The people in the world...

Author: Andrew /

NPCs (non-player characters)... There's a lot to be said for this gang, that's for sure. You've got NPC's who are bit parts, if not just extras who the heroes all just pass by, to the kings and queens and the arch villains that they see time and time again.

I think that one danger that a lot of DM's fall into is the danger of planning, both under- and over-planning. You see, every DM would love to be absolutely prepared for every moment; to have every little answer laid out nice 'n' neat so that when the players asked a question, he'd already see it comin' and come off cool as a cucumber.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately!) that's not the case. You can only plan so much and any DM who's really tried, understands this. You have to ad lib a bit in any situation so that means that you need to relegate your planning to your main cast.

So, my advice is this: Pick your key cast members; perhaps a few major shopkeepers, the innkeeper / bartender at the major tavern, the town sheriff / constable, the major political power[s] (Kings, queens, barons, mayors, etc), the main villain, the main villains first mate, and a few more major players (the old man at the bar every night before the party turns in, the loud doomsayer on the street, the odd voice that the players hear when walking through the trees at night, etc). Pick your key cast and then figure out their places in the world.

This is the part for me that can be trickiest. It's easy to go "Ok, the bad guy is this warlock with a smooth voice and a bad temper. He hates the party for... crap... why does he hate the party?" Motivation is HUGE! So, in reality, you build it as you go and let long term "players" come out of the beginnings.

Example: Perhaps you have band of kobold dragonlings excavating a mine, looking for an artifact of great importance. The town nearby is a bystander for the kobolds and they get roughed up because the kobolds come to the town looking for food and whatnot. The town just happens to be where the adventurers are staying and finally, someone comes to the more-than-capable-looking group and ask for help. The adventurers, being the kind souls they are, they say "SURE!" and they go smash the kobold work operation. Little did they know, the kobolds they slaughtered were the minions of a powerful sorcerrer who was having his minions excavate a long buried artifact which he's spent decades trying to unearth. Now the group has attracted his ire and he sends more minions after them, but to do other tasks too. Then the players will see more monsters with similar features (perhaps a brand or tattoo on their arms, or perhaps a tabard with a certain symbol on it, or maybe they all speak a certain language unusual to the creatures they are... or maybe they all wear Yankee baseball caps, who knows?!). After a while (because you need to intersperse unrelated things to switch stuff up a bit), the players will begin going "Hey, it's those guys again!" and after a while of the minions being thwarted, the sorcerrer will decide "If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself." Then the players meet the big bad guy and their relationship will blossom... like a mushroom cloud in the mid-day sun! Have the villain escape, or perhaps he was using a clone or magic image of himself, etc etc. He can then pop up at later intervals, perhaps just to thwart the player's plans as revenge.

Creating NPCs can be a total blast, but you have to know where to put your energy. If you detail and backstory every inconsequential NPC there is on your imaginary streets, you'll be writing for 5 years (which some of us might not mind lol) but if you want to play, you gotta pick the key cast members of your story and build them out to be great.

Well, I hope this shed some light on this fun little subject and I hope that it was a fun read! Thanks again for all the comments and ideas; keep em comin'! Until next time!


This was an idea requested by a reader and regular commenter, mechamonogatari.


mechamonogatari said...

Interesting thoughts, as always.

Yes, I would love to have thousands and thousands of interesting NPCs populating my world, but as you say, that takes a LOT of effort that most often, I simply don't have time for.

What I've done is keep (most times in my head, but occasionally I write them down) a list of broad character types, and whenever I absolutely need a NPC that might be recurring, I just "draw one from the hat" (so to speak).

I spend a lot of time trawling the TV Tropes wiki for character ideas (then again, wasting all my time there is part of the reason I can't get anything else done).

One technique I use with major NPCs is that I give them, regardless of being villain or ally, regardless of their actual motivation, a little bit of my own personality (and a different bit every time). I tend towards the "method actor" style of things, so this really helps me make them stand out.

Of course, the downside to all this is that my NPCs tend to have richer characterizations and backstories than my player's PCs...

Andrew said...

Well, I think that that is more your player's faults than your own. It's not your fault that you make some great NPCs and also, there is the fact that in most cases, if the NPCs have depths to plumb, players usually notice and take interest because there's obviously stuff to dig for. When it seems like a character they're talking to is vacant and/or not worth their time, that can make players go "forget this" and leave.

I've never heard of the TV Tropes wiki so I'm totally gonna check that out. You could totally use that for PCs as well as NPCs.

Your characterization technique seems a lot like mine. I do that a lot in my drawing, I'll try to put a little of my own personal look, into my characters. Granted, some are heavier than others (I had a spartan character named Arteus who, in the face, at least, looked a lot like me. Of course, no human on earth REALLY has muscles upon muscles like he did but it looked good and like it could work lol). I also had a Yuan-ti assassin who I decided, since I have a chinstrap-style beard, I gave him one made out of scales. lol Turned out pretty cool.

If you'd like to see my stuff, it's at:

But yeah, all that said, your numero uno consideration here is time and if you've got it, use it but if you don't, pick 'n' choose. Do the big fellas first.

Also, a good thing to keep in mind is that all that makes a major character a major character is player attention. If the players don't pay attention and don't interact with them, they're not a big part of the story. A beggar can be a big part of the story if the players decide they like him and want him to come along on their journeys so he can live for more than table scraps! (hey... [note to self] that's a cool idea...)

Thanks for the comments and ideas, they were awesome! Feel free to throw some more at me!

mechamonogatari said...

Nice gallery over at deviantart. I wish I could draw...

I totally agree that player attention is all the difference between an minor NPC and a major NPC. Case in point: during my gaming session today (it's just me & my best friend in a single-player campaign. He's an officer of the "Borderlands Guard" at the moment), I needed someone to deliver an official summons to the PC. I could have just said, "There's a summons. Go see Countess Sennowith immediately" but instead I had the messenger be a greener than green new recruit in the Borderlands Guard: "SIR! THE COUNTESS REQUESTS YOUR PRESENCE AT HER OFFICIAL RESIDENCE IMMEDIATELY, SIR!" Everything this messenger said, he (I) shouted, saying "Sir" at the beginning and end like he was in boot camp or something.

The moment the PC left the conference with the Countess, he went straight to the messenger's commanding officer, and got the poor kid assigned to serve under him. Now "messenger boy" is "Jim Hooh" ("Who?" "Yeah, that's him") and one of the team...strange the things my friend gets fixated on...

Straight from bit part to major recurring character, and all it took was for me TO SHOUT EVERYTHING HE SAYS, EVER!


Man, my throat's sore now...

P.S. Be careful with the TV Tropes wiki. I've wasted so much time there, clicking link after link after link after's addictive, in an awesome way.

Andrew said...

LOL, dude, that totally cracked me up. SIR, YES SIR!

Private, get me a soda.


lol *sigh* man.

Well, I'm happy you like the stuff I've got over at deviantart. I'd say 95% of the art I have there is D&D related. Which are your favorites? I just posted a new one, too. It's Moruton wearing fine clothing, instead of big scary armor (or sportin' no shirt with his huge guns) lol.

Lemme know what you think!

mechamonogatari said...

The tree-faced Kairn looks pretty cool, I think...and the Mouse Guard Traveler. Those really stood out for me.

Andrew said...

Hah, yeah. Just about everyone loves Kairn. He's a lovable fella, that one. =] Wanna know somethin' crazy? That drawing started as just a doodle on a piece of scratch paper and I'd say it's probably one of the most popular ones. Go figure! The mouse guard traveler also gets a lot of people =], cuz he's just dang cute. Heh!

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