It took me some time to get used to the idea of emerging complexity for player character backgrounds and roleplaying elements (which I wrote about in its own article, Player Characters: Emerging Complexity is A-OK), but the concept is one I’ve always embraced as a GM.

In this context, “emerging complexity” is the organic growth of a character from a sketch, or from little more than stats or the kernel of an idea, into a full-fledged personality with a rich set of roleplaying hooks, character traits, and other fun stuff.

Stacked up next to the traditional model of a PC who starts a new campaign with a well-developed background, that can be an unusual approach — but it’s not at all unusual for NPCs. As GMs, we’re constantly called on to develop characters unexpectedly, or with minimal notice — often on the spot.

Those NPCs in particular benefit from having very little lag time between the creative spark that inspired them and the manifestation of that spark in actual play. If you’re like me and you tend to overthink things, sometimes being forced to poop something — anything — out right this hot minute can be exactly what you need to poop out something great.

When it comes to NPCs, there are really only three ways you can develop them:

  • Before game night, in detail. These NPCs are the most like PCs — you put a lot of time and TLC into bringing them to life before the game, and emerging complexity plays less of a role with them than it does with more spontaneous NPCs.
  • Before game night, but lightly sketched-out. Seven-sentence NPCs are a perfect example of this: You have a basic idea of what they’re like, and some specifics to work with, but not much more than that. Emerging complexity works well with sketched-out NPCs, because there’s plenty of room to develop them during play.
  • On the spot. NPCs that spring to life in the moment tend to get a name, a connection to the party, and a distinguishing trait or two — in other words, they’re all but blank slates. This is where emerging complexity really shines, because one of two things generally happens with these characters: either they’re completely forgettable, and are quickly forgotten, or something about them reallt grabs your players, and they express and obvious interest.

That last case — where an NPC you didn’t expect to reference again catches your players’ attention unexpectedly, and they love interacting with her — is a lot of fun. You get to flesh out those NPCs on the fly, and, if you like, develop them more after the session where they’re introduced.

And because your players actively made them a part of the campaign, you automatically have player interest and buy-in for some good roleplaying next time they show up. They can even become recurring allies, foils, villains, or local staples, enriching your campaign much more deeply than originally planned.

If you’re a GM who generally details all of your NPCs down to the last hair follicle weeks before each session, try changing gears. Next session, plan to develop at least one important NPC completely on the fly — or, if 100% improv sounds troubling, sketch out the barest possible outline of that character in advance, but leave huge blanks. Then give emerging complexity a try in play, and see what happens.

On the flipside, if you’re a GM who tends to develop a lot of your NPCs on the fly, try the middle ground: Write up some notes about NPCs who’re likely to come up in the next session, leaving obvious gaps you can fill spontaneously during play. Those gaps, combined with just a little prep beforehand, are fabulous opportunities for in-play creativity.

Just as every PC should be created with opportunities for growth, and with enough flexibility for their players to change how they perceive them organically during play, so should nearly all of your NPCs. That kind of organic growth is always good for your game, regardless of which side of the screen it happens on.

And the best part is that in both cases (PCs and NPCs), it’s a process in which both you and your players participate, building on each others’ ideas and creating something unexpected. In many ways, this is one of my favorite aspects of game mastering — it’s just so enjoyable all around.

How do you use emerging complexity for characters in your own games?