Do This One Simple Thing to Create Compelling NPCs

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1027

Gar was a beloved NPC.

He was rescued by the party.

He was mentored by the fallen paladin PC.

He was brought back to life at cost to the players when killed by Orcus’s foul minions.

Best of all, he was a stalwart companion ready to dive into the breech to save a comrade.

But then he left. He took his family and went his own way. And he did so without saying a word.

This left the players feeling a bit hurt and confused.

Was this a betrayal? Did they do something wrong? Is Gar ok?

Truth is, Gar is not ok.

His demonic weapon is slowly turning him into a demon.

And a follower of Orcus. A Broken Oath paladin.

And, perhaps, doomed if the PCs don’t save him.

Because we play an interactive game, we want to show, not tell.

Merely telling turns players into an audience. Passive. Less engaged.

But when we show something through gameplay, we give players situations, choices, and moments to engage.

Doing this for NPCs, it turns out, is pretty simple.

We start by giving our NPC a motive.

In Gar’s case, his ego is being subsumed by an evil weapon.

Gar wants to serve Orcus.

Orcus wants Gar to assassinate a leader in a nearby community.

Gar fights, and fights, and fights, but cannot stop this compulsion.

Still the loyal companion and friend, he does not want to drag the PCs into this heinous act.

So Gar leaves the party. He flees without explaining anything. He wants to escape the PCs so they will not get tainted by his evil crime.

Once we have a motive, like Gar’s to assassinate an innocent and not get his friends involved, we have the NPC take action.

The more direct the action, the better.

Gar could have told the party what was happening. Even his family is confused and worried. But he keeps it all to himself.

Instead, he obeys the compulsion. He heads to the community immediately, without explanation, so his friends will not get involved and tainted by Orcus’s foul plots.

This creates a compelling gap in players’ minds.

One moment they think they know what’s going on. The world is normal. Gar is a friend helping them on their quest.

The next moment Gar is gone. He’s abandoned them.


Gar’s demonstrates his motives. He puts his desires into action.

This not only creates a mystery to hook players, it also makes the world believable and deeper. Not everything revolves around the PCs. Not everything has a clear map.

Do this today.

Take an NPC with ties to the PCs.

Give them a strong motivation.

Have the NPC take direct action on this motivation without explaining anything to the players.

Just have the NPC do something without telling players why.

The why is for players to figure out. That’s where the rich gameplay lies.

Try it out. Two simple steps. Motive => Action. Then do this with more and more NPCs. Soon, you’ll have a rich campaign full of secrets, mysteries, and gameplay driven by believable stories.