NPC Contest Starts Now + The 3 Line Instant NPC Method

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0575b

NPC Contest Starts Now + The 3 Line Instant NPC Method

Last article we covered a few tips on getting NPCs more involved in your campaigns while amping up your story at the same time.

We looked at some rules of thumb, including:

  • Introduce at least one NPC each session to make your games teem with options
  • Kill an NPC in dramatic fashion each session to keep your players on their toes and to propel your story forward
  • Think NPC, then portray NPCs, then act like NPCs to level up your storytelling

Today, let’s dive into the simple formula you can use to create fast NPCs that offer great gameplay.

Ready for the 3 Line Method formula? Drum roll please….

The 3 Line NPC Method

Line 1: What the players can see: NPC appearance and what the NPC is doing at the moment they meet

Line 2: What to portray: What the NPC does for a living and personality

Line 3: How to progress the story: Adventure or encounter hook

While these three items seem simple, which is proof NPCs built this way will take you little time, there is a whole lot more going on. Here’s what I mean.

Line 1: What The Players Can See

Describe the appearance of the NPC in a few words. And focus on the important and notable stuff.

This makes descriptions in-game much easier for you. And it’s faster to design just what PCs could perceive and save all the extra myriad details for when they become important.

You might call this just-in-time details, and it’s very efficient. Plus, it keeps more GMing options open.

First, picture the NPC in your mind. I like to use Pinterest to find great NPC portraits.

Then think about what the PCs would actually see, sense and detect. Well-hidden items and equipment and belongings stowed elsewhere are not important right now.

If you already have ideas on this stuff, by all means add it to your NPC description. But the 3 Line Method is meant to give you compelling NPC cores in as short a time as possible, with as little work as possible.

It gets rid of the extraneous stuff so you can free up your imagination and put on your storyteller’s hat. So you only need to note what the PCs can perceive.

For some NPCs, you will need to go back and flesh out their character sheet with more details. But why do that when the NPC hasn’t even joined the game, hasn’t even met the PCs (and survived) and hasn’t even become involved in the story?

Think of this as minimum viable product GMing – don’t over-plan or over-prepare. Test your NPC first for “campaign acceptance” before spending a lot of time on him or her or it.

Ok, circling back to building the description, with mental picture of NPC in mind, the second step is to add the standard array of information as one word details: [Age, Gender, Culture, Race, Class].

Let your world and game system do the heavy lifting here. Assume all details are as written in your rules or setting unless the NPC is different. And therefore, you can leave those details for the books and make your core NPC description brief.

For example: [Young Male Deep Dwarf Miner].

Your system or setting describes what values typical dwarves have for young age bracket, dwarf qualities, miner class or profession, and Deep Dwarf culture. Just let your dwarf inherit all these values without noting them, and then just remark on anything unusual in step three, like being extra tall, skinny, hairless, clean, whatever.

In this way, you pack in a whole bunch of details fast during NPC creation, and you don’t bore PCs with details that don’t need explanation.

You also have full control over what you describe during the game. Don’t want to reveal race or class because the NPC is too dirty or in disguise? No problem, modify your verbal description accordingly – you still have the facts noted for reference and consistency.

Finally, the third step is to note at least three interesting things about the NPC. Use single words, if possible. You can flesh these out later, but right now you want to just figure out what makes this NPC interesting, unique, notable.

Plus, you want to mention anything players would think important and that the PCs could spot or sense. If you don’t, your group will get frustrated at missing important details their characters would have noticed.

Here’s an example description:

[Young Male Deep Dwarf Miner] +1 pick, pet weasel, sneer.

How long would it take you to write such a line? A minute until you’ve had more practice? Having a visual will speed this up even more.

In fact, if you use a computer at the game table, you can link to the visual and just show your players, and worry even less about the description.

And do you think you’d be able to use this line to extrapolate a few details for a decent description when the PCs meet this NPC? Hopefully it becomes easy, and it definitely does so with practice.

Also, notice I left dimensions out. This always kills believability for me. How can you tell if an NPC is exactly 5’4″ tall or 167 lbs?

And while mundane details might interest some players, too much detail causes eyes to glaze and slows game pace.

If you just present what the PCs would notice so they can understand the NPC at a high level, you’ll have done your job and can move on.

If a player asks, “Exactly how tall is he?” you can reply “Average for a dwarf” or find the dwarf height chart and pick a value if essential. Right now, we’re 1 line into 3 line NPC, so leave this extraneous detail out. They’re available elsewhere or you can fabricate them on the spot when needed. Every now and again you could even let your players fill in the blanks themselves. Especially with little things, use their creativity. It may even make them feel more part of the world.

Last point: feel free to expand and change keywords to suit your game. For example, if you use alignment and level, add those in where desired:

[LN Young Male Deep Dwarf Miner 8]

What’s He Doing Now?

This was a great add-on by Daniel Brouwer, who helped me solidify these concepts over an email exchange.

Make your NPC feel alive by having them doing something instead of just standing there waiting for the PCs to appear.

You can change this as circumstances require, such as if a town meeting is called and the PCs meet the NPC there instead of his usual spot.

So let encounter situations override your write-up, but meantime, put your NPC to task:

  • Building
  • Fixing
  • Telling a joke
  • Cursing out someone
  • Doing his job’s main task
  • Riding by
  • Climbing a ladder
  • Making a meal
  • Doing his hobby
  • Dancing

You might wait until you’ve completed Line 2: Portrayal in the next step to figure this out. That’s great. An NPC at work is a way to show, not tell, more about who the NPC is.

In a campaign where NPCs are always doing something, your players will feel like your world is alive and your NPCs are more than bags of hit points.

So, what is your NPC up to?

[LN Young Male Deep Dwarf Miner 8] +1 pick, pet weasel, sneer; prying a cobblestone from the street looking for a coin he dropped.

Line 2: What To Portray

Most people have a place in their society. In modern times, we think of it as what people do for a living. In other times and in different cultures, profession might have stronger or lesser influence on identity.

Our dwarf IS a miner. A paladin IS a holy warrior. In Basic D&D an elf IS an elf (no class or other identity add-ons).

In many cases however, job, profession or skill set differ from rules, identity, race and other campaign elements.

If there is indeed an answer to what the NPC does for a living, note it here. Feel free to add an adjective to inject more flavour.

For example:

Appearance: [N Elderly Female Keshian] Sickly, noble garb, jewels – neck and hair; walking her tiger cub on a leash.
Portrayal: Stern head of household

Add Personality

Now we get into personality.

NPC personality has been covered in detail in previous Roleplaying Tips articles and in my NPC Essentials book.

But my big new tip here for you today is this: use a bunch of different trait types and qualities to make your Cast of Characters more realistic.

For example, if you have a table of phobias, use this only for a few NPCs. When every NPC has a phobia, it gets silly.

If you have a chart of quirks, use it on every fourth or fifth NPC, else you get a quirky Cast of Characters that’ll kill sense of disbelief in any serious or gritty campaign.

What kinds of personality ingredients should you throw into your NPC bag of Nuts ‘N Bolts to make each one a whole new ball game? (This reference will only make sense to people my age. 🙂

  • Quirks
  • Traits
  • Loyalties
  • Motives, dreams, goals
  • Jealousies, Fears
  • Power base
  • Has a side plot
  • Interests, knowledge, experience
  • Secrets (my favourite)
  • Mood, disposition
  • Event

Can you see how distributing these different types of personality features and drivers amongst your NPCs will help you build a varied and interesting Cast of Characters?

One NPC has fleas, another fears heights and a third just murdered his neighbour. A fourth covets his brother’s wife, another offers unwavering and hard-lined service to the Mayor and a sixth wants to start a bard troupe.

Feel free to layer on multiple personality traits, but for the purposes of creating 3 Line NPCs fast for easy gameplay, start with one and flesh out the character through gameplay, while updating his character sheet.

Alternatively, if profession is already covered in Line 1: Appearance (i.e., our dwarf IS a miner – it’s his class and profession) feel free to add a second personality item.


Appearance: [N Elderly Female Keshian] Sickly, noble garb, jewels – neck and hair; walking her tiger cub on a leash.
Portrayal: Stern head of household, vain.

Appearance: [LN Young Male Deep Dwarf Miner 8] +1 pick, pet weasel, sneer; prying a cobblestone from the street looking for a coin he dropped.
Portrayal: Chews and spits tobacco, has fleas.

In short, the second line is information the PCs don’t necessarily see right away, but something they can find out about the NPC if they take the time to get to know them.

Line 3: Progress The Story

In his book Finite and Infinite Games, Carse explains the many differences between an open-ended (infinite: no end, no losers) and closed (finite: winners vs. losers) game.

One of the biggest aha! moments for me was players in infinite games such as RPGs need to make moves that grow, extend or open up the game for more moves.

That makes sense because you want the story to continue. You want players to riff off each other, collaborate and build a great campaign with you. You always want everyone in the group fired up and hollering to game another session.

(There are exceptions like one-shot games, convention games and single arc games. I’m talking about long-term regular game night style campaigns here.)

From a GM’s view, we want to create game pieces that do the same thing. For example, we want NPCs to grow, prolong and open up more options for great gameplay!

An NPC with sniffles is fun to portray, but offers little to extend or expand the story.

However, an NPC who’s trying to cover up a murder or who just lost his lucky gold piece (and now does have bad luck) does give us great story options.

Whether you wind these NPC hooks into your main plot, use them for PC side-plots, or make them part of an interesting background tapestry of news and events, your game grows – not shrinks – because of this simple line in your 3 Line NPC write-up.

Therefore, Line 3 is about how the NPC can improve, extend and deepen your story.

It can be a simple adventure or encounter hook, such as a FedEx quest. I like secrets and events best, because they have more depth, are more subtle and tend to intrigue players.

For example, an NPC whose husband murdered a servant last night and does not want her husband caught. This opens up gameplay:

  • The NPC finds the PCs trustworthy and asks for help disposing the body and cleaning up clues and evidence
  • The PCs find the body and do not suspect the NPC but do interact with the NPC several times
  • The PCs are directed to the servant for some reason, but the servant has disappeared
  • A PC is related to the servant
  • A PC is hired as the servant’s replacement – are they in jeopardy too?

As discussed last article, a critical component that helps develop your story is to ask Why?

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Why is the NPC involved with the hook?

Why does the NPC want to keep the secret a secret, or want 10 dire scorpion tails, or want his lucky gold piece back?

The better and more compelling the why, the better your story and gameplay.

Imagine a campaign full of NPCs with plot hooks practically bursting out of them. You have them all in your back pocket to offer when you need to give the game a push. You can also use them to offer great results to players from PC actions.

Meantime, you can portray NPCs in encounters through the lens of their hook, depending on what the hook is, to make NPCs seem different and special.

For example, the normally stern noble woman seems distracted, stressed and confused around the PCs because the murder weighs so heavily, and she asks odds questions about corpses. The dwarf begins having bad luck and starts acting paranoid and distressed. A superstitious idea blooms within him that the PCs are responsible and they are also the solution….

Make your last line in your 3 Line NPC something that will expand, extend or add depth to your game.

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Putting It All Together

Read all three lines, plus study the portrait if you chose one, to get a sense of who this NPC is and what they’re about.

With appearance, personality and hooks in place, you have a complete picture.

Now do a quick review.

First, do a quality check:

  • Is the NPC boring?
  • Is the NPC silly or cartoonish?
  • Will the NPC mesh with your campaign and story?

Second, think a bit about how you’ll game them:

  • How will you roleplay them? (Think and do)
  • How will you portray them? (Body language, voice, behaviour)
  • How might they fit into your story?

I’m often surprised – though I have no idea why, anymore – how a little meditation on an NPC helps me GM them a hundred times better.

Even if it’s just 10 seconds while killing time somewhere. I think visually, and so try to picture the NPC moving and talking and doing things.

When it comes time to GM the NPC, I have a lot more confidence and ideas than when I’ve done no visualization beforehand. Give it a shot yourself.

Meantime, fix any glaring error with your NPC and then create your next one.

Let’s finish up our examples.

Appearance: [N Elderly Female Keshian] Sickly, noble garb, jewels – neck and hair; walking her tiger cub on a leash.
Portrayal: Stern head of household, vain.
Hook: Husband has murdered a servant and does not know what to do with body.

Appearance: [LN Young Male Deep Dwarf Miner 8] +1 pick, pet weasel, sneer; prying a cobblestone from the street looking for his lucky coin.
Portrayal: Chews and spits tobacco, has fleas.
Hook: If coin not found, luck truly turns bad and affects others.

Here’s a 3 Line NPC Daniel wrote:

Appearance: An elderly woman with raven black hair, ice blue eyes, wearing a dark colored scarf and many rings with brightly colored stones.

Portrayal: Medicine woman of village, townsfolk support her and gather whatever she needs for her potions, which she makes and distributes for free.

Hook: Is last of a line of witches, always approaches people traveling through town to find out if there is a young girl she can pass her legacy and curse on to. Doing so involves a rather painful initiation: the death of a loved one.

With practice, the 3 Line Method will take you no time at all, and you’ll be crafting awesome NPC cores fast.

As your game demands, flesh out these cores into full fledged NPCs with stats, backstories, relationship networks or whatever is needed.

The purpose of the 3 Line Method is to get you playable NPCs in a short amount of time. NPCs that expand your gameplay in terms of portrayal, interaction and story.

Ok, ready for a contest and a chance to practice creating 3 Line NPCs?

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3 Line NPCs Contest – Help Populate Chaos Keep

Create and submit your own 3 Line NPCs. Random entries will be drawn for some great prizes.

Daniel first mentioned creating a village of NPCs as a contest. Then we added in the 3 Line Method as a framework. And I’m expanding it one more step by making this contest about a community of NPCs you’d find at a keep.

A keep is a cross between a city and a village, so you have both worlds available to you: guards, nobles, leaders, merchants, peasants, underworld, magic folk, clergy and more to choose from.

So, imagine a keep on the borderlands and who’d live within and outside its walls, just trying to make a life for themselves. You’ve got three lines to do it. 🙂

Contest Deadline: May 15, Midnight MDT

How to Enter: Create one or more 3 Line NPCs. Email [email protected] with your entry(s). Multiple entries get you multiple chances to win.

Use this NPC format:

What you see (appearance and activity):
Who they are (job and personality):
A juicy fact or hook:

Awesome Prizes Up For Grabs

  • MyInfo Pro software licenses
  • Your pick of my products
  • Your pick of an NBOS mapping and campaign management software title
  • $25 bundle of Thistle Games ebooks
  • $25 bundle of Rite Publishing ebooks
    If you have any questions, just hit reply.

To enter the contest, just email me your NPC creations by May 15. I look forward to seeing your 3 Line NPCs!