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Emerging Complexity for GMs: It Rocks for NPCs

It took me some time to get used to the idea of emerging complexity for player character backgrounds and roleplaying elements (which I wrote about in its own article, Player Characters: Emerging Complexity is A-OK [1]), but the concept is one I’ve always embraced as a GM.

In this context, “emerging complexity” is the organic growth of a character from a sketch, or from little more than stats or the kernel of an idea, into a full-fledged personality with a rich set of roleplaying hooks, character traits, and other fun stuff.

Stacked up next to the traditional model of a PC who starts a new campaign with a well-developed background, that can be an unusual approach — but it’s not at all unusual for NPCs. As GMs, we’re constantly called on to develop characters unexpectedly, or with minimal notice — often on the spot.

Those NPCs in particular benefit from having very little lag time between the creative spark that inspired them and the manifestation of that spark in actual play. If you’re like me and you tend to overthink things, sometimes being forced to poop something — anything — out right this hot minute can be exactly what you need to poop out something great.

When it comes to NPCs, there are really only three ways you can develop them:

That last case — where an NPC you didn’t expect to reference again catches your players’ attention unexpectedly, and they love interacting with her — is a lot of fun. You get to flesh out those NPCs on the fly, and, if you like, develop them more after the session where they’re introduced.

And because your players actively made them a part of the campaign, you automatically have player interest and buy-in for some good roleplaying next time they show up. They can even become recurring allies, foils, villains, or local staples, enriching your campaign much more deeply than originally planned.

If you’re a GM who generally details all of your NPCs down to the last hair follicle weeks before each session, try changing gears. Next session, plan to develop at least one important NPC completely on the fly — or, if 100% improv sounds troubling, sketch out the barest possible outline of that character in advance, but leave huge blanks. Then give emerging complexity a try in play, and see what happens.

On the flipside, if you’re a GM who tends to develop a lot of your NPCs on the fly, try the middle ground: Write up some notes about NPCs who’re likely to come up in the next session, leaving obvious gaps you can fill spontaneously during play. Those gaps, combined with just a little prep beforehand, are fabulous opportunities for in-play creativity.

Just as every PC should be created with opportunities for growth, and with enough flexibility for their players to change how they perceive them organically during play, so should nearly all of your NPCs. That kind of organic growth is always good for your game, regardless of which side of the screen it happens on.

And the best part is that in both cases (PCs and NPCs), it’s a process in which both you and your players participate, building on each others’ ideas and creating something unexpected. In many ways, this is one of my favorite aspects of game mastering — it’s just so enjoyable all around.

How do you use emerging complexity for characters in your own games?

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8 Comments To "Emerging Complexity for GMs: It Rocks for NPCs"

#1 Comment By Ameron On April 17, 2009 @ 7:47 am

“On the spot. NPCs that spring to life in the moment tend to get a name, a connection to the party, and a distinguishing trait or two — in other words, they’re all but blank slates.”

I find that I’m lucky if I even come up with a name. And my players caught on to this really quickly. They knew immediately who was important when they had a D&D-sounding name and weren’t just Bob the Captain of the Watch or Steve the Blacksmith. Learning from that mistake I find that just having a list of names ready goes a long way to giving your NPCs some life. Even though you (and my players) may see these NPCs as a blank slate, I find that the devil is in the details. If they have a creative and memorable name the PCs take notice. It’s a simple trick that’s worked wonders for my game.

#2 Comment By Sarlax On April 17, 2009 @ 10:33 am

In my last game, almost all of the important NPCs (and every major villain) sprung from only a few sentences. Liram the elan psion had a few sentences in one player’s background. Vlad the necromancer had a sentence to start. Yusibosk the mindflayer only had “a mindflayer tried to eat his brain” as a reference. They all started as only bits in a PC’s background and all grew to be the major NPCs in the game.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 17, 2009 @ 11:10 am

I’m slowly learning that my polished and completed NPCs never work out in play the way I originally thought they might. In other words, a fair amount of the work I put into them is wasted…

Not all is lost, however. In thinking about motivations and history, I get an intuitive understanding of the NPC, which is more than if I just started with a truly blank slate. I guess I’m trying to say that we GMs should still put a lot of thought into our NPCs, but we shouldn’t over do it.

I am liking this ’emerging complexity’ thing more and more.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On April 17, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

On the time-waste matter, this ties nicely with Martin’s modular elements post. You can spend five hours writing up an NPC background only to find that the PCs end up killing in a minute after meeting him. Time waste? Not at all. It’s time to play Frankenstein.

Cut up that background you wrote and give it to other NPCs. I’ve had lots of NPCs not end up the way I thought they would, but the work was saved by giving portions of those write-ups to other characters.

#5 Comment By Nicholas On April 17, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

I play a fair bit of Burning Wheel. In that system the players can at any time roll their social circles stat to invent a person their character knows, with traits specified by the player. Of course this becomes a NPC that I need to play out on the fly. Even more fun, when the player fail the roll they can often still find that person but he or she is mad at them for some reason. The system forces the GM to invent this backstory on the fly!

It is stressful sometimes but a lot of fun.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On April 17, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

[3] – The trick for this is to keep a list of useful, internally consistent names on hand, and just scratch them off as you use them on the fly for NPCs. You can break it down however you want — male/female is always good, as are races (for fantasy) and type (villain, ally, etc.).

[4] – Re: Frankenstein’s monster, I love this idea! I’ve never considered that kind of recycling.

#7 Comment By Old Man On April 22, 2009 @ 6:20 pm


I was just about to suggest the same thing for Ameron. I used to use a list of names, roll the A-Z and use next name on list. Now I swear by — [5]

Old Man

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#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On April 26, 2009 @ 7:14 am

[6] – Cool site! Thanks for the link.