Updated: Dec 17, 2022
When you really distill it as much as possible, the main job of the Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) is to prepare the people, places, and things that the party might encounter. I call this the Prepare Your Nouns approach. By Preparing Your Nouns and just focusing on the physical things the party might discover, you leave the job of the verbs up to the party. That helps to make sure they maintain as much agency and control over the action as possible.
So how do you go about preparing the people - or NPCs - that the party will encounter? How do you make characters that are interesting, surprising, and memorable? And even more anxiety inducing, what if you have to come up with an NPC on the fly - how do you come up with a GREAT NPC is a few moments? Here are the three questions I use to write D&D NPCs for our own adventures. I hope maybe they'll help give you a new tool as you prepare interesting NPCs for your own game.
What does the NPC want?
Okay - this question may not be an Earth-shattering revelation but it is the single most important question to be able to answer to create great NPCs. Is the NPC a business owner looking to turn a profit and take care of her family? An entertainer who craves attention? A deposed noble who will do anything to reclaim his ancestral keep? Once you know what a NPC wants, the next step is to figure out how will they get it?
What is the NPC good at?
Every character has strengths and weaknesses. Are they physically strong? Have a keen strategic business mind? Are they a prodigy with a harp? People know intuitively what they are good at and what they aren't and what they are good at will determine how they try to achieve their goals. A noble who is a skilled swordsman is likely to use physical force and intimidation to get what she wants while a charismatic noble is more likely to use speech craft and persuasion.
What is the NPC's secret?
Is the NPC hiding an addiction? Did they commit a crime for which they are in hiding? Do they have a disfigurement or disability for which they want no one to know? It's also possible that what they want or what they are good at is their secret. Everyone has a secret and know the NPC's secret - however small or seemingly irrelevant - can inform how you roleplay the NPC and make for some truly memorable characters.
NPC Quick Generator
You can use this table if you really need to make interesting NPCs quickly on the fly. Just roll a d10 five times and see what you come up with. Simply use a random name generator - making one for your world's naming scheme is ideal - and you're ready to go.
How do you come up with interesting NPCs on the fly? Let me know in the comments!
- Shane Collins