The NPC Factor, Part 1
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #328
The NPC Factor, Part 1
From Mike Bourke
There is an art to making good NPCs. Most referees – and I used to be one of the crowd in this respect – barely manage to scrape by from week to week. Life becomes a never-ending battle to have NPCs ready for the next game session.
The reason is that GMs build their NPCs to the same standards they expect from their PCs, even when this is completely unnecessary. This article is intended to take some of that work off the GM’s plate, by outlining some procedures for bypassing unnecessary work, leaving more time to polish other aspects of the game for the next session. It is divided into three parts: NPC Creation, NPC Development, and NPC Maintenance.
PART I: NPC Construction
Step 1: Specify The Cart, Not The Horse
When faced with the task of creating a new NPC, the first questions to be asked are, “What do I want this NPC to do?” and “What do I really need to know about this character?”
Most NPCs don’t have to be fully fleshed out. An NPC shopkeeper, for example, has only one or two essentials that need to be specified to fulfill his role in the scenario: how good he is at bargaining (usually a skill), and how greedy he is. He might also need to have capabilities at appraising objects offered for sale.
If you were generating him as a PC, you would decide his characteristics, then allocate his skills, then determine total ability in each area of expertise, and so on. This principle is pretty much the same regardless of game system. But it’s extremely unlikely you will need to know how much the NPC can lift, or what his preferred weapons are; so why go to all this effort? Why not just allocate a reasonable ability total for his bargaining ability and appraise ability and rate his greed on the same scale, and leave everything else blank?
In general, I will rate the character’s effectiveness on a scale of 1-5 in their field of endeavor; a “5” is world-class, a “1” is pathetic/novice/amateur/whatever. This number gives me a basis on which to judge the character’s competence in specific areas. I then specify three-to-five things that I need to know about the character and ignore everything else, at least for now.
Step 2: Wagon Wheels
Wagon wheels, to expand the cart metaphor, are what support the cart. What the wagon wheels will be for any given NPC will vary by game system, but are usually the stat on which the specified abilities depend. There will rarely be more than one or two items for each of those three-to-five specified fundamentals, and often there may be several fundamentals that are common to more than one. The combination of 1-5 competence rating and these fundamentals then let you assess anything else you need to know.
Step 3: A Lick Of Paint
Decide what the character looks like. What could you tell about the NPC just from looking at him? You can be as detailed as you like, but in general it’s better to give a general, one-line description.
Step 4: Decoration
Add at least one thing that makes this character memorable and different from any other. This might be an extension of the character’s description, a speech pattern/accent, or idiosyncratic behavior.
It doesn’t have to make sense. I once used “Temperature drops 10° in his vicinity,” and another time specified “Drow, wears beard Dwarven-Style.” The players can (and will) read anything they want to into this. They might decide it’s literally true, and that the NPC is another species/race passing himself as human, or that he’s wearing a magic item, or that he has a frosty and unwelcome personality, or that he’s sinister (and if the PCs ask “do you mean that literally?” you can respond “What do you think?”).
Another good technique is to take an adjective that is usually applied to one particular part of the anatomy and apply it to another; instead of “twisted lip” use “twisted ear”; instead of “blue eyes” use “bluish lips.”
You should also give him a name at this point, if you haven’t already done so.
Step 5: Terrain
Where is the NPC and what are his surroundings and circumstances? A line or two is quite sufficient in most cases. It’s better to be brief and memorable. “Well-stocked shelves and stained-glass pictures showing images of birds,” for example.
Step 6: Resources
You will usually need to have some notion of the resources available to the NPC. You don’t necessarily have to spell out what they are, you don’t even need an exact monetary value – just some indication.
Step 7: Implied History
Consider the different elements you’ve crafted for the NPC so far, both singly and in combination. You will often find other aspects of the character and his surroundings implied, and this starts to give depth to the character’s background.
For example, a greedy shopkeeper with a well-stocked shelves suggests that prices are very high. If the character is supposed to have been eking out a living from his trade, either he stocks things others don’t and deals with opposition in some effective manner – legal or otherwise. He might have another source of income or exclusive trade agreements. Perhaps his pride is so great he prefers to starve rather than lower his prices, or maybe one of these things has recently changed, and the character has not yet reached the point of being forced to lower his prices.
A line or two spelling out some of this implied history is extremely useful.
One key item to establish at this point is the character’s reputation – both locally and within his profession. Since this reputation is going to derive from the character’s implied history, it should either accord with or extend that history.
Step 8: Encounter
When the PCs finally encounter the NPC, the referee should make a brief note concerning the personal relations between the two. Were the PCs generous? Were they miserly? Did they get caught stealing from the NPC? Did a PC and the NPC argue for whatever reason? This information is invaluable if the NPC is ever to be encountered again.
Next week, stay tuned for Part 2: NPC Development and NPC Maintenance
- Designing Npcs: 6 Miscellaneous Tips – RPT#88
- Practical Methods For Making Your NPCs Come Alive – RPT#114
- Talking The Talk: NPC Speech Patterns — RPT# 172
Crafting NPC Interaction Plans:
- Crafting NPC Interaction Plans: Designing Encounters With Your Players In Mind – RPT#265
- 7 Tips On Crafting Dynamic Relationships For NPCs – RPT#286
A Brief Word From Johnn
You Have Spoken
Thanks to everyone who voted and provided feedback in the inline vs. linking reader survey. The results were overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the content of articles and tips in each issue rather than posting them to the website and providing links.
In combination with a previous poll on plain text vs. HTML, the e-zine e-mailed version will be staying the same – plain text with articles and tips inline.
In these matters, I’m pretty flexible on how I do things, so it’s really up to you. I appreciate your votes and feedback because it gives me good direction on how you want the e-zine to be. I have more polls planned in the future, so beware, lol.
A Warning About Allergies
In Classic Tip: Sense of Smell by Guillaume T. Boily from the last issue, he suggests using perfume, air fresheners or incense to evoke a certain mood that the players will come to associate with either a place or a certain character. This is a neat idea and easily implemented, but….
Before doing so, make sure one or more of your players isn’t an asthmatic. Perfumes and such can easily trigger an asthma attack in a person sensitive to them.
Check with your players before trying this tip. You may be surprised to learn something about one of your players previously unknown, and a simple five-minute conversation can save a trip to the hospital.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
From Angie Leach
As an aside to the subject of unusual customs, can I add that, in this part of Somerset where I live, around the week of Bonfire Night we also celebrate with a series of magnificent night-time carnivals that are reckoned to be some of the finest in the world, staged by various towns.
The spectacular carnival carts (called “floats” by outsiders) are built on different themes, during the year, by different carnival clubs, and are the subject of great secrecy and intense rivalry between them. They compete for cash prizes, and the great prestige of winning, in various classes.
As this part of the country has always been a bit on the rebellious side, it’s not even clear whether the carnivals are to celebrate the fact that Guy Fawkes was caught and executed, as to celebrate the fact that he actually tried to blow Parliament up in the first place!
It seems to me that the whole idea could make a very interesting plot, especially if interwoven with something a little more sinister.
Hmmm. Must go! This gives me an idea….
Odd Celebration To Inspire Your Campaigns
Found at: Frozen Dead Guy Days
Frozen Dead Guy Days is an annual celebration held in the town of Nederland, Colorado.
In 1989, a Norwegian citizen, Trygve Bauge, brought the corpse of his recently-dead grandfather, Bredo Morstel, to the town of Nederland. When Trygve was deported from the United States for overstaying his visa, his mother, Aud, continued on in the shack, keeping her father’s body cryogenically frozen behind her unfinished house. Aud was eventually evicted from her home for living in a house with no electricity and plumbing, in violation of local ordinances. At that time, she told a local reporter about her father’s body, and the reporter went to the local city hall in order to let them know about Aud’s fears that her eviction would cause her father’s body to thaw out.
The story caused a sensation. The city passed a new ordinance outlawing the keeping of human body parts in a residence, but because of the publicity that had arisen, they made an exception for Bredo, a grandfather clause. The local Tuff Shed supplier built a new shed to keep him in. In honor of this event, the town holds an annual celebration.
Frozen Dead Guy Days is celebrated from Friday through Sunday on the first full weekend of March. Coffin races, a slow-motion parade, and “Frozen Dead Guy” look-alike contests are held. A documentary on “Grandpa Bredo”, called Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed, is shown. A newer version of the film, Grandpa’s Still in the Tuff Shed, was premiered in Nederland on March 7, 2003.
Other events include a tour of the Tuff Shed where Grandpa is still frozen; a “polar plunge” for those brave enough to go swimming in Colorado in early March; a dance, called “Grandpa’s Blue Ball”; pancake breakfasts; a market showcasing local artists; snowshoe races and snow sculpture contests. Glacier Ice Cream, headquartered in the nearby city of Boulder, makes a flavor specifically for the festival (named, appropriately enough, Frozen Dead Guy), consisting of fruit-flavored blue ice cream mixed with crushed Oreo cookies and sour gummy worms.
Making Rules Look-Ups Faster
From Loz Newman
Want to speed up searching for a particular section of the rules/information? Spending too much time searching the index for the page number, then fumbling to find the page belonging to that number? Is your GM binder lacking an index? Stick-on index tabs too costly/fragile/small?
Solution: Add some color to the outer edges of the pages in question to help zero in on the desired section in a snap.
Decide on a color for each section of the rules/information. Find felt tip pens in those colors.
Suggestion: use appropriate colors to encourage memorisation. i.e. Assassins = black, Orcs = dark green, Druids= light green, Legions = blood-red, Pirates = sea blue, Royal Family = Purple, Technology = steel grey.
Suggestion: Keep a few oddball colors (ochre, orange, lime green) in reserve for things like PC creation, the list of spells/potions, etc.
Mark the color boundary
Take your rules-book/GM binder, hold it firmly shut and run a pencil across the right-hand edge of the pages (i.e. front-to-back, not top-to-bottom) 5cm from the bottom right corner. This will help you keep the coloring neatly aligned.
Color the page edges within the boundary
Now open the book/binder and pinch between the fingers of your off-hand all the pages of one particular section, taking care to line up the lower right-hand edge. Color with a felt tip pen (of the color previously decided on), the edges of that section from the bottom-right corner to the pencil line previously mentioned.
Repeat for each section
Repeat for the other sections you’ve decided on, with the colors chosen for those sections. The pencil line limit should ensure that multiple sections of color will line up nicely (purely for aesthetic reasons).
Create a key/legend
Use Excel to create a list of squares of the colors used and the names of the sections associated with that color and paste it onto/into the front or back cover as a reminder, should you need it.
Caveat: This doesn’t work well with sections below 5 or so pages (not enough surface area on the edge of the pages for the color to stand out), and should only be used on static sections of loose-leaf binders (e.g. sections of cultural/racial information) that won’t get moved around.
Here’s a photo of one I made earlier:
As you can see, a fleeting “reminder” glance at the list of colors/sections on the front cover allows me to dive into their desired section as fast as my fingers can fly….
Time invested: roughly 20 seconds per section, plus two minutes to gin up the index list, print it and glue it. Time saved: multiple minutes, and counting.
From Tommi Brander
Con Scenarios don’t need to be railroaded. For example, an excellent Burning Wheel demo called the Sword is very loosely defined. The starting situation is that a group of adventurers (the PCs) have wandered through horrible dungeon and finally found the powerful magical sword they were looking for.
The trick is that each character has a reason for wanting the sword for himself. An explosive situation means that railroading is totally unnecessary.
Dealing With Player Absence And Turnover
From Leslie Holm
We’ve all be faced with it. One player’s life gets over- active and he misses every other session. Players drop out and new ones join up.
In our game, the characters all pooled their money and purchased a home/business in a centralized city. They ‘hung out a shingle’ and announced to the world at large they were adventurers for hire. Now that their reputation has increased, people are coming to them.
Each session is episodic now, ending with the accomplished quest and the characters returning home. This way, absences are easily explained. If a player is unable to make a session, his character remains at home for one reason or another, or he might be off visiting family as the others go on business.
In addition to providing a reasonable explanation, it also provides incentive to make each session, as the absent player receives no XP (or share of any treasure) for that quest. Watching the others level up encourages regular attendance.
Roleplaying Recreational Events
From Jenette Downing
No matter the genre, many times PCs will be out on the town and watching spectator sports from arena combat to chariot races to impromptu duels between swashbucklers.
Rather than orate several paragraphs of description and action the players are only witness to (after all how much fun is it to hear about NPCs battling while you’re on the sidelines?) stick the players in charge of the NPCs for the event.
In my most recent game, the players were witnessing a chariot race (which was a lot like controlled brawl around the track) and as a change of pace I used several pre-generated racers for the players to choose from. The resulting interest in the event was definitely improved, and the players enjoyed the change of pace.
This also provides far more interest for players making side bets on events. After all, if the players get to control the team of gladiators (or monsters, depending on their preference) taking on the caged, half-starved griffons, they’re much more likely to toss down some coin and come back for more. (Just make sure they have to play as whoever they bet on, for obvious reasons.)
A few ideas that will work in most any genre:
- Racing, be it a high tension street race between a few NPCs at the local bar or a foot race through the goblin canyons by some loud- mouthed, braggart guards.
- Combat from modern day pitfights and boxing matches to the more traditional gladiatorial arenas. This is a good way to toss in some action without leaving the less combative characters at the hospital or spending the night in the dungeon (or jail).
- Sports events, be it modern day sports the players love, or the more medieval versions like “foot brawl” or Scotland Rock Tossing (seen in the movie Braveheart).
- A contest of magic between two well-known wizards (or a gun trick competition).
For more action sports concepts for heroes to participate in (or play as NPCs in) check out Rifts Sourcebook 10 Juicer Uprisings. The sports, such as Death ball, can add spice to any gaming world.
This is my first tip to you, hopefully no one else has thought of it yet. I’ve been reviewing your archives and had an idea regarding the problem of players killing each other’s characters in the game instead of playing.
You could have a spell or curse placed on the player characters that, if they harm another player’s character, their character will take that damage or be the one that is slain. So, if a player has his character harm another player’s character it will be their character that would pay the price.
Crafting Your Own Miniatures
From Joel Patton
I read with interest the Craft Clay Critters tip in this week’s newsletter. In lieu of clay or Play-Doh, there are more permanent options.
A good choice for beginning sculptors is Super Sculpey II. It’s available in a 5-pound block from your neighborhood crafts store or superstore. The advantages of Super Sculpey II are that it’s easy to work and you can change detail up until it’s fired in the oven. The disadvantages are the same. 🙂
If players are interested in taking things even more seriously, they could invest in Knead-A-Tite 2-part epoxy putty, also known as “green stuff.” It’s the primary material used to make the master copies of the miniatures we all know and love.
For either medium, it’s a good idea to make a wire armature (or skeleton) to support the final sculpture.
A good resource for learning how to sculpt miniatures is the 1listsculpting list, a Yahoo group:
The members range from amateurs to seasoned pros (including the guy who discovered that green stuff made a perfect miniature medium). The FAQs include information on supplies and basic sculpting techniques, and members are friendly and helpful (particularly if you’ve read said FAQs ;). There is also a database of suppliers for green stuff, organized by country.
I recently updated my site with my first sculpt (circa 1999) in Sculpey:
Thanks, and keep up the good work.
Add Barter To Your Campaigns
From Kit Reshawn
One thing people commonly talk about is putting in additional common items for rewards rather than coins or usable items. This is actually one of the best suggestions you can take.
The vast majority of assets people have are things, not coins. Think about all the things a typical person owns today. Clothes, furniture, house, car, art, collections, supplies. Even if a person does have a lot of money, it is rare for them to have a lot of it on hand, with most of that money tied up in bank accounts and investments.
You can take this a step further, especially if you are doing a fantasy setting. Currency being readily available is a modern development, and most nations in the past had a severe shortage of coins. It would be a rare event for the common person to see money. Mostly, nobility and merchants dealt with it, and storekeepers would see it from time to time. Most people had to make due with barter systems.
It is easy to make barter the rule of your world. Almost every system has the skills needed to run a barter encounter, and you can roleplay the encounter instead, if you prefer.
Substitute money with items and keep notes on how much those items are worth for reference during bartering. When the PCs finally get their loot to town for sale, instead of getting cash for what they sell, they get other items.
Keep in mind that sometimes it is impossible to barter. Perhaps the family needs its horse to make a living. Maybe the local baron has all the art he wants? This allows for more roleplaying as your party needs to not only find someone who can afford to barter for what they have, but also has to find someone who wants it.
The side effect of this is that currency becomes a more valuable asset. While people can debate the value of a horse, painting, or sword, it is hard to debate over how much a coin is worth; an ounce gold coin is worth an ounce of gold. As a result, coins are accepted by everyone, because you can immediately trade it for what you need, and it has a concrete worth. It is quite possible this advantage will allow for a discount in cases where cash is used.
There is a disadvantage to coins however: they are heavy. It is hard to carry around many coins at once. An attractive alternative to coins is rare gems. Like coins, gems tend to have a stable value. At the same time, a small gem can be worth much more than many, heavy coins, making them a nice, portable way to carry wealth.
Even gems have a disadvantage though. It might be difficult to find someone who can barter at the worth of a full gem, especially a particularly rare one. As a result, clever players will carry both gems and some cash.
Things to keep in mind:
- More barter makes appraise and barter skills more valuable to players, which will impact the amount of progression they can make in other skills. If players do not progress much in these skills, they will need to pay someone else to appraise things for them (and hope they aren’t swindled in the process).
Keep in mind that not all merchants are equally good at telling the value of items and haggling. Rich merchants are much more likely to be good at these tasks while poorer ones will have problems.
- Players might be able to work out a deal with some merchants to get rid of loot, even if the merchant doesn’t have anything they want or cannot pay the full value right now. Instead, he takes what they have now and extends them credit. This is especially fun if the PCs come back to the same area repeatedly, and can be a good plot hook for some adventures (such as making a deal with an untrustworthy merchant).
- In barter worlds, coin is king. Coins can be used to do almost everything. Ever tried to bribe a guard with a tapestry? It doesn’t work too well. A few coins, however, will quickly get him to look the other way. Everyone accepts coins, and the most valuable things are only for sale to those with significant amounts of coin. As a result, players should probably try to keep the coins they do manage to get a hold of in reserve for emergencies, such as needing to buy some rare item to save a friend’s life or to bribe the local nobility to let them into the forbidden fortress.
- Services can be bartered for, as well. Perhaps your party doesn’t have anything to trade for repairs on their equipment, but they would be able to get the blacksmith to do it anyway if they heal his sick son of the dreaded wailing plague. The mage may not be able to afford that new spell he has his eye on, but perhaps he can get it anyway by allowing the store owner access to his spell book for a few days.