GM Tips: Mastersclass on Writing Interesting NPCs
Updated: Dec 17, 2022
I got an MFA in Creative Writing several years ago - that's actually where I met many of the writers and editors who are part of the HHP creative team - and I've been thinking a lot about what I learned in grad school as I work on Sandbox Adventures. Some of the best advice I got can be used to make interesting NPCs in any tabletop roleplaying game.
"Find the beauty in a hideous character; find the hideousness in a beautiful character,"
~ Sarah Braunstein
To write great NPCs, it's so important to make them dynamic. The best heroes have deep flaws and the best villains have redemptive qualities. Walter White got the short end of the stick his whole life, Joffrey was handsome, and in the end, even Darth Vader loved his children.
"Walk through the fire,"
~ Mike Kimball
If a character doesn't cause tension in your adventure, what is their purpose? Think about the PCs, their values and motivations, and think about how the NPCs can challenge those, even in some small way. What happens when the devil-may-care party takes a job from a Lord who demands respect? A paladin requires help from a jaded atheist? A warlock has to convince a priestess to grant him access to the temple crypts?
"Write characters the way Peyton Manning played football,"
~ Rick Bass
Okay, bear with me on this one. In football, you run the ball to set up the pass and you pass the ball to set up the run. The best NPCs are the ones that surprise the PCs. 5e - and any TTRPG really - is filled with stereotypes and you can use this to your advantage! We all know these common tropes - the damsel in distress, the world-weary bartender wiping mugs with a damp cloth, and the honorable knight who would risk everything for honor and glory. But what happens if the lady in distress is actually a terrified lordling? The bartender is a starry-eyed adventurer wannabe hoping to tagalong? And the knight demands a donation from travelers to help "keep them safe." Be aware of character tropes in fantasy roleplaying games so that you can put a fresh twist on them.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on making great NPCs? Let me know in the comments!
- Shane Collins