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The 7-Sentence NPC: A Tool Worth Tracking Down

Way back in 1992, Dragon Magazine #184 featured an article by C.M. Cline entitled “The 7-Sentence NPC,” and it’s by far one of the best GMing tools I’ve ever used. I mentioned it in 2005’s Vibrant NPCs [1] here on TT, but I thought it deserved a post of its own.

The basic concept is that you can use a seven-sentence template to describe nearly any NPC — and although it appeared in Dragon, it’s not limited to fantasy characters by any means. Each sentence covers a specific aspect of the NPC, from appearance to memorable quirks, and the end product is both remarkably detailed and simple enough to reference on the fly.

I’ve used this technique for years, and found that it gives me everything I need (except stats, of course) for minor to significant NPCs, and lays a good foundation for major NPCs, who usually need a bit more expansion. And best of all from a prep standpoint, it only takes a few minutes to write up an NPC this way.

So what’s the catch? It’s from 15 years ago, and unfortunately it’s not available in PDF. On the upside, though, it is available in a few different forms: Paizo sells issue #184 for $15 [2], which, while expensive, I’d say is worth it just for this article; it’s included in the recent Dragon Compendium, Volume 1 hardcover, which you can probably find online for less than its $40 cover price; and of course it’s in the Dragon Magazine Archive CD set, which is sadly long out of print.

The good news is that the seven sentence topics themselves can be found online: Critical Hit [3] member Titania posted a summary of the article [4]. It’s missing the nuances and examples for obvious legal reasons, but there’s enough there to give you a good idea of what the SSNPC concept is all about.

My apologies for talking up a GMing resource that’s neither cheap nor easy to find, but I figured that highlighting this article for GMs who haven’t heard of it before outweighed the potential frustration — it really is that good.

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#1 Comment By VV_GM On July 16, 2007 @ 9:08 am

This a good approach to NPC design! I’ll have to see if I can find a copy of the actual article. I’ve used similar approaches in the past and like these kind of structured methods. Titania’s post is a pretty good summary I suspect.

#2 Comment By brcarl On July 16, 2007 @ 11:01 am

I think the summary list over at cilibrin.net also makes a good list for players to consider when initially developing their PCs.

As for NPCs, one area that the list is lacking is a focus on why the PCs would care to interact with this NPC. Granted, a lot of the items could end up involving The Hook, and I would guess that the original article probably mentions this, also.

#3 Comment By steve On July 16, 2007 @ 11:08 am

It also reappeared in the dragon compendium.

I like to add ray winniger’s every major Npc as a hidden 8th sentance.

#4 Comment By Heather On July 16, 2007 @ 11:19 am

Sometimes you have to talk up a resource even when it’s tough to find, just because it’s that good. Besides, occasionally when enough people do that, it gets made available again due to demand. So you never know…

#5 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On July 16, 2007 @ 12:17 pm

Finding this article might be as simple as asking around your circle of friends. You never know who has old back issues or an archive set…

#6 Comment By Steve \\\\\\\\ On July 16, 2007 @ 8:21 pm

the 8th Sentance is the Npc’ secret

i think the conflitc should be inherent in the other 7 sentences someplace, either in his history, in his employment, in his utility and even in his secret.

#7 Comment By Cliff Nickerson (kaelbane) On July 17, 2007 @ 9:34 am

I tried to check out the Critical Hit link, but the only thing that’s there is a message saying I’ve been banned. I’ve never even been to the site before…

#8 Comment By Martin On July 17, 2007 @ 10:17 am

Cliff: That’s weird. Maybe they banned your IP, and that overly broad ban is also blocking you.

Have you tried Googling the link and hitting Google’s cache instead? (Not sure if that will work, but it sounds like it might.)

#9 Comment By Millsy On July 17, 2007 @ 10:52 am

Excellent! I remember that article, from back in the day, and how much I used to use it! Writing an adventure in them days involved me sat at my PC with whatever rule system I was running and that issue of Dragon.

An indispensible article! Now I’ll have to turn my parent’s house upside down next time I visit to find it! Curse you!

#10 Comment By Martin On July 17, 2007 @ 4:53 pm

That was my sinister plan all along, Millsy — to send beelyuns of GMs down to their basements, looking for the box labeled “Dragons, 1990-1995.” 😉

#11 Comment By Steve \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ On July 17, 2007 @ 8:44 pm

lol I scanned it a long time ago and put in on makeshift DM biblle.

#12 Comment By dar On July 18, 2007 @ 8:47 pm

ooohhh! Steve, what else would be in said bible?!?!