Easy GMing With One Sentence NPCs + New Contest
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #406
- Easy GMing With One Sentence NPCs
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- What’s Your Favorite RPG? Microlite20
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Chatty DM recently wrote on his blog about 10 word adventure synopses, which is a great idea. It forces you to pare plots down to their essence. This makes writing them faster, with practice, and makes GMing easier because you have a clear concept on paper.
Let’s leverage that idea to create another awesome GM tool: one sentence NPCs. This concept was danced around as fly-by NPCs in my book NPC Essentials, but Chatty’s structured format turns it into a solid technique.
Below are a few tips on how to craft interesting, usable NPCs in just one sentence. Once you’ve finished digesting the tips, be sure to try them out and enter your NPCs into the contest.
Create Three Traits
It’s important you give your one sentence NPCs three traits or characteristics. NPCs done well are the life of the game. They not only drive plots, but they fuel roleplaying and add depth to the game world.
You can create one or two trait NPCs, but during play I find those come off as cardboard, clownish, or cliche. It seems the third characteristic creates that extra dimension needed to make NPCs alive. It provides you that extra spark to GM and roleplay them well, and to mine them for story roles and encounter ideas.
A great technique is to pick one trait from three different categories (categories will be outlined next issue). Each category reveals a new aspect of the NPC, and this turns out to be the key if you desire three dimensional non-player characters in your games.
For example, if I only chose the Appearance category, and gave the NPC three appearance traits, there wouldn’t be much depth or material to work with when GMing that character. To make him interesting, you’d need to resort to extremes, giving him an odd or distinguished appearance. That might get you by with a few NPCs, but if your whole campaign was filled with NPCs who looked remarkable, with no other traits, it would seem strange and become dull.
That brings us to another aspect of this tip. There are more than three possible trait categories. I’ve seen NPC formulas in the past, including in this e-zine, but cookie-cutter NPCs without variation will cause campaign and world development issues. The predictability and repetition will ruin sense of disbelief, mood, and atmosphere.
Fortunately, there are more than three categories to choose from, and by picking one trait from three different lists each time, your NPCs are sure to be varied, interesting, and unpredictable. Perfect!
Create A Contradiction
A key element to the one sentence NPC technique is to create one conflict or contradiction between the character’s three traits. This will generate friction in the NPC’s makeup, and is where his humanity (for lack of a better word in games where NPCs can be of any race), depth, and mileage will come from. This is a critical aspect of making NPCs, especially the one sentence variety.
For example, Elmo has three traits:
- Occupation: farmer
- Appearance: big and strong
- Stat: low intelligence
At first, players will have fun poking at the big, dumb, rural man. Soon, though, the roleplaying will dwindle and the group will look for a more interesting NPC to game with. Elmo might be good for a comic relief role, which is fine, but he’s become a one dimensional cliche. Worse, plots or encounters you might try to drive with this NPC will feel forced or lack depth.
What if we add conflict and change Elmo’s farmer occupation to secret agent? Elmo is only posing as a farmer so the villain’s minions won’t pay him any attention. We now have an interesting NPC with a bit of depth. As you roleplay him, his mission will drive his objectives and decisions. You can mine this for many gaming opportunities and cool encounter moments.
He’s much more fun to GM too, as I find gaming a secret that’s close to the PCs adds a lot to each session. You’ve also got a great surprise in store for your players when Elmo’s true identity gets revealed.
We’re not done with Elmo yet, though. The real conflict amongst his traits comes from his poor intelligence. You can play this in many ways, as intelligence has many definitions. However, this shortcoming is at direct odds with being a successful secret agent. What fun! This twist gives you lots of GMing material.
- If Elmo becomes an ally, perhaps the PCs need to rescue him a few times.
- Elmo might have enough guile to maintain his cover, but as you roleplay him he makes several unsavvy and odd actions and decisions that perplex the PCs, giving them a mystery to solve while the major story arc progresses.
- Once the PCs know Elmo’s secret, they might join forces, and he keeps getting them into predicaments, or forces the PCs to roleplay and get him out of trouble with his superiors on occasion.
Note: I advise not going for more than one strong contradiction. Feel free to experiment, but you don’t want to create a tossed salad NPC with so much conflict and weirdness that he becomes unbelievable or brittle (though Dennis Hopper fans might disagree).
Here’s a one sentence description of Elmo:
Big and strong secret agent, posing as a farmer, who often gets into trouble because of his low intelligence.
Make One-Sentence NPCs Interesting But Generic Until Used
It might seem like a contradiction, but leave your one- sentence non-player characters as generic as possible until you bring them into play at the game table or in a design session.
Do this to keep your options open until you’re ready to introduce the NPC. You want to minimize in game, last minute changes or retrofitting, to make GMing easier. It also means you need to make fewer notes to track changes.
While GMing, it’s often simpler to bring in a generic element and customize it for your current need, than to bring in a fleshed out element and trim away on-the-fly to make things fit.
In practical terms, when creating a roster of one-sentence NPCs for later use, you can leave the following bits of information blank until the last minute:
- General appearance
Use Traits That Affect Encounters
This tip was hard won by experience. 🙂 After more times than I care to count of creating NPC details that had no effect on gameplay – ever – I finally learned that the details that matter most are ones that come into play during encounters.
I would spend an hour on an NPC’s history, for example, but during games that information would have no impact, or worse, become obsolete or contradictory due to shifting details.
Writing fiction for an hour is not a waste of time. In previous e-zine tips I’ve described how creative writing helps GMing. For pure NPC value though, stick to details and manage your time so you only create what will impact your game directly. Use NPC traits that affect encounters.
For example, our spy Elmo might have a fear of spiders. Fears have a spectrum of severity, so let’s say Elmo’s fear is debilitating when in the presence of large spiders.
Unless you plan for large spiders and Elmo to be in the same encounter, your creative effort has been largely wasted. Maybe a kinder term for it is deferred. 🙂 If spiders and Elmo have something going on, be sure to jam them together in an encounter – hopefully, more than one encounter.
It’s important to reveal each of the three characteristics you’ve defined for your one sentence NPCs, so that all their dimensions and conflict come into play.
Another trap is creating a trait that does come into play, but is too minor to have any impact. For example, let’s say Elmo dislikes cloudy days. Except in extreme circumstances, this fact will not affect the game at all when it comes up. Roleplaying, action, plot, clues, and other storytelling categories all seem unaffected with this trait. Best to replace it with something that does impact gameplay when it manifests.
Part 2: One Sentence NPCs coming soon
Part 2 of One Sentence NPCs delves into the categories of potential traits you can assign your non-player characters. Such things as power base, secrets, jealousies and fears, relationships, and more. Stay tuned.
Also, if you have any tips for crafting one sentence NPCs, I’ll try to fit them into part 2 as well. Just hit reply to send in your NPC tips and advice.
Don’t forget to enter the One Sentence NPC contest either.
A Brief Word From Johnn
One Sentence NPCs Contest Begins – Enter Today
Blogger Chatty DM and I have teamed up for a new contest that should be fun for GMs of all game systems: one sentence NPCs.
++ Contest Entry ++
E-mail me [[email protected]] one sentence NPCs that generally use the tips outlined in this issue: three traits, one conflict or contradiction, interesting. Any and all one sentence NPCs are eligible however, so don’t let writer’s block or my formula stop you from entering.
Alternatively, you can post your NPCs at Chatty’s blog:
Each NPC counts as one entry, and you are welcome to submit as many one sentence NPCs as you like to increase your odds of winning, or, just because they’re fun to write. 🙂
Contest is open now. Contest ends July 13. Winners will be drawn soon after contest close.
Note that I reserve the right to void entries judged inappropriate/nonsensical for the contest.
++ Prizes ++
Each NPC entry gives you a chance to win any of the following:
From Wolfgang Baur: http://wolfgangbaur.com/
- 3 x Kobold Quarterly #4 issues (print or PDF – your choice)
- 1 Standard Patron Open Design account (value $30)
- 1 Senior Patron Open Design account (value $100)
From Hero Lab http://www.wolflair.com
- 4 x Hero Lab 2.0 licenses (character creation software for multiple game systems)
Expeditious Retreat Press XRP Central 1 print or PDF version (your choice) of the following:
- 1 on 1 Adventures #9: Legacy of Darkness
- 1 on 1 Adventures #10: Vengeance of Olindor
- 1 on 1 Adventures #11: Unbound Adventures
- Advanced Adventures #4: Prison of Meneptah
- Advanced Adventures #5: Flaming Footprints of Jilanth
Goodman Games http://www.goodman-games.com/4371preview.html
- 3 x GM Gems book (print or PDF – your choice)
Paizo (care of Chatty DM) Softcover copies of:
- Pathfinder #7: Edge of Anarchy
- Pathfinder #8: Seven Days to the Grave
- Pathfinder #9: Escape from Old Korvosa
Thanks very much to the generous prize sponsors.
Winners will be drawn at random, so don’t worry about writing skills. One NPC = one entry and one chance to win.
Entries will be edited and then given back to everyone in the e-zine. What GM couldn’t use a list of one sentence NPCs for instant game and planning use?
Not All Keep on the Shadowfells Smudge
Good news from Roleplaying Tips reader Brian S. in response to my recent review of the first D&D 4E adventure product:
Regarding Keep on the Shadowfell, not all of the copies smudge easily. I read a review of it stating the same, so when I got mine I intentionally spent the entire evening with it trying to smudge the ink, and I could not mess up even a single letter. I think perhaps they just had a bad print run with it, and hopefully it will be the exception rather than the rule.
Keep up the fantastic work!
Have a great week thinking up one sentence NPCs!
What’s Your Favorite RPG? Microlite20
Thanks to Josh D for getting permission to reprint from http://microlite20.net/node/41 I’ve paraphrased a portion of the info. Visit the link for the full scoop.
For all it’s lack of size, Microlite20 does an admirable job of allowing GMs to run pretty much any published 3.5 D&D adventure on the fly without having to resort to hefty conversion tables and the like. It uses the d20 mechanic and terms that mirror those of D&D. Hit points, attack rolls and damage are the same, whichever game you’re playing.
One of the key differences between the d20 skill system and Microlite20 is that the attribute modifier can change. That’s an important distinction. It makes the Microlite20 system powerful and flexible. It means that just four skills can cover the entire D&D skill set, and more.
Microlite20’s four skills – Physical, Subterfuge, Knowledge and Communication – can be used to adjudicate pretty much any situation the game demands. Skills are also used to replace two of the three saving throws from D&D
Fewer skills means more choice. Back in the days of classic D&D, the players could do anything. With no straight-jacket skill system to limit their choices, the players invented cool and clever solutions to problems. When faced with a 30′ high statue with rubies for eyes, they erected pulleys to lift and swing the rogue into place far above their heads. Try doing that in 3rd Edition D&D and the GM will be left scratching their head working out how to call for skill checks for that. The D&D skill system has become a list of what the characters can do, silently eliminating all other possibilities, and that’s not a good thing.
Microlite20 is the best of both worlds; rather than provide a skills list, it provides a skills framework. This gives the players room to think of solutions rather than looking down a long list of skills to see what’s most applicable to the task at hand.
But, what happens when you’re running a published adventure, or using a monster from the Monster Manual or SRD? Answer: use them as is. It doesn’t matter that the orc makes a Listen check to see if it detects the PCs, or if the NPC fails a Spot check. The mechanics are the same, and the emphasis should always be on simplicity and speed of play. There’s no need to convert any monsters or NPCs to Microlite20 before you use them. Just roll, and have fun.
Microlite20 is your friend. It’s flexible, and encourages imaginative play. And it’s mostly d20 compliant too. What’s not to love?
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Roleplaying Tips Issue Reference
From jl hatlen linnell
Check out this cool Excel Roleplaying Tips e-zine catalog, created by Tips reader jl hatlen linnell, that covers all issues and supplementals. The spreadsheet supplies Issue and Reader Tip titles, authors, and year of publication. This is a good research tool. For example, did you know there have been 1370 e-zine contributors to date?
Using The 5 Room Dungeon To Get The PCs A Job
From Lennart Steinke
Hi! Just wanted to tell you how great the 5 Room Dungeon idea is. I am currently playing with a group of players who haven’t played D&D before, and several have mentioned they don’t want just hack’n slay. So, I wanted something less typical and decided to use “Ye Classic Wizard’s House” from the 5 Room Dungeon collection. Now, all I needed was a nice way to give the PCs their new job.
I decided to use the 5 Room Dungeon concept again. The “dungeon” was the house of a noble man, and the reward was getting a job to find the mcguffin in the wizard’s house:
The party knows that a local noble man is looking for a group of adventures for a simple find and retrieve job.
Room 1: The Guardian
The noble lives in a big house. A long road leads from the front gate to the mansion. Once the PCs enter the area, they hear an angry growl and are soon surrounded by guard dogs. How do the PCs get past these without slaughtering the animals? Or, at least, dealing with the dogs in a way the players can’t be blamed for by the noble.
Room 2: Roleplaying Challenge
Once the PCs arrive at the door and knock they must deal with the elitist butler. If they enter without knocking, the butler will not be pleased. Now is the time for the players with the social skills to shine. They might be able to get some extra information, and a good standing with the butler will impress the noble.
Room 3: Setback
The noble is already talking with a group of adventurers at the moment – but the butler will lead them to the library (where the noble currently is) anyway. The noble reveals he just gave the job to the other group of adventurers already – the one that just left. The players should now notice they didn’t meet another group. If nothing happens, the butler will point the fact out after some time. The search for the other group leads to Room 4.
Room 4: Conflict
The party finds the other group browsing through the nobleman’s possessions. Apprehending or defeating the other group will lead to Room 5.
Room 5: Reward
The party will now have proven their worth. The noble will gladly tell them what the actual job is and give them all needed information.
This went like a charm during the session, and it was much more interesting than a normal plot hook. Thanks for the great DM tool you have come up with; the 5RD really is a great way to build small adventures.
Use Paper Grocery Bags For Cool Map Paper
From Ed Allen
When I don’t have any fancy paper handy, I have found cutting or tearing a blank piece out of a paper grocery bag can provide nice, crude, brown paper for rough maps found by characters in a dungeon.
Also, when doing a handout map that is supposed to be the one found by characters, it can be nice to distress it with tears, burn marks (possibly obliterating some portion I don’t want them to see), fake blood stains, etc. Burn marks can have a bit of a downside if you are keeping the map around past one session. The crispy edges will break off over time, and you can get sooty stains on other papers.
I just tore it for the tears, though I suppose a few drops of salt water to stain the paper would work if you thought I meant the lachrymose sort of tears. My fake blood was a reddish brown paint for a dried bloodstain look, but for fresher blood, Google “fake blood recipe” for a bunch of alternatives.