So often on the show I Dungeon Master for (Howreroll), People comment on the Non Player Characters or NPC’s that I create and introduce. I get asked questions about why they feel so “Real” or what is my process for making great NPC’s. Well this article is going to cover just that.
So first lets take a look at the potential role of an NPC. while the term means NON player character, it is important to understand that it is STILL a character, but one that is going to be played by the Dungeon Master, rather than a player. The NPC may have a variety of jobs, from being a quest giver, a protagonist, an allies or something else. We must first realize the importance of the role and the level of interaction the NPC is going to be expected to achieve, as this will define the level of depth that is required in creating him.
If the NPC is a simple distraction, designed to be a one of and short encounter, then you may not need as much depth and background for him than one that is going to be a reoccurring character. That being said, one thing I have learned over decades of play is that just because you envision your NPC as being nothing more than a passing encounter, it does not mean you players will. Due to this I tend to always create a level of depth with each and every NPC I create, because I just do not know how the players are going to choose to interact with him.
So where do we begin.
Well firstly I begin much like anyone would, creating a Player Character. I decide on Race, sex, character class (if they have one) or give them a job or roll in society if it is applicable. This all goes without saying, but then I sit down and start to make notes. I decide what I want this NPC to be to the Player Characters. And how I expect him to interact. I also determine the desired tone of the encounter, and how I expect him to be perceived. You will notice I used worlds like desired and expect. Well that is because no matter what I (the Dungeon Master) decide, the players may think and act differently than I expect.
At the start of creating my “Wrath of The Fallen” campaign, I had a dilemma on how to bring a group of selfish and dubious characters together. Part of achieving this was to introduce an NPC, that would help facilitate the creation of a bond within the group. I am going to use this NPC as my example herein.
What Role do I want this NPC to fill? Well as I mentioned I need to bring a group of Player Characters together and give them a reason to learn to trust one another (at least to some degree) and begin to form a bond. This being the task my NPC is going to be a facilitator. He is going to introduce the idea of trust to the Players, and provide them an environment to cooperate.
So I begin with a few basic facts.
The character is going to be on a tropical Island. The Players are going to find themselves washed ashore on this island after a ship wreck. I want him to feel native to the area, yet not be a native of this particular island, so I decide he will be from another island not to far away. The island our players will find themselves upon is inhabited by a tribe of Cannibals, but he is not one of them.
In my head I begin by trying to visualize an appearance for my new NPC. I decide as he is from a tropical climate he is to have tanned skin. I choose to go with a Human male for race and sex, and thinking that his life would be one of hunting, fishing and gathering (his role in his tribe), and thus he would probably be fit and athletic. I decide he will be bald, and probably has some kind of tribal markings. Maybe he is an experienced tracker and hunter. Experience suggests he has been performing this role for a while, so I decide he should have a scar or two on his body to suggest this. Maybe the scars were attained from retaliating creatures he had hunted, when he allowed his guard to slip and paid the price. I imagine his tribe are slightly shorter than the typical Human on the mainland so He is going to be about five foot seven (tall for his tribe).
How I have an image of my NPC, I decide upon a name. I shall call him Awadie.
Now what is Awadies story.
Awadie (as we already decided) comes from a near by Island. maybe a few miles away from the island we will be using as a setting for the start of the campaign. On his island Awadie belonged to a small native tribe, that fished as a primary source of food, but also hunted the creatures on the island. Being that it is a smallish island, they only killed a few animals to compliment their seafood diet, and even then probably used every piece of the animal so as not to waste anything. This idea means Awadie has a level of respect for nature. Awadie was experienced but capable so lets say he is thirty three years of age.
Now the Cannibals on our Campaign island are savage and probably had a disregard for nature. They have strip mined many of their natural resources, so began to look for other food sources. This lead to them attacking other tribes on nearby islands, and taking them back to be eaten! Awadie and some of his tribe were victims of one of these raids, so this explains how Awadie will come to be on the island when our Players arrive.
Now I need to explain and develop Awadies current personality and emotional state, as well as his motivations and goals for when the players encounter him.
Obviously Awadie can not have been eaten, so I decide due to a fortuitous situation, Awadie was able to escape his captors. I want Awadie to be fearful of the Cannibals, so I decide before he escaped, he was subjected to the horror of watching friends and family being boiled alive and eaten by his captors. Awadie was pursued by the Cannibals but being a skilled tracker and hunter, he was able to evade them. Due to the island being small, evading them long term would be a problem, so eventually (as Awadie ran on one occasion from some pursuers), He dove from a cliff and into rock filled waters bellow. His would be captors assumed he had met his demise. Now Awadie would look for a way to get off the island, but he is terrified of the Cannibals. Not because he is a coward, but because of the horrors he associates with them, and the fact he has been hunted pray for a good while.
With these things being the case, he would clearly be a little skeptical of strangers and fearful of being discovered by the island natives. I want Awadie to know the island well as he will become kind of a guide for the players so I decide he has been here many months. He has been hiding in a small cave during the day, far from the Cannibals village, and coming out at night to hunt. Once he learned the typical habits of the natives, he may have gotten a little braver and ventured out carefully sometimes during the day on parts of the island far from the tribe. He also may have begun to fashion a boat in order to escape, and maybe combed beaches for anything that may wash up that he could use.
I intend Awadie to provide the players with an opportunity to escape escape the island, but not until they have had a few experiences that bring them together. Awadies boat will work nicely for this but why wouldn’t Awadie have used it? Well Awadie is driven a little mad with fear, paranoia and loneliness over his many months on the island. He has on occasion thought he is hearing voices. In his primitive and simplistic mind, he may associate that with something spiritual. Tie that to the fact that while Awadie wants to escape the island, he really has no safe place to go, and he begins to fashion an idea that maybe the spirits are trying to tell him something, and that he can only hear them on this island. In his odd way of reasoning, he decides (for mental and spiritual reasons) to reside himself to staying on the island.
Now enter the players.
So when they meet Awadie he will be cautious and wary, but at the same time once he sees the players are not a direct threat to him, he may welcome some people who are not the Cannibals. He will understand their desire to get off the island, and while he no longer wishes to escape himself he will be sympathetic of their plight. With this being the case he will aid the players, but with some reservation and skepticism.
He will be suspicious at first, but eager for company he will probably open up to them fairly quickly, out of a desire fro company. kind of like a dog that has been cooped up all day and a stranger comes and lets it out.
Going through this process I use circumstance to help shape Awadies personality, and situation to help dictate his actions.
One thing I always do Is ask myself a lot of WHYs. Why is the NPC suspicious? WHY is he able to survive on an island with Cannibals? WHY is he so fearful of the natives? WHY is he willing to help? I try not to decide on anything without a why to back it up. Doing this not only gives justification but adds depth.
If you say the NPC has a scar down his left cheek, you should ask why he has it and how it got there. Do not take it for granted because the odds are a player will ask about it, and you want to have a good answer. If you decide a particular NPC is going to be a giggling idiot, then WHY does he act that way? What caused him to become so inflicted?
It can be important and helpful to develop your NPC’s relationships. Is he a brother, son, father, grandfather etc. What does he do for fun? What kinds of things irritate him? Does he have a weakness for certain things or types of people? Of course you do not need to come up with every single nuance for your NPC, but some basic persona development is most definitely needed to bring him to life.
Some of my NPC’s that were initially intended to be minor plot characters were so embraced by the players and in some cases the viewers of the show, I found myself creating much richer and fuller back stores for them. It is true that you do not necessarily need to a full blown novel of a back story for each and every NPC you create, but you should always have reasons that justify there demeanor, actions, behavior, emotions and outlook on life. Allowing yourself to develop that extra Depth is what creates an NPC that your players (and in our case an audience) can relate too. I have said it before, part of selling your world to your players is to maintain one foot in reality so that there is something relate able. It is also true with your NPC’s. If your players have no way to relate to them, then it is less likely they will bother to interact with them in the way you desire.
One final thing to mention is be willing to allow your NPC’s to change. If the players do things that in reality would and should change the NPC’s outlook then allow it to happen. Make him adaptable. It is way more believable than setting your NPC in stone, and refusing to allow him to grow. For a long term NPC, this is essential if you really want your players to embrace him as a believable entity in their lives.
Now go and make some new imaginary friends =)