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When I play as DM, I'm never sure how to create my NPCs. Do I have a whole page on them, with all their languages, proficiencies, weapons, ability scores and etc? Or do I keep it simple, like just their weapons and personalities?

Whenever I make an NPC, I always get really scared that my players will become best friends with them and I thought they would just be somebody they pass by.

But I hate making almost another character sheet just for an NPC. And I know that my players will always love a NPC I know nothing about because my players just love to screw me over.

What is the process for developing/creating NPCs?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hello and welcome to the site! Have you read DMG "Chapter 4: Creating Nonplayer Characters"? If you already have, could you please narrow the question down a little? "How should I create NPCs" are still too open-ended for the SE format. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 20 at 8:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ The DMG is the Dungeon Master's Guide, not the Player's Handbook. (You might not have the DMG either, I understand.) \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Apr 20 at 8:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor the subject is vague, but the text of the question is pretty clearly asking a specific question about level of detail. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Apr 20 at 8:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Free Basic Rules are here , and the Systems Reference Document is here - it has some more material and some more NPCs and monsters. I think you'll find them very useful. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 20 at 12:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: I believe D&D Beyond's version of the "basic rules" is also an inclusive combination of the contents of both the SRD and the basic rules PDF. There's only a short portion on NPCs even there, though. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 20 at 23:37
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It Depends

If you have the Dungeon Master's Guide, the first few pages of Chapter 4 talk about "Quick NPCs" and "Detailed NPCs," which pretty well encapsulate your two main approaches above-- Quick NPCs might have a name and a few characteristics written on a note card, while Detailed NPCs have complete stats.

There is no reason that all your NPCs should be only one type.

Whether they get the full detailed treatment depends largely on whether you intend, at the time of their creation, for them to play some critical role in a fight (which will need stats) or to the plot (which may need a detailed set of motivations and history) or if they're just local color.

You Can Promote Your NPCs

But the real dilemma, I think, is what if you choose wrong or the situation evolves?

If your players have shunned your Detailed NPC, well, no big deal. You lost some time in prep, but probably not that much because it's only one guy.

But if they latch onto a Quick NPC, that's great! You've all, collectively, improvised your way into something you never foresaw. This is where the fun comes from! Just take out the note card and write down everything you improvised that seems important and then (if necessary) between sessions upgrade the note card to a full stat block.

What really tends to fall out of this process are a bunch of Quick NPCs, a handful of Detailed NPCs, and a bunch that are somewhere in between, with just enough notes jotted down to help me remember what they were doing, even if they aren't worth a full stat block.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also remember that when you created a detailed NPC you had no opportunity to use properly, then you can shelf that material and recycle it when you need proper stats to promote an NPC. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Apr 21 at 11:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sometimes when writing tv shows and movies, and even books, writers will get feedback about unnecessary characters and end up re-writing one character to have the important characteristics of two other ones. If they latch on to the wrong NPC, you can often (with a small amount of improv) extract the important elements of the NPC they ignored and paint them on the NPC they like. \$\endgroup\$ – corsiKa Apr 22 at 15:38
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Jim: commoner, henna tattoo on his right cheek, talkative and cheerful

That’s all I need to run an NPC. Name, reference to a stat block in case somebody tried to kill them, 1 physical feature, 2 distinctive personality traits. Minimal work because most NPCs are show and go. If Jim interests the PCs he can grow; if not, he goes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ so I should write a bit and then improvise the rast abut the character. \$\endgroup\$ – Morthos Timor Apr 20 at 9:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MorthosTimor yeah, that's a good way to do it. Been doing that since I started DMing in the late 70's. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 20 at 12:30
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Not All NPCs Are Created Equal

During the course of a campaign, you will probably create dozens of NPCs. It would be extremely impractical to create a character sheet for every single one of them. And why would you anyway? Most of the times, your players will have a simple chat with them before moving on. The goal is to generate enough information about them to make them sound real but not too much because your time and energy could be spent in other parts of the campaign. So, how to do it? Here's what I do:

1. Decide How Important the NPC Is

For convenience, I use a binary labeling system. An NPC is either important or not important.

Not important NPCs are merchants, nobles, travelers, etc. I.e., it's people who make the world seem real and whose purpose is to interact with the PCs for simple things. I.e., pass information, exchange goods, etc. Even a king may be not important if he does not play a pivotal role in the campaign. For example, if the group will probably have one audience with the king for a quest then that NPC is still not important.

On the other hand, important NPCs are the people who will play a pivotal role during a session or the campaign. Important NPCs are special. Their skills, attributes, and abilities matter. Examples include an NPC who travels with the group and participate in battles, a potential antagonist, etc.

2. Essential Parts

Either important or not important the NPC should have some essential info. This include:

  • Name: Self-explanatory.
  • Purpose: Why does the NPC exist? She may know a rumor. He sells goods. She will give the group an item, etc.
  • (Optional) MM Assignment: The Monster Manual (and the other supplements) offer many made-up options for NPCs. For example, take a look at the Commoner. It is good practice to assign a premade NPC to the characters you create in the unlikely scenario they get into battle or they have to use a skill. The options don't have to fit perfectly the NPC but this practice will save you tons of time.
  • (Optional) Trait/Feature: For flavor, you can note down something unique about them. E.g., a weird haircut/tattoo, an interesting accent, etc.

For most NPCs you will not need anything more than that.

3. Character Sheet (or Maybe Not)

Only important NPCs get to have a character sheet. I cannot emphasize the important part enough. If your NPC will play a pivotal role then you may want to give them a character sheet. However, even then, an NPC does not really need a character sheet. All you need to do is to assign to them the parts that define them (strong/weak points, a few attacks and powers).

Take inspiration from the Monster Manual. Take the Thug for example. Only the essentials are noted down, e.g., his ability scores, his attacks/powers, the skills he's good at, known languages and his passive perception. That's it. That's all you need for an NPC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that NPCs aren't (intended to be) built like player characters; they don't have a full "character sheet" like a PC, just a statblock like any monster (if it's necessary to give them stats). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 20 at 23:38
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Create NPCs as you need them

The less you create, the better.

In games that I DM, my philosophy is to prioritise value to players. Until the PCs do something that reveals information, the information does not exist. I go through steps, increasing in complexity as my PCs learn more. Every step informs future steps, the complexity of an NPC builds as the PCs discover more.

  1. Context. Where are we? What are the circumstances?
  2. Appearance. What does the NPC look like? What are they doing?
  3. Mannerisms. What does the NPC sound like? What are their mannerisms?
  4. Desires. What does the NPC want? Why are they here?
  5. Information. What is the answer to a specific question?
  6. Stat block. Only if the party initiates combat.

An example

Now I'll walk you through the steps I take, and you can see how this works out. Let me set the scene; the party has entered a busy marketplace. They walk around, bump into an NPC, then start asking the NPC where they can buy high-quality armour. At the start of the scene, I have no idea that the NPC exists. As the scene progresses I add more details.

  1. The PCs are at the market, most people are there buying or selling goods. I describe the general scene.
  2. The PCs bump into a large rough-looking woman in a simple tunic. The NPC was walking in the opposite direction to the party.
  3. The PCs are a little edgy and scold the NPC, the NPC has a gruff tone and is apologetic.
  4. The PCs ask the NPC where they can buy armour, the NPC doesn't know and isn't interested in arms and armour. They want to get back to the market.
  5. The PCs offer the NPC gold to find them a store, and ask the NPC's name. I reveal the NPC's name is Joan and they could use the money. They're a farmer and the season's harvest has been underwhelming this year.
  6. Joan is able to come up with some ideas about where to find armour. The PCs decide Joan is a liability, and they need to die. I pull up the standard stat block for a commoner.

Pregenerating NPCs?

If you are confident that it will be useful, you can perform some of these steps in advance. Do not go overboard, do the least amount of work.

For example, someone tells the party to go talk to Sir Goodfry. You can decide in advance what Goodfry looks like, sounds like, and wants. You don't need to stat out Goodfry and list his nieces and nephews.

As you note in your question, you can never tell which NPCs are important. There is no way to know until after the game ends. The party shuns NPCs that you think are core. Instead, they latch onto the throwaway NPC you spent 3 seconds thinking about.

Treat all NPCs as expendable. If they are useful, then you can expand them.

Gotchas

Avoid creating NPCs for the party, or for yourself. For example, the party is trying to get into the city armoury. They decide to talk to random NPCs until they find a way in. They think this is a great plan and will succeed, you think this is a dumb plan and there's no way it will work.

Do not have the NPC say "sure, I'll let you in." But, do not have all the NPCs say "we have no way of helping you" either.

Instead, create plausible and realistic NPCs that fit the context: one NPC laughs. "Why are you asking me? The city guard and officials handle the armoury." Now the party has a clue.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Number 6 made me laugh out loud, as it was completely out of tone compared to the first five parts of the encounter, unless the party are the standard murder hoboes ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 21 at 12:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Number 6 is about how every DnD session I've ever had goes. Normal normal normal random murder normal normal. Only thing missing was the unnecessary sex. \$\endgroup\$ – corsiKa Apr 22 at 15:40
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When I make NPCs, I tend to go by what I call the "Portfolio Method". If I get an idea for an NPC that I want in the world, somewhere, I create them in full. Quite commonly these are the characters where inspiration strikes anytime out of game. It could be while plotting the next session(s), or simply that I'm out somewhere and bored and start throwing down notes that get corrected when a book is handy. When I say "somewhere in the world", I do accept there may not be a good time for them to come in, but it's always helpful to the metagame to be able to rummage through your notes and say "ah yes, you've found Lonthar of the Hill People" to help your players immerse and believe they're looking at someone important because you're prepared.

Conversely, when I need NPCs who are no better than cardboard cutouts, I tab over to the random name generator, get a decent one, and now you have a "+X" character. There might be a couple things you want them to be inept or proficient in, but ultimately their rolls are always "+X". Random village dweller? +1, maybe +2 when you need a random roll. Another +2 on Nature or Farming Tools because they're a farmer now. Disadvantage on Knowledge rolls for this hayseed. A game like D&D after 3e is extremely forgiving for things like this.

There is a middle ground, and I call this the "Carbon Method". This is a foundation character not unlike the quick build suggestions for given classes. It's a little difficult to get some things on the fly in 5e, because you don't want to have a fighter not use their whole style and give the players full XP or maybe you didn't think through that cleric NPC who cast a spell just a little bit too high a level and now the players want more. Where I find this most useful is for nameless, but unique figures such as "the duke's personal guard", or "thieves guild initiate". I call it "carbon" because I start with a basic level, and "carbon copy" that to get abilities on the fly. If someone needs to be a little more specific, such as the party endears themselves to someone temporary and they start to grow into a full NPC, then you can make a full character out of it. Simply take good notes on sessions for bits to include.

But this method is somewhere between the cardboard cutouts and full NPCs. You make a full level 1 or 2 character in a given class as a base to keep on hand as a default and from there you can "+X" the differences on the fly, and/or actually level them up.

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There are already many fantastic answers here, and I wanted to add a bit about how I incorporate many of these ideas to create NPCs:

Generation tables!

You can find many versions of these online, but I like to make my own (for everything but names. I hate naming things!). Having a good array of usable details for an NPC, especially if you have a variety of types of detail available, makes it easier to create NPCs from scratch at need and also provide as much detail as you may require, without needing to improvise very much.

Basic details include race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.), general appearance (tall, stocky, imposing, kindly, etc.), and a memorable detail (scar, accent, limp, fashionable clothing, and so on). Those are usually enough to get through a conversation the players initiate with a random, unplanned NPC.

If you need more details, either because the players take a liking to the character and require more details, or because you identify one as a good opportunity to advance the plot (or contribute to other DM goals), you can always add elements from additional tables.

You can have a table that covers any conceivable element of your setting and scenario, and then always have those details ready to apply when it's appropriate. In my games, I often like having tables for political affiliations, connections to resources the PCs may want, disposition towards others, and social station. I may add others when a setting calls for them, and pass over some when they seem inappropriate. I also fix certain elements to particular tables, or particular table entries, when appropriate (a random passerby near the tannery is probably not going to be a wealthy person, for example).


The basic idea I use to guide myself in preparing tables is to think about the important details of the setting and the themes of the scenario, then think through what types of detail might be important enough to plan this way and what specific details fit well. For example, in a very political, social game I might include social station and political connection as details, while in a dungeon crawl those are probably going to be less important (if not irrelevant). Your particular needs may even allow you to keep a small set of tables in your mind, without the need to write them down and reference them.

I tend to think of the exercise as a part of worldbuilding, and the effort helps me to plan what sorts of details are appropriate for what I want to express about that world. It improves my ability to improvise, to keep the story on track, and to give more depth to the game overall. The NPC generation is almost just a bonus.

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