Just yesterday night, I returned to DMing the RPG Alex and I are working on, and that most of you would probably be aware of due to Alex’s magic with cartography and making pretty maps. Well, my post today will not have to do anything with this topic, but something I find that in RPGs is often taken for granted: NPCs. What would you actually do without your good friend Joe the Tavernier telling you that there are monsters attacking the caravans coming in and out of the settlement? Pretty much nothing. Although player interacting is – in my opinion – crucial for a good game, without the NPCs the DM would be 100% bored and the players most certainly lost. So today I am gonna dedicate the post to the many Joes and Daves you’ve encountered in many tales.
One thing that always fascinated me when I was little of the RPGs my parents played, was that my dad always had a quirky character waiting for something to happen in the story and mess up the party – I would love to say help out, but I probably don’t remember that well to confirm such thing….And the thing was that, although this was always my dad, these characters were never the same. Not one merchant was equal to another, nor where the Innkeepers always jolly or informative, neither were his villains always monsters. These were fully fleshed people with thoughts, emotions and agendas – the latter being perhaps the most important one. I believe this is how NPCs should be. The world your roam for your own personal reasons is full of other people, just because Jack didn’t turn up to play, it doesn’t mean that Kronk the Barbarian that you just helped out doesn’t get his 5 minutes of glory. Nevertheless, I find that a lot of people struggle making meaningful NPCs, and even worse, useful NPCs that help the story move forward and add to the narrative.
Now I do understand that perhaps you do not want to give every single potential randomer a name and an identity because that would take forever and a day – fair enough. But NPCs with any sort of in character dialogue lines deserve a few minutes of your attention. I have come to create mine following this system: NPCs death importance tier. What does this mean? Well, exactly what it says in the box. If Joe the Tavernier was to die whilst running the game as a consequence of one of your player’s actions, or as part of the general narrative, would this affect the world you have created in a significant way? Would it change the story you are telling? If the answer is yes, then you need to give this person some traits. If the answer is no, it can just be “genericchaporchapettethathelpsyouguysout”. Of course, depending on the impact and their roles you can invest more or less time in them. Example: in yesterday’s game one of my player’s had established through back story that a certain innkeeper somewhere in town was terrified of them and they would just do their bidding as the generic scumbag they were. I had no plans for this before hand, but I knew if Ekbert (that was his name) was to die, the impact wouldn’t be huge – for anyone other than my player who would have nowhere to stay for free. Therefore, Ekbert was given minor traits on the spot: cowardly attitude, behaving as if he was always seeing a ghost, whatever the Tiefling said, he did. He was a great laugh and didn’t take much from me other than just expression of utter most terror.
On the other hand, we had the recurrent NPC who has appeared in at least one other game and that is related to this story arch closely: Sirielle the Fairy Bard. I knew things about her ever since our last game, and even before because I had decided a long while ago someone like her was vital for the developments of this tale. Now, I could simply not rely on my players to develop such a character in a system that is new and still in the making, with a lore developed little by little every single day. So I had to ensure that what Sirielle represented was championed by myself, in this case in the shape of an NPC of the Top Importance in the Death Tier. The group that was playing yesterday, although experienced players and good friends, are not my usual tag team therefore I was not entirely sure how they would react to this character or her Deathy Dooming importance, so I needed to make sure that the Tier system worked and did what it was supposed to. And this is how without killing (as of yet) a vital character in the story, I tested the fact that the Tier works. The players had engaged deeply with this Fairy for various reasons, and when her life was in great danger, the response was the appropriate one – They Protecc; more to come on this note because this is where we left it for the day.
I have found throughout the years that, the best way to great one of these type of NPCs is to treat it as if it where an actual character. You do not necessarily need to give it all the stats and specifics that a PC would have in their character sheet, but if you treat it as such then they will be much closer to your players’. I think the time investment will pay off. Sometimes I have recycled old characters that are not playable anymore for whatever reason and adapt them to be NPCs – that is not cheating: if they are useful parts of the story, then that is just an easy job, if the system works, why change it. Some other times, I have found most useful to find an actual image of these people. With something as random as “barbarian female orc” into Google you will encounter plenty of illustrations, concept art and amateur drawings of characters of al sorts. And thankfully, because such is the way of images, perhaps there is nothing peculiar about the talent of the artist that made the piece, but they captured a specific moment in time or an emotion that evokes a tale that inspires you, and that may be how Joe the Tavernier was born: father of 4, ex member of the SAS fantasy version that the Emperor of your world has, and that funny moustache? That is to cover a terrible scar from his old days he will tell you about if you roll good enough charisma and have a pint with him. That may actually give you the clue as to who are the people hunting the rogue mage in your party who also has a shifty background, and Joe seems so keen on.