Making interesting NPCs
By Duncan Fingarson, Senior Columnist
NPCs, short for “non-player characters” represent the vast majority of the people in a game world. Every shopkeeper, bandit, villager, etc., are NPCs. These are the people the players will spend their gaming time interacting with and doing quests for. These are also the people that your players will never be able to remember come next session.
Most games run weekly, or less often. That’s a lot of time for the players to forget who your NPCs are, their names, what they do… the list goes on. One of the challenges faced by the GM (Game Master) is making the NPCs memorable. There are a few different ways to do that.
First, tropes are most definitely your friend when it comes to NPCs. Give them one or two easily-noticeable physical features and let that define them, at least partially. Say you have a crime boss who could be an ally or antagonist. Draw on some mafia tropes for how he speaks, give him teeth filed sharp and a sharkskin suit. They might not remember his name, but they’ll probably remember “that shark guy.”
If your NPC is someone important, like a king or powerful wizard, you’ll want to go a little deeper. Pick a name that’s not really complicated. Ran’shirivan is hard to remember—Rand is not. Figure out what they want, what motivates them, and have them try to work towards that. It makes the world feel more alive when the major NPCs have goals they’re trying to achieve outside of the what they can do for the players. These needn’t be complex; perhaps the king wants to expand his kingdom or put down a rebellion. Give the important NPCs a few extra traits and a little more attention. It’ll pay off in the long run.
You can also put a little thought into where the NPC lives or works. Do they collect something? Do they own a pet? What do they do in their spare time? Answering even one of those questions will give the players something else to latch onto when they’re thinking about that NPC.
Ultimately, when crafting NPCs, the best advice is to avoid them being generic. Generic wizard number seven isn’t very interesting. The addition of a few simple, yet memorable, traits will go a long way towards bringing your NPCs—and your world as a whole—to life.