DMing 101 – NPCs
In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.
There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
While it’s quite possible to make a roleplay with absolutely no people or any living things for the players to interact with, it’s so much easier and, frankly, enjoyable to have a cast of supporting characters driving the story forward and giving life to the world.
Much like when world-building, you do not have to fully populate every town and city with unique individuals with stories and descriptions, just keep to hand a few major players and bit-parts with all the details that are important. Anything else you can make up on the fly, just remember to write it down! So here’s my advice on making a decent batch of non-player-characters:
NPCs are people too!
The worst kind of character is a bland, single-feature, catch-phrase spouting cardboard cut-out. While not every character needs a detailed history, they should at least feel like real people. Jot down a few major points about who they are:
- Purpose – Why is this person relevant to the story/scene/location, and what will they do for the players and the campaign?
- Motivation – What does the NPC want to achieve and what part do the players play in that? This is an important point even if the NPC is just a merchant. They want money, adventurers have money! Either buy or get out!
- Disposition – Just a one or two word comment to sum up the NPCs attitude towards life, the world around them, and the players in front of them. Optimistic? Friendly? Aggressive? Oblivious?
Go into more detail on each point the more relevant the NPC is to the plot. And remember that if that NPC is going to be in the story a lot then everything you’ve written down is subject to change depending on what happens to them, in the same way it would a real person. For example; The party are hired by an amicable old man to recover his lost watch, but through the course of recovering it the players smash it. A cardboard cut-out would keep smiling and tell them not to worry, a person would start bashing skulls with his walking stick!
It’s hard to make a description stand out from a crowd, and when you’re the voice of every person and creature the group encounter you may find yourself faced with the question “Wait, who’s this again?” more often than you’d like, and if you’re constantly reminding the players of the people they encounter it really breaks up the pace and feel of a game.
Physical descriptions are always a good place to start of course, especially as it will help you diversify your NPCs from one another. Get a clear picture in mind, or if you can draw or find a good picture online. A great way to create an NPC is to start from a picture and say “Hey! This would go great in my campaign!” Then build the personality onto the picture. If you can’t get a picture, or draw, try applying certain strong descriptive features. Hair, notable clothing, scars, or even an ever-present pet of some type can really give players something to associate to a character.
Failing that, give your character a distinctive voice or vocal habit. Put on a ridiculous accent, deepen, or raise the pitch of your voice, maybe feign a speech impediment if you can. Try and make the voice fit the character too, an intellectual NPC may have better diction and use a wider vocabulary; a military NPC may issue orders rather than ask questions.
Keeping an NPC Pool
Give yourself some practice throwing together decent quality NPCs, write them down and keep them handy. A random decision by the players could force you into coming up with a completely new person on the fly, better have someone ready to fill up the space. If you’re struggling to get a satisfactory collection together, there are a few random generators out there that can help fill up the space, just find a few that suit you and your campaign and keep them bookmarked ready to throw out a character in case of an emergency.
“An original idea. That can’t be too hard. The library must be full of them.”
― Stephen Fry
Don’t be afraid to steal too. All forms of media are littered with excellent characters, some of them must have stuck in your mind from a favourite book, film, or another game. Plus a half-way decent celebrity impression always goes down well at the table, and a bad one only makes for a better character.
My name is Joel (Terra_Phi most places) and I am an experienced DM of nearly 7 years. I also run a site called Quotesfromthetabletop.net with a friend of mine who’s much better at site-building than I am. If you’re interested in getting into tabletop role-playing, our site is full of good reasons, all the stupid and brilliant quotes and stories that could only ever happen at the table