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I DM a 5e D&D campaign. I've been playing D&D for under a year. In this new campaign I'm planning to have a few NPC allies. While I'm able to roleplay less important NPCs, these NPCs feel more intimidating. I have a hard time adding depth to them. I have a complex personality for them inside my head but I have a hard time putting it out on the table.

How do I roleplay NPCs in a way so that they feel real, and like they have unique deep personalities?

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How I helped a novice DM with this

A lady I work with was starting a D&D group with her church youth group, and discovered that I had long experience with D&D and DMing. She asked a very similar question to yours, in terms of "How do I do this NPC thing? There are so many kinds of characters to play!"
I broke it down into a few parts.

1. You'll get better by doing, don't worry

When you are new to DMing, no matter what someone else tells you, you still have to go out and do this NPC play and as you do it more you'll be more comfortable doing that.

2. Give important NPCs Traits, Bonds, Ideals, and Flaws

I recently noted that some of the published adventures do this now, but back then I hadn't noticed that. I pointed her to Chapter 4 (Player Backgrounds) in the PHB and walked her through how to roll for or hand pick those aspects for an NPC. One of each. These weren't to be a three dimensional character study, they were meant to be a point of departure to help her get a feel for who the most important NPCs are.

3. Play the NPC from one of three opening stances

As each NPC interaction begins, determine if the NPC is generally hostile, neutral, or friendly to the PCs. The DMG has a small section about that that I showed her when I gave her a new copy of the DMG (my 'welcome to the world of DMing' present). She had not seen that and appreciated how it would help when she got stuck.

4. Start by acting naturally and simply, then let the interaction grow organically

As one gets more experience with NPC play, one can get sneaky and more nuanced, but I suggested to her not to make her job hard on herself. Start with a regular conversation, and let it grow from there based on what the PCs do and say.

Result? After about a month and a half I got a box full of homemade brownies and a big "thank you" for helping her get started. She told me that she had found those all of these tips useful.

She's still DMing for that group. Last time we talked, she's near the end of her second campaign a bit over three years later. (I also introduced her to roll20 as a resource when the COVID nearly did for her campaign).

How do I do it?

After all these years, there's no simple answer but some things I typically focus on during an NPC interaction with PCs are:

  1. What do I(NPC) want?
  2. What am I(NPC) afraid of?
  3. Are these PCs helpful, dangerous, or simply unknown?
  4. If I(NPC) help them get what they want, do I believe they'll help me get what I want?
  5. What have they done for me(NPC)?

Where do I go when I get stuck? Usually, the Alexandrian

Justin Alexander has an RPG blog with a lot of good DM advice. When I am looking for a better idea, I check out his articles on NPCs.
Here are some of his articles on NPC from the DM perspective:
NPC templates., advanced NPC templates, memorable NPCs, and a couple of others here and there.

"How do I play NPCs" is a pretty big topic. 😊 As The Alexandrian notes in the memorable NPC article:

This will not attempt to be an exhaustive discussion of how to create memorable characters. You could write whole books on the subject, and people have.

Some related Q&A already posted here at RPGSE

Making engaging NPCs, how to show emotions for different NPCs, becoming a better NPC/Monster actor, and creating emotions. (Thanks @MikeQ for digging these up and putting them in a comment under the question).

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice. Keep it simple and focused. You (as a DM) have to handle multiple NPCs, the players only ever one character at a time, so it makes sense that yours aren't as in-depth as theirs. And too much pre-planning sometimes gets in the way, so getting just these few core concepts for each NPC is absolutely enough to improv from. And regarding improv: you get better with practice \$\endgroup\$ – Hobbamok Jun 24 at 9:03
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Remember that, as the DM, your most important job is to make sure that everyone is having fun. When you're making plans for how you will roleplay something, you should first ask yourself: how will I make this fun?

For myself, I believe that the PCs are the stars of the adventure and the NPCs are the supporting cast. NPCs should have exaggerated, easy-to-grasp personalities, ideally funny ones. If I tried to roleplay a complex NPC personality, I would expect my players to miss most of the nuance and then think: "Wow, this NPC talks about himself a lot. Can we get back to talking about us now?"

I've played in a series of games with a DM who was a really good roleplayer, and he did much the same thing. Every NPC we met had a personality which could be summed up in a few words. The good roleplaying was in portraying that personality in a funny and interesting way.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For a high action or heroic game, which is what most people expect out of DND 5e, this is absolutely the correct answer and I second all of it. I would just point out that in a game more based around political intrigue (think say a stereotypical Vampire: The Masquerade game) the players will probably expect more nuance to the NPCs. But even then, the NPCs are supporting cast, just a more nuanced one. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jun 23 at 20:12
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Think of it this way: How do you play PCs?

I am currently running a game with 4 players, who have on their own initiative recruited five (formerly six) other NPCs to the party. They just liked the NPCs, found them helpful, and wanted to keep them around. Like you, I was then faced with the issue of giving them enough depth to have lasting power.

When I realised they were sticking around, I built upon them the same way I would go about fleshing out a PC:

  • What are their goals?
  • Where do they come from? Geographically and lifestyle-wise
  • What are two dominating personality traits?
  • What do they respect or dislike in a person?

Be sure to tone it down a notch from full PC-level of detail to find a happy middle ground and avoid the GMPC trap. More on that later.

One important thing to remember is that you don't have to figure all of this out right away. Start with something basic, and if the players like it, they'll interact with that character more and more. During that time, you can figure it out better.

Of course, for me it helped that two of the NPCs were actually my old PCs whose campaigns ended before I got to play them much.

Some helpful tips:

  • If voices are your thing, be sure to give each character an individual voice and mannerisms. For me, this helps me switch between personalities as I often attach a lot of meaning to their voices. The suave charmer has a low, smooth voice and lots of witticisms. The stoic warrior speaks matter-of-factly and to the point. Whatever works for you.
  • If possible, try to tie in their story with one or two particular players. This gives those players a reason to care and a personal buy-in. Bonus points if the player originally comes up with the character, like how one PC's siblings appeared to help out when they heard their little brother was struggling.
  • If you like, let your players play the NPCs during combat. Give out the character sheets or stat blocks ahead of time, let your players get to know them, and it makes combat go WAY more smoothly when you don't have to worry about a few fewer combatants. When the party hires a new NPC, I usually ask "Who wants to run this guy?" and someone is happy to claim them. In battles with a large party, the opposing force is usually also large, so initiative can take a while. Running multiple characters also helps players keep engaged since "their turn" comes up more often. Your players may vary, but I currently have one player controlling two NPCs, two controlling one each, one by myself, and the final player is happy just to play her own PC.

Avoiding the GMPC Trap

See: What's the difference between an NPC and a GMPC?

GMPCs are not universally a bad thing, if properly managed.

Don't forget that the story is about the players, not the NPCs. This means that long-term NPCs should generally not be dominating scenes, be more powerful or impressive than PCs, or making important decisions. For me, that means creating stats that are roughly one level lower than the PCs, and only have them speak sparsely during group conversations, unless spoken to. When it comes time for the group to vote on a decision, they stay silent unless specifically asked to cast a vote.

The Sidekicks rule from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything seems to address the "lower level" angle, and looks interesting on paper, but I don't have personal experience with it to say.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your third bullet point is very much in line with my experience. (running NPCs during a battle) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 24 at 12:31
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I'm quite new at this too. But what works best for me is to focus on a particular aspect of its personality while keeping one or a maximum of two at the back if it becomes necessary. If it still too important to show that, i like to make a small scene highlighting that aspect of this NPC.

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