Not long ago, I talked about using popular culture as inspiration for your campaigns. In that article, I focused on using tried and true concepts and designs as a starting point to make encounters memorable. However, a recent episode of The Tome Show inspired me to revisit the topic. In The Tome Show #329, NPCs at your game table, host Tracy Hurley and guests Teos Abadia and Eugenio Vargas talk about how to make NPCs more than just faceless pawns in your campaign. One of the guests noted his habit of defaulting to the same generic NPC when forced to improvise by the spotlight of PC interest. He says this left his campaign with a larger number of character of the same age and gender with the same hair and skin colour. If only they had a mental database of characters to draw from!
Pop Culture Database
I estimate that there exist billions of fictional characters. Some franchises are known for their large casts, either because it’s ballooned over its lifetime, like The Simpsons, or the concept necessitated a large cast, like Pokémon. It’s hard to making catching’em all exciting if “’em all” is, like, 10 monsters. Such franchises are prefect templates for NPCs.
Distinct By Necessity
When you have a large cast, the characters need unique elements to justify their existence. Look at any of the cast photos in this article. They are seas of distinct designs, and usually have similarly large personalities that can turn an average NPC interaction into a campaign highlight.
In the case of the WWE, the competition to get noticed is even more real. Yes, the matches are predetermined, but a wrestler’s involvement in storylines is based on the reaction they achieve as performers, so they are always looking to market themselves differently from everyone else on the roster in order to stand out.
Diverse As You Need It To Be
Although the designs of the cast photos are distinct, there is noticeable gender and ethnicity bias. However, you are the one in charge of what makes the cut for your campaign.
For example: GI Joe only had six female characters in its original run (outnumbered something like 30:1 by the male characters). However, in the 2010 reboot G.I. Joe: Renegades, four of those six characters were regulars on that series, and there were only 10 male regular characters. By being minorities among the case, they carved out more important niches than a lot of the male cast. Odds are, the number of NPCs you need to flesh out will be closer to size of the Renegades cast than the whole GI Joe franchise, and filtering that massive cast down to your needs lets you customize the diversity. If that’s still not enough, seek out a franchise with a lot of characters that leans into your instinctive blindspots.
Look Like A Creative Genius
I recommend picking a franchise you are more familiar with than the rest of the table. Your aim is to expand your franchise and draw your players in, so busting out your Hulk Hogan impression at a table of wrestling fans is going to derail instead of engage.
On top of using the creativity of others to benefit your game, you can try taking characters from separate franchises and blending them together…
…or anthropomorphizing a non-anthropomorphic character.
Use What You Know
Odds are, you know some pop culture very well. There’s no harm in using that knowledge to your advantage, and the benefits of the players at your table.
Every two weeks, Ryan Costello uses his experience as a Game Master, infused with popular culture references, to share his thoughts on best GMing practices to help his fellow GMs. Often deconstructing conventional wisdom and oft repeated GMing advice, he reminds his fellow GMs that different players play the game in different ways, and for different reasons.