Session 2: Creating NPCs Episode.021

The old man is hunched over his book, decades of wear on his back gives him a permanent curvature of the spine.  A few puffs from his pipe before resting it on the table to turn the giant page.  He has always shown calm in his actions, yet deep inside he constantly is tortured and hammered with anxiety, stress, and obsession over his work.  A lifetime of following adventurers around the world in hopes they might stumble upon this tome he now has resting on his table has removed handfuls of years off of his life, but he doesn’t care.  To him, the long years and sleepless nights were worth it as the words on each page pour into his soul.  These are the words that will bring the world to its knees.  He knows his motivation is cliché, but he doesn’t mind.  Long has it been since the world found the utopia his mind has concocted.  And it shall be so.

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I feel NPCs are challenging to a lot of GMs.  When you are the players in an RPG, you have a single character to develop.  You take the character under your wing and nurture him into something memorable.  Your focus is on that individual and what lies ahead for just him.  When you are a GM, you have short-lived, temporary characters and long-term more permanent characters…and potentially a lot of them.  You’re required to bring life into hopefully every NPC the players come across because, well, they are supposed to be living, breathing entities within the game world.  Even if the players are casually talking to a pig farmer on the side of the road about an army he saw 2 days east of here, that pig farmer has a life and history, albeit less interesting than the players’.  Just as if you chat with a stranger at some restaurant, everyone has some kind of a personality, even if they don’t seem to have a personality.  GMs are expected to bring life into everyone, make them non-clone-like, and give them character.  Without this, the role playing portion of an RPG would become stale and static.  There would be no flair in dialogue.  But creating a bunch of NPCs is a bit of tedious work.

THE INITIAL LIST OF NPCS FOR THE ROAMING LIGHTHOUSE

When we last left off, the lighthouse structure was more or less completed and documented, and even some of the concepts of who dwelled within and the general outlining plot were thought of.  But in order for a GM to be able to pick up this document, glance at it in 5-10 minutes, and be ready to roll smoothly, the document needs to have a list of NPCs with a bit more than stat blocks.  Here is who could potentially be in this scenario.  We might weed out some of them in the end.

  • Vipros, ancient red dragon
  • Hrothgar Bennington, blacksmith
  • Kasandra Lonefellow, tailor
  • Jyk Thorne, glassblower
  • Nicodemus, summoner
  • Wizholme, sage
  • Bartholomew Blackbeard, lighthouse keeper
  • Various Cavern Citizens
  • Various Ghost Citizens

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This gives a rounded selection of individuals who can be interacted with in some form or another whether that be violent or peaceful.  The next step is to give them all some kind of life.  In the previous article, I explained that a GM really should not need a novella-length description of any NPC.  Ever.  Two pages for an NPC is simply more information than someone is going to retain or utilized in the game.  Essentially an NPC should have motivation, personality, and any quirks or special behaviors.  You can’t expect to write down how the NPC would react to every situation.  Instead given a well described personality and motivation, they can react to any situation appropriately.  If there is a significant background story for a major NPC that is going to be around for more than one battle, then that should be included in the background portion of the document along with the rest of the plot.  I see a lot of redundancy in modules where by the time I reach the NPC section to read their info, I already know why the character is doing what he’s doing that pertains to the story.  The rest is either fluff or filler.

If the character is a non-threatening NPC, someone the players will role play and not roll play with, then there’s really no need for a stat block, even a small one.  I know some companies insist on keeping every single Tom, Dick and Harry flowing with continuity to their layout guidelines, but it’s totally unnecessary.  No XP, no HP, no level.  Nothing.  You don’t even need to put their alignment because that should be clear in their description.  Case in point, Hrothgar, the blacksmith.

Hrothgar Bennington [Dwarf, Legendary Blacksmith]

Motivation or Life Goal: Creation of the perfect weapon made only through the fires of a dragon.

Personality: Hrothgar is always in a great mood while working, but if he is ever interrupted for any reason, even for news of a family member’s death, he will become short and cranky with whoever caused the interruption.  That’s not to say he won’t appreciate some coin in his pocket selling his wares; he just won’t show appreciation for it.  He’s greedy and selfish and spends each day perfecting his near-perfect art of metalwork in the hopes of one day creating the perfect weapon.  He was granted ten year access to the Forever Fiery Fountain after winning King Jeroff’s tournament, creating an unbreakable sword, which he is in his 9th year.  He wears one of the three rings that unlock the secret cellar door located on the fountain’s base, but he will only give it up for the right price or if granted longer access to the fountain.  Vipros is the only one to grant such a gift.  Hrothar despises the other vendors, especially the annoying Kasandra and generally ignores them all.  Although he won’t admit it, he has a weakness for kittens.

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And there’s a paragraph that easily gives the GM something to chew on with ease of remembering without any numbers to crunch or complex story backgrounds.  Granted, he is not a major NPC, but he does have a history that is briefly mentioned in the block.  Although some inexperienced GMs need to be given information in order to get a good understanding of how to run a particular adventure, they still are a GM, which requires them to ad lib portions of the story sooner or later.  Give them a little bit of information here and there, such as him winning a tournament by making an unbreakable sword, and let the GM run with it and make it his own.  Now let’s try one that may be needed for combat: Vipros, the ancient red dragon.

Currently, the dragon is set to be simply campaign-endingly big.  He would take legendary weapons and armor, and he would be able to take a lot of damage before falling.  It would be a huge event, perhaps something that would affect the entire kingdom and not just the community of people in the cave.  Nevertheless, he is a dragon, and players like killing them.  So off we go:

Vipros [Ancient Red Dragon]

[HP: 700][AC 43]

Motivation or Life Goal: Collection of wealth, finding amusement, keeping everything in the lighthouse a secret

Personality: Vipros is purely evil and highly intelligent.  One of the oldest living beings known in the world, he has witnessed firsthand nearly every war, catastrophic event, or major change.  His wealth in knowledge is seemingly unending as he has such a strong mind that he has never forgotten anything he has either learned or observed.  He doesn’t enjoy riddles or puzzles, but he does enjoy learning something he doesn’t already know, which can be used to any player’s advantage.  Currently his amusement is fulfilled by tormenting the fellow villagers of the cavern community, Neishek, by occasionally flying overhead to provide much needed light for their crops to grow.  Although magically enhanced to grow at an accelerated rate, they require a few minutes of light, which only comes from the lighthouse on Vipros’ back.  He avoids combat whenever possible as very little can challenge him.  When in battle, however, despite his size he is ferocious and agile.  When he uses his breath weapon, the fountain in the lighthouse will burst up the tube at an alarming speed, sending a beam-like trail of fire from his back.

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Vipros might need some stats, and depending on what system you are using, some GMs will need more, some less.  Some prefer to give special abilities such as invisibility, damage reduction, etc., to the creature.  Every GM is different in preference, and if you want a detailed stat block, go for it.  If I am running a Pathfinder game, which I would cringe at the combat for an ancient dragon, I would most likely extend the stats with his attack bonus and damage, but that is it.  I don’t need to really give him too many abilities because he already has the traditional aspects of a dragon: some claws, some teeth, a tail, and maybe some wings if I am in a bad mood with the players.  But I ultimately try to keep things as light as I can get away with so that combat flows more smoothly.  Refer to Mastering as Game Master: Efficient Combat Timeframe Episode.002 for more information on getting through combat quicker.  In the meantime, here are the last of the NPCs listed above:

Kasandra Lonefellow [Dwarf, Seamstress]

Motivation or Life Goal: Find her lost mother, create something for every person she meets, see Hrothgar smile.

Personality: Kasandra is cheerful and talkative to a fault.  Her stall is beside Hrothgar because she has a crush on him that she blatantly tells him daily among a million other things.  She loves to hum melodies her mother used to sing to her, and her voice is beautiful and can be heard as high as the 2nd floor.  Her prices are surprisingly low for what she makes as she has the ability to create magical items that border legendary artifacts.  She’s always willing to tell anyone about her mother and that she last saw her when she was a child on a caravan to the Myrtle Clan, which are her kinfolk.  She believes her mother is still alive and that she was captured by beastmen near the hidden entrance to the clan at the base of Gilamonroe Mountain.  She wears a ring, but it is not one of the three that will open the fountain door although she is not aware of this.  It resembles one of the runes, however, and the others will keep her believing it works by mixing it with the others.  Her favorite color is blue, and she likes to click her teeth when she is nervous.

Jyk Thorne [Elf, Glassblower]

Motivation or Life Goal: His human wife is rapidly dying from his long-living perspective, and he wishes to create a special glass heart that will contain the fire of Vipros, which he has been told by Nicodemus will extend her life exponentially.

Personality:  Jyk clings onto optimism, but his eyes betray his true turmoil of doubt that grows larger everyday he fails at constructing the heart.  He has always been a businessman and enjoys making a few coins from his wares, which are usually quite high in both value and quality.  However, there is always hesitation in his voice when he knows he is losing precious time working towards his wife’s cure.  He is best known for making glass containers that can withstand extreme temperatures, but he can make virtually any shape or form given the right amount of time.  He will often subconsciously whistle in elven harmony with Kasandra as he works.  He doesn’t trust anyone but Kasandra in the lighthouse as he can read deeper motives within each other their eyes.  Most of this is chocked up to paranoia that was caused when he first arrived and had to work so close to a dragon he knows is evil.

Nicodemus [Tiefling, Summoner]

Motivation or Life Goal:  To become a true summoner and not rely on trinkets to do his work.  Ultimately he would like to learn how to capture creatures and have the ability to summon them whenever he desired.

Personality: Nicodemus is two faced.  The outside projects a charismatic, often jovial, attitude towards anyone he meets, but his true desire is conniving and deceitful.  He cares nothing of selling his magical pictures to buyers.  In fact, he would rather keep them for himself, but he knows the demand is exceedingly high, so he prices them astronomically.  He always pretends to be happy to aid another, and he is often playing head games with the other vendors as he grows bored often in the lighthouse.  Out of all those living in the building, he is the only one there against his own free will.  Wizholme, the sage, summoned and enslaved Nicodemus years ago when he was caught attempting to summon the sage.  Nicodemus is the only living creature who discovered Wizholme’s true identity and attempted to summon him for his own bidding only to have it backfire as the old sage was more powerful than he anticipated.  The other vendors, especially Kasandra, snicker whenever Wizholme calls downstairs to demand he join him in the library as they know Nicodemus always has to go despite his scowl.  Nicodemus enjoys salmon and only eats fish.

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Wizholme [Unknown, Sage]

Motivation or Life Goal: Little is known of this creature down to what it actually is.  Secretly, he is a powerful demon, challenging demi-god-like, and he thrives on seeking knowledge.  He has no true morals and disregards any significant alteration to life, time, or space if his acquired wealth of knowledge always expands.  He most recently is interested in the death of Lenora, goddess of night, who vanished from existence and any awareness of the other gods.  Bartholomew Blackbeard was especially keen on communicating with her, and Wizholme considered him one of his only true friends.

Personality: Nothing pleases Wizholme greater than knowledge.  He doesn’t need to eat or sleep.  His eyes are heavily covered in thick, white eyebrows, and his mouth is hidden from a goatee that trails down to the floor.  Indeed it is difficult to identify what Wizholme really is.  He doesn’t care about anyone but a very select few.  He uses anyone without a second thought.  He’s brash, almost arrogant though his demeanor is subtle and calm.  It compares to the moment before a storm without the storm ever approaching.  He never shows happiness, but he revels at mocking Nicodemus for meaningless tasks.  Incapable of addiction, he obsessively takes opium.  When confronted or challenged, he will present riddles and puzzles before answering.  One particular riddle’s answer is the title of a trigger book in the library that opens the 2nd floor above.  He won’t hesitate to send those foolish enough on wild goose chases in exchange for an answer or bit of knowledge.

Bartholomew Blackbeard [Human Ghost, Lighthouse Keeper]

Motivation or Life Goal: Communicate with Lenora, goddess of night.

Personality:  Bartholomew has long since passed away after a long life of hopeless romanticism and sadness.  His heart was filled with love of a deity he never truly knew.  Each night, he would gaze upon the stars she created and concoct his own image of the goddess.  He spent years, most of his life in fact, pouring over charts and maps from all over the world in hopes of locating a magical artifact called the Pinpoint Sunrise, which was said to communicate with anyone at any point in time.  His hopes was to thank the goddess for her creation and profess his love for her.  He is a kind man and would stop his research to always do his job in maintaining the lighthouse.  However, the numerous ships trapped in bottles in the cellar are a result of his neglect from time to time over the years, which accumulated to a considerable amount.  He giggles instead of laughing and always holds his large belly when doing so.  He’s always looking for the pencil behind his ear to make markings and notes on maps despite being a ghost.  He is always happy to talk about Lenora, but his perception is skewed and exaggerated to any holy scholar’s account.

Various Neishek Citizens [Cavern People]

These simple humanoid people are rather small in size standing between 18 and 24 inches tall with rotund bodies and faces.  They can be traced back to relating to dwarves and orcs, prior to their split in race.  They are essentially the “leftover” portion of the original race having much of the good genes going to either the dwarves or orcs.  What was left was excellent labors and knowledge in basic survival.  They developed vegetation that has accelerated growth that requires very limited sunlight.  Their lives depend on Vipros flying through to provide the illumination from his lighthouse.  Vipros destroyed all fungi that grew on the walls and floor of the cavern that fueled the plants prior to his arrival.  They are such a nice race they have never shown signs of negativity, malice, or hatred from anyone including Vipros.  Instead they use excuses to blame for the bad luck or ill fate that might befall them.

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At this point, I have obviously written far more than I initially set out to do because some ideas I liked came to mind.  However, a big bulk of this will need to be condensed in order to fit the one page goal I set out to accomplish earlier.  The rest of this can be added to a supplemental appendix if necessary, or, yes, you could just make a 2nd page.  However, I feel this is a sufficient amount of information to compile with the earlier structure segment and the next installment consisting of the plots, which will have one major idea and a few minor side notions players could investigate such as Bartholomew’s obsession.

I stripped the descriptions down to very minimal, yet the NPCs still took up an entire page.  So I removed the description of the cave people, who I called the Neishek.  I also removed Kasandra because her cheerful, good natured heart didn’t fit the rest of the vendors or the sage.  The entire atmosphere of the lighthouse is more somber with so many deceitful and evil creatures.  As a result, the three vendors will each have a ring instead of the false 4th.

These one-page exercises can be equally as challenging to those who have no trouble thinking of ideas for their game much like how a short story demands each word to be carefully chosen in order to make an efficient, concise document.  But by this point, after having created the building and fleshed out the NPCs, the plot should basically already have been written and just requires a little cleanup.  We’ll find out in the final session in this 3-part mini-blog series.  Meanwhile, here is the final layout we have so far with included NPCs:

The Roaming Lighthouse

HISTORY

This lighthouse was once a part of the seaport city Cascade, but when the ancient red dragon Vipros completely leveled the community, a stroke of luck left the lighthouse suck against his thick scales and now resides upon his back.  Over the years, his scales conformed around the base of the structure, solidifying it even more where it is a part of his body.

DESCRIPTION

Standing 60’-0” tall, its base reaches 75’-0” across and tapers to 15’-0” at the top floor.  It is double-walled so the outer wall rotates every ten minutes, allowing entry for a few seconds.  There are four floors total with a hidden wine cellar below.  The ground floor contains a small market with several vendors.  A blacksmith, a glassblower, and a summoner (described further below).  The first floor contains an extensive library, spanning 50’-0” across and hosted by a sage who enjoys challenging riddles and puzzles for those seeking knowledge.  Only by means of moving a specific book will open the circular doorway in the ceiling to the third floor, which contains a mischievous portal.  This portal’s sister end randomly changes locations from one extreme location to another and requires a key to access that end.  The rest of the room is filled with star charts and nautical maps with various locations marked.  These were used by the original keeper in search of a great artifact used to communicate with deities.  The top floor’s light source is from a fountain on the ground floor that is filled with dragon’s fire and rises through a tube to gently spout into collecting trays.  A reflective disk provides the directional illumination.  This fire is used among the vendors in creating their powerful magic.  By inserting three rings from the vendors into the fountain, a hidden doorway grants access to the wine cellar, which each contain actual ships that wrecked years ago.  Uncorking releases the ship in working order with a crew, but it scales proportionately to the nearest water source.

NPCs

Hrothgar Bennington [Dwarf, Legendary Blacksmith]

Motivation or Life Goal: Creation of the perfect weapon made only through the fires of a dragon.

Personality: Happy when working, disgruntled when interrupted.  Annoyed by the other vendors.  Obsessed on the perfect weapon.  He has a secret weakness for kittens.

Vipros [Ancient Red Dragon]

Motivation or Life Goal: Collection of wealth, finding amusement, keeping everything in the lighthouse a secret.

Personality: Highly intelligent, insanely evil.  His knowledge is almost endless and unforgettable.  Torments the Keishek for amusement.  Extremely agile.  Hates riddles.  Loves learning the unknown.

Jyk Thorne [Elf, Glassblower]

Motivation or Life Goal: Create a magical glass heart to save his dying human wife.

Personality:  Optimistic with hidden doubt.  Huge heart.  Enjoys whistling harmonically.  Paranoid about others.  Hesitant to stop his construction of the heart but will always happily do so.

Nicodemus [Tiefling, Summoner]

Motivation or Life Goal:  Capture and summon any creature at will.

Personality: Two-faced, charismatic, jovial, conniving, deceitful.  Hates Wizholme for enslaving him.  Scowls when summoned.  Only eats fish; loves salmon.  Enjoys playing head games.  Easily bored.

Wizholme [Unknown, Sage]

Motivation or Life Goal: Obtain all truths by any means.

Personality: No morals, evil.  Unknown race.  Demi-god-like demon.  Opium obssesion.  Timeless.  Enjoys riddles/puzzles and sending people on wild goose chases.  Brash, almost arrogant, subtle and calm.

Bartholomew Blackbeard [Human Ghost, Lighthouse Keeper]

Motivation or Life Goal: Communicate with Lenora, goddess of night.

Personality:  Giggles with hands on his belly.  Neglects duties searching for the Pinpoint Sunrise so he can talk to Lenora.  Hopeless romantic.  Delusional in love with goddess.  Loses the pencil behind his ear.

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Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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