Practical Methods For Making Your NPCs Come Alive

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0114

A Brief Word From Johnn

Back-Up Your RPG Files Today!

Well, I had an interesting time this weekend trying to recover data from my hard disk after a boot failure. It took a few hours of messing around, but the story ends happily.

You never know what you’ll miss though, until it’s gone. So, my personal tip today is to back up your important roleplaying computer stuff right now. Documents, programs, bookmarks, user settings, and whatever else you’d miss if the worst happens…


Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Practical Methods For Making Your NPCs Come Alive

From Jared Hunt

Crafting NPCs for characters to interact with is one of the most important and challenging aspects of being a GM. You are responsible for everyone in the world besides the PCs and it can sometimes seem like an overwhelming task. Some GMs respond by making NPCs relatively flat with nothing but a job and a name if someone asks. Others strive for total immersion and try to make every single NPC a quirky individual with bizarre family problems or terrible personal hygiene. The ideal, I think, can be found somewhere between the two extremes.

Here are some tips on making NPCs come to life without spending too much time on them (in-game or out).

Categorize NPCs To Prevent Wasting Valuable Planning Time

The amount of “life” an NPC requires is dependent on the parts they will play in the story. Categorizing NPCs according to their various roles will allow you to allocate the right amount of time in developing them.

Four suggested categories are:

  1. Combatants:
    NPCs who will be involved in combat alongside or against the PCs. These NPCs require a full set of game statistics, but might not require much in the way of personality development.
  2. Regular Cast:
    NPCs who will interact with the PCs regularly. These are the ones who require the most personality. Taking time to develop motivations, history, quirks, distinct tone of voice or accent, and other details will be worthwhile for NPCs in this category.
  3. Guest Appearance:
    NPCs who are making a one-shot (but important) appearance. Develop the same details as for Category 2 but with less depth.
  4. Extras:
    NPCs who are only there for background colour with no real role in the story. NPCs in this category require only a few notes about their appearance and intentions.

Categories often overlap, such as the recurring villain who fits into the regular interaction category (Category 2) and will likely see combat as well (Category 1). Plan only what you need to for the next session, and then if time permits, feel free to flesh out the NPC even further.

Create A Strong Visual

A brief description of the NPC’s appearance is usually the best way to start an encounter. Some details you may want to have ready include:


  • Height & weight
  • Eye & hair colour
  • Body type (stocky, thin, muscular, etc.)
  • Clothing (colour, condition, etc.)
  • Weapons (or lack thereof)
  • Equipment (condition, amount)
  • Distinguishing marks (many RPGs have lists of distinguishing features that you can roll randomly)
  • If possible, think of a famous actor who might resemble the NPC.


  • Facial expression
  • Body language and movements
  • Current emotional state
  • Overall demeanor (aggressive, agitated, friendly)

These bits of description can be noted with your session information or written on index cards where they can be filed, saved, and reused later.

In many cases, the psychological description is more important than the physical one, as it opens the door for great roleplaying and for starting encounters off on the right foot.

For example:

  • The PCs rush to the burning building and spot a man running out, hair on fire. However, he bears a strange look of triumphant satisfaction on his face rather than pain from his burns… This description transforms the encounter from “save the NPCs and move on” to an investigative one in a single stroke.
  • “The minotaur unstraps his mighty double-headed axe and rests it lightly against his armored shoulder. He saunters casually up to you, raises his heavily muscled free arm, and makes a shooing motion at you, like he were clearing some messy pigeons from his path.” Combat was inevitable with this encounter anyway, but now it’s personal…

Act It Out

Most people have learned to be visually stimulated by TV and movies. You can use that to your advantage by acting the part of the NPC. Acting has the advantage of conveying information quickly and it rewards players who are paying careful attention to you.

Acting things out does not mean you have to get up and walk around if you don’t want to; instead, use posture, body language, gestures, and facial expressions while seated to portray an NPC.Another aspect of acting things out is the use of props. Providing a visual aid greatly increases the chances of your players remembering an individual NPC.

Some easy NPC props include:

  • Jewels
  • Plastic weapons
  • Hats
  • Books
  • Fake beards and moustaches
  • Rings
  • Earrings
  • Tattoos (paint or stick-ons)

Create Personality

Any NPC who will engage in conversation with the characters will benefit from some personality development.

A few ways to develop NPC personalities include:

  • Choose a personality type from a pop psychology book or web site. Some theories include classifying people according to a colour, animal, or geometric shape. Assign the NPC a type and then use the description provided as a foundation for his personality.
  • Consider their family background. The state of a person’s family and family history play major roles in who they are. A man who grew up the son of a rich merchant will have a very different attitude than someone who grew up on the streets.
  • Go against stereotype. The king who begs forgiveness from everyone is much more interesting than the standard haughty and aloof king. The kobold that struts about, full of self- importance and confidence, is sure to earn a place in your player’s memories (even after they’ve slain him).
  • For less important NPCs who you still want to add a special touch to, consider using a single personality quirk:
    • loves chocolate (or obsessed with some other food)
    • worries constantly
    • bitter with life
    • lecherous
    • excessively happy
    • overly suspicious
    • self-important
    • competitive
    • jealous

Comment from Johnn: here’s some more quirks:

RPT#102 – Roleplaying & GMing Servant NPCs, Part II: Tips From Subscribers
RPT#39 – 6 More Ways To Use E-Mail To Help Your Game

Know Their Motivations

*Everyone* has motivations. An NPC who seems to exist only for the PCs’ benefit will definitely not seem deep and alive. Establish what each NPC wants and you will immediately know a lot about them.If you have very little planning time, then plan in this order:

  1. What does the NPC want in this encounter?
  2. What does the NPC want this week or month?
  3. What does the NPC want in the next 12 months?
  4. What are the NPC’s long term goals?

Some classic motivations include:

  • Make money
  • Protect something (self, family, country, tribe, etc.)
  • Find something (family, object)
  • Revenge (against an individual, a corporation, a group, a government or agency, etc.)
  • Redemption (the NPC has committed a sin and wants to atone for it)

It’s also useful to establish just how motivated they are. This will help you determine what lengths they are likely to go to in order to achieve their desires.

Plan Their Actions

If you have a handle on the NPC’s personality and motivations it should be relatively easy to predict how they will act in a variety of situations. To speed things along during play, make a quick note about how the NPC would act in some of these common situations:

  • Attacked (by the characters or a monster)
  • Bribed (particularly useful for guards, lawmen, officials)
  • Threatened
  • Betrayed
  • Flattered (some people just soak up flattery, others find it enraging)

These are just a few of the multitude of possibilities, but taking the time to plan just these few things will help you play the NPC smoothly.

Don’t Overdo It

If you create a compelling personality for every single NPC encountered, you will not only be overworking yourself, but you will probably be driving your players nuts. Sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate to use the generic innkeeper, standard bandit, etc. Refer to Tip #1 and only spend time (in and out of game) on NPCs who serve a purpose in the story.

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[Comment from Johnn: I sent Jared some reader submitted NPC tips and asked him to whip up this week’s article for me. Thanks to Jared, and thanks to the following subscribers whose tips Jared used for information and inspiration:

Joshua L, Notty, Jesper C, Bashar S, Bill C, Forrest, Petter S, William B, Julia F, Michael B, Mark W. ]

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Absentee Players: PCs, NPCs, and Special Characters

From Mark Y.

I’ve had problems with players who don’t show when expected, or who arrive late and leave early. I knew one guy who was part of our particularly large D&D group; we would play Fridays from about 4 to about 2 in the morning; he would wander in around 9, apologize for being late, get his papers, say hi to everyone, maybe have a drink of soda, and then apologize that he couldn’t stay, turn in his papers and leave, all before 9:30 (well, the times varied from week to week, but it was becoming something of a joke).

I’ve had to do a lot of workarounds in the past for player no-shows, and the best one I know is my Special Character rule.

In essence, there are player characters, non-player characters, and special characters. If you’re a player running a player character and you’re not at the game, your character is out of story–we’ll get him to neutral territory as quickly as possible, and play without you. If you’re late, and your character was left behind, sorry, you’ll have to wait for us to get back to wherever we left you. He won’t do anything significant if you’re not there, and he won’t get hurt if it’s at all avoidable. We expect player character players to be there.

If you can’t guarantee regular attendance at games, you’re encouraged to run a Special Character. Whenever you’re there, he’s yours; you define his actions, his attitudes, his opinions. If you’re not there, he becomes a non-player character run cooperatively by the referee and the other players at the table.

He’ll get his share of the treasure and experience, and he’ll take the chances we think you would take were you present, and will do whatever makes sense given the nature of the character as you’ve portrayed him. If he dies while you’re not there, we’re sorry, but it’s our belief that he would have died if you’d been running him anyway.

We do this not merely because players might be late or leave early or miss a few games and want their character involved, but also because characters are frequently given special items, things the party will find useful, whether it’s a +3 Sword or a long-range radio. It penalizes the party for a character to be out of the action, and the Special Character status eliminates the disadvantage to the party.

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Use AIDA As A Plot Hook Tool

From Aki H.

Marketing uses a trick called AIDA that has its uses for plot hooks in gaming as well. Rather than forcing players and their characters down a specific route of actions, you should provide hooks that:

  • Get their A)ttention. As players are in the right mindset to do some questing in any case, it’s not very hard, but it can be done with style.
  • Arouse their I)nterest. Beyond the first ‘ooh, aah’ or ‘how terrible!’, the plot hook needs to get the players and characters interested in what is really going on.
  • Have them D)esire a change in the state of things: get their emotions involved. There needs to be a reward, emotional or otherwise, attached to going beyond mere interest. And/or a penalty attached to failing to do so.
  • And finally, prompt them to A)ct.

This is what commercials do. Bright colours and naked flesh to get attention, arouse interest, and fan desire, prompting the potential customer into taking the act of becoming an actual customer. Plot hooks should do it as well.

In real life, this is also done the other way around, as with politics. Public attention is caused to recede, interest decline, and desire for a change be overcome with cynicism, perpetual dissatisfaction and despair in a belief that change can not happen. “They are all alike so why bother; the same people and parties rule forever.” This could easily be used in a game setting as well.

Combining the two:

  • A)ttention:
    The evil baron’s soldiers cut down a peasant in the middle of the street. No one does anything about it, but…
  • I)nterest:
    …not because the soldiers would be so fearsome but *because the peasants have learned to live with it.* They are obviously being exploited, and freely admit that this is the case. They just believe that things can never change. This causes the players, and their characters, to…
  • D)esire:
    …get emotional about it, feeling holy wrath at the dire fate of the poor people. Add a final touch of impetus, such as the murdered peasant’s daughter crying out for people to avenge the death of her father, a spark of hope suddenly appearing in the eyes of the people when they realize that with the help of some heroes perhaps change would indeed be possible, perhaps a soldier taking the initiative to make the situation personal for the player and characters as well if it is not already, and…
  • A)ct:
    …they will act. Out of their own initiative, just like we buy what we buy out of our own initiative rather than due to the influence of commercials.
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Battlemat Alternative

From G. Allen

I use my mother’s sewing grid for my group’s figs and battlemat. The squares make a decent grid, if a little bland, and it’s plastic, which allows for playing on carpets and other soft surfaces as our gaming locales are short on tables.

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Labyrinth Of Doom: A Nice Break And A Good Way To Learn The Rules

From Caelmrar

I’m not a very experienced DM, but one thing that I do if I don’t have an adventure made up (or just want to take a break) is I have the players make new characters starting at any level (I prefer higher, like 15 or so). They get the starting amount of gold for their level and can buy anything with it.

I tell the players not to worry too much about the details, and to just get a general idea of a basic personality for roleplaying.

Then, I make an equal number of NPCs of equal level, and create a semi-labyrinth thing, with plenty of open areas. I make sure both sides are equally mapped, and then have the 2 parties fight. It’s a good way to practice DMing and also learn a little of what it’s like to be a player. [Comment from Johnn: it’s also a great way to learn the capabilities and powers of the more powerful forces in your games. A challenge I’m facing with my new D&D 3E campaign is that I’ve never played or GM’d a high-level character with the new D&D rules before. Thus, I feel my villains, high level kings, and such are lacking in terms of not fully utilizing their powers. Hmmmm, maybe it’s time for a labyrinth of doom to appear in my campaign soon….]

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Cool Props

From Johnn Four

Ed Bradshaw sent me a link to one of his pages that showed a few cool props he made:

  • The Treasure Chest
  • PC “Magic” Cards
  • The Clock
  • Player Stand-ups

With his permission, I snarfed them and posted the pics and descriptions at Hands On Props: Great Prop Ideas From Ed Bradshaw