I ran the first session of my Airship Privateers  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  has lots of advice on this topic: “Practical Methods For Making Your NPCs Come Alive ,” “Designing NPCs: 6 Miscellaneous Tips ” and “5 Ways to Make Your NPCs Better & More Memorable ,” 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  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?