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I'm planning a game where there is about a dozen important NPC actors, with some more less important ones. "Important" means that even if they are not directly involved in current events, they play a large role in the world which cannot be discounted and their existence is obvious to anyone in-character.

However, I know that my notes can only be so big and constant consultation of character lists and relationship charts is impossible. If I introduce a lot of NPCs, at some point I will get confused and have to manage NPC relations with the degree of accuracy I can't achieve, as relations and opinions grow much faster than total NPC number.

I'm looking for technique or paradigm that allows me to marry the ideas of approachable player space and multiple important NPCs.

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4  
I don't think this is any more "too broad" than any gm-techniques question. – mxyzplk Feb 21 at 18:22
    
Comments are only for clarifying the question; put answer content in answers please. – mxyzplk Feb 22 at 17:32
up vote 24 down vote accepted

Learn from Toyota and institute a just in time delivery system. A relationship between two NPCs is meaningless until either the players learn about it or the relationship impacts the world in a way that the players will notice.

Making the world come alive and populating it with interesting NPC is not about knowing every last detail in advance, but rather the art of either having it ready when you need it or be able to create it quickly when you need it.

I make a list of NPCs, where each NPC has the following attributes:

  • Name
  • Position
  • Goal

I'll add the following information to the NPCs I think the players will interact with or be affected by:

  • Appearance and quirks
  • Personality
  • Main relationship with other NPCs

I have all the names and title/positions of every NPC written out on a pice of paper for a quick overview and a index. Then I have a separate sheet of paper for each NPC sorted in the order they appear on the index page. As I make more and more information about the NPC I'll write it all down on this page. The first few times they meet a NPC I will always flipp to the page about the NPC. Usually I'll use some information about the NPC in my scene description. Since I have the page in front of me as they meet the NPC it is easy to add more information.

In regards to the relationships I sometimes draw a diagram with each faction grouped together. I'll keep the type of relationships on the diagram to a minimum. Typically just alliance and rivalry.

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12  
JIT. Why is this haunting me even in RPGs? XD – Zachiel Feb 21 at 15:27
2  
Calm down. It isn't JIT, it is JIT-CG Just in time character generation – Jens Schauder Feb 22 at 16:43

Only bother tracking characters that there's any reason to track. Just because someone exists in the world doesn't mean they are relevant to the PCs, and you only need to track people relevant to the PCs that they will be meeting. In most campaign settings you'll have a large number of these NPCs - leave them in their books, or if it's a homebrew world, in your campaign notes. Many GMs fall a little too much in love with their own campaign world way beyond the point where any PC cares, and that's all wasted work.

Step 2 is to only track the most important information. Here's the actual Cast of Characters list I kept from my pirate campaign, representing having gone through a couple adventures.

Last seen at large in Riddleport

  1. Selene, the late Captain Fenn’s woman. (Maiden Voyage)
  2. Vincenz, a wizard being transported as a prisoner by the Albers. Released by the PCs. (Maiden Voyage)
  3. Thalios Dondrel, son of Mordekai, a pirate, formerly of the Kingfisher, and rescued from the ghost ship Sea Bear by the PCs. (Maiden Voyage)
  4. Wendt, the cranky sleazeball of a ship’s cook on the Albers. (Maiden Voyage)
  5. Old Pete, old resident of the crow’s nest on the Albers. (Maiden Voyage)
  6. Dert, the cabin boy on the Albers. (Maiden Voyage)

Last seen aboard the Chelaxian Navy ship Raptor

  1. Captain Vix Charlo, half-elf captain of the Chelaxian Navy ship Raptor
  2. Martino Marcellano, well-to-do Chelish fop, son of Ox’s former owner.

Last seen on an unnamed island

  1. Bel the Eunuch, leader of the escaped slaves of Martino Marcellano (En Route II: Water Stop)
  2. Pirro, porter and escaped slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  3. Ori, cook and escaped slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  4. Darthos, entertainer and escaped slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  5. Olhas, escaped household slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  6. Trendas, craftsman and escaped slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  7. Sevgi, escaped harem slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  8. Kahina, escaped household slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  9. Kusuma, sage and escaped slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  10. Karomander, fine craftsman and escaped slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  11. Leorah, mom, escaped harem slave (En Route II: Water Stop)
  12. Nitzah, six year old girl and escaped slave (En Route II: Water Stop)

Missing in action

  1. Captain Naki, wererat goblin captain of the Sable Drake. (Stormwrack: Sable Drake)

Last seen dead

  1. Captain Fenn, the withdrawn, one-eyed captain of the Albers. Died of unknown causes, possibly ghost ship related. (Maiden Voyage)
  2. First Mate Huxley, the energetic first mate of the Albers. Killed by a possessed (?) Sindawe. (Maiden Voyage)
  3. Tomas, the unenthusiastic navigator of the Albers. Killed by bloody skeletons. (Maiden Voyage)
  4. Crewman Bull, the big, tattooed, hearty card player,a crewman aboard the Albers. Possessed by the ghost ship and killed by Ox. (Maiden Voyage)
  5. Ellis, a seasoned sea dog aboard the Albers. Wounded by an enraged Ox and strangled by the ghost ship Sea Bear. (Maiden Voyage)
  6. Petronicus, a flute-playing sailor of the Albers. Jumped overboard and slain by bloody skeletons. (Maiden Voyage)

Just who they are, super quick description, reference to where their stats are. You're not writing for publication - you don't need to go beyond what your own brain needs as a prompt. I could write "friendly" on all the escaped slaves that the PCs helped found their little island colony - but why? I darn well know that. I could write every page number for each person instead of just saying "from this 32 page adventure" - but why? If I'm going to use them again I'll certainly have some warning and will pull out the reference ahead of time and prep them for the session. I could put them in some crazy order, but why? Welcome to Find in Word and/or every other piece of software written since 1990.

Note a lack of "king from some nearby kingdom." No one cares. As the pirates became movers and shakers in Riddleport all the Riddleport political figures made the list, as they raided other cities the people they interacted with there made the list - but no reason to add people they haven't. If they go and raid Sandpoint, I just note "raided Sandpoint," I don't need to pull the list of every fool NPC in Sandpoint and track them vs. it.

I looked into more fine grained relationship tracking, see Tools for tracking NPC/PC relationships and attitudes - but the bottom line is that there are no tools that do it well and whose overhead makes it remotely worth it to use. And heck, I bet you can tell which NPCs think what about the PCs from just reading that list above, without the context of having run those adventures. I actually ran them, so I just need enough prompt to bring that back to mind.

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I use 150×100mm index cards. When the players are interacting with an NPC, I take the card out and clip it to the GM screen.

On the card I write some or all of the following.

NPC Card - Front Side

Description: Race, gender, age, physical description, the things the PCs can observe.

Role in the world: What interactions does this NPC have with the other NPCs the characters are going to meet? What useful knowledge does this NPC have? Alignment, Ideal(s), bond(s), flaw(s). Occupation. History. In other words, why do they exist, what is their purpose in the game?

Key Skills: What skills and abilities does this NPC have that are relevant to their interaction with the PCs?

Goals: What are their goals, both long-term and short-term?

Resources: What resources can they bring to bear? Money, power, allies, influence?

I also use a small block of mannerisms, to help with making the NPC memorable (taken from AngryGM). Personality, Pause Indicator, Posture, Mannerisms.

NPC Card - Back Side

On the back of the index card I summarise the NPCs interactions with the characters so far.

Relationship Chart

The index cards get filled reasonably quickly. I have a document (in a OneNote library) that has more information about the relationships between NPCs.

There really isn't that much, however. Each NPC is going to have meaningful relationships with only a handful of other NPCs. For example, the High Priest of course knows the Head Gardener, but for the purposes of the game their exact relationship isn't relevant. Usually.

I did start off with an Excel spreadsheet, with NPCs down the left and across the top, but found it was overkill. I might have 25 NPCs but there's no need to work out 625 relationships! The players might, if they are diligent, only need 20 of them. Usually they are lucky to come across 10.

Not Included

I don't record any combat stats. These NPCs are supposed to be social encounters, not combat encounters. If the players have their characters attack them then I can just pick "soldier" or "cultist" or something from the section at the back of the Monster Manual.

Don't Overprepare

Some advice repeated in other posts here. Only spend time on the NPCs that are needed! There might be 300 people in the castle, but the PCs are only going to interact with 5, 10, maybe 15, and you probably already know which ones they are.

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"for the purposes of the game their exact relationship isn't relevant. Usually." -- in fact, inventing a significant relationship between every single pair of NPCs is a way to generate way too much implausibly complex plot fairly quickly. So, if what you want is way too much implausibly complex plot then yes, the high priest knows the head gardener very well indeed... – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 12:30

A lot of good answers here already about what kind of detail to keep track of, so I'll focus on the "how"

I use a wiki to manage my games. You can create links between entries easily and for me that is a great way to see the relationship between characters, and even navigate quickly around to find the info I'm after. I keep track of characters, organisations, and even special items and plot points this way.

For a while I was using a desktop wiki for OSX (I forget the name), but recently I've just been using Google Drive which seems to work just as well.

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Personally, I use ikiwiki for this as it is backed by git so I can work on it even if there is no network. – Sardathrion Feb 22 at 8:02

Managing Relationships and Information

It sounds like this is your biggest issue, from the phrasing of the question, but there are several other associated issues that might come up. If you're worried about keeping things straight such as what NPC knows what other NPC, who likes who, who hates who, that sort of thing, then you are worried about managing relationships.

The right visual tools for this are tree structures and graph structures.

For example, if you're trying to keep track of who is who in a city watch or police force, you probably want a chief-- guy in charge at the top, people who report to him, people who report to them, etc. If it's anything like a modern hierarchy, it will end up as a tree because people only report to one other person. Each NPC name is a node, and each line from one to the other should go upward.

On the other hand, if it's a more fluid organization like politicians in a city council, there might be lots of arcs from node to node. Also, these arcs can be labeled with the really important information: A pines for B, B scorns A. C is blackmailing D about D's theft from E. All of these relations can be summed up in a word or two on the arcs.

Three ideas may end up in tension, here:

First, these little graphs probably should not have every NPC listed on them, and do not even need to be 'complete' in the mathematical sense of every node connecting to every other node. Life doesn't work like that, and neither should your notes.

Second, but sometimes, people from one group or another will have legitimate and important connections to the outside-- don't be afraid to show this.

Three, don't get caught up in modelling everything. Just model what is important. It is probably a good idea to leave areas to fill in later as your game develops. And if your setting is really complex you can make this a little meta, with a graph where organizations are the notes-- criminal underground at war with the city guard but allied with some third group, etc.

Managing Individual NPCs and Information

If you're worried about managing information specific to individual NPCs-- what they have, what they do, what they can do-- then you are no longer in the territory of relations, you're worried about individual NPCs. There is no way around this except to make a file of some sort (note card, text file, spreadsheet entry, something) about each one.

I would keep them simple, just bullet points or half sentences.

Managing Time and Information

Finally, you don't ask directly about this, but it may become a concern: Games are dynamic, and NPCs are taking actions or changing from session to session.

One piece of advice is to do whatever you decide to do, fairly quickly after each game or just before the next one, while things are fresh in your mind (or so they stay fresh in your mind.)

A second piece of advice is to use whatever graph tools you come up with to help manage this, while remembering that for the most part, the game is about the PCs, and that if the NPCs are too dynamic you run the risk of focusing on the NPCs more than the players. Yes, the mayor is probably important, but he is probably also mostly (mostly!) in something like stasis due to his opponents and responsibilities. NPCs have a certain scope, which you've mostly sketched out with your graphs. Is it realistic that each and every one of them takes note of everything the PCs do? Probably not. Keep it minimal and simple.

And third, once you do figure out how each NPC changes from session to session, you will have to figure out how to update your other representations. It could be as simple as updating your computer files or as tedious as xeroxing physical copies of your graphs or something similar.

Software Tools

If you are looking for software tools to help, what you probably want is something called a Mind Map which will help you draw the types of node-arc graphs I'm talking about, and may let you link nodes to other text files or short internal text descriptions. I don't use them myself (I lack the discipline to update them in a timely fashion) but I know many people who get great use from them. Some of these are free or effectively free, and solve most or all of the problems I describe above, including the update issues-- just save a new version after every session.

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I have found using a service like Obsidian Portal to be invaluable for any long running, complex, campaign.

I ran a three year Eberron campaign - with massive player turnover, intricate conspiracy plots, and a lot more time passing in real life than game time, managing my NPCs was very important. You simply cannot rely on memory.

I found that keeping paper notes was insufficient, since they would become clumsy to search through and frequently lost.

For every scene I played, I would take super brief notes during the game. Where it was, who was there, people met, people lost, major items gained or lost. Afterward, I'd add that to the campaign wiki as an adventure log. Anything which might be recurring I left as an open tag, creating a possible new wiki page for that person or item. Sometimes, I would go and fill in the page with a picture and notes (other links to related NPCs and hashtags for known factions). Sometimes, interested players would do it for me.

Even with nothing more than the barest bones, you still have an easily searchable reference for everything the players have seen.

Yes, it is some additional work, but for long term game where social relationships matter, it's critical. Besides, it saves you work in the long run, because as you build that it becomes easier improvise. The story becomes more alive and begins to tell itself, through the natural consequences of the people they've met and the way they naturally interact.

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