“Ok, so next session, my players will be back in town. What will they need…some equipment? Well, time to create some sort of equipment seller. They won’t interact with him for a long time, I think I can get away with not naming him.”
Has this or any variation of this ever occurred to you?
The fact is that each NPC that you bring to life inside your universe is an opportunity to populate it but also to allow interesting interactions between them and your PCs. Thus, the bit above illustrates an approach that, more often than not, can be incomplete when forging a new NPC for your RPG campaign.
There are two sides to any element inside the story you are creating with your players: function (what is their purpose) and appearance (how do they fulfill this purpose). So it seems pretty logical to create your NPCs with this in mind.
When you create an NPC, often it is the first question that you ask yourself: What purpose does this character serve story or gameplay-wise?
It is sometimes obvious: “I need someone to guide my PCs into a new area” or “My PC has a family member in their backstory, I need to create them.”
This is an important matter, as the trigger for NPC creation can often be appearance instead of function: a nice concept, a cool artwork, or an interesting quirk. If the function is not sketched out, then it can either :
- frustrate you as your player won’t have any reason to interact with the NPC, and thus ignore an otherwise great character
- force you to railroad your players into interacting with the NPC again and again, and nobody wants that.
Let’s take a quick example to illustrate this:
In one of my last sessions, the PCs had to infiltrate some kind of enemy lab. So I had to create the employees. There’s no need to flesh all of them out, but my players will definitely interact with some of them. The most important function was a security specialist overseeing the protection of the place: wether the PCs infiltrate and fail or go in gun blazing, they will encounter this NPC. The function here is pretty clear; by being the head of security, the narrative function they fulfill is to antagonize the PCs. Another article will be dedicated to the theme of character function. Basically, antagonistic means that Brady’s purpose is to oppose the PCs and their allies. In this case, being an obstacle in the way of their quiet information gathering and other sneaky shenanigans.
But does that, alone, makes him interesting? Not really!
To summarize, the first step is to ask yourself: “What does this character do, mechanically, inside the narrative?”
However, this question alone is simply not enough to create a fully-fledged NPC, so…
How can we then make an NPC memorable and easily roleplayable? Could we even lay the foundations for an interesting NPC in the long run, no matter its function? Finding a definite answer to this question is gonna take us through a few questions. We’re going to propose a specific order for those questions, but feel free to adapt to your workflow: creating NPCs will be a different process for every GM.
“What makes him unique?”
The more care you put in answering this question, the more the character will be all of those things mentioned above.
For example, how can we make our security specialist more interesting:
The first step is to find a name to assign him. So his name is Brady, that’s easily said, but it’s not enough. I personally also like to find a last name to give him, it can provide us with some room to create a background.
So let’s find a fitting name to give him, preferably something memorable or at least that gives us something to develop. I chose a Finnish name: Brady Heikkinen. It’s always good practice to diversify the origins of the names you use. There’s a wealth of random generators online to help you find inspiration and unique names, callsigns, nicknames, and other aliases for your characters. While giving intricate and realistic names to your characters is a good thing, keep in mind how often your PCs will encounter this specific character and make sure the most prominent ones have memorable and easy to remember names.
Is that enough? Maybe if you don’t need him to talk or interact with your PCs for more than a few sentences. But Brady will be a preponderant character in the session to come, so we need to forge another layer.
That’s when goals come into play. The simplest way to define what makes our NPCs unique is to assign them a core goal: some long term objective that can act as a moral compass and guide our NPC’s decisions. From this objective will emerge two crucial information that will guide us when roleplaying this specific NPC: its negotiable and non-negotiable desires. Non-negotiable desires are important but non-critical to the accomplishment of the NPC’s goal. The character gives them a lot of importance but will ultimately be willing to sacrifice them to reach their objective. Non-negotiable desires, on the other hand, are so deeply tied to our NPC’s nature, goals, and mentality that they’ll never compromise when it comes to them.
Back to Brady, our dear security staff: let’s reflect on his core motivation(s) and desires.
We can also take into account the theme we want to instill in the campaign (maybe another post on this subject will be available at some point).
Let’s take the theme of “artificial heavens”: maybe he used to be some kind of addict, but he almost died because of it and is now super straight edge. In this case, we can imagine a core goal that revolves around being the best self he can be. As non-negotiable desires, we can throw in “always being in control of himself” and “climbing the corporate ladder.” Negotiable desires could be “help others better themselves” and “protecting the facility”: why the latter? Because Brady’s non-negotiable corporate ambition isn’t tied to its current employer. Offer him a strong enough promise for a high ranking position somewhere else, and he might just switch side.
How does this show
Now that your character has a concept that is less bare than just “security guy,” you can determine how those core goals and desires show in roleplay. We can imagine him having some kind of relapse syndrome when stressed, scratching, twitching, or any other withdrawal symptom. But when he is in control, instead of rewarding himself with an alcoholic beverage, he’ll catch some weird soda that only he can drink. Defining the personality of our newly created character allows us to remain coherent. We can roleplay the ‘clean’ Brady knowing what he values, what he likes, and what he aims to achieve.
As a last layer, it can also be useful to give the character one or two little quirks that seem to be fitting with its background and core concept. The NPC concept will bleed through its behavior, and Brady’s relapses will give an impression to the players. It’ll give your player something to build from if they want to interact with him.
What about the long run? If the PCs want to interact with him further, we created hooks to incorporate the NPC into your story in a more regular manner and easily build some character development. Maybe our Brady relapses so hard that he goes on a bender, or maybe he sees in one the PCs a reflection of what he could have become? But this is a subject for another day.
Please note that you don’t need to go through all the steps described above for every NPCs you create for your campaigns. If you don’t expect players to interact more than once with an NPC, a first name and a quirk will definitely do. Should the need arise and players continue to encounter this character, you can go back to the previous questions. You can start wondering what the NPC’s function is precisely and go in-depth regarding the appearance.
It’s also worth mentioning the caveat of nameless NPC, the ones you have to come up on the fly: the villagers, citizens, corporate employees, and every extra. I personally like to have at least some kind of character “drafts” lying around so I can quickly use them when a player interacts with an NPC. This can also mean keeping a few artworks with their associated personality trait or mannerism.
Now you have everything you need to create memorable characters that will behave coherently and be goal-driven. Feel free to share your opinion on this first post and give us some feedback on how you proceed when creating NPCs for your RPG campaign. We’re also interested in hearing about what you’d like to discuss in a future blog post. In the meantime, happy GMing!