It has been weeks since you have seen a civilized person as you trek your way across the desert wastelands of Arubina. Your supplies are low, and your navigational instrument is becoming cloudy from exposure of the elements. But the dot that you picked up on the horizon three days ago has definitely formed into a humanoid as it approaches you steadily. There has been no warning shots from the target, and you have no idea if it’s friend or foe. However, something in your gut makes you feel your luck is about to turn as a reflection of the person’s glasses catches your eyes. Finally within range, you show a broaden smile that fills your entire face as the group’s old friend, Masterson, approaches with a canteen in hand and outreached towards you. He smiles and says the gods were guiding him to a place in need and he has arrived. It has been a long time since you all saw him, but great memories come back from when you all were younger and inexperienced adventurers and how he saved your lives more than once.
What I like to call “Roleplaying GMs,” that is those who lean more heavily to RP than combat, thrive on NPCs. I consider myself one as it is the only time I am able to enjoy role playing. So when I make NPCs that I create to last more than a brief encounter, I put as much work into them as the players put into their characters. What’s more enjoyable is when you make an NPC the players not only remember but brighten up when they encounter them. That’s when you know you’ve done your job on making a memorable NPC. But what does it take?
Well personality goes a long way as Jules says in Pulp Fiction. Whether they are liked or disliked, if they have an interesting aura about them, they capture our attentions better. Instead of tavern owner being just friendly to the party, he personally flips over patrons onto tables who are misbehaving or tries not to pay their bill. He could have minor magical powers such as levitation that allows him to float glasses and plates of food across the room. He could be acrobatic and handwalk trays on his feet to the table. Perhaps his background involved assassinations that he seldom talks about (or boasts about) that everyone knows. These things give an NPC more life and attraction to want to know more.
Another area to consider is motivation. If he is just someone passing through with no particular reason other than getting to another city, well then he will be soon forgotten. Make the NPC a merchant who collects and sells puppets, some of which are magically enchanted to perform basic tasks. Being a traveling merchant with that kind of uniqueness to his business would make a lasting impression on the players. You can occasionally keep the thought of a favorable NPC on their minds by showing signs or hear of their presence in recent past traveling through the area. Having them see a puppet carrying a tray of food in a tavern in some distant land brings the merchant back to the player’s minds, gives them an understanding of the merchant’s expansive territory, and also creates a more believable/alive world for your campaign.
If you have a villain, or just an all-around jerk, consider what drives them. They might have multiple motives besides the grand scheme of things. Instead of just being hell bent on dominating the world, perhaps they have a desire to find a seat in a council committee in order to promote a change in city laws. Another option would be for a jerk attitude ruffian to constantly wish for a party member to look bad or screw up in an effort to provoke him. What he does isn’t illegal and would constitute the party member going to jail if acted upon violently. Having an annoying character show up at the worst times to cause issues can still be a memorable NPC even though they aren’t favorable. If you can make the players groan and grit their teeth when they run into the same ruffian 3 months of actual play time later, you have definitely done your job well on creating a solid, believable NPC.
Perhaps the NPC has an unique ability; perhaps they are mysterious. A lone traveler they run into every once in a while who gives cryptic words of wisdom that eventually makes sense when future events occur could be someone they remember. Complete the mystery and lock in the memorable feature by making the figure have an unusual appearance. The traveler has ram horns that are a part of his skull but is not a demon. Or have someone always wear a mask but never talk about why or what he’s covering up. The element of wonder will usually keep their thoughts on the subject for quite a while. They might have the ability to teleport short distances at will. Perhaps the individual is a talented illusionist who always alters the appearance of reality when present. In fact, the players would automatically begin recognizing his work if their environment suddenly shifts without warning before he makes an appearance. Again, you have successfully created a good NPC if telltale signs or initial warnings remind them of the NPC without the NPC being there.
It may come to the party enjoying the company of the NPC for a while, feeling reassured because of something they can do or the talents the NPC possesses. Having a sharp shooter with you, knowing their eyes are better than yours, makes for a less stressful moment as you travel through the forest, knowing that you’re being hunted by something. In moments of desperation or dread, when all hope is lost and the fate of the party seems to be doomed, the sight of an old friend in the form of an NPC can make the actual players breathe a sigh of relief at the gaming table.
When the NPCs become close to the players, when the party thrives off their presence, and when they treat the being as if they were a part of the team, you can really utilize the situation for more flavorful moments. Put the NPC in harm’s way to get a reaction out of the party, often making them act in haste, which creates mistakes sometimes that the GM can take advantage of. Rushing into a dark room when they hear their NPC friend cry for help can lead to their demise or the trap you wanted them to fall into. As I mentioned in Episode 40, “Never Surrender!”, having that NPC relationship can aid in persuading the players to surrender a battle rather than fight to the death if the NPC is in jeopardy by the opposition. They can be used to spark an adventure by having the NPC fall to a disease and needing a remedy that is difficult to obtain.
When you build up a nice library of NPCs, it will probably be wise to have a small document with notes of each to keep track of them. Make notes of how the party interacts with them, especially if they make a request or do something special that might lead to the NPC changing in some way or needing to do a task for them. Have NPCs interact with other NPCs that are favorable both in passing and at separate timelines to bring more life to your world. One NPC mentioning they saw another pass by not long ago will make your players feel like they are in a living, breathing world again. Things are happening elsewhere, throughout the world while they continue on their journey. Treat your NPCs like you would that fresh, new character you roll up as a player, and enjoy the involvement the party takes in them.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.