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NPC Stats: Full, Partial or Loose?

I have a theory that when GMs stat out NPCs, those stats tend to fall into three categories:

Which approach — or approaches — do you prefer? Why? And what does that say about your GMing style?

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#1 Comment By jerm On April 9, 2007 @ 8:31 am

Years ago I was solidly in the “Full” category. Now though, I typically use “Loose”, and in some rare cases use “Partial” – mostly when using NPCs that will make use of some special system abilities.

For me, using a “loose” approach frees my time and focus up to concentrate on making the game fun for the players, and not getting bogged down in numbers and statistics.

#2 Comment By Walt C On April 9, 2007 @ 8:59 am

My style has evolved over time. I used to fall somewhere between “loose” and “partial.” I’d often stat only the physical and combat abilities of a guard.

In time, however, I came to realize that it wasn’t fair to the players, who weren’t allowed to “wing it” with their own characters, if I was too fluid with NPCs (especially if I forgot to jot down what I played—Joe NPC was an excellent fighter last week, but only a competent one this week).

Currently, I group my NPCs into “Names” and “Mooks.” Names get full write-ups; they’re the important NPCs. Mooks use generic stats (the Star Wars RPG is great at having a lot of scaled generic NPC stats). If the game I’m running doesn’t have generic stats, I’ll draft some up when necessary and use them for the rest of my campaign.

On a related note, I came up with a shorthand trick in Star Wars. The PCs (whom I inherited, not generated under my guidance) had an average of roughly +2.5 in their stats. When I use the generic NPCs from the book, I pump up all of their stats by 2. If the NPCs are supposed to be more of a challenge, I pump them up by 3 or 4.

Another trick I use for “Name” NPCs in d20 games is the Skill Level option from Unearthed Arcana. It really streamlines the process so that I can crank out NPCs much more quickly.


#3 Comment By Carolina aka Troy Taylor On April 9, 2007 @ 9:19 am

I use fully detailed npc stats — mainly because I know I can’t anticipate every PC action, and I want to be fair and have an npc react as true to its character as possible.

But I seldom fully stat my own stuff. I rip from a variety sources, mainly Dungeon magazine. Building d20 npcs is a hassle. I’d rather use what’s out there first, then alter it as needs be.

#4 Comment By Joe of Obelheim On April 9, 2007 @ 9:22 am

I think the skill level option of game displays an attention to detail for the GM that is welcome. WFRP employs a similar tactic in the bestiary for a host of monsters and other archetypes.

However, NPCs in my campaign tend to begin as PCs (Walt might call them “name” NPCs). If as I’m creating them, something doesn’t seem necessary, I might skip it altogether. This methodology buys me a balance of “name” and “mook” that has not changed over the years.

#5 Comment By VV_GM On April 9, 2007 @ 9:49 am

Lately I have been doing the following: Start with a loose NPC, and have it graduate to a partial or full NPC based on player reactions. If my palyers aren’t interested with an NPC in the first five minutes then why bother statting it out completely? Then again, if the PCs really interact with an NPC I just improved to get part of the story moving then I know my statting it out will be worth the time and effort.

As to what this says about my style? Well I think it goes with my player’s come first attitude as a GM. Get the players heavily involved and react to their input. Once you reach that state you have a big canvas with which to work with.

#6 Comment By Frank Filz On April 9, 2007 @ 9:59 am

My preference is a game system that is simple enough that NPCs can be partially to fully statable. I do also allow for the system to have some differences in how “monster” NPCs are statted. I’m totally cool with AD&D 1e’s monster stats, and will use monsters statted to the full extent allowed for. For PC-like NPCs in AD&D, I will usually use full stats if they will be involved in combat at all. The bartender – he may never have any stats at all.

In Cold Iron, “monsters” theoretically have the same stats as PCs, however, they often only get the stats necessary to determine their combat abilities (however, most of the attributes do play into combat, so are necessary). Even an NPC mage might not have had a charisma stat. I might not always complete the full spell list for a high level mage.

I like how Dogs in the Vinyard handles NPC stats – where the NPC gets no stats until it is involved as the primary NPC in a conflict. And even then, if it’s later involved as a secondary NPC, it gets limited stats (however, even PCs can be involved in a conflict, and their actual stats are irrelevant – they become an “improvised object”).

Ideally, the game system only stats up things that are relevant to the conflicts that are the focus of the game, and as such, NPCs that are involved in conflicts need stats (and should usually be statted out fully – with the game system itself making allowance for generic NPCs or simple statted NPCs). An NPC that just has a bit part shouldn’t need stats at all.


#7 Comment By Copperblade On April 9, 2007 @ 10:48 am

My most “successful” NPCs were always ones that I made on the spur of the moment. They always had the biggest impact on the game, and ended up lasting the longest. So after that, they usually move their way up to Partial/Full over time.

#8 Comment By Jason Gallagher On April 9, 2007 @ 1:16 pm

I use partial stats for anything that effects the outcome of a battle. This includes attacks, armor class, equipment, feats and other special abilities.

When it come to other stats, it is loose. I will adjudicate skill bonuses for minor enemies, deriving their abilities on the fly based on what I know about the NPC.

Major NPC are always fully statted out.

#9 Comment By Brian On April 9, 2007 @ 6:29 pm

If the NPC is going to traveling with the PCs, they get the full-stat treatment. If they’re only going to be met, they’ll start with partial stats, and, if they become a recurring character, I’ll fill them out completely.

But I’m a by-the-seat-of-my-pants GM. If I’m kinda thinking the PCs are going up against hobgoblins, I’ll gin up some generic, partial hobgoblin stats. I also have archives of other stats I’ve made to draw from, as well as a set of generic this-will-challenge-the-PCs partial stats that can be slapped into any NPC and modified to taste.

– Brian

#10 Comment By John Arcadian On April 9, 2007 @ 6:51 pm

I’ve actually just been writing up some stuff about this. Usually when I’m GMing I’ll do it loose, or write out partial. Only for the BBEG, or someone who will be fully recurring or attached to the party do I do full stats.

For a while now I’ve had Enemy levels that are “types” of enemies, and corresponding to challenge levels. They work for on the fly enemies. I’m working on a similiar thing for NPC’s that are non combat. Pretty much what Walt C mentioned from the old west end star wars. It’s always easy to level them up from there to be something more lasting.

#11 Comment By Sarlax On April 9, 2007 @ 8:36 pm

If there’s ever a time that an NPC will need to pull off some tricks, I like complete stats. Fortunately, every game I’ve run (and most that I own) includes enough sample stats to keep me happy.

For the vast majority of NPCs, I can tap into generics or modified specific characters. Although I like character building for either side of the table, it can be time-consuming. Unless the NPC’s role demands unique abilities, I can rely on something that has been already written.

#12 Comment By Walt C On April 10, 2007 @ 4:14 am

Just to be clear, I was referring to the latest (and soon to be outdated) d20 Star Wars. It has a surprisingly extensive number of low, mid, and high level generic NPCs in the corebook (and is expanded upon in other books).


#13 Comment By Mr. Will On April 10, 2007 @ 5:40 am

It all depends upon the system, I think partial is best but more or less partial depending on how crunchy the mechanics are. If the system is a very simple one, why not go full bore on description? Conversely if the system is complex partial will keep the narrative flowing. I am a librarian so loose is not an option for me!

#14 Comment By John Gallagher On April 10, 2007 @ 6:14 am

This is one of many reasons I love the 7th Sea original rules. NPC’s are divided into three categories, Villains, who are completely statted out (usually only one or two for each story), Henchmen, who’s stats are streamlined to the point of taking minutes to create, and Brutes, whose stats boil down to 3 numbers (a threat rating, a damage rating, and how many of them there are). When I’m building most NPC’s these days, especially the ones I expect to have major roles, I concentrate more on personality traits, quirks, descriptions, etc. Brutes get painted with a very broad stroke (from nation X where people are very rude and hot headed). Henchmen and villains get much more detailed descriptions. And it’s surprising how many of the henchmen quickly graduate to villain status when the PC’s interact well with them.

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#16 Comment By Frost On April 10, 2007 @ 10:08 am

I have about 50 “nameless” NPCs fully stated out on initiative cards. I also stat two different “weapon packages” for each NPC. These are sorted by class and level and then given a code number.

I keep a running list of NPCs that includes names, mannerisms, locations, etc., but also associate them with one of the coded cards. If the PCs decide to get into a scuffle with the NPC, I’ll pull the corresponding card. Although the stats on the cards are recycled regularly, the NPCs still have their own personalities.

Every once in a while I’ll will stat out a new NPC taken from an old character sheet or “borrowed” from Dungeon magazine or other d20 source.

#17 Comment By Crazy Jerome On April 10, 2007 @ 11:06 am

I use all three categories, sometimes even in the same encounter. I do this regardless of game system, though I agree with Frank that it is nice when the system supports such categories. (I prefer the support to be inherent, not separate rules for “mooks” or the like.)

With NPCs, I stat what I need, no more no less.

#18 Comment By drow On April 10, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

most NPCs are loosely stated; given a random name, race, class, and perhaps level. if the party ends up in a fight with them, then i’ll estimate combat stats based on class and level, with one or two interesting abilities/feats/items. important NPCs get added to the campaign encyclopaedia for future reference. if i know well ahead of time that the party’s going to end up in a fight with them, i’ll prepare partial stats. no NPC gets full stats unless they’re significant and recurring. and, usually, friendly. unfriendly NPCs tend to get killed, not detailed.

#19 Comment By Martin On April 13, 2007 @ 8:47 pm

Based on your comments so far, the mixed approach — mostly statting as needed — is incredibly common. With that in mind, I wish more games would explicitly support this by dividing NPCs into loose categories, as several folks mentioned.

I’d rather have inbuilt options that let me avoid taking kludgy shortcuts, and it sounds like I’m not alone in that regard. 😉