An excerpt from NPC Essentials
By Johnn Four
Movies and good novels leave nothing to chance when it comes
to introducing characters in the plot to the viewer or
reader. We are storytellers as well. If there's any benefit
or strategy for NPC introductions to improve our games then
we should leave no stone unturned.
There are many benefits from doing a little advance planning
and keeping an eye out for opportunities. For example, while
you're GMing a session you might spot a good time to
introduce a character for better effect than your plans
called for so you seize the moment. If you've created a Cast
of Characters, then you might want to run through it after
reading this section and plan out a few important
introductions. Sense of disbelief. If the PCs are always
meeting new characters at the exact moment when the NPCs
need or want something, stories and encounters become a
little stale. Good planning can prevent this by letting you
introduce NPCs when they're in "normal" mode.
Preventing deus ex machina. This Latin phrase means, among
other things, "an unexpected or improbable character who has
been suddenly introduced to resolve a situation". If a high
level NPC shows up just as the last PC falls in combat, the
players will be raising their eyebrows, though probably
cheering. But, if the PCs have never seen or heard of this
savior character before, they'll also probably lose all
respect for the adventure.
Dramatic effect. It's possible to increase the drama and
improve the roleplaying aspect of your game with well-timed
Surprise. Any time you can surprise your players is a great
moment for you behind the screen. Clever NPC introductions
can help create these moments for you.
For example, the PCs are hanging around the inn healing up
while you impatiently wait for a week of game time to go by
so you can launch a surprise assassination attempt. During
this waiting period, you spot an opportunity to introduce a
new serving wench who takes a fancy to a couple of the PCs.
A week later, you watch the looks on your player's faces
with delight when that wench, dressed in the garb of a
ninja, draws a pair of deadly swords to attack the PCs in
the middle of the night.
Ok, we know there are great benefits to be gained from
strategic NPC introductions, but how do you pull them off?
Introduce An NPC Before He Becomes Important
This, more than any other technique, adds depth to your
campaigns, increases the players' sense of disbelief and
wonderment, and covers your behind when it comes time to
deploy the NPC. You need to make the players aware of the
NPC's existence before they become important. It could be an
innocent, chance encounter at the market that you mention
off-handedly, an official introduction at a meeting, party,
or ceremony, or even in the middle of an encounter where
some unrelated action is taking place.
Avoid making a special deal out of it, unless you're going
for a specific effect, and keep the game moving onwards. The
goal is to get the PCs to forget all about the NPC but then
suddenly remember him when the time of import arrives.
The Law Of Awe: Time Delay Introductions
The Law of Awe goes as follows: the more important the NPC
and the longer the time between introduction and revelation,
the greater the player awe. This is especially true for
villains and foes when the revelations expose their true
nature or story role to the players. "You mean that gnome we
met months ago has been our secret enemy the whole time?
Amazing! Now it's time to crush that puny menace." 33 NPC
Essentials The amount of awe doubles if you plant a decent
clue during the introduction that could have let players
figure things out for themselves. The clue lets the players
know you really did have it all planned out the whole time
and aren't just making things look that way. The early
introduction gives you credibility, and the clue gives you
even greater credibility.
Time Lapse Introductions
Certain situations can be made more compelling by a series
of short introductions over a period of time that reveal a
slow change in the NPC. For example, your new story involves
a quest to find an anti-dote for an NPC who has been
mysteriously and slowly poisoned over time. Rather than
introducing the character for the first time when the PCs
are summoned to his bedside, you could instead have the NPC
appear in the background a few times in a month as the PCs
travel around town. Each time they see him they notice his
health slowly declining. This should pique the players'
curiosities. When the messenger appears with the summons and
the PCs finally meet the ailing NPC, the impact and
revelation is much greater thanks to a few time lapse
Introductions Are Important: Roleplay At Your Best
Introductions always form a lasting impression. You want to
roleplay the NPC as best you can to form a strong memory in
the players' minds. It's better to roleplay 110% during an
introduction and taper off for the rest of the game than to
do the opposite. If you don't help the players figure out
who the NPC is and what makes them unique in their minds,
then the character will become hazy. It will take great
effort to fix during the rest of the campaign.
Focus On The Differences
During an introduction, you want to give a two dimensional,
over-the-top performance to immediately bring the NPC to
life. Unless the introduction involves an hour-long
roleplaying encounter of some sort, don't try to be subtle.
Let that come into play during future encounters over the
life of the NPC.
Focus on what makes the NPC different from others and
roleplay as many nuances as possible during the
introduction. This is what is meant by "over the top". If
the NPC has a lisp, a pet carnivorous parrot, and is a great
swordsman, bring all of those aspects into play during the
introduction without the scene turning into a circus.
Perhaps the NPC orders the parrot to fetch him a few links
of sausage from a nearby vendor when the PCs meet him. When
the parrot returns a minute later, the character whips out
his sword and slices the sausages in mid-air so that each PC
has a piece. Impressive and memorable! In future encounters,
the parrot stays at home and the sword remains in its
sheath, but the players will always remember and enjoy whom
they're dealing with.
If possible, for major villains and chief adversaries, use
foreshadowing to prime the player characters for the
introduction. For example, in your next story the PCs will
confront an insane priest of the frog god who plans on
turning the whole region into a deadly swamp. Before the PCs
meet or even learn of the frog god and his evil priestly
minion, start planting wandering frog encounters for the PCs
to overcome. Have some beautiful frog ceramics on sale at
the local bazaar, and place a couple of frog shaped gems in
the next treasure pile. Whether these things are pure co-
incidence, fate, or villainous planning, once the PCs meet
the frog priest the introduction will have greater impact.
Contrast is a great GM tool in general. For NPC
introductions it can help create surprised players and
characters! Use contrast during the introduction, and
between the time of introduction and the encounter of
importance, assuming those two events are separated. For
- The warrior who makes the PCs believe he is powerful but who then goes down on the first blow.
- The assassin that's introduced as a cleric of a god of healing.
- The dandy who's dressed in silk clothes but then reveals amazing skills at turning horrid undead.
Major NPCs benefit greatly from contrast. Introduce future
allies as potential villains, and present future villains as
victims or allies. Another form of contrast is give versus
need. The NPC who will probably help the PCs out in the
future could be introduced as a character in need. The
character who is a future rival or adversary could be
introduced as someone who helps the PCs out.
Introduce For Effect
Introduce important NPCs when significant things are
happening in the game or encounter. Unless you're aiming for
a time lapse, delay, or subtle introduction, pick the moment
of introduction carefully to suit the importance of the non-
For example, the PCs are summoned to meet with the King for
the first time. Rather than have the player characters enter
a throne room where the King sits patiently waiting, have
some civil emergency happening, such as a food riot in the
poor quarter. Have the King bellow orders to other powerful
NPCs. Then squeak the PCs into a fast two-minute meeting
where the King speaks with them and assigns them their quest
while doing ten other things at once. Other examples
- Just in time introductions. The NPC arrives just as the PCs can't wait any longer and run to catch their ship.
- Heroic introductions. The PCs arrive only to see the NPC take down a giant single handedly.
- Embarrassing introductions. The characters enter the inn and catch the innkeeper off-guard, necking with the cook.
- Glitzy introductions. The NPC casts Faerie Fire on himself and struts into the council meeting.
Give special consideration, villains, major allies, and
other important characters. Try introducing characters early
on in the story or campaign so that it doesn't seem
contrived when they appear or reveal themselves at a
critical moment. Look to enhance introductions in any way
possible, no matter how minor, to help bring your NPCs to
life and make them compelling to the players. And be sure to
roleplay with everything you've got during an intro.
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