Monday, May 21, 2012

Creating Memorable NPCs

GameMaster University continues at RPG Geek, and I have a contribution to this week's topic.  I come back to a tool I first talked about in 2009 as well.

This week we take on one of the most critical GM skills, and one of the easiest to get a handle on. That’s because GMs can bring the same excitement and creativity involved in making up characters as players to making up NPCs. Being a GM just allows you the freedom to create concepts and play them out almost immediately. I love NPCs and I think one of my strengths is coming up with different and intriguing characters. Sometimes I overdo it and have too many NPCs, but I find it easier to edit or pare away than to introduce new characters late in a campaign.

Before the GM advice, I'll offer a piece of player advice regarding memorable NPCs. If you meet an NPC you find interesting in a game, interact with them. Go back and talk with them again. Mention their name. Those are the best signals a GM has that something they’ve done has hooked you. A good GM will clue in and expand that NPC’s presence or role.

Some time back I put together a series of posts on the topic of NPCs in games. Consider these supplemental and expanded readings.

As you can see at some point I need to go back and revise those pieces. Today I want to reinforce a couple of key points- simple rules to keep in mind. I also want to present a new tool you can use in NPC creation, one that allows you to maximize prep time.

1. Always Have Names
A name is a solid and concrete detail. It shows players that this NPC matters. The sound and color of a name offers atmosphere: ethnicity (Al-Shaghiir, Zenokevitch), tone (Rump-Bonnett, Grishnar), title (Vadshana of the Rift, Duke Forlorn). The easiest way to do this is to hit the various name generator sites and put together a list of names, especially if you can find some theme to them. I put together this list for a standard fantasy campaign. On the other hand, for another campaign all of the players chose compound names for their characters. So I built most of the example names with compound terms. I’ve done this for modern games, for wushu games (using the Exalted name generators), and many other genres. One trick is to find names from certain cultural groups (Hungarian, Thai, etc) and then switch around letters or rearrange syllables. You get the sound of the language, but with a strange newness to it. As I use names, I cross them off or annotate them.

There’s a bit of showmanship involved in telling players an NPC’s name. Never let them think that you’re making it up on the fly. That’s a signal that the NPC isn’t important. Refer to your notes, repeat details, describe the person while you’re making the name up. If you make something up, unobtrusively make a note of the name. I know some GMS theorists dismiss this as “illusionism” but it goes a long way to making an NPC concrete for the players.

2. Desires and Dilemmas
NPCs should have motivations. In any conversation between an NPC and a PC, the NPC should want something out of that interaction (money, acknowledgement, commitment to a quest, not to be killed, romance, figuring them out, getting home to their family). Take a moment to figure out what that position or desire. Use that to shape their responses and make the NPC seem more lifelike. This approach shouldn’t just block or confuse the players; they don’t have to necessarily figure out that motivation. But it affects tone and the shape of conversation. It also reminds everyone (including the GM) that these NPCs live beyond this exchange.

Interesting characters have a gap between their external motivation and their internal desires. That creates a conflict. In games with disadvantages that internal desire might be represented mechanically. It shapes or limits their behaviors. FATE represents those through aspects; these can be compelled to prevent or direct actions. For NPCs who will be sticking around or appearing repeatedly, consider what the gap is between who they present themselves as (or wish to be seen as) and their deeper desires or motives. Over time those NPCs may be faced with a choice between those, creating a dilemma for them. This can reveal character. The reverse is true as well- NPCs can be used to uncover or illustrate the gap between a PC’s external image and internal values.

3. See What Sticks
Different players have different tastes. Ideas you think are awesome or interesting will fall flat at the table. The most important thing to remember as a GM: get over it. You’ll make more. You’ll have other brilliant ideas, interesting plots, cool new monsters, and intriguing NPCs. If something doesn’t work, drop it and move on. With NPCs don’t focus on creating one or two deeply. Create a batch with some details and color, and run them through the grinder. I don’t stat out NPCs. I can do that later or on the fly if I need to. What more important is figuring out some hooks.

When NPCs hit the table many will be acknowledged and then forgotten. Don’t worry about these. Note the names- you might bring them back with changes in their situation or kill them off later. Pay attention to player reactions: do they have one? do they interact with the character? do they ask questions of them? do they clearly hate them? If your players have a significant reaction then the NPCs made an impression. Consider bringing them back on stage in another scene. A more important signal should be if the players remember/mention the NPC’s name or go back to talk to them later. Even if it is purely a question of an NPC having a useful skill or resource for the players, you’ve established someone with a significant role. Once you’ve determined that an NPC works or has a hook the group likes, you can work them in more and deepen them. Focus on what seems to be a hit at the table.

4. Secondary to Players
This is more a caution. Just as players should love their characters, the GM should love their NPCs. However they should be careful about that. There’s a necessary balance. The secret is NPCs exist in relation to the PCs, but players who behave like that’s the case come off like sociopaths. At the same time NPCs shouldn’t take the spotlight away from the players. If they’re able to do something expertly, they can put those skills in service for or against the PC group. If they’re an NPC overcomes an obstacle in the group’s way, it should be at their behest. Unless you intend them to be enemies or rivals, your NPCs shouldn’t show up the players. Even rivals will need to fall and be overcome. Beware Mary Sue characters.

5. Exercise: An NPC Tool
I have a trick for creating NPCs that GMs may find useful. Before campaigns begin, I like to create a batch of NPCs all at once. This activity takes me one or two hours, depending on how creative I’m feeling and how many I want to create. I actually did this yesterday and it took me about an hour to do 22 NPCs. I’ll talk about the mechanics of the system in a moment, but let me try to sell you on the why of it.

NPCs can serve as the best engines and devices for plots and incidents. When I start figuring out a campaign, I usually have a general sense of the kinds of stories I want to tell. I might have an idea about the villains or challenges I think the group would enjoy facing. Perhaps I’ve already developed an idea for how we’re going to open. But I’d like to know more about the world, like to come up with more stories and hooks for the players. To do that I brainstorm NPCs. Each usually suggests a new stories or reveals something about the world. That process serves as half story-idea generation and half world-building. And the way I do it is cheap and fast.

A number of years ago I developed a “tarot” deck unique to my fantasy world. I came up with nine suits of nine cards, plus a wild card. Each had a symbolic name, meanings for their upright and reversed positions, and a relation to something from the game world. It was one of those goofy GM exercises where you build something elaborate which isn’t as great or practical for play at the table. Then I hit on a use for it while thinking about the NPCs for an upcoming urban session. I decided to draw three cards and come up with a story based on that. I did that repeatedly until I had a great set of unique characters. Eventually my wife created an Excel spreadsheet with the cards and meanings, each with a number. I could then easily generate a list of random numbers, use a lookup function, and generate a set of three details. I use my fantasy world’s tarot, but anyone could easily do this by building a sheet with standard tarot meanings or any kind of symbolic set.

The trick is that you have to come up with something based on the elements listed. You can take them as thematic or chronological. It acts as a spur to creative work while limiting options. Let me give you a couple of examples. Yesterday I was going to be running the first session of my new Scion campaign run in Las Vegas- MY PLAYERS SHOULD STOP READING NOW- so I generated some NPCs. I knew the game would take place in Las Vegas, and I knew that the big bad would be Prometheus. I also figured he would have human agents that he “inspired.”

You may want to click for a slightly larger view

So here’s the first three. I like the joke of the name I put there for the first one, it gives me a sense of what he’s going to be like at the table. He’s a cop, so he’ll be easy to throw into the mix in the game. That second one, well now I’ve come up with a plot for later. Ascendant Bounty Hunters (borrowing from Unknown Armies). Maybe he decides he can gain power by taking down a celebrity bounty hunter, like Dog. Maybe the players get wind of that and have to protect an obnoxious celebrity. The third character’s interesting, more open. He doesn’t immediately spring to mind with stories, but I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out down the line.

Same here.

So the PCs will obviously be making a lot of noise in the city. The first character could be used as an ally or agent of an enemy. She could appear after they’ve caused collateral damage. The second one’s great- I can imagine a mystical hoarders junkyard estate. That could be a great scene with someone who perhaps seems crazy but knows too much. The last one’s a nice contrast to Aaron Brokovitch above- another cop who they might cross paths with but who could be bad news.

Here's the full sheet of the 22 NPCs if you want to see all of the finished product, written up in a little over an hour.

Here’s the thing, it doesn’t take me long to create these NPCs and already I’ve got new story ideas. I now have a great fallback resource for the campaign. I can pull them out when I need a new idea or I can throw them into the mix right away. I don’t have to tightly plot the game, instead I have elements I can drop into the sandbox. If I don’t use one, no big deal, the effort doesn’t feel wasted.

Here's a link to a blank worksheet I generated if you'd like to try this out for yourself.


  1. "1. Always Have Names"

    And Mookie Wookie does not count.

  2. Or Bob. He also fell back on using just Bob.

  3. so how about a link to the Excel sheet with all the custom tarot cards? :)