Making Non-Player Characters (NPCs) on the fly is something every game master has to do. These characters are often there to progress the plot or to do some simple task which makes the players treat NPCs like they don’t matter. Often, this leads to the people who play the NPCs feeling like they are just there for the Player Characters (PCs) to use.
Creating NPCs with depth is vital for ensuring every character in your world feels real. The added depth to an NPC will add a richness to the world. Making everyone the Players interact with feel important in some way.
By taking the time to expand a simple NPC into something with more depth, you help add immersion to the world. The person playing the NPC will feel more valuable and will better be able to play the role. Encouraging the Player Characters to interact with the NPC in a positive and fulfilling manner (for everyone involved.)
Step 1 – Select their three words:
Like when making a Character, select three words that define their personality. These three words will help give direction to the person playing the NPC. It will give them a framework to work within and will add cohesion to the character.
When the NPC is uncertain about an aspect of the character, they can check back with their three words. Using them to see if the choice they are going to make fits with the core of the character. The three words become a quick check for personality, action, and archetype. This is valuable in making the character and the decisions they make feel real.
For the purposes of quick NPC creation, I use a simplified list of words to choose from. Later on, if the NPC becomes reoccurring or more important, I’ll alter their three words to more complex and nuanced versions.
Here is a sampling of words to use to quickly give your NPC a foundation:
Step 2 – Set Three Goals
Goals are important to give a character motivation. From the simple messenger to the pompous politician, goals are a critical part of who they are. Giving an NPC goals will help them engage the players and adds to the story.
I try to give NPCs different three types of goals.
- Plot Goal
This is why they exist. The primary purpose for them going into the game. Do they need to find someone to help them save their family from a monster attack? Are they there to cut a deal to ease political tensions? Whatever it is, it should serve as their primary motivator.
- Personal Goal
Everybody has their own agenda, something they want to do. Give one to the NPC. By having their own personal goals, they’ll feel more real and it will give them something to work toward. It will add depth to them and give them something to connect to the PCs with. This should be something personable if possible. Something that the PCs can easily engage with and relate to.
Does your Knight like to collect old books and is always looking for more? Are they looking for a new squire and have not found any good candidates? Do they need help to figure out the location of their archenemy and coming up with a plan of vengeance?
Is the messenger too shy to ask out their crush and need someone to help them break the ice? Do they dislike running messages all the time and dream of a being a hero, but have no clue how to go about becoming one? What if they lost an important parcel and need help searching for it?
By giving your NPCs personal goals, they’ll have more to talk about and more to work with. It will give them reasons to engage the PCs beyond their plot purpose. The person playing the NPC will also enjoy the added depth and agency.
- Secret Mission / Faction Goal
Most NPCs belong to some kind of group or organization or they have some secret motivations. These groups will have agendas and goals of their own.
If it is a faction goal, they can enlist the PCs in helping in their completion. Does the merchant want to knock off the competition to their guild? Is the captain of the guard struggling to combat the rogues that live in the forest outside of town? Are the Knights trying to train townsfolk to fight and need help making weapons for the armory?
A secret mission/goal will help tie player characters to the NPCs, making them feel like they did something special no one else knew about.
Is the messenger actually an assassin that needs help getting close to a target? Did the baron lose the deed to his lands in a poker game and now he needs help getting it back before anyone else finds out? Does the local mage need candidates for less than legal magical experiments?
Give your NPCs many goals and it will make them feel like they have an elaborate backstory. When the PCs connect with them, you’ll then have a lot to work with.
Step 3 – Give them a quirk:
Nobody is perfect. It’s the imperfections that make a character memorable. By giving your NPCs a quirk, it will help the NPC remember them and make them more interesting to deal with it. It could be a physical trait, a habit, an obsession or many different types of things. As long as it is interesting and adds to the character’s presence.
Can the loremaster not hold his booze and will tell fantastical stories when drunk? Is the blacksmith afraid of birds and won’t go anywhere near them? Will the guardsmen never turn down the opportunity to eat? Does the messenger flinch whenever you mention elves?
A quirk will draw players in and help them engage with the character. It will also help them feel like a complete person. Rather than a quick character with no other purpose than to push a plot ahead.
Turning a boring NPC into an engaging character is easy with these three steps. Adding to the immersion and giving the players and the people playing the NPCs a much more fulfilling experience.
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