Today’s guest article is by Robert A. Neri Jr. of Ranger Games Publishing, and it’s not actually about bleeding onions — it’s about NPCs. Specifically, believable and engaging NPCs, a topic near and dear to every GM. Thanks, Robert! — Martin
Non-player characters (NPCs) populate the game master’s fictional game worlds. NPCs provide a life source beside the vitality injected into the game by the player characters (PCs). Unlike PCs, however NPCs don’t need to be complete characters. Their level of completeness is directly related to their level of intended interaction with the players and to a lesser extent their role in the campaign or given scenario.
Those crafted to have some individuality identifiable by the players and even a modicum of believability can make the difference between a bland, artificial environment and a vibrant, exciting, living world.
The Five Layers
There are five “layers” the GM must hit upon in order to construct a believable NPC. A believable NPC being an interesting, engaging, and memorable character as well as that likely to exist in the campaign world. These layers are:
- Physical features
- Gear (clothing & equipment)
- Skillset (skills of note & combat style)
How Much Detail?
The first concern when constructing an NPC is the level of detail needed aside from a quick rundown of each of the five layers. Simply inserting a single generic item in each layer can quickly generate mooks (nameless fodder) or a background NPC suited only to limited contact with the PCs. The level of contact an NPC has with the PCs is important, as you don’t want to waste time adding minute detail to a character that shows up once, says next to nothing and/or has no other significant/repeating contact.
Game masters should have a basic hierarchy for their NPCs besides the main antagonist(s) which would be (in ascending order): background, foreground or limited interactors with limited appearances, those with limited interaction but the potential for multiple appearances, frequent interactors even if their appearances are limited, and those who interact regularly with the PCs.
The higher up you move along the NPC hierarchy the more detail needed. NPCs can move up the hierarchy or become elevated by ongoing interactions even if they were not designed for a long term existence, gaining added detail either acquired from play or details and minutiae added by the GM often as a response to player inquiries or in an effort to give the NPC extra story weight. After determining interaction level archetype should be selected.
Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are useful tools in the hands of a talented GM with the latter two considered cheap tricks and which can, if the GM is not careful or creative, become cliché and if they’re not mindful, offensive. Archetypes carry the connotations of role, skillset, and ability whereas stereotypes convey assumptions and preconceptions about behavior, motivating factors, and “genetic traits.”
An archetype is a sort of blue-print often built into or associated with various settings and works of fiction that gather together certain attributes and present a general sketch of a character and possible patterns of behavior packaged together with general appearance. Archetype should be selected with the NPC’s role in mind. Stereotyping on the other hand, is a very shallow method of quickly communicating specific character traits to players based on a large social/economic/regional/ethnic group. An especially useful tool when there is limited playtime, while in a pinch, or in a faster paced part of the game.
Tropes, another tool in the box, allows the use of a short-hand statement in order to quickly communicate certain aspects of an NPC to the players which can be as short as a name for a fantasy race, profession, or perhaps a short description not containing a value judgment or opinion in and of itself but carried by those who are familiar with it. Tropes can be used by the GM to influence the players’ in-game actions dependent on their reactions. If the group groans at the mention of a certain trope (this actually holds true for stereotypes as well) the GM probably shouldn’t use it unless they’re trying to raise the ire of their players.
The second NPC layer, distinguishing physical features and build, begins to grant the archetypal NPC more individuality. Race is a way of communicating the most general physical features and behavioral patterns to the players simply by attaching a label to the NPC. Race is a combination of stat templates and stereotypes that can grant a general idea, right or wrong, about personality and role in the encounter. Again, a simple mook character doesn’t need much more than that and maybe some equipment but a well-rounded NPC would need a few more visual cues to deliver some additional information to the players.
An NPC’s face is a roadmap of experience, particularly if they’ve had an especially brutal life acquiring scars, tattoos (which can carry their own symbolic meaning) or losing eyes. Prototypical pigmentation which carries meaning in the game that the players can clue into is also useful. Regional racial features can distinguish an NPC from the racial norm such as a lighter shade of green or very tall points on the ears hinting at a different origin than the racial norm can communicate some ethno-political information expanding the game world. Physical disability can also add in additional layers to the character due to birth defects, the mutilation of war wounds, or more specific instances of physical trauma; abuse, ritual mutilation/scarification, accidents or draconian punishment.
Gear & Clothing
Costume and equipment, the next layer, can be used to express the character forthrightly, hide their true nature or intentions, heighten the anxiety of players, feed them hints/clues as to the wider world, the NPC’s fighting ability, skillset or reveal otherwise unexpressed aspects of the NPC’s personality. Mooks and background NPCs need only the gear to carry out their brief and likely, temporary purpose with perhaps some token details.
NPCs should have an equipment list comparable to their interaction level and role and an appearance that distinguishes them more as individuals from the lesser interactors. The players should take one look and know that these are more than just nameless minions. Personal items should be on this list which can give clues to their religious beliefs, sentimentalities, and pastimes. Their costume can also reveal that the face they’re trying to present to the players (and perhaps the world) may be a façade hidden in details such as neatness, quality, and the relevance of clothing style or equipment.
Another very important point when building an NPC is what skills they have at their disposal; their skillset, not necessarily their whole skill-list just the ones they’re likely to use in-game including their combat ability and fighting style. They should have the tools required to make use of these skills and the implements cogent to their combat style. Variation in combat style can demonstrate personality during a fight even without any verbal communication.
As with their costumes and mode & style of combat, NPCs can also have customized gear identifying the piece as their personal property. Also keep in mind the symbolic significance that the weaponry you equip your NPCs with can convey (e.g. a spiked club indicating a real brute and probably a power-house).
Ultimately personality distinguishes vibrant and detailed NPCs from simple mooks. The previous four layers can help to steer towards a disposition that goes along with the rest of the characterization or you can start here and after determining the core personality make the rest of the layers agree with (or disguise) that. Personality feeds into attitudes, reactions and displays of emotion based on the world around the NPCs and towards the PCs. Personality can be conveyed in brief exchanges before combat, inciting comments or during any kind of verbal interaction.
Quips and a nasty comment in the right place in an exchange can convey a lot. When it comes to straight up combat NPC disposition will be reflected in level of aggression and the strategies, techniques, and types of attacks employed. Personality influences weapons and equipment as well. If the character desires attention or is a showboat the level of flash or bling they may wear and how they decorate their gear will be altered from a character that is shy and has no desire to be the center of attention. Personal taste and interests should not be discounted.
The GM can use personality to surprise the players by subverting tropes, the apparent stereotype of an NPC, or be contrary to what is expected for one of their archetype especially through reaction. NPCs should react at least somewhat realistically to the actions or even attitudes put forth by the PCs taking into account what the NPC’s goals are, what they can read about the PCs visually as well as any raw gut feelings, unanalyzed emotional reaction, and disposition they may have. The NPC’s attitudes towards the PCs are also of note as what the NPC has experienced outside of the players’ purview can influence their opinion of the PCs or how they treat them.
Another tool that should be used sparingly if at all is personality quirks but an obvious quirk or tick can overpower an NPC’s other qualities and may become their singular defining characteristic. For the most part quirks, not to be confused with habits, have the effect of creating a character that has been set up from the start to be a one-trick pony. Obviously, this is not the best idea for long term NPCs but can help to single out a character that may only appear once or in a limited capacity in which case it will be their only memorable characteristic.
However, this can lead to gimmick personalities which are essentially a form of bad stereotyping. A gimmick personality is where all of the character’s actions and reactions revolve around their quirks or a single unique personality trait diminishing them to an unchangeable monolith rendering them utterly predictable. Quirks should be used sparingly and reserved for one-shots unless somehow the quirk isn’t so obvious, subtlety is required for use with recurring NPCs.
Habits and Vices
Habits and vices, unlike quirks, alter character behavior adding to personality depth. A habit is a behavior that the character will participate in as a matter of usual business with some regularity, the most obsessive types of which you could set a clock to. Some habits are dictated by occupation such as a clerk opening a store at around the same time every morning but the primary concern in regards to NPC’s are personal habits.
These are the habits NPCs have acquired in order to make their lives easier, out of a sense of security, addiction, or tradition. Personal habits at times are dependent on the character’s vices as well. Vices are behaviors the character participates in willingly for personal pleasure. Keep in mind that an NPC will carry the artifacts of their habits and vices as personal items.
Names, most NPCs don’t call for them unless of course the PCs ask and as unpredictable as players can be you can never be quite sure when they’ll ask. So it is wise to have a list on hand so you can name NPCs on the fly being sure to cross off the used names so as not to have multiple instances of the same name which to be fair is probable it’s just confusing to the players during gameplay. Also do not dismiss the use of nicknames which can be easier to remember in some cases.
Note that nicknames are given by friends, family (often terms of endearment that can be embarrassing to the so-named NPC and a potential source of humor), associates, and contacts reflecting the character’s background to some degree. With nicknames the NPC’s behavior and occupation/profession will definitely come into play in the naming not discounting a specific incident that may lie in the characters past. Nobody lives in a vacuum and neither do the NPCs. They will have relationships with other NPC’s enmeshing them in a web that represents the social portion of the in-game world.
GMs have several options when it comes to the relationships of NPCs and the strength of those bonds. Family relationships include relatives, parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, children, friends and partners being the most common and at the very least they may have comrades that could miss them when they’re gone. Relationships are dependent on a character’s background but instead of writing out a complete background the GM can simply make a list of connections between NPCs and organizations referring to it during gameplay.
All non-player characters serve a purpose in the game determined by the GM. They, as fictional characters, have no actual agency or motivation but to be believable they need to have an in-game reason to be doing to what the GM has set them. NPC motivation is often simple such as a service to appetite, revenge, greed etc.; for most NPCs there’s really no reason to go any further. Those that are higher in the hierarchy however should have some goals set for them taking into account their personality and contacts.
These types of NPCs, those with goals, should display some agency in that they take the steps to get the metaphorical ball rolling by starting rumors, setting out bait, paying off the right individuals, or carrying out what they see as the proper action at the right time. The more goals an NPC has the more they should be fleshed out as the more present they will be in the campaign.
The GM must decide, often fairly quickly, what an NPC is willing to SACRIFICE in the quest to achieve their goals and how strongly their motivation and personality fuel this desire to fulfill these goals. However, usually only specific factors will push an NPC to the ultimate sacrifice. Such as those that are coerced with credible threats; their families will be killed if they do anything other than die in the attempt to succeed in their mission. This can elevate even the most generic mook beyond the Manichean model especially if the players discover this after killing them.
Bringing it all Home
An NPC’s archetype, physicalness, gear and clothing, skills of note & combat style, and general personality are the layers required to build complex and lively NPCs. This five layer strategy assists in generating, and fairly quickly, NPCs with enough detail to easily suit their roles and cover their intended interactions with the PCs while keeping the game interesting and varied as well as deepening the game setting. However, true depth is the result of long-term development arising from interactions and reactions accumulating in player memory (and the GM’s notes).
All characters within a campaign, PCs included (hopefully), grow and deepen with time, the longer they are played the more detail they accrue eventually growing beyond their initial meta-purpose (the reason the GM put them into the game and for which they were initially written). NPCs that the players remember and include in their war-stories is the true measure of success. A completed and fully developed NPC should have several layers, a fresh onion and when that bulb gets diced a few tears, and not just the GM’s, should flow.