Game masters often think there is some secret to creating memorable NPCs. They’ll create intense backgrounds, convoluted plans, and long descriptions to try and make memorable NPCs. If you want a memorable NPC to make your players laugh, there are no tricks; you just need to be willing to be silly. Take a deep breath, let go, and have fun. But if you want an NPC that not only makes the game fun but moves the game forward, that is often much harder.
Should I Start with a Backstory?
Short answer: no! Often, the necessary backstory will come out through play, and the needed backstory is often very little. Now, if you want to write a backstory, go ahead, but make sure it serves a purpose beyond character creation. If anything, it should happen after you’ve figured out what purpose they serve in your game and how you want to use them.
The backstory should serve to move a game forward. If you’re creating a backstory for the villain it should help you figure out where to insert foreshadowing, which other NPCs you will need, or how to take down the villain entirely. The backstory of a king the players will meet will flesh out the kingdom’s politics and history. In other words, creating a backstory is fun, but don’t depend on it to create NPCs.
In education, professors tell teachers that children don’t remember what was said, only how it made them feel. This is often the case in rpgs as well. Players may not remember your amazing NPC, but they will remember feeling heroic, shameful, silly, or hopeful. Finding which feeling you need to tap into for a scene can guide you into make an npc.
A good first step towards this is to build some backstory with your players. As you flesh out their backstories you will figure out which npcs you will need, or your players may create them for you. Players may start attached to a particular npc, which you can use later to guide them. This will also give you some idea of what players want from the adventure. Some players want to be silly, while others may want drama. Of course, a good table will always be a mix of both.
When you start your game, keep notes. You can ask another player to keep notes as well. These notes will make call-backs to funny moments, or dramatic ones, easier. When players make a decision that is particularly heroic or horrific, you can create NPCs that call back to these moments. Perhaps a player meets an NPC that was saved by the players. This will reward players emotionally and make them feel as if their actions make a difference. Or, perhaps you have a player that doesn’t make good decisions. Bringing in an NPC who is now an orphan or destitute can bring about great drama for a session, even if the NPC is simple in their description. An NPC built from a player’s own decisions makes the world more alive, and immediately connects them to that NPC.
Building a Purpose
To build a useful, thing of what the NPC wants. If they are a guard, what would a guard want? Is this a guard that cares deeply about keeping his town safe, or does he just want to go home to his family? Is the barmaid looking for tips, or does she just want to scuttle back to the kitchens and away from people? An NPC does not seem some grandiose purpose; they can just be regular people. What an NPC wants will guide how that character will interact with the players.
Second, what purpose does the NPC serve to the campaign, and how does that align with the NPC’s goals? If the purpose is just to be part of the background and flesh out the world a bit, focusing on the clothing or items they have may be more important than a purpose. If an NPC is there to help the players, they could still be somewhat adversarial. The NPC may demand gold or errands before helping the players. NPCs don’t always need to tell the truth either. An NPC will not know everything happening and may give bad information. An NPC may willfully lie to the players for their own ends.
Creating tables of names, personality quirks, and interesting features can speed up making new NPCs like our own NPC Generator. A quick search of NPC creation tables will give you many, many options. Find tables that suit your needs and keep them close. There are websites that will randomly generate NPCs with quirks just for you. Pre-rolling, or pre-generating, to create a few you can insert where needed can also speed up gameplay. If you want to add voices, make a quick note of what kind of voice you used in the case that NPC comes back, or so you know what makes your players laugh.
Near those tables, keep track of the players’ fame or infamy. Players will feel heroic if they’re recognized by NPCs as heroes or shamed if called out for misdeeds. This may change depending on where they are as well. After all, a big city may not care they are heroes, while a small town may be grateful for their presence.
If your players enjoy an NPC you made on the fly, don’t fret. Hold onto this character, and find a use for them. In between sessions, build up why they exist and how they can continue to help (or hinder) the party. Above all, loosen up and have fun. Your NPCs are unlikely to be remembered, but how you made everyone feel will be remembered.
What's your favorite trick for building better NPCs? Let me know in the comments below!