One of my favorite keys to a good adventure for many, many years has been memorable Non Player Characters that stick with the party.
Some of my favorite NPCs were introduced sometime around the first few sessions. I try to make them endearing enough (or healers) that the group will want them to stick around. Some rely on cuteness. (Cute goes a long way around here.) Others rely on a shtick like roguish charm or comedy relief.
I often go out of my way to obtain or read copies of various GM guides and how-to-GM literature. I watch Roll 4 Initiative as well as How To Be A Great GM on YouTube when I can. Back in my day before we had the World Wide Interwebs, we read a lot of books on the subject. Johnn Four’s NPC Essentials. (Available on Johnn’s website or DriveThruRPG.) There also used to be this neat thing in print called “Dragon Magazine” that many of us read for articles on good DM skills, including NPC development.
Having a solid stable of NPCs can be a real game changer.
If you’re a new DM/GM, please don’t panic! I can rely on a massive heap of characters, lists of NPCs, and a long history of running games. You don’t have to! It’s okay. There are so many tools at your disposal for creating NPC names, generating random personality traits, and even background generators out there. They’re easy to find and sometimes built into the various VTT platforms if you’re using one.
You don’t have to have a heap of combat statistics and skills listed for every character. If they’re going to get in a fight pick one or two things they might be good at and have them do it. Sometimes that might be hiding under the nearest tree or rock until the end of the fight.
Contrary to what some actual play podcasts would have you believe, you don’t have to be a trained voice actor or a master of improv. You’re fine as long as the group knows which character is speaking. It won’t hurt to try different tones of voice and rates of speech. A little experimentation won’t hurt. But if your group is cool, you don’t have to. As long as everyone is comfortable with it, you can do a lot of things at the gaming table or not, depending on your preference.
NPCs are an incredible role-playing tool on so many levels.
Sometimes interactions with NPCs can make or break a campaign. NPCs are so useful for sparking conversations, getting the group back on track, lightening up the mood, or dropping subtle yet valuable clues or hints. Sometimes NPCs remain a topic of discussion long after the session has ended. (I’m enough of a method actor that I’ve had to drop into an NPC from something I ran and then go through all kinds of crazy stuff in character. It’s a hoot.)
NPCs are also helpful if the group is arguing amongst themselves and have come to a stalemate on a decision they have to make. A well-respected, stable NPC can sometimes settle the argument by making a neutral third suggestion the group didn’t consider, suggest a compromise, or tip the balance and get the group moving again. Other NPCs traveling with the group might be a source of quests. Or sometimes they put themselves in harm’s way and need to be rescued.
It all hinges on how much the NPC has endeared themselves to the players. Otherwise, their NPC druid becomes disposable. Sanji the loveable pack bearer runs off in the night with a bag of magic items and is never seen again. They let poor Jamir walk down the hallway and find all the traps for them. (Grim, I know.) The barmaid that is secretly a princess fails to convince the group to go to the next town to confront the bandit king.
All the advice books and articles aside, sometimes you just have to play through these things.
I’m taking one of the worst pieces of advice I’ve ever heard and turning it into a good practice. You can write down all kinds of information, history and stats on your NPCs. You can have all kind of plot hooks and diabolical plans made for the Warlock NPC to introduce. But if you can’t earn the party’s trust after the first encounter or two, does it do you any good?
Likewise, you can have a completely innocuous goblin randomly sitting in the corner of the tavern with nothing much more than a description and that’s the one the group latches onto and tries to get acquainted with. My point with this is: you have to know your group.
Quick fix for the above examples? Switch the plot hooks, some of the history, etc from the Warlock over to the seemingly harmless goblin “farmer.” OR have the goblin be the Warlock’s henchman. The group will never know what went on behind the scenes. OR have the goblin farmer be completely harmless, give her a name, and have the group meet her every time she comes to town.
If the group sees the plot wagon coming, some players will go out of their way to derail it. I’ve had this happen a couple of times when it was obvious the NPC was going to be with the party for a while. The sad part was both times the hapless, helpless NPC really was as innocent and cute as she seemed. The group just took their vanquished foes’ disdain as her being some kind of threat.
Once you build up a series of personality traits in your mind, it’s easier to drop a random NPC into any situation. I keep a list of names handy and then cross them off or make a note of who I used them for. It also makes for good roleplaying to know what kinds of characters are likely to build report with the PCs and who/what they’ll likely avoid if possible.
Sometimes it’s also fun to give the group something they need in an NPC package they don’t necessarily want.
Opposites sometimes attract and other times annoy. But what if the group really needs something like gold to rez a friend or the unending favor of the Lord of Waterdeep? Suddenly that pain in the butt might be the group’s favorite character they love to hate.
Likewise, the really loving, caring, devoted cleric of the group might look a lot less friendly when they find out her father is known as the Butcher Baron of Barlow (not for his meat cutting skills.) NPC entanglements are so much fun to play out. They can be a wonderful diversion from the main plot for a session or two.
Good things can come to an end.
The amount of effort you put into an NPC can sometimes be exceptionally rewarding. However, one piece of advice I’ve always thought highly of stated, “don’t be afraid to kill a beloved NPC.” That “NPC” stamp on their forehead might mean a lot of things, but unkillable sure isn’t one of them.
Sometimes people leave from our lives in the real world, too. Not because of death necessarily. Sometimes an NPC outlives their usefulness. NPC’s are people too, so to speak. They fall in love and get married. They decide to pursue other career options. Sometimes they get tired of hauling loot around for the party and run off in the middle of the night with everything.
The heel turn.
Which brings me to another point. Many of us have had an experience at some point where an NPC turned out to be the diametric opposite in alignment and abilities. That innocent, sweet young elven lady that always followed the party’s druid around turns out to be a disguised succubus. Jamir the porter who was rescued from a dungeon several adventures back is actually a doppelganger. Oh, and that kindly old merchant on the corner is the head of the local assassin’s guild. Sorry.
The players have mixed reactions all over the table. Usually it’s raucous laughter. Some get a little miffed at the GM/DM. Some are a bit sad that their favorite NPC just can’t possibly be so evil. Sometimes there’s even hideous regret depending on the relationship between the character and the turncoat NPC.
Much like pro wrestling, where the term comes from, a heel turn can be a lot of fun. But please don’t overuse it! The first one is a hoot. But then the players are going to trust the NPCs a lot less for a while going forward. And every time someone starts getting interested in an NPC, there’s going to be the inevitable retelling of, “Remember the time Sanji ran off with all of our magical loot in the middle of the night?” Or, “Remember when Sir Allen’s girlfriend turned out to be a succubus?”
Be ready to write!
One last tip I like to give to any writer, especially GMs/DMs, is be ready to write down inspiration when it strikes. Carry a notebook, pad of paper, and a pen or pencil pretty much everywhere you go. That way when you meet someone who inspires you or if sudden inspiration hits during a movie, you can write it down. I once wrote down an NPC idea on a restaurant napkin with the waitress’ pen. (Luckily it wasn’t about her.)
As I mentioned above, it doesn’t have to be a full stat block, background, and everything else. Don’t write about a character’s lightning shaped birthmark if no one is ever going to see it. A first name, maybe gender, 3-6 personality traits and the reason the character is significant is all you really need. You can usually fill in the rest later.
Another NPC generation method I’ve employed in the past is to let the group create 1-3 characters for use as NPCs. Sometimes you get real gold. Other times you get real, uh what’s the opposite of gold? BUT if life gives you turds, plant flowers in them. (Okay, that was gross but better than making turd-ade.) You can always rework and reword the worst of a bad batch of NPCs into something useful.
Wow! we covered a lot of ground today. Would you believe there may be a Part 2 to this article? I had so much fun discussing this topic.
Thanks for stopping by. Please give yourself a pat on the back if you made it this far. Thank you! See you tomorrow.