Take a moment to think about your favorite NPC from a game that you GMed.
What made her stand out? Why did your players enjoy him so much? What made her fun to play?
I’d lay even money that at least two of these seven traits came into play.
Not every NPC will have — or should have — all of these traits, but they’re some of the simplest and best ways to make your NPCs stand out.
A Memorable Characteristic
There’s a reason most NPC-related GMing advice suggests giving each of your NPCs one major quirk, idiosyncrasy or behavior that makes them stand out.
That reason is twofold: because it gives your players an easy hook by which to remember the NPC, and because one characteristic is usually enough.
It’s not always enough when the same NPC becomes a recurring part of your campaign, but it’s definitely enough right off the bat. And if you do decide to re-use the NPC (which is nearly always a good idea), you can always introduce other characteristics later on.
A Clear Hook
As a GM, you’re always going to have a lot of balls in the air. The less you have to remember about each ball, the better — which is why giving your NPCs a simple, clear background hook is so useful.
It can be as simple as, “Samwise the city guard hates his commander, and he takes his frustration out on everyone he meets.” That’s not a complicated hook, but it actually tells you quite a bit about Samwise — and you can write it in a single sentence, which means it’ll be pretty easy to remember.
Something That Surprised You (and Your Players)
My favorite NPCs have nearly always started out as improvised characters (sometimes even throwaway characters). In every case, they’ve become favorites because when I came up with them (generally on the spot), I winged it and wound up surprising myself.
For example, in a D&D campaign back in college the PCs visited a sage — nothing unusual there. When they climbed up to his hut, they found a wizened old man covered in what looked like shit, and as payment he demanded a pair of silk stockings. When they gave him the stockings, he rubbed them into his poo-coating and answered their questions.
Did it make any sense? Nope. Did it make him stand out? Yep. All of us remember that random sage, and it’s been ten years since I ran that campaign.
A Connection to One of the PCs
Giving an NPC a connection to one of the PCs is a good way to generate buy-in with your players. It can be a good connection (an ally, a contact) or a bad one (the sorceress who killed your brother, the cop who foiled your last robbery) — either way, it gives at least one (and probably more than one) player an immediate cue as to how their PC will act towards this NPC. And that’s always a good thing.
Something the PCs Need
Giving an NPC something that the PCs want, either as an adventure goal (the mad wizard who guards the dimensional portal) or as a means to an end (the fence who can move the PCs’ stolen goods) automatically puts an “Important!” flag over their heads.
If the party has a confrontation with one of these NPCs, it’ll be intensified by the fact that they have a clear goal in mind. If the NPC plays a recurring role in the game, the PCs will look forward to (or dread) seeing them again.
How easy or hard you make it for the PCs to get what this NPC has that they want will, of course, make all the difference in how they interact with them.
An Irritating Power
Years ago, I played in a fantastic Mage campaign that featured a corrupt cop as a perpetual thorn in the party’s side. I don’t remember much about him, except for one thing: He had a charm power that took Willpower points to resist. And we hated him.
Every time he showed up, the whole group groaned — but in a good way. And every time we interacted with this cop, we got more and more determined to stand up to him, precious Willpower points be damned. This led to lots of memorable encounters.
Right Place, Right Time
This is a tough one to quantify, but sometimes an NPC becomes a favorite because you introduced them at exactly the right moment. Maybe the PCs really needed an ally, or the players themselves just got done cracking up about something.
You can’t build this trait into an NPC and count on it working out well, but over time you can learn to anticipate the right places and right times.
There are lots of ways to make NPCs fun and memorable — what are some of your favorite tricks that you’ve used in your own games?