Great 3 Line NPC Tips For You
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #576
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
From Stefan Cachia
It took me 20-30 seconds to do the first one, 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
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
From Lars Sundstrom
I started playing Fate. They have something called aspects, and they’re used on everything. NPCs, PCs, regions, cultures, towns, roads.
- 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:
Hope that helps. Keep up the good work.
10 Example 3 Line NPCs From Your Fellow Readers
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.