5 Rules For GMing Awesome NPCs

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1138

I was asked how to spruce up NPCs.

Paraphrasing the question received, “I focus too much on the mechanics. How do I bring my NPCs to life?”

My answer?

Follow these 5 rules and you’ll have killer non-player characters in your campaign in no-time!

Rule 1: Treat Them Like George R.R. Martin

What would GRRM do?

That’s easy:

  • Introduce a lot of them
  • Give them a clear identity
  • Kill them

Try to introduce a new NPC every session.

I contend it’s possible to add an NPC to any encounter.

Any encounter.

I challenge you to come up with a situation in which I cannot add an NPC. Think you can? Just hit reply and I’ll answer with how I’d add an NPC to your encounter.

When you add a constant trickle of NPCs, players do not get overwhelmed.

And you get loads of practice.

Note item two in the GRRM list.

To give NPCs a clear identity add one distinguishing trait.

But not just physical or mental traits.

Give each new NPC a different type of trait than the previous.

Roll for it so no pattern emerges for meta gamers to latch onto.

Here’s a short d10 table:

d10 Types of NPC Traits

  1. Manner of Appearance
  2. Manner of Speech
  3. Manner of Behavior
  4. Mental Trait
  5. Spiritual Trait
  6. Job or Duty
  7. Relationship to PC
  8. Relationship to NPC
  9. Dream or Goal
  10. Story Role

By giving each NPC one notable trait, players file them clearly in their memories and imagination.

By all means build the character out.

But that one trait will remain as a solid memory and roleplay hook.

Rule 2: Be The Straight Man

Tee ’em up and let players hit the home runs.

I don’t know about you, but my inclination is to get the last word in.

It’s been wonderful to break that habit through NPCs.

Nobody likes a person who must always have the final word.

Even if a person doesn’t say anything, they’ll make a face or noise to still get a final statement in.

If you are likewise afflicted, practice with NPCs.

Either way, to make an NPC super, have them set up dialog and situations that beg player response:

  • Asks Questions
  • Fails to see an obvious solution
  • Sets themselves up for irony
  • Projects onto others
  • Cues the joke but doesn’t offer the punch line

Each of these situations draw players in.

A great example is Milo from my Terror in the Badlands campaign.

He’s a coward.

He pushes the PCs into danger.

And when the party has extinguished the threat, he bounds in from his hiding spot, gloating and celebrating as if he did all the work.

In real life, an unpleasant person.

But in game?

An awesome NPC the players enjoy.

Rule 3: Strain Their Leashes

Too often the world awaits frozen until the player characters come along.

Instead, we can think holistically.

Don’t silo each room in your 5 Room Dungeon.

Play the whole adventure as if it was one organic body.

Itch on the knee goes to the brain, which deploys a long arm and finger.

It’s all one system in action.

Awesome NPCs want to act too.

They want stuff.

They pull you along like a big dog straining at the end of their leash.

In other mediums, like fiction and movies, characters drive the plot.

So too can our NPCs cause great game situations without effort on our part.

Wouldn’t that be amazing if our adventures just plotted themselves?

With awesome NPCs, they can.

This is where I like the simple Impulse mechanic from Dungeon World.

An impulse in DW represents the person or creature’s main drive or motivation.

NPCs don’t make many recurring appearances in campaigns.

So it’s not a problem when they express their impulse each time they appear in gameplay.

And they’ll often see the party as a means to their end.

Good NPCs might want to ally. Bad NPCs might try to trick or coerce.

Regardless, each encounter they want to push their agenda.

This is what I mean by things writing themselves.

Let your NPCs strain their leashes.

(Bonus: Use their Trait as the lens through which to roleplay how they express their Impulse.)

Rule 4: Hatch Villains

Good NPCs are bad NPCs. Awesome NPCs are villains.

They need not be the campaign’s Big Bad Evil Guy.

Instead, they are the 1,000 flies that afflict the player characters’ progress.

As thoughtless cruel acts committed by PCs land as friendly fire, the party’s going to earn some enemies.

Put a little pressure on the party, and you’ll get even more risky behavior sure to alienate beings in your world.

From these early snubs, insults, small sufferings and losses emerge enemies who make it their mission to get justice for what the party did to them.

Rule 5: Become a Mad Scientist

In terms of the Wizard of Adventure GM Triangle, I lean towards System and Story.

I like the *game* of RPGs a lot, in addition to the social and story aspects.

And in game terms, I often grab something off a character sheet and use that as my NPC Seed.

For example, one NPC started as “bad will.”

What would an NPC with low willpower be like?

Might he manifest that as cowardice?

Having a good heart, perhaps, but offends others and hides behind friends.

Welcome to the game, Milo. You’re buddies with Otto, the ex-guard now Ruin Seeker player character.

So like an inventor who cackles when ideas take (un)life, we too may watch in fascination as our NPC experiment hits the table and encounters the party.

Become a mad scientist and keep spawning NPCs from ideas you want to test at the game table to see if sparks fly.

Awesome NPCs Lift Any Game

NPCs serve as your agents within the game.

A million Mr. Andersons await your beck and call.

Use NPCs to guide players back on track, cause dilemmas, deliver hooks and clues, and get the characters into trouble.

NPCs are obstacles, gates, puzzles, and storytelling tools.

Such valuable game elements should be awesome.

To make them so:

  • Treat Them Like George R.R. Martin
  • Be The Straight Man
  • Strain Their Leashes
  • Hatch Villains
  • Become a Mad Scientist

Start dropping awesome NPCs into your games today.