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GM of A Thousand Faces

One our of intrepid readers, Chando42, posed a suggestion in the Gnome Suggestion Pot [1] that many of us have struggled with over our GMing careers: having good player interaction with our NPCs. Characters that inspire and help drive your adventures versus stale cardboard cutouts that sit there to disseminate information (or hit points) and little else. Or the ones that make you mock them. Mercilessly. First we’ll start with making some memorable NPCs with some dimension then follow-up with suggestions on that 1:1 interaction.

Know Their Role

Depending on your game an NPC may be nothing more than window dressing or it could be a highly-valuable fifth member of the gaming group. Define the role that you require your NPCs to have and tier them accordingly:

Don’t be afraid to introduce NPCs that have a key role and be upfront with the players. Mr. Johnson is there for one thing and one thing only (hey, enough with the dirty jokes). If a player expresses an interest in a relationship for their character, design an NPC for that need. Writers on television shows don’t introduce characters with no rhyme or reason; be intentional.

Form Over Function

Unless you have copious amounts of time it’s unlikely you’ll have the opportunity — or need — to stat up every NPC you deliver. It doesn’t much matter what the bartender’s Bluff skill is unless it’s material to the adventure, and even then, you can, ahem, “bluff” your way through it easily enough.

Instead of focusing on stat blocks and numerical perfection, your NPC blocks should be comprised of key hooks and items that drive the characters. Nationality, accent, demeanor, outlook, etc. Are they bored and sullen, or happy and engaged when they interact with the PCs? Why? Be wary of having every NPC in your angst-ridden post-apocalyptic game having a chip on their shoulder; it’ll wear thin pretty quickly. Even in the darkest night there’s a hint of light.

Sometimes you will need stat blocks; they aren’t mutually-exclusive. In Star Trek, while running the cast of thousands, you can’t stat out every position on the ship but certainly the key ones. But you can, on the fly, pick a gender, a species, name, rank, and a role and wing it from there.

Much like the infamous red shirts, should they “survive” the PC encounter as a memorable NPC bring them back. Later, if needs be, stat them out accordingly.

Supporting Actors

It’s a thankless job — beyond the annual awards show — but the supporting actors do just that, support the show. The NPC, no matter how loved, shouldn’t get the killing blow against the big bad. The NPC ship’s counselor shouldn’t negotiate the key cease fire and the NPC Mr. Johnson shouldn’t come to the rescue every time a mission goes wrong.

The adventures and stories are about the player characters. Full stop. The NPCs support that role, help or hinder, provide conflict or guidance, but they aren’t the ones that people sit down at your table to enjoy every session.

If a key NPC does start to become the focus consider them having a fall from grace, slowly phase them out, or maybe outright kill them. Killing a key NPC may provoke a strong emotional reaction and attachment from the player characters and spur a whole new line of adventures. That’s a good thing!

And, it goes without saying (I hope), avoid the pet NPC at all costs. Yea, I’m lookin’ at you!

Many Casts, Few Nibbles

You can’t get too emotionally attached to your NPCs. I used to do this and the voice of experience says “don’t!” Instead of taking time to craft an elaborate NPC that you, the GM, really like, love, and associate with…to only see the PCs make fun of, deride, and tell sexual innuendos about (yes, this is the voice of experience), create a stable of NPCs and run them out like dogs trying to scare up game. Sometimes the NPC (no, not the dog) won’t make it back in one piece. Sometimes they will and sometimes they’ll scare up some game (a reaction). When that happens, then you have an NPC you should spend more time on.

Cast a wide net with your NPCs to see what interest you can capture and go back to those that the players express interest in. Don’t waste your limited time on crafting NPCs that you can’t use and the players won’t want to interact with.

Ham (& Cheese) It Up

In some ways your NPCs should almost be charactures. Most GMs who are also players will lovingly craft NPCs as their own personal extension into the game, allowing them to “play” as well. This is okay, but be careful. Many players aren’t interested in the deep, inner-workings of your NPCs. Stick with the superficial characterizations and add more later. Take those 1-3 hooks that your NPC has and ride that all the way to the bank. Then ride it again on the way back.

Does your NPC excel at transporter use and 20th century movie quotes? Roll with it. Unabashedly. Repeatedly. I guarantee the players will never forget that NPCs name and, maybe, will even come to appreciate and enjoy it.

Hooks can include an accent, some unusual quirk related to their job (or not), or even how they walk or speak. Recently I’ve come to using other senses to describe NPCs: one who always leaves the smell of roses in the air when she passes or penchant for wearing blue clothing with silver trim. Little touches that can sometimes make all the difference.

Sincere Flattery

We’ve all been there with limited time to prep and NPCs are no exception. Sometimes, beyond a key subordinate or villain, the window dressing NPCs are the first to get cut (behind maps and props) when you don’t have the time. Steal them. You know your favorite character on a TV show? Use them. Movie? Same. Rock band? Swipe! File off the names to protect the innocent and slap on a new coat of paint. Better yet, use your coworkers for inspiration. Family. Non-gaming friends. Whatever. Steal them left and right!

Some may think this borderline creepy, most think of it as a respectful nod. My coworkers were surprised that they were members of various Stargate teams (Stargate SG-1 RPG [2], AEG, pg. 43) and I’m not shy to say I stole a lot of inspiration from around me. Same with starship crews in Star Trek. If you’ve gamed with me, you — or your character — was probably placed on a ship, had a world named after them, or even a deadly space anomaly (Burke Rift, anyone?).

This isn’t about a lack of creativity, it’s about spending the time during your prep on the most important things and freeing up the lesser — but still important tasks — that drain your time.

Use Your Tools

First, right here on the Stew we’ve got some great ideas on making memorable NPCs. Previously we’ve covered NPC names [3], generating NPCs with tarot cards [4] (awesome!), and five ways to make a memorable NPC [5].

There are some great online resources to use when making NPCs. Here’s a few that I’ve run across. Share your own!

Any tips you would care to share on making memorable NPCs? Share below! Also, thanks to Chando42 for the Pot Suggestion [11]! Keep an eye out for the follow-up this week on using those shiny, new NPCs in your game.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "GM of A Thousand Faces"

#1 Comment By Kikatink On August 31, 2010 @ 6:25 am

Excellent article! Sometimes we forget how important the “non-encounter” NPCs really are! I’ve had the good luck of creating a few NPCs that have become as “legendary” and memorable as some of the player characters. Not because the NPC “killed the dragon” or “rescue the princess”, but because they added such a fun element to the campaign. One in particular, Kikatink was actually the magically preserved head of an evil gnomish warlord. The head was on display at Ov’s Magic Shop. Ov, a half-elf wizard that only spoke in whispers (and yes I would only speak in whispers forcing everyone to listen closely) and Kikatink’s head, a vicious warlord’s undead head that spewed insults at the party anytime they entered the magic shop and one time bit off a player’s finger when he got too close! These two characters added a tremendous amount of fun.

Kikatink’s head which was originally just “window dressing” turned out to be so much more. The player’s wanted to learn more about him, where did he come from, why was there a magically preserved head of an evil gnomish warlord that he actually sparked a whole series of adventures and eventually a prequel style campaign! So yes NPCs are very important.

#2 Comment By Noumenon On August 31, 2010 @ 6:45 am

I don’t do stats or background for any of my NPCs except antagonists. If I were to break into Tier I – Tier IV NPCs, it would be more along the lines of “Do they have a unique physical appearance? Do they have a goal beyond this encounter? Do they have a stress response prepared?” But it’s tough to keep me from building all NPCs that detailed.

#3 Comment By drow On August 31, 2010 @ 11:11 am

the vast majority of my NPCs have no stats to speak of, other than name, race, class or profession, and a couple of noteworthy traits or hooks. of course, i’ve codified this.


any time i need actual stats, i’ll make them up on the spot (for example, chleri’s diplomacy skill) or file the serial numbers off something else (imriam the rogue has the same stats as a goblin blackblade, if the party has to fight him).

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On August 31, 2010 @ 11:24 am

Excellent article.

One point I recently had cause to raise with some dedicated Trek gamers:

Red shirt != deader. Scotty had a red shirt.

Red shirt PLUS no first name = probable deader, check for nickname.

Red shirt PLUS no nickname = walking dead.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On August 31, 2010 @ 11:31 am

I like the way I can invent NPCs at the drop of a helmet in Savage Worlds. Need an NPC and forgot to make any? Just use D4 for any trait test if this is a Red Shirt without a nickname. Use D6 if this is the RSWANN’s supervisor.

With D20 you can do much the same thing, but run into problems if the players don’t kill the NPC quickly (or at all) and the details suddenly become important, as so many of the key stats interact with skills, feats and Wee Jass knows what.

With BRP it’s sort of halfway between SW and D20, with maybe a hair of a shift towards SW because there’s much less synergy going on within the character sheet.

The mere thought of generating any sort of GURPS character makes me soft in the bowels, so I can’t comment on using the instant NPC in that system.

#6 Comment By Grimbald On August 31, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

Great article. The one thing I would add is that NPCs should appear to have an independent existence from their interaction with the party. They should change over time, have their own goals, their own strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and survival instincts.

Of course you can’t do this for every NPC, but for the recurring ones, spend a few minutes thinking about life from their point of view. What do they want? What do they do when they aren’t interacting with the NPCs? And (maybe most interestingly) how do they react to whatever monumental events the party is swept up in?

This is important for villains, as well as allies. Some of the most interesting NPC interaction in my current Age of Worms 3.5 campaign has been with villains bargaining information to save their skins, because they don’t want to be killed by the party.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On August 31, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

That real NPC generator is pretty amazing. It looks like it would take some effort to master, but once you got it down it could give you very complex NPCs. For Storyteller games, a good Nature/Demeanor could do a lot– I bet real NPCs reward interaction strongly.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 31, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

Awesome article; I’ll be revisiting this one.

The Army taught me that not everyone has a cool or even decent name, so don’t fret over finding the perfect name.