John Fiore is a “low-prep” GM and a connoisseur of stuff that makes his life easier. His guest article sold me a set of these little cubes on the spot. Thanks, John!
I wouldn’t have spent a single minute with Caitlin — let alone date her for almost six months — had I known in advance that she was a militant vegan with severe dependency issues and a fondness for Coldplay. Our relationship was, at best, terribly inconvenient for me, and I could have done without the lot of it, most especially that unpleasant evening when she tried to stab me with a fork.
Still, I don’t beat myself up over it too much. I couldn’t have known during that first encounter what Caitlin was really like. When a guy peers over the edge of his laptop and spies a cute girl on the other side of an Internet cafe, he can discern only so much before uttering those initial words of introduction that unwittingly start a giant ball of psycho-crazy rolling across his life. It’s the nature of human interaction and the glorious mystery of it.
To genuinely get to know someone — to meaningfully move beyond a person’s obvious traits and discover the personal and intimate details of his or her life — one must invest time in conversations and activities that encourage familiarity. So it should be, I believe, with NPCs.
Of course, a GM cannot possibly conceive of a richly layered background for every potential NPC that players might encounter. That would be an utterly unreasonable expectation, as unreasonable as — oh, I don’t know — expecting me to still trust you after you lock me in your bathroom for two hours because you think I’m leaving you for another woman when I am actually just going home to feed my cat.
So, a suitable invention strategy is needed to aid a GM’s creation of NPC backstories on the fly. If you’ve got a set of Rory’s Story Cubes and the confidence to create spontaneously, try the following method. It’s fast and fun and works exceedingly well for folks who, like me, are low-prep GMs with high-prep egos.
When the PCs want to get to know a new NPC that you have not prepared, roll all nine Story Cubes and assign a different cube’s image to each of the nine “NPC Backstory Elements” below. Let the context of the adventure’s setting, the PCs’ current situation, and any recent events be your guide, but allow your imagination to interpret the images with wild abandon!
The NPC Backstory Elements are divided into three levels of revelation: Obvious, Personal, and Intimate. The PCs should have to use their abilities, win a few social rolls, or role-play magnificently to acquire all levels of the NPC’s backstory, whether the information proves useful to them or not. Moreover, some details of the NPC’s backstory may be so sensitive that a greater amount of time must pass to earn the NPC’s trust before anything Intimate can be shared, regardless of what the PCs do.
NPC Backstory Elements
OBVIOUS: discerned by clothes, demeanor, and casual conversation.
- The NPC’s role in the world.
- The NPC’s current home or home-base.
- The NPC’s signature/unique talent.
PERSONAL: offered after establishing trust and expressing a similar view of the world.
- The NPC’s special knowledge about others.
- The NPC’s special item/tool/useful possession.
- The NPC’s ally/true allegiance to a group or organization.
INTIMATE: learned only when the NPC is really won over.
- A past experience that has shaped the NPC’s current self.
- A present situation in which the NPC is embroiled.
- A future goal the NPC is hoping to attain.
Here are two examples of NPC backstories generated via the above method:
Example One: Science Fiction NPC
Setting: A gritty, frontier planet on the edge of the civilized galaxy; it has a single city where the lowliest of scoundrels congregate.
Situation: There is a data facility here – a library, of sorts – that contains outlawed materials. The PCs enter the facility to continue seeking answers to their current quest. The GM casually states that there are two or three other beings using the facility at the same time as they are. The PCs surprise the GM by wanting to talk to the nearest one.
Rory’s Story Cubes (Original Set) rolled: bridge over river, five-story building, sheep, person using parachute, mobile phone, sad face, turtle, typical house, eye.
Obvious NPC Backstory Elements
- Role [person using parachute]: By the NPC’s uniform, she is clearly a member of the crew of a Star Cruiser that the PCs knew had recently been destroyed in a nearby space battle earlier in the campaign. She must be one of the few whose escape pods had safely made planet-fall. As such, she won’t be adverse to any assistance the PCs can provide while she and her mates await official safe passage off this world.
- Home [turtle]: The NPC is from a well-known completely shielded planet that serves as an anchor for the Galactic Federation. Here in this unsecured, lawless city, she is obviously ill at ease and feeling constantly vulnerable. Anyone from a similar Galactic Federation planet will be deemed a friend by her very quickly.
- Talent [bridge over river]: The NPC is a technician particularly adept at bypassing data-flow and rearranging AI arrays to disrupt cognition hashes. In other words, she can literally change an AI’s personality in seconds, including populating its memory with false information. She is quite proud of this morally questionable ability and is seeking banned manuals on the subject in the data facility.
Personal NPC Backstory Elements
- Special Knowledge [sheep]: The NPC knows that the Star Cruiser attack was faked by the Galactic Federation to get “survivors” to infiltrate various factions on this frontier world. Appearing as innocents in distress, they hope to collect the intel needed for the Federation to conduct a takeover of the planet’s primary resources.
- Special Item [sad face]: The NPC possesses her own homemade Sad Jack, a magnetic electro-dampener that, when in contact with an unshielded AI, slows its processing, giving it the appearance of being depressed. The AI can still complete its tasks, but its speech interface is slurred and its performance speed is at 50%.
- Important Allegiance [typical house]: The NPC is sympathetic to the Lunar Settlers Movement that the Galactic Federation opposes.
Intimate NPC Backstory Elements
- Past Experience [mobile phone]: As a child, the NPC had little physical contact with her parents, both important Federation delegates. They raised her remotely through computer interfaces and their collection of robots. Her familiarity with AI began then.
- Present Situation [eye]: Although she was trusted to be on this mission, the NPC believes that certain elements within the Federation have her under surveillance, but she has no proof of this. Perhaps it’s true, or perhaps it’s just paranoia stemming from the trust issues she developed from her parents’ absence in her youth.
- Future Goal [five-story building]: The NPC hopes her current technician assignment will lead to advancement within the Federation organization, especially within their high-clearance Artificial Intelligence Division. She has plans for the shape of robots to come.
Example Two: OSR Fantasy Monster
Setting: A dungeon. That’s it.
Situation: The Level 1 PCs randomly encounter a single wandering Hobgoblin. The GM rolls for its reaction on a table and gets “Indifferent.” The GM tells the party that the Hobgoblin grunts at them and continues on its way in another direction. An Elf PC, intrigued, wants to chat up the Hobgoblin.
Rory’s Story Cubes (Voyages Set) rolled: ray gun, raven, steaming bowl of food, rain cloud, treasure chest, spectacles, tyrannosaurus skull & neck bones, monkey, shield.
Obvious NPC Backstory Elements
- Role [shield]: The Hobgoblin is a bodyguard for the Hobgoblin King.
- Home [treasure chest]: The Hobgoblin currently resides on the floor of the Hobgoblin King’s Room of Shiny Things You Get Killed A Lot For Touching.
- Talent [tyrannosaurus skull & neck bones]: The Hobgoblin is known for killing things bigger than he is. The puny PCs’ skulls would not be worth his effort.
Personal NPC Backstory Elements
- Special Knowledge [steaming bowl of food]: The Hobgoblin is also good at cooking things bigger than he is, but he doesn’t readily admit his culinary leanings.
- Special Item [ray gun]: The Hobgoblin possesses a wand that emits a ray of heat which can be regulated by the wielder, permitting precision cooking.
- Important Allegiance [raven]: The Hobgoblin is true to his King, but, with portents of death being issued by their tribe’s shaman every other day, he’d rather not be around the King that much if he can help it. Thus, he often volunteers to “go out and make big food” for his leader, which is what he is trying to do right now.
Intimate NPC Backstory Elements
- Past Experience [rain cloud]: The Hobgoblin once went out on a surface raid during a rain storm and hated being drenched. He fears “sky water” now.
- Present Situation [monkey]: The Hobgoblin is concerned that his enjoyment of cooking will cause his tribe to view him as weak, even though he kills big things so well.
- Future Goal [spectacles]: The Hobgoblin wants to live long enough to eat lots of big things. To be an old, fat Hobgoblin would be a great success!
Of course, the GM could have had the above sample characters go about their business and ignore the PCs, entirely avoiding the need for any sort of backstory development. That would be perfectly appropriate if it helps to move the game along.
This NPC background invention strategy is merely offered to invite the option of random creativity into sessions and to give another tool to the GM who wants to be ready for anything. Alternatively, the same method could be used before a session to help design unique NPCs that a GM would never have been able to conceive of without an inspirational nudge.
Try this out a few times on your own to see what you get, and feel free to modify the NPC Backstory Elements to suit your campaign. Hopefully, this method will add surprises, cool characters, and convenience to your games.