Conflict makes characters interesting, and creates roleplaying opportunities.
This principle can be tweaked slightly and applied to NPC design, where it becomes the Conflict Rule: Every NPC who isn’t just there for color needs a conflict.
Note that in both variations of this rule, the NPC’s conflict can be internal, external or both. Examples of internal conflicts include temptation, clashes of values, justified or unjustified hatred, past wrongs and the like. External conflicts generally involve enemies — rivals, the oppressive government, feuding families, open warfare, etc.
Here’s the Conflict Rule for minor NPCs:
If an NPC is going to be involved in more than one scene, that NPC’s background needs to include a conflict that could involve the PCs.
For example: In a mystery-themed modern campaign, the party sometimes turns to a corrupt cop to acquire inside information on the targets of their investigations. This cop has recently been fingered by Internal Affairs, and is now reluctant to help the PCs.
The next time they go to her for information, she — and by extension, you, the GM — will be faced with several choices: help the party and risk her job, refuse to help, demand more money or perhaps even ask them to get IA off her back somehow.
This conflict involves the PCs, but not in a major way — the cop has no beef with them, nor any real personal connection to the party. At the same time, it opens up roleplaying opportunities for you and for your players, and resolving this conflict could be the kernel of an adventure.
For more significant NPCs, the Conflict Rule changes somewhat:
If an NPC will be an integral part of the campaign, that NPC’s background should include a conflict that explictly involves one or more PCs.
For example: Twisting the first example slightly, now the corrupt cop is related to one of the PCs (everything else stays the same). Let’s also assume that what the PCs have been doing with her information isn’t entirely legal, and that it falls under the purview of another branch of the police department. IA has told the cop that if she can hand the troubled branch a big arrest (in this case, the PCs), they’ll back off and drop their investigation.
Now her conflict has been heightened: she wants to help her family, but also doesn’t want to lose her job — and she has an incentive to not only say no to the party the next time they need help, but to actually turn them in to the police.
This is a juicy roleplaying situation for everyone involved, but most particularly for you (as you get to roleplay the cop’s internal conflict, and decide on the fly how she would handle the situation) and the player who she’s related to (who is suddenly faced with one and possibly two very unpleasant surprises).
However that conflict gets resolved, the game will be different afterwards. There’s no sure course for either the party or the NPC, and that makes for a fun situation to play out during the game.
Improvising with the Conflict Rule
The Conflict Rule also makes a useful shortcut when creating NPCs on the fly. If you’re forced to create an NPC at the spur of the moment, start with his conflict. (You’ll need an idea of his appearance and at least one personality trait, too.) You might be surprised how many things flow from that initial decision — just ask yourself “What is this NPC’s conflict?” and then run with the first thing you think of.
Once you know the NPC’s conflict, you’ll start getting ideas for how to roleplay his interactions with the PCs, what his mannerisms are and so forth. And if you come up with a really juicy conflict for a minor NPC, you might find that it transforms him into a major NPC, taking the game in a new direction.
What do you think of the Conlflict Rule? Do you apply a similar principle when designing NPCs?