How do YOU make NPCs interesting?


I’ve been “lucky” enough to play in games where there have been truly memorable NPCs, and have also been “lucky” enough to play in games where there are no NPCs worth talking about.

Yawn

Now, I use the term “lucky” in part of the above sentence with a little sarcasm (I’m British after all), but there is also an element of truth there as well.

Let’s say that you have two well developed NPC’s (because he/she/it has or does something pivotal or necessary in the adventure), four others that have decent information on them, but nothing much beyond that.

Now, what I am about to say is very much an RPG cliche but bear with me…

How many times have you (as a GM) been caught flat footed when one of your characters decides that they want to stick their head into a shop or engage with an NPC that you simply never saw coming?  …Be honest…

When this happens there are a number of things that you can do (this is obviously not a definitive list!):

  1. Panic and mumble;
  2. Say something along the lines of, “That person doesn’t have any information.”;
  3. Kick yourself for not thinking of that; or
  4. Engage your amazingly creative GM brain and come up with something as if you’d planned it all along.

Now, we’d all love to say 4, and I have no doubt that sometimes that’s what does happen, but if we’re honest, we’ve probably done all the above.

truth

Making a village/small outpost  in an RPG setting isn’t hard, you just create a list of likely stores, create or generate a list of authentic sounding names, add their race and hey presto,  Trahl Gimle the Duro/Orc bloke that works in the General Store is born!  Grats!  You now have someone to use when your players want to walk into that store and buy a nice, new, shiny helmet!

If that’s your method, and it’s working for you, then go right ahead.

Loki approves

Do give a little thought though as to whether Trahl makes a good addition to the world and story that you’re creating.  He’s a little one sided, generic, flat, downright boring isn’t he?  Now, I am most certainly NOT saying that I know how best to deal with this, but I do have a slightly more effective way.

For me, NPCs are important and how I deal with them gives information to my players.  There are three important aspects to bear in mind here:

  1. If your NPC is extremely well detailed, your players will know that he/she/it is important and will treat them as such.
  2. If your NPC has no detail, your players will know that he/she/it, is not important and will treat them as such.
  3. Every NPC you reveal is a chance for you (the GM) to flex your creativity and to further immerse your players into your game!

creative muscle

There are certain NPCs that will have a tangible effect on your game / players (important), and others that won’t (not as important).  While I don’t try and pretend NPCs that are not as important are actually important, or vice versa, there are times when I won’t make it obvious which is which and other times when I will.  Those choices are down to you and your game, but it’s an important point to make I believe.

Here are a few ways I deal with those “unforeseen NPC requirements”:

  1. Have a decent list of adjectives that describe both negative and positive personalities, pick two at random, and apply them to the way you ‘play’ that NPC; e.g. discriminating, exuberant, appreciative, jovial, distracted.
  2. Have a long list of male and female names, and pick one at random;
  3. Have the “typical” race list for your game genre, and pick one;
  4. Ask the players! No, seriously, ask them.  Why do you need to come up with everything all the time?  Don’t you have enough to do already!?

Don’t be afraid to bring a popular NPC from one game universe into another either.  It doesn’t need to be exactly the same character with a different ‘skin’ but take certain identifiable elements of him/her/it.

With my players, I recently took a character from a D&D campaign and kind of, referenced ‘him’ into my Edge of the Empire campaign.  The character was, ‘Derek the Cheesemaker’, a character that was simply an NPC selling cheese at the marketplace in Winterhaven…  (Yes, THAT D&D adventure)

KotS

I had to come up with a name on the spot, but I wanted him to have a name that would be remembered.

The primary reason for this to be honest, was to give me a “placeholder” in case I needed to give the PCs some information via a “trusted” source; primarily to fill in one of the plethora of gaps that was in that accursed adventure module!

plothole

Anyway, surprisingly, Derek became an NPC that my players seemed to take to quite well, and when I realised that, it opened my eyes to really simple ways to add more ‘life’ to my games.

Now, I tend to have all kinds of ideas at all kinds of times of the day, sometimes at shockingly inappropriate times!  As my memory is atrocious, I usually quickly scurry off repeating the idea in my head over and over again until I can find a pen and paper or iPad to note it down.  The “Derek Transmogrification“, was one of those moments…

Whilst on holidays recently, I was sat by the pool, chatting with the kids about lunch, and *zing*, from out of nowhere, I remembered Derek, and then remembered I had a droid in an early part of my current EotE campaign that had no designation yet!  I laughed and tapped out a note on the trusty iPad;

                … name for droid, D3R3K!!

I remember relaying the scene where the players met D3R3K to my players, and even managed to hide my smile as I related the Droid’s ‘name’ to them…

I waited…  Would they get it?

Was it too obscure a reference?

Had it been too long since Derek the Cheesemaker was alive?

A second or two ticked by, and one of the players got up from the table with a big laugh, “HAHAHA!  It’s Derek!  Hahaha!  That’s awesome!”

They got it!!!

tumblr_mj3y0eHewe1rgqdieo1_250

For me, that was a great moment, and for that, I congratulate Derek (and Hadyn).

It’s the little things……….


So, how do you deal with NPCs in your games?

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