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Introducing NPCs

An excerpt from NPC Essentials

By Johnn Four

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 NPC introductions.

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.

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.

Use Foreshadowing

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.

Use Contrast

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 example:

  • 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- player character.

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 include:

  • 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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