I’m not a trained actor. I’ve never taken an acting class. I don’t even really have any talent for acting. But I love playing characters, and one of my favorite things as a GM is playing all the different NPCs that the players interact with. 

For instance, there are these intelligent Kobolds I use in my games sometimes. The Seven Talons of the Raging Inferno. They trained together for years and are field agents for a dragon who sends them on missions. Thing is, in their years training together they’ve come to care about each other. That means when they’re in a battle they get angry, sad, scared, and talk to each other as things happen. And if one of them falls the rest move to cover them. When they retreat they don’t leave anyone behind. They’re a family to each other which means they’re not just monsters to kill. When they’re in an encounter I’ve put together, it really puts a unique tone to how things play out.

But the real question is, Why does this matter? 

Because it gives me something to play off of beyond the standard, “They’re monsters for the players to kill.” I could have the kobolds snarl, or bark if you prefer the dog versions, but it’s not what I’m looking to get out of my game. If you’re also looking for something a little more from the characters you’re portraying, I hope the following will help.

My NPC Creator Checklist

This is my short list I think about when building out NPCs

  • I start with a name and a short descriptor that tells what function this character has in the setting.
    • Harper Coin, an arms dealer

It’s simple and tells me a little about the character at a glance

  • I like to know what they want
    • To make money

This is an easy to understand motivation which I can play towards.

  • I then desire to know what they need
    • To have a happy family life

What a NPC needs is a little bit more about the character’s subtext. It gives me something to think about when portraying an NPC. This could be insight to what’s actually important to them, a thought about what they’re missing out on in their life, or something else I’ll think of as the conversation is happening with the PCs. In the end it gives me options for how I might want to portray the NPC when they’re in an encounter.

  • Give them three descriptors. 
    • Rotund, charming smile, missing part of their right ear

The first two I tend to make more common, while the third descriptor I look for something a little more quirky or memorable. It just helps create a quick picture of the character while leaving a lot of space for the PCs to fill in the blanks. 

  • If you have time, give them a quote.
    • “ You won’t find fairer prices anywhere else. Plus you can feel better about putting your enemies into the ground since your purchase will be helping me put my Darcy into a good school. And next time you come back I’ll give ya the house discount. I’ll even throw in this explosive.”

I try to keep the quotes to two or three sentences. I find they help tie together the stuff I’ve already written down, add a little more depth to the NPC, and help remind me of their voice when I start portraying them.

Together, these pieces give you something a little deeper to play with at the table than just a name with a weird quirk. Don’t get me wrong. I love the utility of the quirk and a name to make a quick NPC, but even when I’m improvising at the table I will often work through this checklist, jotting down notes, as I’m interacting with the PCs.

I also find that for NPCs that persist in games for longer than a scene, just having these few ideas helps me play them with a sense of agency. They have wants and needs. Most of us have wants and needs. It’s easy for us to relate to. It also was one of the ways I realized I could get players to stop treating NPCs like props to be used to further their adventures. Helped make the setting feel a little more like a living breathing place and not just a location for the PCs adventures to take place in.

I do have to say I hope you noticed I never mentioned doing a voice or wearing a prop or anything like you might have seen on Critical Role or Dimension 20. I enjoy those shows and the entertainment they provide, but to portray NPCs that have a place in the world, feel unique, and are easy to remember, I find this checklist works for me.

Last thing. The ideas here are developed from the idea of Want vs Need in a variety of storytelling instructional ideology, and Jason Cordova’s Carved from Brindlewood games and 7-3-1 technique. Here’s a pretty good summary of the Want vs Need for a character.

  • Want: something your character desires, because they believe it’ll improve their happiness.
  • Need: the lesson they need to learn to overcome their inner struggle and achieve true happiness.

Read the blog it’s from here.

I hope you’ll give this a try, and if you have any thoughts or tips for how you make NPCs that you find easy and fun to play at your tables you’ll share them with us. Also, here’s the checklist one more time:

  • A name with a short descriptor about their function in the setting
  • A want
  • A need
  • Three physical descriptors
  • A quote