Vegas.
The Scholar (Knight of Archetypes, Reversed) Indirect Experience, self-deception
Wyvern (Knight of Creatures, Reversed) Collectivity, gatherings, partnership
Snake (Two of Creatures) Watchfulness, wariness; knowledge with use.
I wrote: Informant of all things not quite right in Vegas. He tells himself this is all just another game: vampires at buffets, ghost gangs, terrible black-eyed children. Scared shitless most of the time.
I imagined this NPC could eventually serve as a contact regarding the high weirdness in Las Vegas. He would be torn between not taking it seriously and being afraid. I figured the second card might represent that he either had a network of people or something more tangible like an archive or a clipping collection. In the end he was referenced in the game, but wasn't one of the NPCs anyone followed up on. Instead another NPC the characters came to like a lot ended up filling this researcher role.
These readings tend to be impressionistic. If a lot of high or low cards come up or they come from the same suit, that might inspire me in another direction. Some readings suggest a chronological pattern, an evolving story-- where they were, are and will be. Sometimes I'll look to see if a character has a lot of reversed cards in their story, which indicates a kind of broken person. Here's one last example that goes in this direction:
Arba-Aksa (Four of Waves, Reversed) Power used to a positive end; authority with responsibility
Halea Debased (Two of Gods, Reversed) Greed; overindulgence and empty seduction; hatred of men; facile lies and betrayal; pleasure for pleasure's sake
The Heretic (Lord of Archetypes, Reversed) Betrayal, disloyalty, impiety, agnosticism, amorality
I wrote: Gangster servant of the Titans. Used to be important by screwed up through overindulgence.
The story presented here by the reading pretty much tells itself. We have someone who used to be in a position of power and was a responsible figure. Then he fell into greed and delved into more carnal delights. He broke with his previous good nature and gave himself over completely to this path. His final step would be to join his cause to the world-hating Titans to further his own desires, turning his back on everything he once stood for.
I find using this process to batch create NPCs to be time efficient, fun, and rich. As you work through a set you can see how new interpretations arise from old material and the way things are combined. Of course you don't have to use everything pull (see the second card in that last example, where I only took a couple of those elements). You'll find yourself creating stories that you'll eventually want to tell at the table. You might also begin to see connections between the various characters-- adding depth and complexity to the story.
If you want to see the complete set of my Third Continent Tarot meanings, check here. I haven't yet put together the cards with images but someday I might do that-- but for now that's an exercise that isn't worth the investment of time to the payoff at the table.