A few months ago I started down a path of reducing my prep for games that I run. I named my path of enlightenment: Prep-Lite. In my continuing quest to reach Prep-Lite nirvana, I decided to tackle another time sink in my prep: NPC (or Monster) creation. Along the way I learned some important lessons about NPC’s, and the difference between what players experience, and what GM’s see behind the screen, which ultimately lead to a way to make NPC’s quickly.

The Issue:  NPC Creation Is Not Always Easy

Depending on the game, NPC creation (read: creating the stats) can be labor intensive. On the easy side there is cutting and pasting the stat block of a generic Kobold from the Monster Manual all the way through the creation of a 12/14/6 Bard/Fighter/Rogue, Half-Fiend, Halfling with full magic items, spells, etc.

Over the years, I have played different games that have handled NPC creation differently, from the very complex (D&D 3.x…damn you PrC, templates, etc.), to incredibly simple (Icons). If you are lucky the game you are running makes NPC creation a snap, but if you are running a game that does not have an easy way to stat NPC’s, this activity can become a serious time sink in your game prep.

The Experience Is Not About The Numbers

Being both a GM and a player gave me a 360-degree view on this issue. As I was thinking about the importance of NPC stats as a GM and how the NPC is experienced as a player, I came to a realization, which I think I always knew, but never quite put into words.  It goes something like this…

Players experience an NPC through what they do in the session, and not how they are represented on paper.

In the heat of combat, no one but the GM sees the stats for an NPC. The players experience the NPC based on the GM’s descriptions of it, and it’s actions. When a PC has been hit, the player does not know if the attack bonus is +15 or +30; they only know that they have been hit. Likewise, when a PC takes 20 points of damage, they don’t know if that is from 3d6+2 or 10d10.

What matters to the players is how the GM presents the NPC, and how they make it exciting through their descriptions. So if stat blocks are not the key factor for a cool NPC, then why kill ourselves on the work to create complex or detailed stats? Is there a way we can short cut the stats and focus on the description?  And if so, would that not save us time in prep?

First Enlightenment: Going Green

When I ran my Iron Heroes campaign a few years ago, creating stats for NPC’s, especially Human NPC’s, took a long time. For this one session, I had this NPC that I created for a ship-to-ship fight and the NPC gave the PC’s a real run for their money. Being pressed for time planning a later session, I took that stat block, changed around a few numbers, gave it a different weapon and description, and re-used it. My players never knew. I did that three more times with that same stat block.

So if you are going to take the time to create a complex NPC, don’t make it a one time use.  Be green, and recycle that block. Make a few small changes to the block, like:

  • Change up the weapon…players always remember weapons they are attacked with
  • Change up the special move the NPC uses
  • Change the gender
  • Change the general description

Second Enlightenment: Wireframes and Skins

The recycling idea was not new. People have done it for years, and it was an ok time saver, but I wanted to go further. That got me thinking about video games, especially first person shooters. Video game designers build characters in two parts. The first part is the Wireframe.  This is just the shape of the character: tall, short, muscular, masculine, etc. The second part is the Skin. The skin covers the wireframe, and it becomes the clothes, face, skin, hair, etc. More than one character can have the same wireframe, because the skin differentiates one character from another.

Now porting that into RPG’s, the Wireframe becomes the stat block and the Skin becomes the GM’s description of the NPC. The same stat block could be used over and over, and made into different NPC’s, by altering the description. Some games do this already by providing some general stat blocks for different classes of monsters and allowing the GM to skin them.  Silvervine has tables of stat blocks for different types of opponents, which the GM then can skin to their needs.

Third Enlightenment: Simplify

In order to take this concept to the Prep-Lite level, I pushed this idea one step further. Having tables of stats is nice, but if stats are not key to a good NPC, then how much mechanical detail is needed for an NPC, especially one that is not unique or novel in the game world?  In other words: For a generic guard in a keep, is it important to know that this NPC has a 12 Intelligence and a 14 Charisma, and that he has a +5 Rope Use, and a +6 Craft?

The answer is: It depends on what the guard is doing.  If you are making the NPC from scratch and don’t list Rope Use as a skill, and the guard has to tie someone up, now you have to pull a number from the air during the session (which isn’t the end of the world, but can throw you off your rhythm). Or you can spend more time than you may need, figuring out every skill for this guard. I wanted something where I got the best of both worlds. After some thought, I then decided on a premise:

An NPC is good at the things that his role requires, and less adept at everything else.

Back to the guard at the keep. What does a guard need to be good at, in order to be a good guard?:  perception/listening, to see people sneaking around; a fighting skills, in order to defend something; and fitness, so that he can chase people, etc. Any other stat and skill he has can be considered less important to his role.

Using that premise, NPC’s can be reduced to two attributes: Important and Non-Important, and two skills: Important and Non-Important. This makes a wireframe that can be used for anything.  The role of the NPC will determine what attributes and skills fall into the Important and Non-Important groups. So now a single stat block could be used to describe the city guard, the town sage, the court jester, etc.

Take those attribute and skill groupings, add in some basic combat information: attack bonus, AC, weapon damage. Then list any special abilities and now these wireframes become much quicker to create and manage. Finally, add the proper skin, and my NPC is ready for action.

In Our Next Meditation

In my next article,  I will put my money where my mouth is and show you how I took this concept and applied it to my Corporation campaign to create a set of wireframes, based on experience/threat levels, that allow me to create a variety NPC’s, quickly during prep, and even mid-game.

Until our next session, what are your experiences with NPC creation?  What games make it easy? What games are difficult?  What are your techniques to keep NPC creation down to something manageable?