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Vibrant NPCs

I ran the first session of my Airship Privateers [1] campaign last night, and I tried a new approach with my NPCs. It’s an Eberron game, and one of the things I find appealing about pulp as a genre is that it’s full of vibrant, broadly-painted characters. So I went with that: I used broad tropes to try to create fairly simple, memorable characters.

This approach was a lot of fun, so I thought I’d share some of the details.

For years, I’ve used an excellent article from Dragon Magazine, “The Seven-Sentence NPC” (issue #184), as the basis for quickly sketching NPCs. In a nutshell, it outlines a method of describing all of the most important things about a character in seven sentences — history, appearance, knowledge, mannerisms and so forth. And it works well, giving you vivid NPCs rather quickly, and in a format that’s quite easy to reference during play.

For this campaign, the PCs are part of the crew of an elemental-powered airship — which means that the rest of the crew will be a major part of the game. With nine NPCs to keep track of (captain, first mate, chaplain, three artillerists, craftswoman, cook and loader), I wanted them to be easy to remember, distinct from each other, fun for me to play — and most importantly, fun for the players to interact with.

With only one session in the can, I don’t know for sure how well the players liked the NPCs; I could tell that they enjoyed some of them, though, and there’s plenty more time for development in future sessions. What I do know is that the overall approach — pulpy, broadly-sketched characters who’d be at home in, say, and Indiana Jones movie — was interesting to me, and it felt right for the game.

That said, this is just one approach out of many, and it’s not one that would work for every game. No surprise, Roleplaying Tips [2] has lots of advice on this topic: “Practical Methods For Making Your NPCs Come Alive [3],” “Designing NPCs: 6 Miscellaneous Tips [4]” and “5 Ways to Make Your NPCs Better & More Memorable [5],” among others.

There’s a tip in “Designing NPCs” that I find particularly intriguing, partly because I’ve been planning to give it a try on a smaller scale: let someone else run each of your NPCs at least once.

I heard something similar from Luke Crane (creator of the Burning Wheel [6] RPG, and an amazing GM) while playing in an event he ran at last year’s GenCon Indy. Chatting with the table during a break, he mentioned a previous session where the party had split up, and instead of letting half of the players sit idle, he asked, “Who wants to play some goblins?”

That’s a brilliant idea, whether done in the short run (playing monsters for a single encounter) or over the longer term, along the lines of the RPTips article. And the SSNPC method would be perfect for this: you could hand a player those seven sentences (minus any GM secrets), and they’d have a good idea of where to start and where they might like to go with their portrayal. I can’t wait to give this a try in my game!

What tricks and techniques do you use to create memorable NPCs for your games? Have you ever handed the reins to a player — and if so, how did it go? And perhaps most interesting from a theory standpoint, how are the ways that you create NPCs tied to the kind of game that you’re running?

2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Vibrant NPCs"

#1 Comment By Abulia On August 1, 2005 @ 11:16 am

After running Star Trek for so many years, making NPCs has become something of old hat for me. I mean, when you literally have the “cast of thousands” at your fingertips, in close proximity to the characters, the dynamic of an NPC takes on new meaning. Mostly, that there’s nothing wrong with being “normal.”

Many articles, including this one, espouse on how to make “memorable NPCs” that “stand out” in your games. But, honestly, how many people do you know in your day-to-day activities that “stand out?” Most people are, on the surface, “normal.” Yet we have games overflowing with one-eyed pirates, stuttering spellcasters, half-drow with skin conditions, etc, all in an effort to make them memorable and stand out from the crowd.

Stick a clown in a circus and you’ll have a hard time spotting the clown. Stick that same clown in the middle of a shopping mall and you’ll spot him fairly quickly. Meaning, if you want a memorable NPC, consider the backdrop.

Personally, my focus has always been on making a handful of key NPCs with strong goals, motivations, and personality, versus the myriad of descriptors to make them stand out. Lately I’ve been making use of color. (Tease: I plan on writing about that in the future)

Different games also call for different needs. Consider the NPC requirements for D&D versus Buffy.

That’s a brilliant idea…

Um, not particularly new, but okay. =)

I can’t wait to give this a try in my game!

Careful. There’s being nimble to accommodate the unforeseen splitting up of the party and then there’s just messing with things to try a “cool concept.” As an example, I’d have little interest in running a seven sentence NPC over my own character that I’ve agonized and worked on for nearly two months, all things being equal. Also, D&D requires a level of meta-gaming that seven sentences wouldn’t cover. (“What feats does this guy have?” “What are my skills?” “What items/resources do I have to draw from?”)

#2 Comment By Martin On August 1, 2005 @ 10:20 pm

(Don) As an example, I’d have little interest in running a seven sentence NPC over my own character that I’ve agonized and worked on for nearly two months, all things being equal. Also, D&D requires a level of meta-gaming that seven sentences wouldn’t cover. (“What feats does this guy have?” “What are my skills?” “What items/resources do I have to draw from?”)

Agreed! I’m not thinking of saying, “Okay, tonight everyone is playing NPCs. Here you go, seven sentences — run with that!” More along the lines of at times when, for example, one PC is not involved, and the other two are doing something with an NPC. That would be a perfect moment to step in and play that NPC, and if was, say, a social situation you really wouldn’t need the stats.

I know it’s not a new idea, but that’s one of the things I like about gaming: there’s so much out there that one person’s old hat is another person’s shiny new experience — I had never heard that proposed before Luke’s game. 😉