5 Ways To Breathe Life Into Your NPCs — RPT#549

From: John William Grigsby IV

As GM, one of your chief roles is roleplaying. Whether it’s the mighty dragon the heroes have just offended or the goose girl they run into on the street, you are responsible for portraying these individuals. Why not make them memorable?

One of the most memorable encounters my group had was back in the moathouse in the Village of Hommlet. The heroes had just barged in on the leader of the local evil faction as his attention was, er, otherwise diverted.

Instead of jumping up in surprise and shouting for his guards, he simply looked up and said, “Oh, my. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

I played him very much like the male cleric from the Lok-Nar sequence in the movie Heavy Metal. High-pitched, bored tones, dismissive attitude.

I even got to use the famous line, “He dies, she dies, everybody dies.” It was an encounter still talked about today, more than 20 years later!

So how do you breathe life into NPCs to make encounter with them memorable? Here are six attributes to polish during your NPC design.

1. Speech

Hearing is an acute sense. The human voice is capable of some remarkable variations in pitch, volume, and tone. Take advantage of this.

Think about well-known characters from literature and films. Remember Raistlin from the Dragonlance novels, who could barely speak above a whisper?

How about Yoda from the Star Wars films, who mixed the word order in sentences?

For an example from real-life, look to Sam Kinison, who used volume in his comedy act to stress points.

In the real world, each culture has a unique inflection to its speech called accent. Giving an NPC an accent is a quick way to make them memorable.

Be bold and experiment. Everyone gives dwarves a Scottish burr. Why not give them a German accent, instead? Who knew elves in your world spoke with a Hindi accent? Or perhaps this particular dragon speaks with a refined British accent.

Volume and tone are great ways to improvise a unique flavor to an NPC.

A dragon may talk in a deep throaty bass (try speaking into a plastic mug or cup). A meek street urchin might speak in quiet, docile tones, making your players strain to hear you.

Try giving a politician an even, monotone voice that threatens to lull the listener to sleep. Make a merchant who is hard of hearing never speak below a near-shout.

Consider the limitations of the NPC. A creature NPC without lips cannot pronounce certain sounds such as labials (sound involving the lips: B, P, M, F, and V).

Logically, these sounds would not exist in their language. Even if they speak English, they would mangle these sounds, being unfamiliar with them. Try speaking without using your lips (keep your lips open and try to talk) when speaking in character for this particular species.

Likewise, a character of low intellect would not use big words, resorting instead to the simplest possible word to convey his meaning.

On the other hand, an expansive vocabulary is not an indicator of intelligence. Some may do it to appear more learned or smarter than they are.

For some characters, the key may be not speaking at all. Consider a laconic ranger who speaks only when he has something important to say. If he speaks only when necessary, people will tend to listen to his words.

Another way to make a character stand out is to make his speech pattern unique.

In Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883), the main character peppers his speech with aphorisms from Gaffer Swanthold (“As Gaffer Swanthold says…”).

Recall also the earlier example of Yoda, who spoke backwards.

Perhaps your NPC uses a different language when cursing or with certain unfamiliar words.

Maybe she uses the wrong homophone often. Here is a complete list of homophones – words that sound alike but have different meanings: Homophones.

Commander Data, from Star Trek the Next Generation, did not use contractions in his speech. Perhaps your NPC has a similar affliction (in Data’s case, it was because he was an android, but it could be simply that the NPC’s language doesn’t have contractions).

2. Demeanor

The human face is remarkable. You are capable of expressing an amazing range of emotions without saying a word. But when combined with speech, the possibilities are limitless.

Don’t sit there straight-faced!

If a character is frightened or angry, their face will show it. Have the soldier back down and stiffen up when being dressed down by his superior. When portraying an angry barbarian, lean in close and wear a fierce scowl.

3. Mannerisms

Make NPCs memorable with mannerisms.

Does the character crack his knuckles at random intervals throughout the conversation? Does she pick her nose? Does he clear his throat before speaking? Does she have a nervous twitch?

Use quirks like these to bring a character to life.

The key here is to make an NPC’s quirk believable. Make his behavior unforced and natural, as if done without a thought. If you break character, overdo portraying the quirk, or make the quirk overshadow the NPC’s other traits or purpose in an encounter, you’ll lose your audience. The NPC will become comical and remembered for the wrong reason.

Consider who you interact with each day. They are all different, right?

Your next-door neighbor might greet you cheerily, while the barista at the coffee shop gives a forced smile.

Why should your NPCs be any different? If an NPC has reasonto dislike the heroes, then show it in his attitude. He might be surly, or refuse to give any information unless itis paid for (and even then, it may be couched in short, cryptic answers).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a friendly NPC might offer a little extra something when imparting information.

Description

Few GMs are make-up experts. Those who are know putting together a disguise takes time.

But a few simple props can go a long way towards making an memorable.

An old pair of reading glasses perched on the end of the nose gives a character a learned or sagely look.

An eye patch is a memorable feature, especially if the character is sensitive about being stared at. A wig offers a fun and visual cue.

Costuming offers another means of bringing an NPC to life, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate. A piece of costume jewelry worn around the neck might remind the players they are speaking with a noblewoman. A farmer might wear a straw hat. A mysterious stranger in a cloak with the hood drawn down is a staple in fantasy stories.

For the budget-conscientious GM, a verbal description is often sufficient to fix an image in their minds.

Get a thesaurus and make good use of it.

If you describe a character as a “hulking brute with arms as thick as a man’s thigh,” they will get the point (particularly if you reinforce it with a growl and an angry look).

4. Get Into Character

All the advice in the world won’t help you if you don’t get into the character. Do more than just describe how the NPC reacts – show it.

Instead of saying, “The dragon leans in close and hisses,” do exactly that! Lean in close and speak as the dragon.

If the heroic commander leads the charge with a stirring speech, stand up to give your speech and try to look heroic and impressive.

Put yourself into your NPC’s shoes. Imagine you are them. What is their point of view? How do they see the world? Think like they would and behave accordingly.

Around this viewpoint, wrap a warm blanket of quirks, speech style and demeanor to make your NPC feel real during encounters.

5. Don’t Stereotrope

Not every dwarf need be a drunkard. Not every tavern keeper is a retired adventurer.

Break molds. Do something different or unexpected.

A troll that speaks in a squeaky voice (but still tries to be intimidating). A genius orc who speaks fluent common. A numerical savant dragon who has invested all its treasure instead of hoarding it.

Making an encounter memorable just requires a little extra NPC development effort on your part.

Players may not remember the “guy in the bar” that gave them the map fragment, but they will certainly remember the one-eyed captain who walked with a limp and constantly talked about his days in the Navy.

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A Brief Word From Johnn

6th Annual Free RPG Day – June 16

Ted Skirvin sent the CAR-PGa email list a great reminder that Free RPG Day is coming:

“In case you don’t know about this, Free RPG Day is an event to promote RPGs by having publishers and retail stores work together to give out free stuff. This year it will be on June 16th.

“Last year, I went to the one local store that was participating. I got a few intro booklets that contained the basic rules to a system and a small intro scenario.

“It’s worth checking out.”

Thanks for the reminder, Ted. This is a great program to help bring in new players and keep our treasured hobby thriving. It’s also a super way to meet gamers in your area.

The official website: Free RPG Day.

Wikipedia page: Free RPG Day.

You might wondering what CAR-PGa is. The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games is an international network of researchers who look into all aspects of roleplaying games – curriculum and therapy as well as recreation.

The CAR-PGa is also a defender and advocacy group for RPG. D&D and roleplaying games still get bad, misinformed press. So groups like the CAR-PGa are important for advocating the truth about RPG.

Get involved via the official site: CAR-PGA.

Another Great Riddleport Session

We played again Friday and it was a great session. The PCs fought an old enemy, saw the birth of a new one, and prepared to meet their next foe.

Last session ended in the group resting in a secret caveoutside city limits to regroup.

Leaving three friends behind within the safety of the hollow, the group walks back to their inn in town.

Their first encounter takes place inside the lair of Astrinous. He’s the PCs’ neighbour, an ally, and it turns out, a servant of Asmodeus.

While talking, Astrinous’ true form reveals itself in a flash of lightning. The studious amongst the group realize their neighbour and sometimes ally is an Apostate Devil, also known as a Deimavigga.

Using powers of persuasion, deceit, and worst of all, truth, these terrible creatures have the power to influence and manipulate large groups…such as a pirate city.

After their intriguing visit over brandy, the PCs leave Astrinous’ place to visit their old acquaintance, Nine Eyes.

Turns out the wizard is also preparing for the end of the world. The group witnesses a foul ceremony that results in Nine Eyes transforming into a colossal tentacled creature!

Withdrawing politely, the group travels across town to pay a visit to the head of the mage’s guild, Syzzinar. En route, the wolf clan gang confront them and battle erupts.

Mid-combat, drow ambushers join the fray, showering the PCs with poison arrows and fireballs.

It’s a good street fight – 3D because of the rooftop battles, plus there’s a raging storm that hampers missile fire and movement.

The taste of victory over the wolf clan is sweet to the PCs, who mop up all but two gang members, plus all the drow ambushers.

Continuing on, the group flies across the river and approaches the Order of Cyphers. Asking for Syzzinar, the PCs are lead into an ambush. A pack of flesh golems await at the wizard’s guild and attack.

The battle is simple. Fill a courtyard with magic and oversized weapons. Watch the golems fall apart. Catch your breath and high five your nearest friend.

Turns out Syzzinar was victim of a coup last night and he’s taken cover in a nearby inn. The PCs head on to the inn because the ex-guild leader has something they need – a way into the Abyss.

A small, shadowy figure sits in the corner of the inn’s common room. The place is otherwise empty. Our heroes take a seat and ask Syzzinar for help getting into the Abyss.

But, it turns out the shadowy figure is just a messenger who advises that the wizard is hiding in the PCs’ own inn.

Grumbling, the group returns to the Silver Chalice – home base – but not before a harrowing raft ride across a turgid iver. The group bribes the ferryman to take the risk in crossing the river during the storm and rough water.

The ride is rough, but everyone pitches in to help the ferryman control and propel his ferry across safely.

Boat trip over and back at the inn, the PCs find Syzzinar and talk. He is ready to transport them to the Abyss so the PCs can find the Black Book and bring it back to Riddleport.

We ended the session there, with the PCs making last minute preparations for their journey to the Abyss.

In my last session summary, I mentioned the best sessions involve a good story unfolding.

Sessions dominated by a single combat, too many wandering encounters, or scenes that do not propel the plot, fall flat.

The action is fun, but sessions where lots of story gets told seem to have the most energy and comments on fun afterward.

So too it was with this session. The situations were simple. Confront Astrinous, a gang, a river, some golems and drow.

But because more story was revealed and a few recurring NPCs appeared, the session was that much more enjoyable and one of the better ones in the campaign.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the players deal with the challenges of the planes!

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Reader Tip Request

Looking For Systemless Adventures

Hi Johnn,

I was hoping you might be able to help me. I want to start a new RP group and I was given the advice to start with a pre-made adventure module.

The problem is, I don’t generally use the more popular game systems and I like to play non-fantasy settings. As you can imagine, that doesn’t leave me with a lot of places to look.

I was hoping you could point me in the direction of some system-agnostic or easily converted adventure books or publishers.

Something like an anthology of starter adventures, or a collection of adventures for different genres would be perfect.

I’ve liked your newsletter for a long time, and I hope you continue to do such a great job.

Thank you for any help you can give.

-Evan

[Johnn] Game masters, please hit reply with your tips and
links. I’ll share them with Evan and your fellow RPT
readers.

Thanks!

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Heat Up Your Game With These Fire Tips

Use fire to make your next game more interesting.

I am so glad Neil Googe made his fire tips request last issue. I have not used fire to spark my sessions for ages. So Neil’s request got my mind cooking on the possibilities again.

I think the last time I used fired was when I got burned by my Vancouver group. They had turned into pyromaniacs and started using fire as a combat option, burning down a string of villages carelessly in the process.

The great thing about fire is it does not matter what system or genre you GM, you can use fire as a useful gameplay option. Fire lets you turn the heat up on the characters.

For example, consider these fire tweaks to your game:

  • Hazard for your Combatscape. Fill your battlemap with
    flames to give your next fight more tactical options and
    difficulties.
  • Goal for your Mission Objective. Save the village, rescue
    people from a burning building, find the arsonist.
  • Traps. More dungeon singein’!
  • Game world design. Make fire an interesting setting
    element. Maybe your world has red, yellow, blue and green
    flames, each with special properties.

Last week I put a reader request out for fire rules. Sometimes refereeing fire can be a pain in the ash. But your fellow RPT readers came through with several hot tips. I hope you find them useful too.

From: Mark

This is a set of rules I came up with when I was considering running a fire fighters game. They are untested and may need tweaking.

I consider them too complex for normal use, but if you are focusing on the dangers of fire, then they might work for you. If nothing else they may spark some ideas for you.

I treat fire as a creature (I called it a “Fire-Hex”).

  • It occupies a hex (I use red poker chips). It can share hexes with others (even itself, see below).
  • It has hit points (normally 2d6 for a campfire sized fire) and takes damage only from things which would put out a fire. i.e., water, sand, snow, suffocation, beating blanket, starvation (see below).
  • It can (and will) climb if it has the opportunity. It can spread (see below) on a roof as easily as a floor.
  • It does automatic 2d6 contact damage to anyone and anything touching its hex each round. The damage it inflicts each round adds to its own health.
  • If it is starved of fuel (i.e., doesn’t burn someone or something) it takes 2 points damage per round.
  • If a Fire-Hex has more than 24hp, it will split in two and spawn a new 12hp Fire-Hex in an adjacent hex.
  • A typical wooden floor has 60hp per hex. So will burn for about 10 rounds before being destroyed (giving the Fire Hex 60hp in the process, which will create 5 new Fire-Hexes). Non-flammable materials, such as stone and steel, will take half damage from fire, but do not add to the Fire-Hex’s health. This is how stone buildings collapse in a fire.
  • If there are no fire free hexes nearby, the fire will stack on another fire. This effectively makes it do 4d6 points damage, and it takes 4 damage per round if starved. This continues up to a maximum stack of 5 fire hexes (10d6 points damage).
  • To make matters worse, each Fire-Hex creates a smoke hex each round. Kinda like a stinking cloud spell (see smoke below).
  • A character in smoke must make a Fortitude save each round (DC 15, +1 per previous check) or spend that round choking and coughing, taking 1 point of damage. Smoke obscures vision, giving concealment.
  • Characters exposed to fire might catch on fire (clothes, hair, items) if they fail a DC 15 Reflex save. A burning character takes 1d6 points damage each round until they succeed in their Reflex saving throw (so does exposed equipment). Jumping in water automatically extinguishes the flames, and “stop, drop and roll” gives a +4 bonus to the save attempt.
  • It moves at local wind speed. (I have seen fires move at over 80kmh…bloody scary.)
  • Flame thrower = 5d6 points damage + starts fires.
  • Water fire extinguisher = 2d6 damage to a fire per shot, 20 shots.
  • CO2 fire extinguisher = 5d6 damage to a fire per shot, 5 shots.

These rules make it hard and dangerous to fight fires, which was the point of the fire fighters game.

If you want to make fire less threatening, make it do 1d6 rather than 2d6 damage.

This halves their speed of growth and makes it much easier to contain a fire before it gets established.

You could also make a rule that fires cannot do more damage than it has HP, which would slow the growth of small fires.

Example:

Say a PC lets loose with a 5d6 flamethrower inside a house. They hit their foe for 20 points damage and it dies.

The fire also creates a 20hp Fire-Hex in that hex (a 20 points damage fireball wouldn’t, as that is flash and gone, but a flamethrower is designed to set things on fire).

The Fire-Hex does 2d6 to the hex it is in, and grows 5 points.

It now has 25hp and spawns a new Fire-Hex with 12hp. The original Fire-Hex now has 13hp.

Both fires produce a smoke hex. The PC puts down his flame thrower and runs for a nearby fire extinguisher. Getting there and back takes 2 rounds.

In that time, the two fire hexes do 2 rounds’ of 2d6 points damage each (3, 11, 7 and 9) and create 4 more smoke hexes.

The Fire-Hexes have grown to be 15hp, 20hp after the first round, then are 26 and 29hp when the PC returns.

Both spawn making a total of 4 Fire-Hexes (12, 12, 14 and 17hp).

The PC uses the fire extinguisher and does 2d6 points damage to the nearest Fire-Hex (he rolls a 4 dropping it from 12 to 8hp).

But the Fire-Hexes make 4 more smoke hexes (total of 10 now) and the PC is in danger of choking on the smoke.

All 4 Fire-Hexes roll damage on the floor/wall/roof of their hexes (no wind inside so they don’t move) and get 12, 8, 10 and 6 to give totals of 24, 16, 24 and 23.

Two of them spawn. We now have 6 Fire-Hexes (12, 12, 16, 12, 12, 23hp).

Worse, the PC is in the hex the fire spawns into. He makes his reflex save to avoid catching fire and runs off to get the rest of the team to help him put out the fire.

By the time they get back, the whole house may well be ablaze….

From: Darren Blair

Do you play Battletech?

If you do, go find your Battletech rule book.

Incendiary weapons have been a part of the game since the late 1980s, and in there’s a canon mecha (the Firestarter) based around using them. As such, there are rules in place for how to handle fires.

The manual I have is the Battletech Master Rules Revised, product #1707, copyright 2001. The rules for fire and smoke run pgs. 79 – 80.

From: Mike Bourke

Fire spreads unless it is constrained from doing so. But the spread is usually only significant in the path of least resistance, i.e., where it contacts the next most-flammable object.

Double the size of the fire and you quadruple its intensity, and the number of directions in which it can expand.

Have some idea of the ignition temperatures of different materials.

Fuel and flammable liquids generally spread horizontally, while heat and sparks spread vertically up, pushed to one side by wind effects.

Almost anything will burn under the right conditions (get some steel wool and pry the ‘fibres’ of metal apart until they are loose – you can light them with a match).

Watch a couple of movies that deal in fire effects – The Towering Inferno and Backdraft come to mind.

Read a book on fire safety such as Fundamentals Of Fire Protection.

Lastly, treat the fire as a living thing – a monster in its wn right – and do up encounters with different sized fires.

Give each size appropriate powers and hit points and damage and so on. That makes it easier to figure out what the fire can do once released, and gives you a standard, well-developed rules structure (the combat rules) to work with.

From: Jon Smejkal

Hi Johnn,

Regarding Neil Googe looking for help with Fire rules, I’d suggest making it a character!

The Fate RPG site has this interesting article on fire: It’s On Fire.

Basically, treat it like another creature. They say fire has a life of its own, so give it one.

  • Give it a movement score so you can see how it spreads
  • Give it an attack value so you can damage characters caught in it
  • Give it a health track that is damaged by water or fire extinguishers so it can be put out

You don’t even have to let the players know you are doing it this way.

From: Arne Schmidt

Here’s the best set of rules I’ve found for using fire. On his website, the Alexandrian, Justin Alexander suggests treating a fire as a construct. This allows the players to combat the fire and for the fire to behave in an appropriate fashion.

Here’s the complete list of rules: ADVANCED RULES: FIRE.

Thanks for the great fire tips, everyone. I have a few ideas burning in me now. Time to light it up next session!