Not every NPC needs to be memorable. Some can be a barely-noticed presence in the PCs lives, while others need to cast a shadow over everything the players do. While NPCs are vitally important, most GMs have limited time available to work on their game and so can’t spend as much time as they’d like creating every PC as a full, unique individual. By focusing on your NPCs’ reasons for being in the game, you can determine how much effort you need to put into make each one. I divide my NPCs into levels based on game necessity. These levels are extras, walk-ons, bit players, and major characters.
Many characters don’t even need names, much less character sheets — just a brief description of what they do and what their purpose for being in the game is. They probably don’t even need a name, though you should be ready to give one if the PCs, if they ask. I usually keep a list of “generic” names, crossing off each one as I use them. Most of the time, we don’t need to know anything about shopkeepers, random city constables, or the stableboy at the inn the PCs stayed at last night.These are the “extras” of your game, the ones there to fill out the city or a crowd — basically living scenery. I usually create these characters on the fly, as needed.
Other NPCs require more thought. Some may be reoccurring “extras” — like the magic shop proprietor that the PCs always use to fence raided treasures sell treasure items they find on their quests. I call these “walk-ons“, though that’s a stretch of the term (in film and theatre, walk-ons don’t usually have lines, but in RPGs they usually say something to the PCs).It’s worth giving these PCs a little something that causes them to stand out. Perhaps the walk-on has a funny accent or walks with a pronounced limp or has startling green eyes. Maybe they use “Ummm” for every third word. You don’t need to go to extremes here — giving every walk-on a deformity or strange ability could start giving the sense that your campaign takes place in a carnival side-show realm. These characters should have a name, but otherwise, they’re like extras and need only a brief description and a purpose for being there.
Next up from walk-ons come “bit players”. These are recurring characters who play supporting roles, like the steward of a PC’s keep, or the king’s officious chamberlain that the PCs are required to report to, but who has no other purpose in the game. These characters absolutely need names and a more detailed description. I usually don’t worry about character sheets for these NPCs unless I expect them to be in combat; instead, I figure out their “web” — who they know, who knows them, and who owes what to whom. I also detail out their “default” attitude towards the characters. This attitude can (and will) change over time, based on how the characters treat her.
Try to make these characters distinctive through their personalities, rather than through just quirks. Quirks work well for identifiying one town guard from another, if need be, but they can become ridiculous on returning characters unless there’s a good in-game reason for them. Now these reasons don’t need to be detailed extensively — a sentence or two will usually do just fine. Perhaps the PC’s steward has an odd accent because he’s from a far-off country. Or the chamberlain walks with a limp because of an accident. But much of a bit-player’s uniqueness can come from how she acts towards the players.
You should also have a basic understanding of the bit-player’s motives. Why is the chamberlain officious with the PCs? Why does the steward feel loyal to the PC? You don’t need to write in-depth backgrounds here — just a couple of sentences will do. Perhaps the chamberlain is afraid the PCs will distract the king from what she considers more necessary duties. Or the steward is loyal to the PC because he’s treated like a respected professional, rather than just a servant.
Finally, the top of the NPC list are the major characters — these are the NPCs who are so important to your game they are full-fledged character in their own right. These are the NPCs you need to create character sheets for and who deserve fully-developed personality. Create these NPCs as if you are to be your own characters, because in a sense, they are. Your game doesn’t need many of these — two or three at a time will usually suffice. Definitely your PCs main antagonist comes under this category. NPC members of the party often will, as well.
Always remember, however, that these NPCs, too, serve a function in the game — keep in mind their reason for being in the game, just as you would any of the “lesser” character types discussed.Now, this doesn’t mean get so attached to your NPCs you refuse to let them go. Antagonists die, get sent to jail, are removed from society. You have to be as willing to let go of these characters as you would any walk-on.
You never really know how an NPC’s going to fit into your game until she encounters your PCs. I’ve had walk-ons become major characters because the PCs decided to mess with them and I’ve had major characters become mere extras when the PCs decide to have nothing to do with that NPCs storyline. Always be ready to move a character up and down the “ranks” of NPCs based on the needs of your game.
Next time: Step-by-step instructions for creating memoriable NPCs.