7 Tips On Crafting Dynamic Relationships For NPCs

From Ria Kennedy

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0286

7 Tips On Crafting Dynamic Relationships For NPCs

NPCs are an essential game device, and it’s important to figure out how to get the most out of them. Following are a few quick tips to help you build dynamic NPC relationships.

Give Every NPC A Purpose

Every existent NPC should have a purpose. You have better things to do than waste time on unnecessary NPCs. For example, if an NPC exists to advance the plot or ground the world, that has value and makes developing the NPC worthwhile. If you find yourself building an NPC without a purpose, then stop and try to assign the character game value.

If you can’t figure out a purpose, put the NPC aside and work on another, more important one. If you end up with idle time before next session, feel free to pick up unfinished non-player characters and resume building.

Unless a character is going to make your session, story, or world a better place, don’t waste time on them.

Interact With World NPCs

This type of non-player character is critical to PC advancement. How can a PC have a great destiny, unless he or she is going to meet or try to kill the most important people in the world? It seems obvious, but how many games have you played where you’re supposed to save the world, but you never meet anyone who runs it? And I don’t mean just to meet them as an errand boy.

I mean, meet them as a loyal vassal, ally, advisor, decrier, spy, or treacherous enemy. It’s frustrating to always be a puppet of forces you cannot control, and you should reward PCs by letting them gain the attention of important people.

Build world important NPCs and be prepared for them to interact with the party when the time is right.

Love And Romance

Avoid crafting NPCs just for romance as this is a risky use of your planning and preparation time. This type of character requires special management, and boy, what a waste of time if the NPC or PC isn’t interested. In addition, NPCs built purely for romance tend to be fluff, one dimensional, and inadequate. They often also lead you to design rigid encounters where PCs have few choices and resent it.

Instead, focus on building NPCs for other purposes and let relationships evolve in a natural way, if there is any romance at all. Alternatively, build romance as a second purpose for the NPC–if the romance falls flat during gameplay, the non-player character will have another purpose to fall back on. This saves the NPC’s credibility and keeps them around for potential changes of heart should you wish it.

For example, a travelling PC falls for the tavern wench. Well, he’s only going to see her when he goes to that town. But, I say, what other uses could this NPC serve? If I have to manage the wench, I want it to be worth my while; I’ll turn her into a rumor mill, and employ her to disseminate information to the party.

A tickle and a cuddle do not an NPC make, and these characters should be off-stage NPCs, if they exist at all, or they should be made to serve the campaign in other ways to preserve their worth and your time.

NPCs And Influence

Ah, here we are, the crux of role-playing–and also its bane. How many NPCs are allowed to influence PCs, but how rarely are PCs allowed to influence your NPCs? This is going to tell you how developed your game is. In games where PCs can inspire, forsake, and otherwise reap the consequences of their actions and words, NPCs have untold potential.

An NPC-as-signpost serves no purpose other than to point to the nearest dungeon, and your game is going to be one dimensional as a result. Granted, the NPC signpost always serves a purpose, but couldn’t you flesh that NPC out a bit more? For example, you might make him a recurring character and give him a purpose of mentor. An NPC mentor gives advice, and reasons with or argues with the PCs, rather than just giving directions.

Something else to consider is how your PCs treat others and how this leads NPCs to influence one another. If a PC is nasty, the King’s advisor likely won’t have anything nice to say to the King about the PC. However, if the PCs do something to gain the advisor’s trust, maybe she will step in and try to persuade the King on behalf of the PCs at an important future junction.

Perhaps a PC creates an enemy or does something for someone who returns the favor by going out of their way later to impart a warning. If a PC earns a nemesis, that NPC is likely to gather its resources and influence other NPCs to settle the score. Alternatively, if a PC does something nice for someone, that person may feel indebted to the PC. As they say, we reap what we sow.

NPC As Plot

(Rubbing hands gleefully.) One of the best and easiest things to do with NPCs is give them a complication. This might manifest in their personality (arrogant and prideful, afraid of rats, soft-hearted) or as a quest-worthy need (looking for their mother). NPCs with complications make it possible to intertwine the PCs and cook plots from.

[Johnn: good tip, Ria! NPCs with complications feel three dimensional and are a great way to propel plots without making the game feel contrived. Here are 100 event ideas from my book NPC Essentials that make great NPC complications:

  1. A feud (family or otherwise) began
  2. A feud (family or otherwise) ended
  3. Acquaintance died
  4. Acquaintance had a life-threatening illness
  5. Acquaintance had a major accident
  6. Acquaintance had a minor accident
  7. Acquaintance had a minor illness
  8. Acquaintance was kidnapped
  9. Acquired a new class
  10. Acquired a new enemy
  11. Acquired a new level
  12. Acquired a new skill
  13. Acquired a sum of money
  14. Adopted a child
  15. Attended a festival, fair, market, or sporting event
  16. Best friend died
  17. Best friend had a life-threatening illness
  18. Best friend had a major accident
  19. Best friend had a minor accident
  20. Best friend had a minor illness
  21. Best friend was kidnapped
  22. Broke off an engagement
  23. Broke up a relationship with a friend
  24. Changed alignment
  25. Changed their job
  26. Close family member had a life-threatening illness
  27. Close family member had a major accident
  28. Close family member had a minor accident
  29. Close family member had a minor illness
  30. Close relative died
  31. Close relative was kidnapped
  32. Discovered they owned something valuable
  33. Distant family member had a life-threatening illness
  34. Distant family member had a major accident
  35. Distant family member had a minor accident
  36. Distant family member had a minor illness
  37. Distant relative died
  38. Distant relative was kidnapped
  39. Ended an intimate relationship
  40. Enemy died
  41. Evicted
  42. Experienced a haunting or supernatural event
  43. Failed to get a raise or promotion
  44. Fended off recruitment (military, political party, press gang)
  45. Friend died
  46. Friend had a life-threatening illness
  47. Friend had a major accident
  48. Friend had a minor accident
  49. Friend had a minor illness
  50. Friend was kidnapped
  51. Got a divorce
  52. Got engaged
  53. Got married
  54. Got revenge
  55. Great performance done or great masterpiece created
  56. Had a birthday
  57. Had a child
  58. Had a miscarriage
  59. Had a visitation from their deity
  60. Had an anniversary
  61. Had to appear in court as a defendant, plaintiff, or witness
  62. Had trouble with their boss or co-workers
  63. Home burned down
  64. Homeless for a period
  65. Inherited something trivial
  66. Inherited something valuable
  67. Is expecting a baby
  68. Lived through a change in government, union, guild policy, or law
  69. Lived through a crime wave, uprising, revolt, rebellion, or Coup
  70. Lived through riots, political unrest, or demonstrations
  71. Loaned out money and was never repaid
  72. Lost money gambling
  73. Lost their job
  74. Made a major enemy
  75. Made a new acquaintance, friend, or best friend
  76. Met a famous person, noble, or ambassador
  77. Moved to a better home
  78. Nearly killed in a street fight
  79. NPC died and was brought back from the dead
  80. NPC died and was not brought back from the dead
  81. Pet became lost as was found
  82. Pet became lost as was not found
  83. Pet died
  84. Put on (academic, job, criminal) probation
  85. Received a message from a distant acquaintance, friend, best friend, or relative
  86. Small fire at home, no major damage
  87. Spent time as a convict
  88. Started a new hobby
  89. Stopped a crime (rape, extortion, blackmail, bribery, robbery, etc.)
  90. Stopped speaking to a close relative, distant relative, or acquaintance
  91. Vegetable garden had an unusual yield
  92. Was attacked by a monster or wild animal
  93. Was interrogated by the inquisition or local authorities
  94. Was recruited (military, political party, press gang)
  95. Was robbed of something trivial
  96. Was robbed of something valuable
  97. Was robbed of something with sentimental value
  98. Witnessed a murder
  99. Won a prize at the local fair
  100. Won money gambling
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When In Doubt, Do It To The NPC

A player character is the possession of the player. I can’t think of many reasons that are compelling enough to do something to the PC to erode the player’s possession of it, as this cheapens the notion of free-will and limits player enjoyment. Also, PCs are notoriously unreliable–if you expect them to go right, they will go left. Therefore, at nearly all times, do it to the NPC instead. If the PC and NPC are close, this will be like doing it to the PC anyhow. The exception to this is PC destiny, but that is still under player power; you only have control over the situations.

NPCs In The Party

Finally, and most importantly, how do you decide if an NPC should be in the party? You have to relegate it to the NPC, who should fit into one of these categories:

  • Buddy: Loyal friend and side-kick, should travel with party helpmate: friends with the PC, but has specific uses. NPC only comes out if their skills can be used.
  • Plot NPC: Serves a plot or campaign purpose, and should appear to set this purpose in motion. Whether they are also a buddy or helpmate is up to you; they can be walk-on/walk- offs or recurring.
  • Locale NPC: This person stays in a certain area and is only seen if the PCs are in that area.
  • Important NPC: Only comes out when something important is going on that needs their attention, or if the PCs have befriended them (after all, the PCs can be important too).
  • Recurring: Maybe the PCs seek them out, maybe they seek the PCs out, but apparently the interests of the recurring character coincide with the PCs.
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Try to be as transparent as possible when managing NPCs. It should not be obvious that these are your playing pieces, though that is what they are. The quality NPC makes a howling good story, whether inciting the PCs to good or ill, by helping or hindering them. NPCs worth developing can be millstones, milestones, or touchstones, and it is up to their purpose and relationships to determine which.


Winner of the Gen Con Gold ENnie, and rated 4.8/5 by customers at RPGNow, NPC Essentials is a collection of tips, techniques, and aids designed to help game masters inject detailed NPCs into any roleplaying campaign. Inside, readers will find advice on designing, roleplaying, and managing NPCs during the entire lifetime of their campaigns. Also included are NPC archetypes, encounters, charts, and a complete example NPC-centric adventure. Written by Johnn Four of RolePlayingTips.com and Dragon magazine’s “GM Toolbox” column, and illustrated by V Shane.


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Mass Dice Roller

From Loz Newman

[Johnn: Loz has created an Excel utility to make a hundred rolls of any dice combo you like. This is a great help for PBeMs, mass battles, and preparing encounters. Thanks Loz!

Here’s the download: Mass Dice Rolle

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Player Blogs

From Avlor

I enjoyed your article on blogging game sessions. I haven’t had the pleasure of DMing yet, but hope to soon!

It occurred to me, since DMs have a lot of prep work to do, why not suggest a player keep the blog for the gaming session? Players can be “kept busy” between gaming sessions keeping the journal/blog up to date. This also gives the DM a good clue if the players mis-interpreted or completely missed something important. If the blog password is shared, different players can take turns posting

One other tool our group uses is a forum/bulletin board. This is our main form of communication between sessions. Players plot next moves and the DM has a good idea what to plan for. We post our treasure lists there and figure out what is kept and sold. We set up our meeting dates (nice for phone-phobes…yes I know several of them, including my husband!), and we have areas set up for a couple campaigns.

If you decide to install a forum or a blog yourself on a server, please keep the software updated. Hackers can and will try to break into it. (Had a guest book hacked a few months ago….)

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Pocketmod – Dungeonmod

From Master Yogurt

re: Roleplaying Tips #283: Pocketmod

A few weeks ago, someone suggested the Pocketmod program as an interesting tool for DMs to track information. I was extremely intrigued by the program, and it was helpful, but I felt that it had much more potential. Therefore, I’ve created an addition to it I call the Dungeonmod. It adds character references, some rules references, and more.

I thought other gamers might be interested in the addition, which I’ve found useful recently. I’d love to continue adding pages (I have eight in total so far), and if anyone has any suggestions for more, then feel free to send them. Love the e-zine! Keep up the great tips!
[Johnn: thanks Master Yogurt. Readers, you can download Dungeonmod for Pocketmod here. ]

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Using Tarot For Designing Or Playing

From Lea H.

I have a tip for those who know anything about Tarot Cards. I find that, as a Gamesmaster, I can use them to plan out an adventure. With the simple Celtic Cross layout you have:

  • The current atmosphere
  • The immediate problem facing the party
  • The underlying currents
  • The immediate past influence, which is passing away
  • The next influence, which is about to become important
  • The current emotional atmosphere that the party holds
  • The environment
  • The PCs’ hopes and fears
  • An expected resolution

Also: the furthest from the party’s mind (bottom of the deck) and hidden influences (Reversed cards that did not show up in the spread).

All this gives more than enough to get the mental juices flowing. Also, the cards as presented can be laid out for the party as if they were consulting a seer.

As a player, I have used this to good effect as well. I show up for the game without knowledge of the plot, but after laying out my spread, I have hints as to what is coming and even some suggestions to how to handle the problems in character.

Just for the record, my readings as a player of games over the last 2-3 years have averaged about 85% accurate. It has gotten so that the other players don’t want to start until I have made my reading. Some comments have been:

“Oh boy, it looks like a journey by water this time.”
“Oh no! Don’t tell me the Tower showed up as hopes and fears! I’m going home now….”
“Oh, looks like some romance coming for somebody….”
“What do you mean there may be a thief in our midst…who is it?”
“You laid out 6 major arcana? I guess nobody but the Gods will be in control this game.”
“Oh, the Knight of Swords again? That will be Sir Alain….”
“Looks like we get to deal with both the King AND the Queen today….”

As the comments show, everyone finds these prophesies amusing and worth the extra time. Sometimes, the reading is very close and sometimes not so close, and with the players doing the interpreting, there can be differences of opinion as to what the cards really meant. Comments made while the players are trying to decide what the prophesy means have also sparked some improvisation from the Gamesmaster on occasion too.


A reversed card is created during the shuffle stage. I commonly place the shuffled cards down on the table, pull off 3 stacks of cards, and turn over the top card on each stack. Each of the top three cards gets turned upside down. This either reverses their meaning or lessens the effect of the meaning.

After the reversals, I place the deck together and shuffle again, then recut to ensure a randomness of all cards.

Some people do not do the reversed cards, but I always start with the deck pre-sorted to be in the same direction. With tarot cards, this is easy because they have pictures on the face. Some tarot cards are not done this way though, and it might be hard to determine top and bottom. I recommend the Rider-Waite Deck as a starting deck because the images are easy to learn, easy to orient, and they give a visual hint about their meanings.

You can also use a set of playing cards, but they will lack the Knight in each of the 4 four suits and the Major Arcana.

As to the layout, normally there is a significator card, but I do not use that. That card would be one that is symbolic of the person or group asking for the reading. If it is used, it goes into the center of the “spread.”

The way I was taught places the first card over the significator and the second across the first. The first card is the general atmosphere which covers them (1), the second ‘crosses’ (2) the significator. This crossed card has both meanings read, as that is the opposing forces for good or evil. I always place the next four cards around the central cross in the order of above(3), below (4), behind (5)(left), and ahead (6)(right). Some books call for a different order of placement, but whichever way you do it, stay consistent.

The meanings of the cards are read as: (3) the current influence that is known, (4) the current underlying subconscious influences or foundation, (5) the immediate past and influences that are passing away, (6) an influence to be felt in the near future.

The cards now form a cross thus:

(5) (1)/(2X) (6)

The next four cards are placed to the right of the cross and create what some call the mace. They consist of 4 cards that run from the bottom to the top thus:

(3) (10) (5) (1)/(2X) (6) (9) (8) (4) (7)

They are feelings (7), environment (8), hopes and fears (9), and outcome or fulfilment (10).

I also turn over the deck to see the bottom card, which I call the furthest from their mind. I then go through the deck to find any reversed cards not in the spread. These are influences that do not impact directly, but still indicate some ‘behind the scenes’ manipulation.

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Game Table Plans

From Chris Heismann

I have uploaded my initial plans for my Custom Game Table to the GMMastery Yahoo Group’s files area as a PDF.

Look for the file titled “Game Table.pdf”

There are several things that aren’t on the plans, or are not clear on the plans, so I’ll explain them here. It is a two level table top, with the upper level being reserved for the GM, and the lower levels for game materials, drinks, papers, pencils, and the like. To get it into the game room in my basement, the legs are removable, which means I’ll be able to (somewhat) store it if I need to. To help keep my GM books organized, there is a separate book “caddy” that I elected not to build into the table, so that I could move my books around easier, if needed.

Each player station will have a dice cup and drink holder. They are sized so that players can stack 2-4 typical size game books on one side of their station, and still have 20? of “desk” space for writing, etc. By having the player stations divided, as well as extending under the main top, I hope to give each player the space to place their books and stuff without crowding onto my “GM only space,” and to keep them from competing with each other for space.

I wasn’t originally going to have the player stations divided, figuring that the dividers would cause me to lose some flexibility in group size. Then I realized that my preferred number of players is between 5 and 8–any more than that is a pain. Having a set number of stations gives a very clear picture on whether or not there is space in the game for another player.

I once had a game group grow to fifteen players (finally stabilized at 11, then later dropped to 9) because I couldn’t turn away new players. The thinking of the group was that as long as there was room in the garage, then it was ok to invite another player. Since it wasn’t my house, I didn’t have as much say in who could show up as I liked. So, along with the new table will come a new policy: I have seven players max, and if there’s an empty seat, you can talk to me about inviting a new player in. If the table is full, wait till someone drops out.

Another thing that isn’t on the plans is the fact that the GM’s station will have built-in outlets to power my laptop from. The underside of the table will have 2-3 equally spaced outlets for player use – they’ll have to reach/crawl under to plug in, but they’ll be able to get power without having to run a cord to the wall and creating a trip hazard. Since my players only occasionally bring a laptop, it’s not too important (right now). I was toying with the idea of putting speakers in the table as well, but have decided against that.

The glass inserts are sized to hold a 2*3 grid (6 sheets) of letter size paper, which is the typical size on which I print my CC2 maps. One of the inserts will probably have a semi-permanent battle grid under it, while the other will probably change from session to session with a relevant map. Later, I *may* mount LCD monitors under the glass.

Somebody mentioned the idea of pencil drawers. I like that idea. If I can find some that are sized right and it doesn’t interfere with the clearance of the table, I may add those at some point. That way, I know each station will have a supply of pencils come game time.

The carpenter I am working with on this has expressed interest in doing more tables like this. We’re talking about splitting the cost on a smaller five person version and taking it to one of the local game conventions to get some feedback on whether or not it would be a new customer base for him. If that happens, he and I will probably set up some standard, yet semi-customizable plans, and have some standard pricing for them. But first he has to complete mine….