Keeping Up Appearances: Making Memorable NPCs

By on 3 March 2014

As I mentioned in my previous article, giving the players characters things to interact with and care about can be one of the biggest keystones in deciding the motives and actions of your players in the world you’ve designed with them.

But after the list of people they know is made and a general relationship with them is noted it takes you; the game master; to animate them and breathe life into their roles in the world. Generally it’s never a difficult task to make an NPC talk and react to the adventurers but when you’ve designed a massive world filled with hundreds of faces, it helps the players to feel at home with a few familiar ones too. This can be achieved with a little amateur writing ability and if you’re good enough; a few voices and accents.

Let’s say that your band of players meets a merchant of some kind, the best way to produce an outlook for this character is to pick a basic emotion for them to constantly have; be it pained deference to the mighty heroes that have been boasting of their tales in a bar or complete adoration for their cause. From there if you decide the merchant will be a reoccurring character you can give him a name, probably give him some contacts the players can use or anything you want them to be.

Keeping Up AppearancesIn my games I usually have a merchant who treats the players like they’re the village idiot, he hikes up the prices boasting that if they are as brilliant as they say they are they can surely afford it. My players absolutely loved this guy, even though he did nothing to help them at all their faces lit up with the grouchy old man voice came on and a wiry “dear gods you fools again?!” spurted from his toothless maw.

Characters like the one noted above take practically no effort to produce whatsoever beyond an inventory of items and a small note saying “old man – hates the players” it just comes to show that even the tiniest of details can add so much. On a side note there, don’t feel silly putting on the voice either, it is at the end of a session all good fun and hopefully the players appreciate the effort and that it adds great depth to the world they’re in.

The same goes for your villains, now we all know orcs are the bandits, goblins are absent minded mischief makers and elves are just reclusive racists with trust issues. But if you choose to have a main villain; an entity that is pulling all the strings in the shadows, it’s always worth taking care in how you portray them to the players.

Villains can come in all shapes and sizes, from colossal demons trying to claw themselves from another dimension to wreak havoc in ours to stoic warlocks that are bent on seeing their vision come to fruition, you must bear in mind that in their eyes, they are the saviours, a good villain is one that doesn’t believe he is the villain. Granted they can be selfish in their motives and desire one goal for themselves but it is always good to build them a history where they lost their path somewhere, their ideals became warped and the lines between what is right and what needs to be done become blurred. When you can design a “bad guy” that the players will try to reason with first before striking, you have succeeded in adding an interesting curve to the villain archetype…or Darth Vader.

About James Grimes

James is writer from Derbyshire and when he's not running games he's writing them. He has spent 3 years running games trying to perfect his craft. Like a reluctant hipster he supports indie games and new systems that people haven't probably heard of but that doesn't jade his opinion of the classics and greats.

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