Building Better NPCs II: 8 Steps to Memorable NPCs

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stacking-stonesYou’ve got your NPCs classified. You’ve separated the extras and walk-ons from the bit players and major characters. But how exactly do you go about creating those unique characters? Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you create NPCs your players will remember, no matter what game system you use.

  1. Define your NPC’s purpose. Why is he in the game? Is he the PCs’ boss, the guy who gives them their assignments? Is he an assassin the king’s chancellor hired to get rid of the PCs who insulted him in front of his king?All NPCs need a reason for being in your game. Without that, they don’t need to be there, no matter how cool a character they are. Knowing why your NPC is in the game can make it easier to develop his skills and abilities.
  2. Determine your NPC’s importance. Is she just some clerk restocking shelves in the bookstore (an extra) or is she the PCs’ primary antagonist (a major character)? This will tell you how much time to invest in creating her. There’s no need to write a complete character history if her only role in the game is to announce the death of the crown prince.
  3. Define your NPC’s goals. What does your NPC want and what will he do to get it? For a major character, the goals you should define are:
    • Superobjective: What does your character want more than anything else in the world?
    • Current objective: What does your character want right now? What’s his immediate goal?
    • False objective (if any): What is your character pretending is her goal? Why does she want people to think that’s her goal, even if it’s really not? Not every character needs a false objective. In fact, unless you’re running a highly conspiracy-focused game, most of your NPC’s goals should be their real ones. That doesn’t mean she can’t keep their objectives secret. A false objective is one the NPC intentionally creates to hide her true ones.
    • Resources: What can your NPC “spend” to get what he wants? What is he willing to give up to obtain his goals? This doesn’t mean just financial resources. Does he have connections and contacts he can draw on for favors? Does he have skills he can trade for what he wants?
  4. Choose a Nature and Demeanor for your character. This comes straight from White Wolf’s Classic Storyteller system. I find determining a character’s basic nature and demeanor helps me play the character better. They’re great shorthand for a character’s personality. They also help keep me from making the same NPC over and over with different names. The nature and demeanor can be one word or a short phrase.
    • Nature: The character’s basic personality; how she is inside.
    • Demeanor: The face the character usually presents to the world.
  5. Write a brief history character history. Even a paragraph will do; it doesn’t have to be a huge timeline of every event in the character’s life. Where was he born, what year was he born in, where did he grow up? What in his life lead him to pursue his objectives? Having something of a history — even just a handful of sentances — gives your character more believability and connects him to your world.
  6. Write a brief description of your character. Height, weight, hair and eye color, race, gender, etc. But also go beyond a character’s physical description. How does she dress? How does she walk, sit, stand? Does she have an accent or have an unusal speech pattern? What mannerisms does she have? Does she play with her hair, pick her fingernails, hum to herself? You don’t have to make her a collection of strange quirks (unless that’s your character concept), but try to give each of your important NPCs something that makes her unique. What makes this elven princess different from every other elven princess in the world?
  7. Determine who your character knows and who knows him. This is the basic concept of a character web, which I’ll talk about next time. It shows how your character is connected to the other characters in the game. Does he owe a gambling debt to the Prince? Does the local sheriff owe him a favor? How does he feel about the people he most frequently associates with, including the PCs, and why does he feel that way? Determining why a character feels the way he does about someone goes a long way towards making the character believable.
  8. Create the character sheet. Now it’s the time to put your character in the framework of the game system. Now you assign attributes, skills, etc. — i.e. put in the numbers.

A note about names: You’ll notice I didn’t list creating a character’s name anywhere in these steps. For me, a character’s name comes about mid-way through the character process. Other GMs need to find a character’s name before they can even think about developing the character. You need to find the stage that works for you.

For your players’ sake, please, please, please use a name you can easily pronounce. You’ll be glad you did by the fifth time you say “__________ swings his sword”. And your players will find it easier to remember.  ‘Gwxflyck the Magnificent’ may look really cool on paper, but if you can’t remember how to pronounce the NPC’s name, the players won’t either.

Next time: Character Webs: the ties that bind

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