The 3 Line NPC Method: How to Create Story-Full NPCs Fast - Roleplaying Tips

The 3 Line NPC Method: How to Create Story-Full NPCs Fast

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #575a

NPCs add life to any campaign, even dark dungeons full of monsters. They are so important I wrote my first book on them. However, lately they’ve been causing me problems. The way I was building them was taking too long. Because I need 1,000 NPCs for my Chaos Keep campaign.

I tried a random generator. But I wanted something more…playable…from the results. I wanted each NPC to add to my game and not feel like a random collection of data.

I tried a full stat block, using the best elements from NPC Essentials, and I got great NPCs from this. Awesome ones. But I could tell it was going to take too long to build up my Cast of Characters for Chaos Keep. (I don’t really need 1,000 to start the campaign, but 50-100 would give me a solid group of notables.)

So I asked myself, “What are the essential bits of info I need to GM a great NPC?”

I made a bunch of notes in MyInfo. I crossed out stuff that wasn’t necessary, like crunch, because most of the NPCs I use are for plot and roleplay purposes. Besides, there’s a simple solution to that, which I will explain later.

I wrestled for a while and finally distilled what I needed down to just three simple elements.

Then RPT GM Daniel Brouwer emailed me with a contest idea:

“I thought about what kind of generator I would want to see, and I may have come up with something people will enjoy writing in about. I was thinking, every RPG has small villages, and they can be home to interesting folk. Usually, these folk are the mayor, if the party is lucky his beautiful daughter, the local cleric, the local ranger, and the local fighter. And that’s about it.

“How about a generator like the roadside encounters one, where people can write in with a ‘person of interest’ to put into a village?”

I emailed him back saying it was a great idea, along with my NPC solution. He suggested some changes, and we traded emails. This brings us to you and I, right now.

Today, I offer you the solution. A new way to create the foundation for NPCs that will help you build great but simple NPCs in under a minute. Not only that, the way you’ll learn to construct them will make your non-player characters instantly playable.

Let’s dig in. First, let me give you a few quick NPC tips before I describe the 3 Line Instant NPC method.

NPC Tip #1. Introduce An NPC Every Session

To start my new campaign I have one goal: introduce a bunch of NPCs.

I will use them like I always do, to build relationships with the players so the game world feels alive and interesting.

I will also use them to make my stories interesting. NPCs help drive the best stories.

I also want a bunch of NPCs in the hopper so I can watch PC reactions for good gaming opportunities (conflicts and affinities).

To make this a reality, I have a new GMing goal: introduce at least one NPC every session.

You should try this yourself and make it a habit.

If you add one new NPC to the world, the campaign, the story, you’ll soon have a terrific Cast of Characters. This cast will making your games more dynamic, full of roleplaying, PC options and hooks.

However, you and your players will get overwhelmed if you add NPCs too fast to your campaign. “What was the name of NPC #53? Was he the elf with sniffles or the dwarf with the weeping eye?”

By drizzling out new NPCs at one or so per session, you keep the new information and relationships manageable and memorable.

NPC Tip #2. Whack An NPC Every Session

Who’s gonna get it this week?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your players were excited – and a bit nervous – before each session, wondering if an NPC in the story is going to die, and whether the NPC will be a friend, a valuable contact or someone notable in the campaign? (I call notable deaths shockers.)

You have drama baked into your sessions without even rolling the dice because of how you’ve set up your story: no one is safe from the dangerous world.

Best case is an NPC gets whacked because of repercussions from PC actions a couple of sessions before.

Now we’re talking full-on deep campaign, deep world, deep story! A critical hit!

The trick here is to plan the death. If a great opportunity comes up during play, take it. Else, put a few scenarios together and keep them handy. Pick your favourite for the session, but be prepared to pull out the best fit instead once the session gets under way.

Try to make the NPC’s death (or disappearance, hostage-taking, cursing, or other terrible catastrophe) pertinent to the story and to the PCs.

It might be hard to find this sweet spot, but it will help a lot when you start introducing at least one new NPC every session. (Aha!)

Use loopy session planning to work out the ramifications of character actions and how NPCs and factions will respond. And make responses involve other NPCs – often new NPCs. (Aha!)

To avoid Red Shirt Syndrome, keep establishing and building NPC relationships.

That way, when an NPC gets whacked, there’s a real sense of loss because the players:

  • Liked him
  • Needed him
  • Needed to meet him
  • Heard about him and thought him interesting

And there’s an effect on the story because a relationship was involved.

But here’s the killer part (sorry about the pun). Not only must the PCs care for some reason about the NPC, you must also create a compelling reason Why? even if the PCs do not yet know the reason.

The Why? is the biggest and best part of this GMing technique.

  • A useful NPC killed because of natural disaster is sad, but this does not do much for your story.
  • A useful NPC killed because he knew too much and a stage boss wanted him disintegrated is much more interesting.
    Even better:
  • A useful NPC killed because he knew too much from talking with the PCs two sessions ago, and a stage boss wanted him disintegrated.
    Even betterer:
  • A useful NPC killed because he knew too much from talking with the PCs two sessions ago, and a PC’s brother ratted him out for coin, and a stage boss wanted him disintegrated.

Betterest:

  • A useful NPC killed because he knew too much from talking with the PCs two sessions ago, and a PC’s brother ratted him out for coin because he needs to pay a cleric to heal his pregnant wife, and a stage boss wanted him disintegrated.

Now we’ve got a rousing story on our hands!

Just dole these facts one piece at a time through encounters, and watch your players twist and turn along with the story.

Good times, great GMing.

If I had to summarize this tip in one sentence for you to implement next session, I would put it this way:

Every session, whack an NPC with ties to the PCs, backed up with a compelling reason “why”.

NPC Tip #3. Three Stages Of NPC Roleplaying

Ok, that covers NPCs and story. Let’s talk a bit about NPCs and roleplaying.

For new GMs nervous about running NPCs, I encourage you to tackle this in three stages. Work on the first stage until you feel comfortable, then challenge yourself with stage two. Once you’re comfortable with stage two, try stage three.

Stage 1: Think Like The NPC

And have him take action accordingly. In this step, you describe actions in third person, like you are working with a location or an item. Do not pressure yourself into roleplaying or portraying the character. Just start “thinking NPC.”

Think about:

  • What does the NPC do? How does he react?
  • What motivates or drives the NPC?
  • How does the NPC perceive the PCs? (Not how you perceive them, but how the NPC perceives them.)

Put the following on a note and paste it to your GM screen:

If you were the non-player character, who are you, why do you want what you want, and how would you react to what’s happening right now in the game?

Once you start doing this well and out of habit in your mind, you’ve started Thinking NPC.

Meantime, your NPCs will get better and more interesting, because it will be less of you in these characters and more of the NPCs themselves your players will interact with.

As a bonus, you can use this skill to level up your real life. As soon as you put yourself in others’ shoes and try to understand their viewpoint, your relationships will change for the better.

As they say, walk a mile in an NPC’s shoes, you can stop fleeing because he’s got no shoes!

Mastery at this stage goes beyond thinking like an NPC. You should learn how to think like an NPC in an amazing story.

NPC-as-plot is in effect here. NPCs who take believable and interesting actions make great plots.

For example, the PCs finally confront the brother who snitched on them to the stage boss, causing the death of Old Sarge, a valuable street contact and friend.

As the NPC (not you), think about:

  • Who you are
  • Why you sold out your brother
  • How you will react to the PCs
  • What would be interesting for the story

Do you play the family card, beg forgiveness, ask for help getting your pregnant wife to a cleric? That would work, but it’s not got much story punch. But still, that’s a great NPC roleplay scene, and you can always have an interesting encounter en route to the cleric or at the temple (say, with the stage boss’s crew).

So, in this scenario the NPC propelled the story a bit by getting the PCs moving.

However, Thinking NPC + story might bring you to this:

You leap out the window, triggering a chase scene followed by suicide-by-PC when finally caught.

You kill an NPC this way, and create a dramatic combat where the PCs probably don’t want to whack the NPC but he keeps attacking!

Or:

You leap out the window and head to the stage boss’s secret hideout nearby, leading the PCs into a trap. You try to escape during the battle.

You trigger an encounter with the stage boss and his crew, plus the PCs learn the location of the secret hideout. And hopefully the brother escapes to become a recurring NPC (and the stage boss too!).

Or:

You take your pregnant wife hostage. She’s the reason for all this, because she’s carrying the stage boss’s baby!

True or not, holy plot twist Batman. Plus, it makes sense why the brother would hit the stage boss up for money. Maybe the stage boss does not even realize the baby is his – more great plot revelations to come.

Stage 2: Portray The NPC

Stage two, when you are comfortable, is to “Show, don’t tell.”

Now that you’re Thinking NPC, you want to bring them to life at the table, to get players imagining and interacting more.

First, get a solid feel for how the NPC will look and act in encounters.

Then turn this into body language and interesting voice use (download my PDF that talks a little about this: 7 Ways to Improve Your GMing).

Use body language to mimic key NPC actions and reactions.

You need not be a full-on actor with this. But, just like great storytellers, you accentuate roleplaying by portraying NPC actions. You’re showing more, in addition to telling.

For example:

“He draws his dagger, puts his wife in a headlock, and screams ‘One more step and I stick her. I don’t wanna do it. Don’t make me do it. Hell, it’s not even my kid. It’s that cursed Cole Blacksword’s!”

Meantime, you’re standing up, pretending you’ve got somebody in a headlock. You’re leaning over a bit because the wife NPC is shorter. Your left arm is out in bent position in front of you, like there’s somebody’s throat in the crook of your elbow.

And your right hand is held like there’s a dagger in it (you might even have a pen in your hand as prop) being held in menacing fashion toward the hostage.

Why does this work? Well, how would you feel if your GM got up to portray a scene like this? It would be a lot more engaging than pure narrative. You could visualize better what’s going on. It would be more visceral, getting your heart pumping a few beats faster. It’s great storytelling at work.

Ok, now for the clincher.

You’re standing there, portraying the NPC and the scene. It’s not too uncomfortable, because you’re still using descriptive narrative. “He draws his dagger, puts his wife in a headlock, and screams…” Same old GMing you’re used to.

And you’ve got a simple pose going on that’s pretty much stationery. No weird acting required. You’re even using your own voice.

Still comfortable? Great. Here’s a question for you:

When you say, “He draws his dagger, puts his wife in a headlock, and screams….” etc. are your eyes big and wide open, or are they squinty and darting around?

Each option portrays the NPC in a completely different light!

A simple bit of body language makes the NPC either scared and sympathetic or calculating and a villain.

And this simple thing changes the whole flavour of the encounter.

This is mastery as this stage. Subtle expressions and nuances you’ll learn over time through trial, error and experience that takes NPC roleplaying and portrayal to a new level.

And it’s proof learning how to portray NPCs (much easier now because you’ve learned how to think like an NPC) will have a huge effect on your game and storytelling. Good job.

Stage 3: Impersonate The NPC

Now that you’re comfortable thinking the character and portraying the character, it’s time to be the character.

Accents, acting, moving, body language, using your space, props.

Watch plays and research acting to learn how to step outside of yourself and your ego to think, talk and act like an NPC so well your players will forget it’s you and think it’s a real NPC.

I am not at this level. I’m still working on portrayal. I might never be a great actor. And, truth is, you don’t have to be at stage three to GM awesome NPCs.

What counts most is your NPCs seem to think and do for themselves, they have an effect on the story, and you bring them to life by portraying them during encounters so they feel distinct and different from other NPCs.

However, if you want to try getting fully into character, stage three is here for you.

Mastery at this stage to me is when your players feel like your NPCs are real people and care about them just as much as the beloved and hated characters in their favourite books and movies. Further, your players can and do impersonate your NPCs at this stage, and are able to do so because they’ve been presented with vivid performances.

Be Awesome In One Stage

Do not feel pressure about mastering all three stages. If you become excellent at one of the stages, your NPCs will be engaging and memorable. You will stand out as a GM who does NPCs well.

I feel the stages build on each other, but you do not need to follow them in order. You might be a natural actor or be awesome at portrayal. So you might focus on just that stage to make NPCs interesting and distinct.

That’s because it’s better being very good at one stage than being mediocre at all stages.

I do poorly at Stage 3 and avoid it. Yet, my players always say they enjoy my NPCs.

NPC Tip #4. Crunch Out NPCs While You GM

Another key to making NPCs fast is to leave the crunch for later.

In rules heavy games like D&D and Pathfinder, unless you’ve mastered the rules it takes a while to fill out a character sheet.

So leave the stats for later.

Just assign skills and stats as you need them during gameplay.

For example, in Pathfinder I don’t really need to know an NPC’s ability scores. I just need their bonuses so I know how to modify dice rolls.

And I only need the bonuses when I’m about to make a dice roll.

Therefore, I assign the stat bonus the first time I need to make a dice roll for an NPC, not before. Also, I already have a basic description of the NPC, so I can make an informed decision about whether they’re strong or weak, fast or slow, ugly or handsome.

You can further simplify by using a standard array of stat bonuses.

For example:

  • Flunkies: -1, +1, +1 (all others are +0)
  • Stage Bosses: -1, +2, +2
  • Villains: -1, +2, +4

As you assign the stats as you need them, the remaining ones fill themselves after awhile. For example, if a flunkie has already used -1, +1 and +1, you know his other scores are 0.

Do the same thing for skills. Think in terms of a point pool. If an NPC needs or uses a skill in-game, assign a total modifier and note that on the NPC’s character sheet. Between sessions, if you like, work out the details (like what part of the modifier you picked is stat score, class bonus, feat bonus, etc.).

But really, at this point, does it matter? You’ve noted the modifier for future consistency. The NPC doesn’t suddenly turn into an expert climber the next session, for example.

Also, as you’ve probably inferred during this tip, you create a blank character sheet (I use a MyInfo template) and fill it in as you play.

This requires zero time spent on crunch during NPC creation.

There’s one exception here, though: NPCs likely to be involved in action scenes. For these, you do want to be prepared in case a fight breaks out. I’d note these NPCs as you create them during the 3 Line Method so you remember to stat them out before the game.

And if it were me, I’d google and my books to find a published stat block I could use to make combat NPCs fast.

Now 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….

Introducing The 3 Line NPC Method

Here’s the simple formula to create NPCs in seconds, as tested by hundreds of Roleplaying Tips Game Masters:

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: Appearance — What 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: Portrayal — How to Roleplay the NPC

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.

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.

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: Hook — 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?

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.

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 NPC 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.

3 Line NPC Feedback From Gem Cutter Robert

(Comment from Johnn: Robert sent me some feedback while editing 3 Line NPC content entries that I thought you might find interesting.)

I have finished editing a bevy of 3 Line NPCs. I’m seeing some interesting patterns and lots of good NPCs. I really love this format!

As I read through these, a village of living, active characters is being built up around me. The people who fully get your 3 Line method are presenting you with NPCs that are alive and active, usually doing something completely mundane when the PCs walk onto their stage, and with interesting hooks to be revealed.

There have been some creative submissions, too, like this one where the NPC is dead. Not undead, just dead:

Appearance: [LE Adult Female Human Wizard] Once-beautiful, bedraggled, bloated, dead. Currently floating in a downstream river eddy. May be spoken to via Speak with Dead spell, or using a modified Magic Mouth spell as part of a triggered Contingency. That contingency spell guarantees the PCs are given a plot hook right away.

It turns out she was murdered last night. By this guy:

Appearance: [LN Middle-aged Male Human Blacksmith] Fine clothes, rugged beard, suspicious squint. Currently haggling angrily with a merchant over the price of coal.

Portrayal: Assumes everyone is hiding something. Loses his temper when frustrated or mocked.

Hook: Murdered his wife’s sister last night in a fit of rage. She was blackmailing him and had recently upped her demands.

I think that the above is one of the best-crafted entries. Succinct and engaging, and I love that scene – arguing with someone over the price of coal! I can just FEEL the blacksmith’s exasperation and frustration. He’s naturally suspicious (based on his Portrayal line), and now he has a solid reason to be paranoid, given his Hook.

Most people are getting it. All in all, the submission quality has been great, and most only need a little copy editing. Others sometimes need some massaging. They don’t have all the bits in the right place, but I move them around to fit the puzzle, and then the character pops into view.

For example, they might have part of Line 2 mixed in with Line 1 – a detail that wouldn’t be immediately known, but would easily come out in conversation or investigation.

And sometimes, the initial action is buried in the Hook instead of being listed with their Appearance.

Here’s some feedback you can offer to submitters, if you want:

When an entry is weak or boring, it is most often because there is no initial action. There’s a description of the character, but the character isn’t doing anything.

That initial action is so important for establishing subtle details about the character.

Here are a couple of evocative examples of this opening action:

  • Currently digging in an alleyway garbage pile for a discarded dagger.
  • Haggling angrily with a merchant over the price of coal.
  • A tall, stout halfling, swinging about with a tankard in his hand.

They don’t need to be that overt, but there should be some mention of what they’re likely to be doing when first encountered.

Don’t Forget The Name

A Tip From RPT GM Stefan Cachia

It took me 20-30 seconds to do the first 3 Line NPC, and about a minute for the second one. Once you think of a concept you can easily create as many NPCs on the fly as you want. You might want to keep a name generator at hand though. 

(Comment from Johnn: Thanks Stefan. Good point. Several readers wrote in regarding adding NPC name to the 3 Line format.)

I like to have my names in a separate place from NPC cores, because I often create NPCs mid-game to meet story needs, and I just concoct their race, culture and other name-influencing details on the spot. Then I go to my name tables and find an appropriate name.

And sometimes I need the name first, say for signing a clue or during roleplay when PCs ask about an NPC’s life.

So I like my names in one pile and my 3 Line NPCs in another. 

But go ahead and add names to your 3 Line NPCs if that helps you best. You can always replace the name if you’ve already got one or want a different one. And with a name attached to each NPC core, you’ll never be stuck for a name. So it’s a great addition to the 3 Line method.

Here’s a post I wrote awhile ago with over 40 name generators and lists.]

Use Details To Fuel Stories

A Tip From RPT GM manterakus

While playing around with the 3 Line NPC idea, I had a few observations to add:

Make Story Hooks Open Ended

Present each hook in such a way that it can lead to a larger story.

If the story part of your character dead-ends, so does the whole character (but then you have fodder for NPC elimination).

When you revisit characters in-game, look for ways to tie them back into the story or draw new plot lines with them.

Properly executed, a good story hook leaves you asking more questions. Answering these questions leads to more adventure!

Link Story Ideas Together

Given open-ended NPCs, use the questions implied by one of their story hooks as the focus for a new NPC.

Think about how the new NPC relates to the old one, and when filling in detail leave room for another mystery or connection.

Are there any special locations, hidden places or secret lairs in the area?

Connect NPCs to these as well. However, try to link them together in such a way that the new NPC can be recycled elsewhere if necessary. Players don’t always follow the links you find interesting.

Turn GM Information Into Rumors

Johnn hinted at this, but think about how the NPC’s actions, quirks, goals or possessions can lead to whispered tales that get the players looking at your NPCs a second time.

Murders, thefts, blackmail, random acts of kindness, love, and intense jealousy all act as fertile ground for gossips and busybodies.

Did an NPC steal a sword? Then its owner offers a reward to get it back. Does your NPC harbor a secret love for the most beautiful girl in town? Then people will speculate about the identity of the person who keeps sending the belle such lavish gifts.

Try FATE’s Aspects System

A Tip From RPT GM Lars Sundstrom

Johnn,

I started playing Fate. They have something called aspects, and they’re used on everything. NPCs, PCs, regions, cultures, towns, roads.

Examples:

  • The highway between Tularn City and the Misty Mountains. Aspects: trade caravans, raided by bandits, easy to travel
  • Guard Captain Nargog. Aspects: hates dwarfs, stubborn to a fault, likes his drink
  • Thieves’ guild of Warkan. Aspects: very secretive, influential, unknown leader(s)
  • Grak Woods. Aspects: dark, dense and gloomy, avoided and feared by humans, ancient evil

By using these aspects I can quickly define and prepare the setting for the players. I don’t always tell them all the aspects. The PCs will have to find some of them out by themselves.

This makes it easy for me to set something up if the PCs go off my pre-planned path.

I had chase going on where the PCs were pursuing a group of bandits. They chased them through a small village I had not prepared because I thought they would just ride through. But no they stayed the night.

So I came up with: apple orchards, large old inn with secrets, seen better times.

This set the mood for the village quickly. The large inn implied that people from all over came there, the village was once prosperous, and that maybe the community had been on a major caravan route once.

So I will use Aspects as part of my template. I will also remove the action as it is situational (or what the NPC is doing) and role play that (as described in your NPC Essentials GM book).

So my template will look like:

Line 1: What the players can see: NPC appearance-> Appearance

Line 2: What to portray: -> Aspects (minimum 3)

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

Also as part of Fate instant NPC “generation” I usually set the highest Skill. This pretty much determines the NPC level, so:

  • Appearance:
  • Aspects:
  • Hook:
  • Skills:

Hope that helps. Keep up the good work.

Graphic of logo used as divider

10 Example 3 Line NPCs From Your Fellow RPT Game Masters

Need some more inspiration before you try this method? Here are d10 examples crafted by fellow Roleplaying Tips GM.

Appearance: [Elderly Male Human Wizard] with a scraggly beard, squinty eyes, and an awful stench. Putting ‘Help Wanted’ signs on walls with a pot of glue.
Portrayal: Mood (grumpy), Secret (kicked out of Wizard’s Guild).
Hook: Looking for hapless adventurers to acquire spell components for him, because he can no longer buy them through guild channels.

Appearance: [Middle-aged Male Dwarven Bard] with wild hair, bloodshot eyes, and a boisterous demeanor. Dancing on a table in a pub, singing along with drunken patrons.
Portrayal: Jovial, Conspiratorial when approached alone.
Hook: Party Bard is a cover, he is actually a broker of information. Served as a spy for the Dwarven Thanes, retired to the keep. But old habits die hard…

Appearance: Female Human Farmhand, Simple but decent earth-tone clothing (petticoat, dress, and an apron), feeding chickens and gathering eggs for market in the coop beside the family barn.
Portrayal: Middle-class Farmer’s Daughter, learning to eventually take over her father’s holdings, in charge of market days. Headstrong and shrewd, but sympathetic and compassionate.
Hook: Is really a Greater Doppleganger with two other personalities in town. Hums “La Vie en Rose” whenever working/bored/waiting, no matter which persona she’s in. Farmer raised her from childhood, she really does love him as a father.

Appearance: Gareth Smithson is a wiry human, sun-baked beyond his young years despite his wide brimmed hat.
Portrayal: His well-worn woolen clothes would give him away as a shepherd even on those rare times he’s away from the widow Briarage’s flock.
Hook: Young Gareth had apprenticed in the guard until the captain shattered his right elbow sparring and Gareth will not forgive.

Appearance: A tall, stout halfling, swinging about with a tankard in his hand. He seems a lot paler than some of the other halflings about, and seems to have quite the assortment of profanities, from what you can hear.
Portrayal: This halfling is a particularly odd fellow. From a young age he was raised with a clan of dwarves instead of the usual halfling caravan. Nobody knows why he was left there as a child, but the dwarves took him in as one of their own, and taught him all aspects of dwarven culture.
Hook: He has a significant debt, that continually increases and is uncontrollable. This is due to the weak drinking prowess of the halfling in comparison to his dwarven brethren (as the dwarves didn’t teach him how to hold alcohol). A few groups are now looking for the halfling for payment against some of his debt.

Appearance: [LE Middle-aged Female Human] Housekeeper at farm. Keeps the office and farmhouse clean.
Portrayal: Bitter service worker.
Hook: Runs the farm dungeon; she is the jailor and executioner for enemies and prisoners of the Nobleman.

Appearance: [Young Male Elf Noble] Short for his age/race, blazing fiery orange eyes, green band of silk across his forehead; sneaking around in the shadows, but failing horribly.
Portrayal: Royal guard, carefree and aloof, baaaaaad with money.
Hook: Major gambling problem, and owes a few thousand crowns to some undesirable people. He can’t tell anyone, because it was lost in an illegal, under-the-table game. Hunted by those whom he owes.

Appearance: Ofergenga is a grumpy, grizzled, elderly male human peddler, accompanied by his hat-eating mule Bicwiden.
Portrayal: Sells trinkets and minor magic items from his saddle-blankets and packs along the roadside or in market squares. His mule is trouble.
Hook: Always has interesting maps, old books, minor magics. Knows who can supply what, and where, for miles around.

Appearance: Late-middle-aged human male farmer, red-faced and loud-voiced. Shouting at his wife and sons to unload the market cart faster.
Portrayal: Local farmer, known for his excellent crops.
Hook: His farm is being raided every night, vegetables are being stolen from his prize bed for the annual fair. He’s convinced it is his neighbor and main competitor for the blue ribbon.

Appearance: Male Human Child, 10 years old, something clutched in left fist. Currently rocking on his heels, waiting outside a closed shop (alchemist, fortune-teller, or gemcutter).
Portrayal: 2nd-in-command of a youth gang.
Hook: Budding sorcerer – strange things tend to happen around him, often out of his control.