At this point, we’ve all written a villain or ally that we thought was so cool, but our players couldn’t care less. Today we look at how to breath more life into our NPCs so they’ll be more engaging and memorable.
Dear DovahQueen: Sure. GCP and actual plays are popular and inspiring. But how do you make memorable NPCs when you’re not a great actor or good with voices/accents?—Plain Vanilla
Dear P. Vans: This is something I find myself constantly wrestling with. Nowadays, it seems like I’m involved in more games than I have fingers to count them on, and I’m always needing to write another character or NPC. Being the overt perfectionist that I am, I’m *never* satisfied with an NPC, who isn’t a throwaway barkeep, unless they’re unique and memorable. While I’m still trying to ‘hone in’ on the best process for making characters and NPCs that really feel personable and engaging, I’ve got a few different working methods that I use which you may find helpful. When you’re someone who isn’t particularly confident in your own own ability to do voices, I think that falling back on good character writing and development can go a long way.
For making a memorable NPC, I think you need nail down the basics and go from there. Figure out, in no uncertain terms, what you need from your NPC—is this person going to help or hinder the PCs, or are they going to do both? From there, figure out the specifics of when and how. “Ok, I’m going to need someone who steals the McGuffin from the players. I think I’ll have them track the PCs and take it after the boss-fight wears them down.” Assign that NPC a name and some class levels and you got yourself functional character from which to start making interesting. Treat this stage as your “blank slate” upon which you can write interesting things. For this, start with an easy one: motivation. I think that if you can trace your NPC’s motivation back to three “why’s” then you should really have the start of someone worth remembering. “Ok this NPC… Why does she want the McGuffin? To sell it. Why does she need the money? She has criminal ties and owes someone powerful a lot of money. Why does she owe a mob boss a lot of money? Hmm…maybe she botched a job from him real bad and her family is now being held hostage.” Not all motivations were made equal, so the more complexity you can add to it, the more memorable and engaging it could be for the party. I think a good place to call her finished might be personality. Since we went through a few levels of motivation, we kinda have a feel for her backstory a bit. Just feel it out and see what works for you. To me, this NPC feels like someone who got in over her head, probably due to overconfidence, and now struggling to come to terms with a failure that’s putting her loved ones in danger. When she interacts with the PC, I feel like that personal drama might come to the surface as arrogance, aloofness, and maybe an attempted air of mystery. That alone won’t sell her to your players though; the hook for them is after they’ve had a chance to find out some of her motivations. Maybe they’ll think of her differently after they learn why she’s been so much trouble.
Of course, none of that matters if your players are of the “kill first, ask questions never” variety. If that’s your party, you’re more than likely going to have to make an NPC memorable for the way in which the character’s fight them. There’s not a whole lot of options here because combat is combat, and there’s only so much you can do with it. I’m going to recommend two different trains of thought. One, straight up counter your players. If you know none of them have strong ranged weapons, make sure they have trouble getting to your NPC. If you know they’re mainly ranged, let your NPCs have tricks to *keep* them in melee. The other method is to have an NPC utilize unconventional tactics. I once sent an assassin after the party who waited till they went their separate ways at night—“I’m gonna go start drinking at the bar while you guys are selling the loot.” The assassin singled out the alcoholic, laced their drink with POWERFUL hallucinogens, and went in for the kill while the player was arguing with the wooden table. Murderhobos just aren’t going to remember the name of any NPC, but they’ll sure as hell remember that fight.
Lastly, there’s nothing wrong with taking some small idea that you think is cool and finding a way to work it in. Maybe you like an archetype that you found and want to try it against your players, or maybe you just really liked Ramsay Bolton as a villain and want someone inspired by him. Take your inspiration, shove it wherever you can, or would like to see it, and just start going through the process of motivation and personality. If you like the idea, chances are your players will too with a little bit of development behind it.
I don’t think that you’ll find any singular one of these ways to develop an NPC will work 100% of the time for characters you need fleshed-out so you may need to go back and forth. For your most important NPCs, you might want to consider an “all of the above” approach. When in doubt, look for answers to more “why’s” and “who’s,” and if you’re struggling to come up with ideas, don’t be afraid to take inspiration from some cool movie, book, or anime. If you’re still banging your head against a writer’s block, take a break; trying to will ideas into being when you’re running on empty isn’t known for its creative value.
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