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GM Advice: Designing NPCs

Great NPCs can make or break an adventure. The crusty, fastidious innkeeper with a terrible secret and the one-legged, foppish bard dreaming of battle glory are memorable folk the PCs will remember long after the adventure is over. Bob the peasant is less so...


Art: William McAusland [Outland Arts])

Designing NPCs isn’t hard, and it can be just as rewarding as creating a challenging encounter or new magic item. Cool NPCs add flavour and depth to an adventure or campaign.

A GM shouldn’t freak out, though. Not everyone has to be memorable; some NPCs only interact with the PCs for a few moments. Others – such as recurring villains, allies, foils and so on – deserve more design time. The notes below provide an easy to follow framework a time-crunched GM can use to quickly and easily create memorable NPCs.

  • Name: A name can make or break an NPC. Joke names, real-world names or clichés should be avoided like the plague. Names should fit with the locale and campaign world. If the folk of a kingdom use Norse-style names using an Egyptian name is either bad design or marks the NPC as someone different (and therefore perhaps more interesting).

  • Background: Everyone comes from somewhere. No matter how brief, an NPC should have a back-story. A love torn farmer searching for his lost lover is far more memorable than a farmer wandering about for no apparent reason. The PCs don’t necessarily have to learn all about the NPC’s background, but having a solid grasp of where a person came from enables a GM to better roleplay the NPC.

  • Personality: Some NPCs hate elves, others are perpetually confused or drunk. Yet others are colossally boring or incredible extrovert. You don’t need to design an NPC’s entire personality, but giving him one or two traits creates enough detail to roleplay a memorable encounter.

  • Mannerisms: Does the NPC lick his lips when nervous or does he refuse to make eye contact with strangers? Adding a notable mannerism – preferable one a GM can act out – is a great way of highlighting an NPC’s nature and provides a handy way for the players to remember the NPC.

  • Appearance: Don’t overload the PCs with details. Provide enough to give a suitable first impression of the NPC. An NPC’s appearance can give important clues to its profession, current activity and so on. A battered and bruised peasant may have just been attacked by a corrupt local lord while a priest wearing perfectly clean robes could have a phobia about getting dirty (or perhaps never bothers to leave his temple to tend his flock).

  • Distinguishing Features: In the same fashion as a mannerism, a distinguishing feature is a terrific means of differentiating the NPC from his fellows. Whereas a mannerism is likely something the GM roleplays, a distinguishing feature can be richly described, and act as a kind of signpost or name badge for the NPC.

  • Hooks: Some NPCs can act as hooks into small adventures and side treks. Others might have a special reason for interacting with the PCs. Use hooks sparingly, but adding them to a memorable NPC is a great way of bringing the campaign world alive.

So there you have it – address the seven points above when designing NPCs and you’ll have deeper, more rounded folk to interact with your PCs.

Got any more hints or tips for designing great NPCs for your game? Let me know!

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Somewhere in the Privateer Press forums, there used to be a thread on "God's 'Man in the Field.'" It was an NPC the GM could use to introduce stuff about the greater world to the players without resorting to a monologue.

One of the best examples was having an old mercenary veteran run into the PCs and impart wisdom about cities, old wars and battles, racial relations, and the like. The NPC is obviously more powerful than the PCs, but he can't hang around too long because he's got a contract to fight for Lord So-and-so over in the next barony.

Once the PCs become established and the players understand the game world, this NPC can go away in whatever manner the GM deems best. It could be he settles down peacefully, and the PCs simply know about that old guy at the edge of town with all the great stories, or he is killed fighting and the PCs have the opportunity to avenge his death.

It's sort of like the recurring villian, but an ally that doesn't take the spotlight away from the PCs.

I like it when NPCs can grow and develop with the campaign. In my campaign, the PCs have stayed relatively close to home so far so they have bumped into several people quite often. It's nice, because the PCs' relationships and change or deepen as they progress through their adventures.

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