Take the 2-minute tour ×
Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. It's 100% free, no registration required.

What techniques do people have for coming up with interesting personalities and histories for non-player characters? I'm mostly interested in the GM side of things. I don't want to do a ton of prep. I need a system that will help me brainstorm characters that:

  • are memorable to the players
  • have some depth
  • are easy to use in my games
  • don't take me a long time to create
  • are fairly easy to record/remember

What is the best way to make interacting with my NPCs both more realistic and engaging? Ideally, I want to turn NPCs from "I'm here for plot reasons" into engaging, memorable and realistic characters.

share|improve this question
4  
Hey all - please try to make complete answers and not "here's one random thought" - this isn't intended to be a list question. –  mxyzplk Mar 7 '13 at 2:47
    
Bountied @AdamDray's answer in the end because of its more organized approach. It was tough, I like @Pseudoepehdrine's/@Judd's for the minimal jumpstart - name, appearance, goal, hook/relationship. I'll probably use those as the starter to seed the "NPC card" format. Other answers were too simplistic ("grab a trope," "grab a friend," "grab an actor" are not complete answers) or too long of an exercise unless you are doing heavy prep. –  mxyzplk Mar 10 '13 at 16:10

23 Answers 23

up vote 42 down vote accepted

Start every character with at least one relation.

The blacksmith is opposing the baron and that's why there is a white rose in his window. The apothecary joined the cult of Orcus and will sell poison. The guard is in love with the girl selling apples at the southern market. The beggar hates One-Eyed Tim for destroying his marriage to Lilly Hill twenty years ago.

I'm trying to phrase these such that they'll offer something to explore like the flower in the window, something to talk about like One-Eyed Tim, a little mission like carrying a message by one of the two lovers while passing through, or a trigger like the attempt of buying poison (or in my campaign, seeking a way to raise the dead and treat the injured).

share|improve this answer

One quick way to do this is to give them a single defining characteristic. It's easy to remember and record, so you (and the players) will be able to identify them quickly.

Stuff like:

  • Sniffles when talks
  • Overly obsequious
  • Nervous
  • Pompous
  • Dictatorial
  • Unassuming
  • Distracted
  • Lecherous

etc.

Visuals can also work, if you describe the person as having some kind of physical trait that is unusual or distinctive:

  • Blotchy face
  • Limp
  • Huge nose
  • Frighteningly thin

etc.

Though these aren't as effective, in my experience, because you have to describe them, rather than just doing them.

Finally, if you can somehow come up with a mental image for a connection (preferably a logical one) for why the person might have this trait, it will be quick and natural to recall.

  • The blacksmith with a limp has it because an anvil fell onto his leg when he was an apprentice.
  • The barmaid speaks with a sligh lisp because she had a tooth knocked out by an angry customer.
  • The squire is naturally jumpy and obsequious because the knight he serves is cruel and quick to anger.

etc.

share|improve this answer
2  
Pretty close to what I want, but this doesn't produce characters with much depth -- though I do love the "Why" bit in the last part of your answer. I updated my question to note that I want more depth. –  Adam Dray Aug 31 '10 at 20:24
1  
The problem is that it's difficult to quickly create depth on the fly. I tried to hit that in the last section but logical detail is one of those things that is tough to do well, let alone on the spur of the moment. This is a sort of compromise. –  Beska Sep 7 '10 at 18:13
    
I think this is a good place to start, but don't let these characteristics completely define the characters. Make them do something surprising sometimes –  Casebash Oct 15 '11 at 3:15

My quick start is [First Name][Last Name] is a [Subtype][Subtype] from [Era][Location] who wants to [Motive]. As long as I can fill in the boxes, I've got enough to begin.

share|improve this answer

You can't quickly create depth. Depth is the result of long-term development. What you can do is create interesting, memorable and dynamic characters who will be more likely to feature in the story long enough and prominently enough to develop depth.Your best bet to develop rich and interesting NPCs is to come up with a lot of simple "NPC seeds" who perform walk-ons throughout the game, and let your PCs choose which ones they find most engaging.

A good "NPC seed" needs:

  1. A goal or purpose - Something they want, or a reason they do the things they do.

  2. A memorable feature - I personally stay away from the goofy quirk stuff b/c I find it goofy, but YMMV. The important thing is not goofiness, but memorableness. One easy way to think about what kinds of things are memorable is to think about your friends, family, coworkers, etc. What sorts of things about them do you remember? Chances are, those are the kinds of traits your PCs will find memorable as well.

  3. Something they either do to or for the PCs - A relationship, in other words. PCs are narcissists.

share|improve this answer
2  
I disagree that depth needs time. Coming up with plausible base motivation can be a matter of seconds. But this is not what is visible to the characters anyway... What a GM needs to do is 'simulate' depth, this is enough in 95% of the cases. –  fgysin Mar 6 '13 at 16:17

1> Use Sterotypes and tropes

2> Don't be afraid to subvert, run straight, or allow a character to move past the Sterotype or trope.

share|improve this answer

Start with the many characters and actors of film, television, and literature. Take a trait from each of several, whatever strikes your fancy, combining them into a new person.

It helps to start by listing names and 3 or more distinctive features, such as voices, famous roles, etc.

If you are afraid the party might recognize Ellen DeGeneres or Christopher Walken in elven garb then use people you work with. I have several people at work that would provide VERY interesting NPCs thanks to their... shall we say... unique personalities.

The trick, however, is to apply these traits without tilting your game into the topical/campy vein. Trying to add these features without destroying the mood can be... challenging.

share|improve this answer
    
It is a useful method, but it is important to note which traits tend to come up more often in your frankensteining of new NPCs. Building on characters from the media that you can remember tends to focus on the ones you like/hate, and these tend to be liked/hated for the same reasons. –  Runeslinger Apr 2 '11 at 6:38

When I need to create an NPC quickly, often during a game, I base them on someone I know. In modern and future campaigns I can even use their names. For fantasy campaigns their name can be a starting point for a more fantasy sounding appellation.

This method has a number of benefits:

  • It's quick
  • The NPCs name is forever tied to their personality in my mind
  • It requires little effort to just remember rather than invent
share|improve this answer

Here is a technique I use to create characters with depth and do it quickly. I just set up a note card like this:

 Name:                                      Description:

 Location:                                  Position:

 Useful Skills:

 Mission:                                   First Goal:



 Secrets/Fears:


 Allies:                                    Enemies:


Names are a pain but you can find lists of names online or buy a "baby name book" or even gaming supplements focused on this problem. The location is where the character is likely to be found. A description need only be one or two adjectives that really capture this character's quirks.

Position is what the character does and might include a rank or title. Useful skills cover anything you might need to roll quickly in play, not complete stats.

Mission describes what the character's big picture goal is. What does he want out of life? First goal is the thing he's working on right now. This is essentially an adventure hook.

To give the character depth, give him secrets or fears. You can play these subtly or right out in the open, but make them count. Make them truly weaken the character in play.

Everyone has allies to call on for help (even if just friends and family), and many characters will have enemies that make their lives troublesome.

share|improve this answer
    
Quite a long list for quickly creating a NPC though. If you need one in a hurry, do you have time for this? –  daramarak Nov 29 '10 at 23:30
2  
Not all of them need to be filled in at once - just the relevant ones for the scene at hand. –  Runeslinger Apr 2 '11 at 6:39

To quickly create a memorable character with the potential for depth, in a location or field of expertise which is likely to generate recurring interaction with the players, I think about these 6 questions:

  • What do the PCs want, and how do they tend to interact with NPCs of this occupation/role/social strata, etc?
  • How busy is the NPC, right now?
  • Is today a good day for the NPC, or a bad day?
  • What initial reaction will the NPC have to the players?
  • By how much, and in what direction, is that initial reaction open to change/development?
  • What unique trait can they be given to distinguish them in cases where I must communicate as more than 1 NPC in a scene? (body language, gesture, facial expression, pitch or tone of voice, horrible accent, etc)

If the NPC catches the group's attention, or that of some of the players, I will flesh out their characteristics and more of the backstory between sessions in my notes.

If the NPC becomes a true recurring character, I flesh out their stats and full history, and keep them on a character sheet in my files.

share|improve this answer

I like Jared's rule of 3 things. For me, in general, it breaks down like this:

  1. Sense

  2. Drive

  3. Hook

Sense: Pick one sense way of describing them...sight is the most common but smell works too and touch is fairly uncommon.

Drive: Pick one drive they have, something they want.

Hook: One other detail, something you think is cool or something that links them to the adventure at hand (ideally, both but don't get to hung up on it, an NPC can come and go every so often and it is okay).

And don't forget a name! They aren't real until they have one.

share|improve this answer

You can also just cheat. How long have you been gaming? If you're GMing for a group, I'm assuming at least a few years. Pull on old PCs and NPCs for inspiration for characters. You can even reference them for players in that game, who will then get a bigger feel for the character as they recognize it. Use them, but put your own spin on them to keep it interesting and fresh. Still, you'll be amazed how much history you can imply just by tugging on history the NPC may have with the player instead of the character.

Other than that, for quick and dirty but decent NPCs. Give them a name and take a cue from Houses of the Blooded. Define three things about them. Any three things, just so long as they're important. It could be gender, it could be a motivation, a particular style of dress, but grab three things that speak about the character and use them. The rest you can get by reacting to the players, and defining the character within those three boundaries you set for yourself earlier.

share|improve this answer

I can’t see anything being faster than modeling one character on another or on a person. I am not saying this is the only way to build characters, it isn’t, but it is arguably the fastest. Say I need an apothecary. I don’t really know any pharmacists. Not many pharmacist characters come to mind.

I could model on the distracted pharmacist from It’s A Wonderful Life. This has potential. I could model after the pharmacist character from Desperate Housewives (slowly poisoning the lover of his love interest, introvert, slightly creepy, mother’s boy).

I could model him after Gus from Psyche. Gus works for a larger organization. Is a bit high strung. Goes by his middle name. Takes his work very seriously. Tries to act professionally and likes to please. Like snacks. Can identify poisons. Drives a small brightly colored wagon. Is afraid of the dead or anything appearing undead. Has some lock-picking and safecracking skills. Has an interest in the stars. Has a close friend who feeds him insights about odd goings on about town. Frequently closes up shop to help this friend.

The point is that you don’t tell your players they’re interacting with Gus. You don’t make his friend a fake psychic. You just use the ‘Gus’ character as a reference point. I just ask myself what would this person be like in the game world. How would Dule Hill play a fantasy character like this apothecary. When I do this I only have to track how the characters are different.

This can be a great shorthand for creating characters on the spot. Characters tell you they want to go to an inn to drink. Make up an interesting server to give yourself some time to think. Maybe you base it on Carla from Cheers (a bit short, older woman, too many children and a mouth that makes your barbarian blush) or you base it on any server and just change what they serve. While you’re interacting with the party start forming your inn-keeper. Maybe you base him off of Gordon Ramsay (but a failed version who is still very full of himself). The point is that you can quickly sketch out some personalities and fill in details when needed.

Notes could be:
Wench (Fredda) - Carla
Innkeeper (Oliver) - Failed Gordon Ramsey.
Overweight drunk (Lou) - Ed Asner from UP. Wife recently died. This might lead into an adventure. Stableboy (Peter Jack) – Jamie Bell from King Kong.
Throw in a couple of duos into the bar (Han and Chewbacca, but Chewie’s a different non-verbal race). Maybe Thelma and Louise are here running away from their lives in another province. Maybe Billy the Kid is here, not as a gun slinger but as a thief with a quick sword.

The point is that these can be quick and easy template on which to build your characters. Maybe that little old lady is a bit like Betty White? Maybe that trader in the out of the way village is a bit like Samuel Jackson’s Zeus from Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and he’s going to give you an earful about your cultural misunderstandings about his people and general distrust of the government and outsiders.

My game is littered with these characters. I have old teachers in my game, people who have pissed me off on public transportation, historical figures, people from books, world leaders, relatives, pets, old characters from other games, old classmates and roommates, and on and on.

share|improve this answer

I find it most important to think of a quirk. Find an accent, an idea, or a personality you find engaging or fun and run with it. Even if you have to be a little less like your usual notion of this type of character. Perhaps a Dwarf with a thick southern accent, or a tiefling with a nervous tick that ends or begins sentences with a phrase.

These types of characters might not always be beloved, but instead of "That dwarf" or "That tiefling" it'll be "That cowboy dwarf" or "That weird tiefling who kept saying 'that it does'". They'll certainly stick out amongst all the innkeepers and bartenders!

share|improve this answer

I don't think there is an easy way to go from zero dimensional characters to three dimensional characters. So instead of immediately trying for "engaging, memorable, and realistic," just try for some sort of motivation and personality that isn't your own. To help with that I'd look up character tropes from tv tropes and then choose an appropriate motivation. As you get more experienced and as your players interact with the same group of npcs, the npcs should hopefully take on more characteristics. To further this, take notes on anything you establish about the npcs. As you get more comfortable with this process, try to come up with more details about the npcs to use besides just the above; for example, maybe using a couple of tropes or getting inspired by characters from other media you like.

share|improve this answer

First of all, I found that there are two types of NPCs: throw-aways and reoccurring. I usually don't sweat it too much on throw-aways because they aren't going to come up again. They'll probably be given one standout trait that is fairly superficial, such as a lisp or an intense love of rabbits. Then they are gone.

Reoccurring NPCs require some more effort.

I have found that you need two things for an NPC to be something interesting:

  1. You need to know how they fit into your greater story arc. This means you need to have a firm storyline connecting everything that happens. Maybe there is a plot to kill the Queen. That will give your NPC motivations and actions that are more natural feeling both for you and your players to interact with.

  2. A single familiar characteristic. It's funny when you think about it, but only one strong characteristic is needed to make a character stand out. Maybe they are a total coward. Again this will give you a frame work for all of their actions.

So take the basic NPC I’ve laid out for you. He’s a coward involved in a plot to kill the Queen. If the party pressures him he’ll likely squeal and give them some information about the plot and who’s behind it. However, if they threaten him he’s going to try to cover his butt to make sure that the party doesn’t get a chance to come back so he may frame them up for something or warn the bad guys that the PCs are coming. He wouldn’t doing any fighting himself unless pushed (since he’s a coward and all) but would instead work through cat’s-paws to achieve his ends.

Some good practice in might be to go through books, shows and movies with characters you really love. What's their standout characteristic in the very beginning? What's their motivation? Then watch how those two things build into someone as complex as, say, Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files.

share|improve this answer

To Iain Anderson's point, I'm usually not sure if an NPC is going to pop up again or not. Sometimes in the course of play an NPC that I think is going to be a throw-away becomes important. So I try to think of NPCs as (pardon the Shrek reference) onions.

If I'm creating an NPC on the fly (think of the standard "the guy next to you at the bar starts talking" situation), I'll pick one tangible characteristic and one motivation that make the character stand out for the players. Examples:

  • Talks fast and is motivated by greed
  • Is covered in tattoos and hates dwarves
  • Wears a bronze helmet with a giant rhino horn on top and seeks adventure

It's important that these characteristics are easy for me to remember. My little brain is busy enough, and I usually don't have the chops to make the character all that deep. That doesn't mean the NPC can't have depth; it just means I haven't peeled away all the layers yet.

When I have more time to develop an NPC prior to the start of an adventure, I'll fill in those layers. The fighter covered in tattoos was a merchant sailor for several years. His ship was taken by dwarves from the Clanking City, and many of his mates died in the fight. He escaped, but since then blames all dwarves for that terrible event.

Sometimes the layers get defined on the fly, in the middle of the game. I've found that it's easiest for me to do this if I'm not too hung up on consistency. People in the real world are chock full of inconsistencies. Why shouldn't RPG characters be the same? Sometimes I'll randomly pick a secondary characteristic because it would make the interaction with the PCs more interesting. For example, the tattooed dwarf-hating fighter may covet dwarven technology and sing its praises. He may judge tattooed people harshly, based on a latent mistrust of sailors (because every sailor but the ones he crewed with are scumbags).

Finally, I'm with SevenSidedDie as to how NPCs relate to plot. An NPC that is situated in the world, with even a brief history and some defining characteristics, will react to PCs in ways that will open up the world for players.

share|improve this answer

It's fairly easy with some practice to create really interesting NPC. I use 5 steps:

  1. Find a problem and explain why it is a problem. Everybody has a problem or would like to change something in their lives. Examples are: My only daughter is in love with an idiot, I need more money for building the well. Why is your only daughter in love with an idiot a problem? Why do you need the well? It gives them motivation.
  2. Create a secret. We all have secrets. Some are more relevant than others. A secret linked to a problem gives a certain dimension. I need my daugher to marry the blacksmith's son because I could use an in-law with skills like him. I don't really care about the water in the well, I actually want to build a secret evasion tunnel in case the dragon attack again.
  3. Give him a past. Everyone has a past. You don't have to write an entire biography and give them full family tree. The past should lead to the secret, problem or nickname. I am called the Lender because I have plenty of money from my early years as an adventurer until I lost my leg to a fight with a Nightmare. Now I lend money to new adventurers.
  4. Contacts. Nobody is truly alone and isolated. Find him a friend, a sibling or a mentor. He doesn't have to be fully described yet but just think about who this NPC would know well.
  5. Give him a nickname Most players won't remember an NPC's full complex name. Just focus on a nice nickname and give them any random first and last name and you'll notice players will only remember the nickname. Snake, Deepman, Fox, Hunterboy etc. Don't forget that nicknames are given by friends or contacts.

I actually like rolling 1d6 for the four first steps. 1 being minimal and 6 being a really big thing. So an NPC like this: Problem 4, Secret 2, Past 5 and Contacts 3 could be someone with a big problem, a small secret a troubling past and be in contact with an average amount of people.

I just find it interesting, not necessarily useful for everybody.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 Nice steps; I like! –  Rob Mar 8 '13 at 8:32

simplest answer: make the player a part of the NPCs creation process.

this is a trick I use a lot: I would say "The Baron enters the room" and then I point at one player and say "give me one detail about the Baron", he'll say he's very tall, i point at the second player and say "How can you tell whats his main strength?" and the player would say "you can tell he is a great swordsman by his walk and the way he keeps his silk gloved hand on the hilt of his adorned long sword".

Players will remember this character because they breath life into it.

I use it to surprise myself, after all a player might say "The Baron is the spitting image of the bartender from the inn" and here's a story line all ready :-)

share|improve this answer
    
+1, now that is a very nice idea! Thank you. –  Sardathrion Apr 5 '13 at 15:45
    
Sorry for the being late on this one; what is your experience with how this works with different groups? I can imagine that this isn’t for all kinds of players, but I might be entirely wrong. Have you successfully mastered different groups of people with this technique? –  Jonas Wielicki Mar 10 at 11:08

Here's the technique I'm using at the moment.

First, figure out a few easy points about the NPC:

  1. Background. This is likely to be either peasant or merchant for most, unless your PCs are moving at the highest levels of society.

  2. Occupation(s). This will be whatever the NPC spends most time on, whether it's a job like selling armour or a secret task like being a Priest of an evil god. More than two is generally a bad idea, or you lose your focus.

  3. Relations. Basically, who are the people/beings your NPC spends time with or works for. Two or three are generally enough, as they're meant to be the most important people for your NPC. I'd normally group similar people as one relationship (e.g, count family or co-priests as a single item).

  4. Appearance. You do this last because now you should know roughly what two or three activities your NPC does most of the time, such as dig in fields or drink with his mates. You can stat them up as well if you want. Try to make the appearance fit the role, so a farmer might be starved and lean with a broken nose from the bar fights he's been in.

Then, you simply make a list of what info you'll need to show him as interesting to the PCs. This is easier to show than explain, so here's an example:

You might end up with Peasant background, Farmer (Wheat, Barley and Cattle), Provides for wife, dad (too old to work) and 4 kids as well as drinking with the neighbouring farmers, Big and Sturdy (but muddy too) from working the fields all day long, Missing most teeth from drinking too much and eating sandy bread, Wide ruddy face.

Then for your PCs you'd describe him as "A big sturdy farmer, with mud all down his front, beams at you from between broken teeth set in a ruddy face. 'Come in and share a meal!' he cries, 'The missus will be glad of the company!'." Then, in the hut (if they come in), "A sad thin woman peers at you while her 4 children gather around, staring at you. They've obviously rarely or never seen someone wearing armour before. There's some sacks of wheat piled by the door, and some sacks of flour in the other corner. Other than that, there's a table and fireplace with some rags piled in front of it, and that's it."

The advantage of this method is it gives you enough depth to create an interesting character and then freestyle some interactions from your notes, while being fairly quick to do.

share|improve this answer

I like to use character cards or fantasy images to help get NPCs going. If you look at the art there's almost always a lot of expression and physical cues to help you make up a back story.

share|improve this answer

I am a big fan of the "three y's" technique — Ask the question "why" three times.

For example, consider a shopkeeper. He is overly protective against theft, to the point where it inferferes with business. Why? Because he's been robbed before and doesn't want it to happen again. Why? Because his older brother is the local police chielf and will interfere in the case if the shopkeeper reports a crime. Why? Because as children, the younger brother was the parents' favourite and the older brother resents him for it.

(My search-fu has failed me in finding the original article where I came across this, so I can't promote the original author.)

share|improve this answer

1). are memorable to the players

Creating memorable NPCs will involve a number of steps, but it should be noted that there are multiple ways to do this while sating the other four requirements of this question.

First, you need to have a rapport with your players about their characters during character creation and get to know their needs, what they value about their character, what they look forward to in the campaign, some basic family history, what their short and long term goals may be for the character, and anything else that would help you understand the player's personal attachment to their character. This is something that should continue to be assessed throughout play. After initial creation, a player may develop a fondness later in the game for exploring cartography with their character. There may be new pursuits that develop for a player and their character, there may be lifelong goals slowly realized, and the player may have their character abandon yesterday's passions if it didn't pan out like they wanted or something else more interesting to pursue caught their attention. Memorable NPCs are going to need to somehow speak to these pursuits as well as other personal elements of the player and their PC. This might be in the form of an NPC that assists or hinders those pursuits and interests. It may be a personality type that compliments a player and their character, or it may be an NPC that starkly contrasts them. The crude barbarian may find a memorable experience with another crude barbarian NPC who shares engaging war stories, or the crude barbarian may find a memorable experience learning how to deal with a helpful and charming but poised and easily-offended aristocrat. Understanding what makes a player and their character tick should be the first step in creating memorable NPCs.

Next, decide on the manner of NPC generation. This is discussed in later sections regarding ease of creation and ease of use. Once you identify the approach you will be using to generate your NPCs, you can start to devise a way to alter or adjust generated characters as well as how to introduce them and play them. You may find that a randomly generated NPC doesn't make so much sense, or won't be as engaging to the party under the circumstances. Adjust accordingly if you need to, but leave room for diversity. Focus on letting some of each NPC's own interests and passions shine through. If a randomly-generated NPC has a high stat in cooking, improvise a short story about the NPC's childhood and why cooking is so important to them and throw it in tactfully with the conversation that the players have with them. A great time for this can be a long ride from one town to another while escorting an NPC, for example. Instead of saying the ride is uninterrupted for five hours before a mob jumps out of the woods, roleplay some of the downtime with the NPC making light talk and offering some personal accounts of their own life. If the rogue seems to take a liking to the shady but mostly well-intending merchant the party is escorting, have the merchant reveal a small personal secret to the rogue while making loud near-insults to the holier-than-salespeople paladin that seems to want nothing more than the ride to be over. Don't be afraid to cause a little bit of mixed feelings from the party about an NPC if appropriate, sometimes that will make for a memorable experience in itself.

Lastly, let the players explore the NPCs of their own volition within reason. Don't let the players walk all over you and ruin your crafty plans even if some of those plans are automatically and randomly generated. But take note of which NPCs the players seem to show interest in. If you've devised a wonderfully deep and wildly interesting NPC but the players won't give them the time of day while flocking over to the basic bartender you drew up in a matter of a couple minutes, don't stress it. It can be frustrating when this happens, but it happens. If this happens, try recycling the best parts of the NPC you wanted the players to explore and recreate such in a different way in a future NPC. Also, try switching it up by altering the bartender in this example to reflect more of the important dynamics of the NPC you spent more time on but the players abandoned. Or, if you can swallow it, retire the NPC concept for now and focus on filling out the character of the NPC.

Most of the memorable aspects of a character will come through improvised roleplay. You cannot expect what the players will do to a science, so you cannot prepare enough for how you will have your NPCs react. After generating NPCs, fill them out in ways that make sense for engaging relationships with the players at your table but let them have a hand in shaping those characters. Get the NPCs to a point where you yourself feel an emotional attachment to them and then let the PCs drive for a while. They'll help you fill out the next parts to expand in those NPCs just by how they focus on interacting with them, but the players should not be so aware that they are affecting NPC development.

To summarize, creating a memorable NPC is part preparation work by getting to know the players and PCs, part generation and record-keeping, but mostly something that is an ongoing process throughout the game as the NPC's build more depth as needed and appropriate.

2). have some depth

There are different types of NPCs, some of which are just nameless faces in the crowd that the players will never specifically opt to size up or speak to, many of which you never even need to roll stats for. The players just know there is a crowd in the town center about 500 townfolk deep. Some may be quick encounters that are brief, relatively normal and banal, reveal little to nothing about the NPC, and offer nothing in the realm of memorable personality traits. On the other hand, some NPCs may become lifelong friends of the PCs or leave profound impressions on both player and character. This is reflective of real life and makes for a more believable game. It also helps players focus on more important matters at hand. When the lich king attacks and reinforcements arrive from a neighboring kingdom, the PCs don't need to know the lowest ranking soldier's life history or even anything beyond basic demeanor if even that. They just need new swords in the fray helping to win the battle and prevent everyone from becoming zombies at the lich's hands. On the other hand, that same low-ranking soldier may have a brief personal story to tell about why he isn't as nervous as his low-ranking peers, perhaps his resolve comes from his parents having been slain by the lich years ago. It should be appropriate and influenced by what the players choose to focus on. Include a few items of consideration in the initial description of what the battlefield looks like as reinforcements arrive. Describe the scenery, how the lich king seems to react, how much time is left before a new wave of skeletons arrive at the front lines to attack the party, the fact that one of the newbie soldiers that came in looks particularly calm and focused compared to the rest of his compliment that are practically shaking in their boots, etc. From there, the players have enough to know there are multiple directions to explore. Focus on preparing for the next wave and nothing else, mostly come up with a plan for the next wave while chatting up the calm soldier, or something entirely different. Let them choose how to explore each NPC, and it will be more memorable for them. This also lets you fill in gaps over time based on what the players do. If you can deliver a confidence that each NPC is fully mapped out even if such is not true, you can feign this as the players explore by improvising strategically. If the players detect you haven't prepared well, they may avoid exploring NPCs and will miss out even if you have already filled out the NPCs in deep and meaningful ways.

Regardless, if you try to fill out the NPCs too much before there is any interaction, you may be missing out on giving your players the experience of unconsciously helping to shape the world around them as they explore it. Even though foreign weapons may be typically hard to come by, if a player has an interest in them they will find someone that has a same knowledge and interest if they look hard enough. It might not statistically make sense for every small town to have a shuriken expert, and sometimes a search may not turn one up, but I will be sure to include meaningful NPCs from time to time that have some exclusive knowledge or item related to exotic weapons if there is a player whose PC is highly interested in them. Perhaps a friendly exotic weapons expert in a town that will always be just a little out of the way during major quests but pays off for the whole party if they agree to let the ninja visit his mentor from time to time.

Again, not every NPC needs to be quite so critical. Sometimes, the barmaid is only interested in quickly taking your order and slapping your face if you try too much rapport. Not every random person you meet on the street will bust right out in their life story. Some people will refuse to talk to you. This behavior can even make for a meaningful NPC. Offer an enticing description of an NPC that seems to be just what the party needs but have the NPC react in a short and rude manner, cutting the party off and leaving. Perhaps due to the fact that a half-orc is in the party. Don't offer a way to engage the NPC, simply resolve that the NPC will never give the party the time of day. Or, if the players seem to have the idea there is a way around it, get creative and let them. While they are working on a solution, you can be filling in the NPC to a deeper extent. If they decide to take time to drop the half-orc off at the bar so they can go talk to the biased fisherman, take time to create a little back story about orcs and half-orcs that caused the fisherman to distrust them. Then, don't make it easy even without the half-orc PC around. In an example like this, create a trade-off. Highly interesting and useful NPC that hates one of the PCs out of bias + needing to somehow have both in the same place and not fighting each other at the same time = memorable experience, possibly via proving to the NPC that their bias is wrong through valiant and meaningful dedication of moral character and resolve on the discriminated character's part.

To recap here, the bottom line should involve letting the players explore and helping to shape the story, including some of the of NPCs. If a PC shows an interest in gambling, don't throw a constant stream of nothing but lawful good NPCs at them with pamphlets about how gambling is wrong. A little bit of DM confidence and a little bit of common sense will go a long way here, especially if you are paying attention to what the players want out of the game. Memorable is relative and subjective and a priority should be learning a firm grasp of what makes each player relatively subjective in their own way as related to their characters.

This all might be easier said than done, however.

3). are easy to use in my games

There may be a number of obstacles that threaten to make NPC creation and implementation more difficult than it needs to be. Players may decide to try talking to every single person in large town. Players may choose such erratic or unexpected decisions that you are caught off guard and your plans are rendered asunder with nothing left but the quick undeveloped NPCs thrown in for atmosphere. They weren't supposed to avoid the bartender but instead they engaged the drunk guy who just got thrown out for fighting. That guy was just supposed to help show it's kind of a rough and tumble bar but the bartender is stout and won't take tomfoolery in his establishment. Why are they trying to talk to the drunk guy that's stumbling around outside trying to find a horse that isn't there when a big clue and memorable NPC is waiting inside tending the bar? He has no clues, no personal history yet, nothing but a basic physical description. Multiple solutions exist in this example. Invent a reason for the bartender to come outside. Maybe in addition to fighting, the the bartender just learned that the drunkard has also stolen money from the bar. Or maybe the drunk is the bartender's brother (an improv DM decision) and the bartender is coming outside to check on him. Most of the time, the best solution will be to roll with the punches and fill out what was originally intended to be an undeveloped background character with no stats.

Another obstacle for easy and memorable character generation and record-keeping can be sheer volume. If you generate too many characters, it gets cumbersome to try and implement each one.

Again, not every NPC needs to be complete. There is no way to determine which NPCs the characters will gravitate towards, so the best you can do is try and influence this with your descriptions but also prepare for the unexpected. Be prepared to start filling out an undeveloped background NPC on a whim and without looking like you are caught off guard. Take time to pause before making the NPC speak, this can express a memorable and important interaction to the players even if you are just taking a short pause or quick question from the NPC to a PC to take time and better develop the character. When you are talking, the players should be engaged. When the players are talking, they should be engaged then, too, but more importantly, you should be actively listening while secretly filling out any required spontaneous character development and plot development in your head.

Ease of implementation will depend on your own needs as much as the players' needs, if not mostly for your needs. The players don't need to be privy to the manner of NPC generation, and they certainly don't need to see whether you have basic notes for multiple NPCs scrawled on a piece of paper or a stack of NPCs neatly organized by town, location, class, interests, and whether or not they serve alcohol.

One solution involves a laptop or smart phone. There are a number of digital solutions for character generation such as provided by Wizards of the Coast for AD&D. There are free and open source software solutions, as well. One easy solution could be printing out each main NPC and color-coding each one based on a color code of your own devising. Maybe it will be helpful to color code all the NPCs that are secretly evil and conspiring together. Or maybe you will want to use color code to quickly identify the NPC sailors and crew on board the players' ship that don't know how to swim well. A good portion of this experience is going to be about you exploring what is best for you, and may involve inventing new solutions just for your needs and your players' needs.

Ultimately, you don't want to spend an eternity doing all this, however.

4). don't take me a long time to create

The quickest solutions to get you going are going to be found in digital solutions. As stated before, WotC offers character generators for NPCs. There are also GURPS generators that can be found online that will emulate what you need. Each situation may have slightly different needs, however. If your players are locked in a dungeon for a few sessions with nothing but mindless monsters and a small handful of protagonist and antagonist NPCs, you can dedicate a little more time beforehand if need be. If the party is running into a new and strange land with exotic foreigners and merchant shops as far as the eye can see, you might need a more readily available and quick solution. The main point here should be to do enough prep work to just get you going. NPCs that the characters run into and explore a little but ultimately abandon don't need so much panning out. I cannot stress enough that most of the creation should actually occur over time in-game, and there's no shortcut for that. All you need are at least the bare essentials to start with, more as desired. A physical description, a basic idea of their demeanor and the first impression they will be giving, maybe a little history and personal aspirations/fears, but mostly just the basic stats for quick access when needed. When you automatically generate this, adjust a little if need be when appropriate but mostly run with the randomized stats. You won't have to pause the game to fill more of the character out to see how good they might be at throwing horseshoes. The players shouldn't have explored that, they were supposed to ask the informant about the missing heirloom with a huge reward as a bounty, but lo and behold they decided to get the guy drunk and challenge him to a game of horseshoes in the middle of the night. What to do? Play it by ear, or look down and access the automatically pre-generated stats. Maybe fudge the stats just enough to make the NPC deceptively remarkable at horseshoes even though he appears drunk and clumsy, just enough to get the players' and PCs' respect and give a chance to get them back on track. "Another ringer!" "Make that two more ringers, by my vision! Oh, do I need to sit down, what an ale. I can't thank you enough for your fine drink and games. Listen, about that heirloom.."

To restate this, don't focus too much on creating the character before your players interact (or refuse to interact) with the NPC. This will save a lot of time when the players make those unexpected decisions or don't seem to be able to take your hints very well and go after the wrong NPCs. This will also train you to do most of the memorable character development in-game as time goes on, influenced in part by the players' interests and choices for their PCs.

None of this helps if it is all too difficult to keep track of.

5). are fairly easy to record/remember

Make notes of special characters that are integral and unavoidable. These should not be difficult to remember. Also, make notes of NPCs that the players decided to interact with. After the session, do a little follow-up by yourself for DM purposes. Decide which of these NPCs will just disappear and never be seen again (PCs didn't catch a name yet, don't know where the NPC lives, etc) and which have a decent chance of being introduced again (depending on if the players seek them out or go to areas the NPC is likely to be around). Also, decide if any of these new NPCs should be promoted to special NPCs that are integral and unavoidable.

After you do this, you can start filling out the NPC character sheets better to help you remember and keep track of all these memorable characters running around. Maybe the cleric with a side interest in cooking has found a friendly master chef who the cleric trains and cooks with during down time in the party's hometown. If you've been taking brief notes as each NPC is introduced, how the players respond, what the PCs do, what you invent on the spot for the NPC character development, etc.. you will be reminded from your notes that the master chef NPC is an expert in exotic cooking. Fill out his stats a little better. Rework elements of the stats that weren't relevant yet. If the master chef has five ranks in horseback riding because that's what was generated, but horseback riding never came up.. consider respending those in something related to cooking now. Or, keep it how it is and give the character some depth. He's a master chef just like the cleric is a high level cleric, only HIS side interest is horseback riding. Perhaps have the NPC invite the cleric PC on a short but scenic ride into the woods for a rare cooking herb and reveal how horseback riding is a passion of the chef's and how it reminds the master chef of taking horseback riding lessons with his first love. OK, maybe not. The cleric might get the wrong idea, and so might the player. But you get the idea.

There's many different ways to skin a werecat. Your players need to have fun and part of this will certainly be due to memorable NPCs. Just remember that not every NPC needs depth. Also keep in mind that while finding quick solutions will help you get the game going with less difficulty...

  1. Good DM'ing always boils down to effort.
  2. Don't think of NPCs as characters that need to be fully developed from the start. Offer a diverse (even if randomly generated) range of NPCs that make sense and focus on which NPC the players focuses on. Give the NPCs room to grow as well as change. A general idea along with basic pre-generated stats is great, but don't commit to anything very detailed with every NPC before the PCs interact with them.

Best of luck. Hope this helped.

share|improve this answer

To create moments and NPC's that your PC's will remember requires an opening scene in which they become curious about said NPC. Emotions play a huge part, be it witty humor (a town fool making a fool out of one of the PC's) or intrigue (the party witnessing someone climbing naked out of a window of a house they need access to) and allow both the party to react as one and also form their own opinions about the NPC.

Apply themes to yours NPC's to match certain characters, honest-no-nonsense-military background or sly-&-deceiving-street urchins who rob the party while they are being distracted. PCs will react and attempt to bond with the NPC depending on the situation and how they have formed their char. In my game, the paladin and warlord are good friends and both roleplay a military background of countless battles. Upon meeting a fellow battle hardened veteran, they always choose to invite the NPC to drink in memory of friends fallen and share war stories.

Advice: Make a spreadsheet and note down the names, gender, race, alignment, appearance, profession and few other things about each NPC. This way, you can always pop in a old favorite or recurring cabbage merchant to add some flair to the situation.

To Break it down:

  • Are memorable to the players

    Give them an event to remember where the NPC played a key role ie. I had one of my NPC's stealth into a room full of guards that were surrounding the PC's. Being a ranking officer he suddenly appeared, scared the crap out of the guards and his foe and promptly left with the party.

  • have some depth

    Let on that the NPC has a past, a familiy etc. Try to choose a flavour that relate to one or more PC's backgrounds or char virtues.

  • are easy to use in my games

    If you add any kind of profession to their then you can easily drop them anywhere you like, just add an event that relates to the profession... just don't make a turnip farmer who has traveled 1200 miles to sale his turnips at the market.

  • don't take me a long time to create

    Make a spreadsheet with a few columns entailing the basic data (looks, attitude work ie)

  • are fairly easy to record/remember

    Link their appearances, presence to an event etc

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.