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My players love to interact with my NPCs in my Savage Worlds game, make friends, allies, enemies, make characters fall in love, etc. But I always end up with either bland NPCs that don't matter much to the game and get forgotten by me, or ones that become spotlight-stealing GMPCs — I'm having trouble making characters in the middle, that matter without them taking over. I haven't figured out how to make NPCs that are more than cannon fodder with bland and unchanging personalities, but less than full protagonists.

The campaign style I'm going for right now is the sort where there are lots of secondary characters in the protagonists' lives and sharing spotlight in battles. Some die, some live, some others get a fanclub. Making those kinds of "in between" or "just right" NPCs who are full of dynamic personality but still secondary is important for that campaign style to work.

How can I make dynamic but secondary NPCs, and how can I manage them over the course of a campaign so they stay that way, neither fading out nor taking over?

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6 Answers 6

Savage Worlds is designed to make it easy to use allies in combat, so you'll find that it will work well for the sort of game you are wanting to run. It's a bit unclear from your question, but it sounds like you've got things under control mechanics-wise, but are now looking for advice story-wise.

Given that, I'd like to focus on one part from your question:

I wanna use my talent to make my players like my NPCs, however I wanna be able to handle this, since I always end up pushing other NPCs aside, forgetting they exist, or giving them backgrounds that I grow bored of quickly

It sounds to me like you enjoy using NPCs, but have trouble continuing to work them into the stories. I'd like to suggest a different approach: let the players or randomness help with them.

Let the Players Help With Them

Consider assigning the NPCs to players and let them develop them as they are interested. They ought to already be controlling NPCs in combat, so it's only a step away to having them develop them story-wise. You stated that one of your goals was to get the players to like the NPCs. Having them each be invested in developing an NPC is an instant way to get them to like them. This might be a follower, assistant, family member, or other important figure.

Of course, you can still have your say with them. Just because they are handled by the players doesn't mean you can't seize control of them.

You can go even farther by using Dramatic Interludes and having the players come up with an Interlude for their respective NPCs. This will help everyone discover what the victories, obstacles, loves, and desires are of each of these NPCs making them even deeper characters, without overburdening you as a GM.

Let Randomness Help With Them

One technique I've seen done is to write the names of NPCs and various information about them on index cards and then have a "deck" of characters. Then when you want some inspiration, draw an NPC and work them in for some way. Especially if you set aside those that are used and then reshuffle them once the deck is exhausted, you can ensure that everyone will get their turn to work into the story.

Consider Reducing the Secondary Cast Size

Although it can be interesting to have many supporting NPCs, be aware that each one you add is going to have the spotlight at some point. The more you have, the more you have to move the spotlight around, especially away from the main characters. You can mitigate this some by giving players some of the NPCs to develop because then the player is still in the spotlight, but especially if you'd like to keep some NPCs with you, you ought to be aware of how many is too many.

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MOP

Every NPC needs a mop.

Motivation: Why is the character here in the story? What motivates them to act?

Objective: What does the character want to accomplish as a goal in the story? What is the character's overriding goal they must achieve?

Personality: How the character acts as well as their personal appearance.

These three traits help define an NPC. Savage Worlds helps a lot simply due to the Hindrance system which tells you a lot about the character's personality. Edges can also help. A Rich edge having character is going to dress better than one with the Poverty Hindrance.

A Personality Shorthand: Representative Animals

An idea from the Happy Jacks RPG podcast about specifically personality is to steal the mannerisms of a representative animal. So a snake character might talk with a lisp, pretend to be an ally, then betray the characters at a key moment in some way to accomplish their goal. At first they save a key party member and work to get inside the heads of the PCs that they can be trusted. The NPC works with the group for a while until their goal is within reach, then comes the backstab.

A lion might be a loud mouthed but completely heroic and loyal character who fiercely defends the group. An accent like the cowardly lion from Wizards of Oz might make the character stand out, except that they are Brave, sort of post transformation.

A weasel might be a true coward with the yellow hindrance who can be bullied by the group into getting what they want from him. He might also be vengeful (minor) and use his bureaucratic or political power to block the characters later on in the story, making for a plot obstacle. He might stutter or wheeze in some way like a weasel as a mannerisms.

Once you visualize the animal in your mind, jot it down in the character's notations so you don't forget the animal totem personality.

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Regarding Personality, Savage Worlds also has the random ally personality table, which goes a long way towards breathing life into NPCs. –  Thunderforge 18 hours ago

Play the NPCs as characters. Give them motivations, goals, principles, and so on. Not every NPC has to be very detailed, but you should be able to make up something on the spot to give depth to NPCs. Be ready to take notes - maybe on the spot, you have a secondary character say that they're a refugee from the valley to the east - write it down.

Make the NPCs reasonable - they may change their methods, their goals, or even their views if presented with new information or a new situation. Maybe the die hard enemy burns out - "This battle isn't worth it anymore. All my friends are dead. I'm tired." Maybe an ally becomes an enemy - "You were supposed to protect us - where were you?"

I often use a method called "Flag Framing" to run games. It is easy to improvise with, which allows players to make decisions, and allows those decisions to matter. I don't have to railroad or push the story - they play their characters based on their motivations, I play the NPCs based on their motivations (which, I have aimed to connect with, clash, etc. with the PC's motivations). When the players see their decisions matter, when they see the NPCs react like people, and not like videogame NPCs which are stuck in a pattern or pre-planned mode, the players can start to care and be interested in the NPCs.

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It is important to bear in mind what makes the PCs different from the NPCs, aside from the obvious fact of player vs non-player. In short, the PCs are the protagonists, and the NPCs aren't. In my games, even if the PCs don't start out in this position, and even if the plot does not take on epic world-spanning dimensions, the PCs are Luke Skywalkers, the Princess Leias, and the Han Solos of the story-- win, lose, or die, it will be their actions that largely determine the story. They're going to win the day, or perhaps see it all go down in flames.

Memorable NPCs, in my experience, are in the main story, but they are the protagonists of their own smaller-scale, at least slightly less heroic sagas. They have, as another answer suggests, their own motives, objectives, and personalities, but these motives and objectives are not fully aligned with the PCs'. Sometimes they are only roughly aligned, sometimes they may be orthogonal, but in turn they may often have something the PCs need, or some reason for interaction to continue. In this way, in trying to complete their own stories, they may nudge the PCs in one direction or another-- they have mass behind their motives and objectives-- but probably won't determine the outcomes to the same degree as the PCs.

A good place to look for this sort of thing is in modern RPG video games, especially but not limited to many of BioWare's recent offerings. I don't have the source code so I can't know for certain, but I'm reasonable sure that all those games are winnable (or losable!) no matter how badly you piss off the main NPCs, or in which combination... but doing so can sure inflect the ending of the story.

You, as a live GM unconstrained by the need for pre-arranged graphics, voice acting, and recording, can do a lot more in this vein than a video game can.

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NPCs are a myth!

Try GM controlled Characters. These are your characters, make them and play them as such. NPCs, truly minor characters, such as shopkeepers, barmaids and the man pushing a broom in the warehouse you are breaking into, can simply be a one line entry in your notes. However, people the Player Characters interact with regularly, such as assistants, hirelings, masters, mayors and other such types, they get a bit more involved, possibly having a 'short sheet' of character attributes.

Once you get into playing a bit, a guide, a follower or some hero, becomes more than an NPC, its a Player Character played by the GM. This can be tricky, as a GM, you have probably run lots of characters. The trick here is to not outshine your Players. Do not solve every problem or defeat every enemy or complete every puzzle.

Make character sheets for your GM Characters. You make one for your villains right?

Think of it like a book or tv show, you have main characters, your PCs, and you have an antagonist and you have background actors and you have 'supporting characters' and this is the role your GM Characters should take.

One pattern I have used in the past is a specialist role. I had a campaign that spanned a globe (many worlds actually). Each region had unique skills or magics and the PCs collected an entourage of representative characters from each area. In other places, we had combat masters, spell casters from different schools or elemental alignments and the group would take along those that would help them in upcoming challenges. I had to play each of these 'NPCs' now totaling in the 30s to 40s and keep them from outshining the PCs. What I did, to keep things simple, was use stereotypes (and to break from them) and keep them specialized. My casters were not combat specialists and my warriors were not healers. Once I knew the role of these characters in a combat or adventure it was easy to extrapolate their behavior in other areas.

Something that helped a lot, was to early on, write down a bit of backstory, perhaps a tale told around a campfire the night before a battle or in triage after one. These 'defining events' such as loss of a loved one, or growing up in the salt mines or being a career military man, gave me enough to go on for most conversations or encounters.

Give your characters a bit of backstory, a bit of life and let them grow with you... and your players.

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In my experience (that is mostly on D&D, not SW), it is the players that determine which NPCs are memorable or not. Your role as a GM is mostly to notice which NPCs they like more, and find out why they like it.

In general terms, you should remember that the NPC roles are to complement the party abilities, not to overshadow them (that would be the mary sue NPC types) or be a burden on the team. When I really want the players to like an NPC, I did the following with them:

Give them an objective

Normal NPCs that don't have to interact with the party further than a few lines don't need much characterization. But a long-term NPC ally should have a strong reason to trust the party. They might be using the party to reach their objectives (the nature of such objectives being good or bad is irrelevant), they might recognize that the party is stronger than they are and the ones that might be able to pull it off, they might even just really be good friends with a party member.

The point is, they have a reason to act alongside the party in the first place. And even if those reasons are not out in the open to the group, they will be implied when you actually have those objectives in your GM notes, instead of just thinking they should be friendly because they should be friendly.

Give them a quirk

No one remember the man with the phone #6 that walked on the background. Everyone recognizes the woman in red that turns into an agent.

When you first describe the NPC, give them something memorable on first sight. Or give them a unique accent (funny or not is your choice). Or make them fall in love with machinery, or talk about the rights of summoned creatures, or end every phrase praising the sun.

Don't overdo it, however. Do it just enough that when you start praising the sun, everyone knows you are talking about that NPC.

Remember that they are not omniscient

It is very, very, VERY common to see your party struggling with something story-related, and you give in on the urge to make the NPC point out something that might be obvious to you. Things like "have you tried to ask whatshername?" or "don't you have an ID card to bypass that?" or "why no one checked the altar yet?"

While this seems like it will help move the story forward, this actually removes agency from the players. The only instance where this kind of advice is ok is when you are dealing with the specialty of such NPC, and eve then, don't give out more info than the party is asking for. A ship mechanic can give out advice that the engine is making a weird sound, but unless the party asks her to check out the engine to find out anything problematic, don't make she check the engine on her own.

Remember that your NPC is not a protagonist

By definition, a protagonist is the person (or persons) who the main story is about. In the end, what really matters is what your players seek and do, not the NPC. If they decide to help your NPC and completes his quest, don't come with a new quest just to make them relevant again. If the NPC still tag along the group, he will be grateful that the party solved his problem. And that is it. He don't have anything else relevant anymore.

(Unless, of course, your party decides that this NPC should be helped more. Then you start bringing more problems with them. Otherwise, no)

Don't force the party to like your character

Let's say you did everything right. You made a fun NPC, someone that will not steal the spotlight, and that will only give some vague advice because that is all they have. The party still think she is annoying.

Shrug off, get rid of the NPC as soon as possible, and start working on the next one. The fine tuning of what clicks for each group varies a lot. I had groups that like when NPCs point them to the danger and unleash. I had groups that love when the NPCs actually antagonizes them because it makes them use better arguments. As long as you are willing to experiment and learn from each failure, you will end up with a desirable result over time.

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