NPCs in Character Driven Play

No matter what system you’re playing, NPCs make things come to life. Some of my favorite advice for creating NPCs comes from Dogs in the Vineyard, which encourages you to create passionate NPCs [via some specific prompts and guidelines], then encourages you to have them strive to accomplish their goals. They’re driven people, so what they do–whether good, short sighted, or villainous– is sure to draw the PCs’ involvement.

Fundamental concepts for character driven play are developed in The Art of Consequences. Character focused play was also an ongoing theme of Roleplay DNA’s first five episode season. Episode 5, Chasing Deadlands, explores the process of building a world from PC backgrounds, with many GM characters joining the plot from back-stories–even spontaneously generated back-stories.

Players appreciate characters and situations that they had a hand in creating. You prevent “wasted background” regret, since you’re bringing their efforts into the game, and you generate immediate buy-in from the player who created the character for you. Character backgrounds come in many forms: sprawling character background fiction, bullet points of key events in a character’s life, or everything in between. Some of the most important elements a GM can draw from backgrounds are NPCs.


Encourage players to create useful NPCs for you by asking for them directly. (Other good methods include combing their back story fiction, discussing their character’s training and writing down NPCs who emerge, or running a prelude.) One great tool/format for NPC requests is the 3x3x3. I first encountered the 3x3x3 (pdf), when preparing for a Serenity game–the linked file was the original source I found.

The above 3x3x3 asks your players to generate nine NPCs for you: three allies, three contacts, and three rivals. As the coversheet describes, each player is providing you, the GM, at least nine character hooks. That’s a lot of interaction and great tie-ins that your players have provided. For a generic version of the 3x3x3 in .doc format, I’ve attached 3x3x3.doc to this article.

Now What?

Once your players submit the 3x3x3s, you’ve got a bunch of NPCs who relate to the player characters.

  • Start by reading them. Fortunately it’s a quick format, so we can skim them quickly.
  • Identify overlap. Are there any characters on one person’s 3x3x3 that sound similar to another player’s? Put them on a short list for merging.
  • Merge common characters.Where NPCs overlap, consider rewriting the two characters as aspects of one character. Often this will require some adjustment: it’s very unlikely that your players came up with the exact same description, race, etc. Identify the disparate elements and see if there’s a way to make them both true. Where that’s not possible, draw on elements from each. Be sure to consider NPCs in different categories. When one PC’s ally is another’s rival, that makes for great characterization.
  • Review their NPCs for setting. If an NPC doesn’t fit its culture, discuss the culture with the player. If elves are deadly terrified of the sea and your player submits a pirate elf, bring it up with the player. Find out if they were intentionally subverting the sterotype, were unaware of it, or perhaps are interested in convincing you to change elves in the setting. This is a great time to discuss it–particularly with a specific character as an example.
  • Review NPCs for fit. If you merged or altered characters, let each player know how their writeup was affected. Hopefully, they’ll take your interest as a positive sign. Just be careful not to modify away the elements that excited them–or restore them, when possible, if they are disappointed by the changes. (For more on changing backstory characters, see Whose Character is it Anyway?)
  • Select NPCs. Identify which NPCs excite you at the moment; try to select at least one from each player’s sheet. Look at your initial location: which NPCs are in the region? From the NPC pool of exciting and local characters, look at the current story arc (if any) and see which prewritten characters you can substitute with provided NPCs.
  • Deploy NPCs. Don’t cram all of the NPCs that you selected into the first session. Players will often find ways to call upon allies and contacts if it’s at all plausible– though a prompt (like “you remember Old Henry wanders these hills in the fall”) is often useful if someone’s neglecting an that NPC you developed. Introduce the NPCs one or two per session until everyone has at least one backstory NPC with screen time.
  • Review background NPCs frequently. When the PCs move to another town, see if their path takes them through a region where they might face someone from their background. If they remain static, review the 3x3x3 sheets every few sessions–one of their NPCs might travel to the PCs’ location.

A D&D example:

Anna Starsmith [Ally] Rebecca the Reiver [Rival] Anna “the Reiver” [Merged]
Anna, the elven master bladesmith, is Erréun’s brightest star. She forges the blades that are presented to each of the wild guard on their promotion to lieutenant; few blades are forged for outsiders. Thickly muscled (for an elf), Anna’s brows have been burnt off by her smithing and her skin is reddened by constant exposure to the forge. – Bandit Queen
– Raids caravans
– Attacked the caravan I escorted to town
– Long green braided hair
– Fought a tense duel with my PC, who barely turned back her attacks, while her raiders killed several fellow guards at my sides. We finally drove them back when the city guard arrived.
Anna, the honored bladesmith of Erréun, enjoyed prestige and respect for decades. She equipped the wild guard with peerless blades until five years, when ago her hometown was overrun by a dark druid. The druid wiped out the elven town one bloody, horrific, night. Only the unbanked fires of her forge drove his twisted servants away long enough for her to gather the children and clan elders and flee. The humans of Estwich turned her ragged refugee party away; afterwards the clan elders refused all food so they clan could continue in their children. Anna now masks herself and leads the eldest children in daring bandit raids to keep what remains of her clan alive.

Developing NPCs from 3x3x3

Your players gave you a great starting point, but particularly in character driven games, you’ll want to add more detail to the NPCs. Sometimes their short story or bullet points are a perfect prompt: reading their description, you want to develop the character. Other times, the NPC will be an enigma–why did the abbot befriend the duke’s son anyway?

When you want to add more depth to an NPC, there are lots of techniques you can employ. The Deep as a Puddle series has some solutions, a thousand faces arise to serve you, or putting them on a timeline might make them feel realistically self-directed. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, draw a conflict web relating them.

Interesting Tangents for Character Driven Play:

A list of experiences that each player wants to see in the campaign can provide a great events to include in your game. Martin introduces the concept in PC Backgrounds as a Roadmap.

In response to Walt’s homework article, Ostof introduced an interesting variation on the 3x3x3:

I ask that they submit a modified 3x3x3 sheet, where-in they tell me 3 things they want to see their character develop, 3 things the other characters don’t know about their character, 3 things their own character doesn’t know about themselves, and a couple others.

In Your Games

Are you great at turning your players’ NPC contributions into vibrant characters at the table? Do you write exciting NPCs into your backstories but your GM never uses them? Perhaps your GM is always changing your NPCs’ backstory? If you have questions, tips, or feedback, I’d love to hear from you in comments.