The Three Word NPC Formula

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1054

Remember 3 Line NPCs? These are awesome. Quick to make, easier to GM, and great for improvisation. Campaign Logger even has a 3 Line NPC generator so you can spin up roleplay-ready NPCs in less than a second.

But as I plan Hobo Princes and other campaigns, I want something even lighter.

I don’t need a lot of details that a new GM might want to help with roleplay.

I just need a rough concept so I can keep on writing or GMing.

Enter Three Word NPCs.

I got this idea while reading the Blades in the Dark RPG.

Three simple words to give you an NPC launch pad.

It works well.

But I’ve learned not just any three words will do.

Some experimentation reveals that I prefer three specific words.

Here’s what I mean.

The Three Word NPC Formula

As a recap, here’s the 3 Line NPC formula:

  • Appearance — What do they look like? What are they doing?
  • Portrayal — What is their personality? How do I roleplay them?
  • Hook — How can they drive gameplay?

This simple approach covers your main bases in a concise fashion.

How do I describe them? How do I play them? What story can they offer?

Three Word NPCs boil each line into a single word.

I already have an NPC name and role. Those don’t count as the words.

So that gives us:

  • Physical Trait
  • Personality Trait
  • Hook

I write them in Campaign Logger and paper notes like this:

Name, Role (Trait, Trait, Hook)

For example:

Broghan, Guard (Messy, Slothful, Gambler)

This gives me enough to introduce Broghan to the game and play him.

The Hook

Switch hooks up to keep your NPCs surprising.

For example, use fears and phobias sometimes for your hook. Here’s a great idea from RPT GM Michael Anderson:

I’ve been listening to the Critical Role Podcast. Mostly they just record their adventures (very fun BTW).

But in the episode I’m listening to now, the GM gave a little teaching session on how to GM (for beginners).

One thing he said I thought complemented your NPC creation method.

He too uses the “What do the NPCs want” method, but he adds simply: “What are they afraid of?”

I tried it and I found I wind up with something close to what I get from the NPC secret you suggest. But sometimes my secrets didn’t generate that.

The nice thing about this is it creates NPC Leverage for the players to extort.

Great suggestion.

For the Three Word NPC method to work well, we want a variety of hook types. This makes your NPCs less predictable and more interesting to discover.

So we mix up hook types that your NPCs get.

Use a mixture of:

  • Fears (and worries)
  • Secrets (what they know or what they’ve done)
  • Desires (short-term needs or long-term ambitions)
  • Hobbies (a great way to hook under-used PC skills)

Our guard Broghan enjoys gambling. You could use that to challenge PCs to a game. Maybe it means Broghan’s desperate for money because he owes gambling debts to bad people. Perhaps gambling manifests as a roleplay quirk where everything’s a bet.

That’s the power of this technique. No fences or scripts. Three words to improv, angle, and expand upon as gameplay develops.

Try it right now:

  • Write an NPC name and role
  • Write one word for their Physical Trait
  • Write one word for their Personality Trait
  • Write a one-word Hook relating to a fear, secret, desire, or hobby

If stuck for traits, use this list for inspiration.

Take one minute to do this now. And then use this Three Word NPC next session as-is. Let me know how it goes.