You walk into the Shining Shield Tavern. An older building with a reddish brick foundation with weathered oak beams and walls. You approach the bar looking for the barkeep and you notice a very familiar dwarf who looks like and talks like the same retired adventurer from the last inn you were at. Maybe they are related, right?
This is very common and we are all a little guilty of hauling out a recycled NPC from our box of personalities. We might have forgotten we just used them in our last session which was two weeks ago. Whoops, embarrassing and unfortunate.
Your goal is to build an environment filled with exciting and vibrant personalities that will interact with the players. These can include an Inn Keeper, the local guard, or farmer, a prince of the kingdom and my favourite type, the Villain. Personalities are key.
An awesome NPC can be the heart and soul of your adventure. They can be the driving force of the adventure or perhaps that caravan master you meet on the road that you will one day meet again.
NPC’s are different in that you already know what they are, or what you want them to be. You don’t need random stats and some traits you found on a table in whatever guide book you are using for your game. Bold statement yes, and if you are just making random townsfolk this can work, if not, put the book down and start making your own notes.
We want to create that amazing persona that is going to interact with your player either in a benevolent way or as a dark nemesis trying to thwart the player any chance they get.
Back Story is goal number one. Why are they where they are? What is the driving force behind the NPC and their motivation? I do all this before I even decide the race and sex of my newest addition to the setting. Please take note that you don’t need to write the entire life of your new NPC if it is not important to the story or the players don’t really need to know. The time you put into the extra background will only become important to you.
When picking a race, think about what races are common to the area. You want to make the encounter(s) seem plausible to the players. Finding a half orc ruling over a guild of wizards be stretching it just a bit. I’m not saying that it’s not possible, just perhaps a little hard to swallow depending on your setting.
Deciding a class of you feel your new NPC needs one, can be easy or difficult depending on what you want to accomplish and how the NPC interacts with the players. Think about how the players are going to interact with this NPC or how this NPC will influence the story. Maybe it is just a personality and doesn’t need to be assigned a class. Don’t waste valuable time into something that you’ll never use.
For NPC’s that your players encounter on a regular basis, like merchants and common folk you can apply one of your sourced personalities but just leave it at a personality. There is no need to expand on anything more than that, and if you need some numbers just grab the Commoner stats out of your handbook. The best example I can offer is the players like to pick the pockets of common folk. There is very little point to writing long drawn out background for someone who will never draw a sword. Still, it can be fun, so if that’s what you like, do it.
My first rule is that I’m the DM. I can create, mold and build whatever skills, feats, and abilities I want to fit the needs of the story. As I mentioned I love making the villain. Each one is labour of countless hours creating the perfect nefarious foe. Maybe I just read too many comics as a kid, but a fantasy version of the Green Goblin will be my crowning achievement. Make what you need. If you just a need a fighter or wizard that’s easy to do, but I encourage you to let your imagination run wild.
Using the example of the retired adventure running a Tavern and Inn, do you think the past career might be believable if they were once a druid? Just think about it for a second. My famous retired adventurer was never really an adventurer. He was a middle aged farmer strolling through the fields one day and found the body a real adventurer loaded up with gear and a bag full of shiny coins and gems. It’s something only I will ever know and not really important to the Players whom he normally only serves drinks with the latest gossip from the lands.
For all my common NPC’s there are plenty of premade options and stats available so when I begin prepping for a new adventure I use these.
My suggestion is that before you invest in that paint brush for your latest batch of minis you’re about to toss at your players you get yourself a notebook or an index card catalogue box complete with cards. These minor tools will serve you better than any addition you can think to boost your tables play. Players are going to remember that completely incredible NPC they interacted with long after the memory of that cool paint job you did on a zombie.
DMtip There are thousands of Character ready to use in books