Making a world is a hard job for a GM to do, but it is certainly worth it! …if your players get invested in the world you make, that is. Bringing your world to life takes a lot of careful thought an planning, not to mention in-game-session delivery. And too many times a GM tries to do something interesting that the players ignore.
The role of a game master is as much an art as it is a science. There are many things to consider when making your game world interesting and consistent enough to be engaging. Most game books include sections to give you advice on how to make your world feel real. Today we’re going to focus on making NPCs.
NPCs are one of the best tools in a GM’s belt for engaging a player. When a PC and an NPC have a conversation, you and the player are already engaged. They want to hear what you have to say and are trying to understand it so that they can respond. Information is much more easily absorbed through human interaction, and RPGs are social by nature in the first place.
Memorable NPCs are a lot of fun to make and play. Some are hated antagonists, some are helpful allies, and most are just a small part of the world they live in. Today we are going to share with you a simple recipe for making some engaging NPCs
Start With an Empty Container
To make a memorable NPC, you first want to pick an NPC function. Why is this NPC a part of your world? And here, we don’t’ mean their in-game function of farmer or noble or starship trooper. We are looking at the OOG reason for having this NPC in your game. What is their function?
Now we love a good story, and it is important to explain why a character exists in the world setting that they do, but as a GM the best place to start is often the function of a character. Are they in the game to start the PCs on a quest? To be rescued as a plot device or a reward? To buy and sell goods so the PCs can manage their loot? To battle as an antagonist or complicate things with a distraction?
Once you have the basic function, think about how that NPC’s existence reflects on your game world. A black knight screaming “Run for your lives!” or a hobgoblin kicking down a door can also be very engaging. If people look the other way when either of these things happen, that tells you something about the world. Player characters are much more likely to meet priests than actual deities, so use the priests to teach the PCs about your world’s pantheon!
Just a Dash of Flavor
Some GMs are professional actors, improvisational artists, or puppeteers that have a lifetime of experience bringing characters to life. Fortunately a GM does not need the skills to run a thousand NPCs as details as the PCs. All you really need is basic function and a dash of flavor.
You probably know by now how to make a basic functioning NPC: a merchant that sells goods, a guard that guards the door, or a beggar that asks for coins. Now, to make an NPC memorable, think of one thing that would let a player pick that NPC out of a lineup of similar NPCs.
What if the merchant that runs the big shop is only 12 years old? What if the guard smells like he needs a bath? What if the beggar’s rags were once a noble dress of silk? Suddenly more details jump into your mind about these characters, not to mention more questions about them!
A Spoonful of Sugar
When you want to make a memorably NPC, add something that the players are going to like about the PC. This works best when you know your players well, but it should be easy enough to make some guesses even if you are running a one-shot at a convention. This is especially important when you want an NPC to start a group on a quest or build a relationship with a PC that you can later take advantage of.
There is a reason that the barmaid with the ample bosom gets more tips, that the old man pleading for help rescuing his daughter tugs at your heart when the rest of the tavern ignores him, and that the traitor might be forgiven when he explains that the aliens were holding his family hostage. These things make us care about the NPC, and thus the story, and thus the world.
Even antagonists should have something the PCs can appreciate (such as the loot they can recover when they kill him) to make them more memorable. After all, an archetypical villain that wants to advance the cause of “EVIL” is one of millions. But a tragic backstory about how his parents nicknamed his older brother “Only Son” is a one-in-a-million character whose motivation is much more relatable.
Two Cups of Social Pressure
If you want to flesh out a recurring NPC, try to think about how society expects that NPC to act. Focus in on two different aspects for your NPC to act one. Pick one for them to follow and one for them to reject. This gives your NPC a starting place to really stand out as an individual.
This is a trick that works well for playing good characters of the opposite gender. Yes, some differences are biological but most differences that we experience are based on society. Since humans never fully conform to (or fully reject) what the ‘average person’ is supposed to be, having one of each makes it easy to know where your character fits in with their society.
Here are some examples: a young woman that wants to be an obedient daughter but has a tendency to speak her mind, an orc chieftain that leads his tribe to war but also reads up on military strategy and tactics, or a billionaire that drinks and parties during the day but also dresses up in a costume to fight crime at night. These characters have depth, conflicting motivations, and make for great characters that you can write movies about!
Mix and Let Set
Try to make every aspect of your NPCs make sense. A germaphobe that always stinks is more unbelievable than interesting. And every ingredient should be something that can come up in casual conversation, since that is how you will tend to play out their personality.
Once you have a good NPC mixed up, try not to change it. Remember that NPCs are not the main characters of your story. They don’t get experience points and level up like the PCs do because they are not out on adventures. They are slow to change and provide consistency for the player characters to appreciate in the world.
That is not to say that they should never change, especially if the PCs work towards changing them. The world of your game will not feel real if nothing the players do affects anything. Just remember that changes should be slow and deliberate, that the NPC should be set in its way long enough that such changes should make an impact on the players.
For example, if the shop has a new shopkeeper each week then there is little for the players to care about. But if a shopkeeper that has given the player characters discounts as his way of supporting the rebel cause for several sessions suddenly disappears or stops selling to the PCs, then there’s something plot-worthy going on!
Let Cool and Enjoy