imageLet’s face it, be they an NPC or a player’s character, some characters just stand out from the rest. Sometimes it is because the player puts lots of detail and crafting into the character’s backstory and description, sometimes the GM has a special attachment or desire to see an NPC live up to its full potential and sometimes it all just comes together that way without any prep work.

There are a lot of different factors that can make an NPC or Character stand out and get remembered, for good or ill. Here are 5 things to thing about when trying to make your character stand out.

1. Everyone gets a different image in their head, just make sure they get an image. Pick a few details and stick to them.
When a character is remembered, it isn’t with all of the elaborate details that are described. Each person at the table processes the description in a different way and picks up on something different. One person might take the stance of the NPC or Character into their mind while another person picks up on the elaborate thick golden patterns stitched onto the green tunic. Whatever you want to stand out about the character, focus in on that with laser intensity.  Just mentioning the handlebar mustache, red cape and pristine dress military uniform of a character will put a vivid image into a person’s head without making them too inundated with details. If they want more, they’ll probably ask.

2. Use the voice, luke!
Nothing makes a character stand out like using a different voice. Speaking in only short sharp phrases or doing a country yokel’s voice will vastly differentiate 2 different soldiers. People will begin to add details based off of what they pick up from the way you manipulate your voice. The short sharp phrases will cause people to think of a more clean cut and by the book type of person, while the country yokel voice will fill people’s heads with images of an unkempt and untidy beetle bailey style of soldier. Voices are hard to do though, so find something simple that can be repeated and won’t strain your throat.

3. Reference, Reference, Reference
My Malkavian looks kind of like Ron Perlman. My thief looks kind of like Altair from Assassin’s creed. I’m dressed like Christian bale in equilibrium. I’ve got a sword that looks like it came out of final fantasy 12. I’ve got a sword that looks like it came out of fallout 3, complete with gas tank on my back to ignite it. 

It may seem unoriginal, but, when you come down to it, everything’s been done before. If something in the character is inspired by another source, reference it. If people know the source they’ll get a clearer picture in their head. You can use that to build off into other unique areas of the character. If they don’t recognize it, you can probably find pictures of it or use the reference as a base to describe from.

4. Go Unique
A paladin in plate mail armor won’t make a big impact on a person. A paladin in plate mail armor which has gauntlets that resemble eagle heads, a feathery pattern beaten into the plates, a helmet with wings coming off the side and only the keen eyes of the holy warrior peeking through . . . will make an impression. Sure it’s over the top, but that gets attention. Just look at these here examples. Which one didn’t stand out?

5. Physical Representations Are Great
I use minis even for social encounters. If I have a good mini to use, I set it out on the table in front of me. Even if it doesn’t completely represent the character, it gives people something to focus on. I’ll even use mini’s that are wildly off genre. Super hero miniatures get a lot closer to my character descriptions than fantasy ones do sometimes. Even if they don’t, people are going to associate the BBEG with the superman mini and make a connection that the BBEG is more than a guy in armor, a wizard in robes or a guy in a black suit.

So the moral of this story is that there is nothing wrong with going wildly unique and using any method to draw people into the description. Don’t overwhelm with detail, but make the details stick out and give people something to associate with the NPC or character.

So how do you make your characters and NPCs stand out? Let’s try this. You get 100 points* for commenting and making a character unique in under 140 text characters (a standard text messages). 50 points* if you do it under 300 characters and a boot to the head if you get this reference.

*Points don’t count for anything but internet bragging rights, and that’s what’s really important isn’t it?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.



10 Responses to Johnny’s Five – Five Things You Can Do To Make Characters & NPCs Stand Out

  1. I totally agree with 1, 2, and 4. Regarding number 1, what I did in my last campaign was write down a few phrases or sentences to slip into any description of that character’s actions.

    “He hisses…”
    “His tongue flicks the wind thoughtfully…”
    “Leaning on his gnarled staff…”

    I’d have these right at the top of the character sheet, and just try to re-use them a few times in the first few minutes of interaction.

    Voices are always a plus. I’m playing a firenewt character and I’m having great fun hissing all of my in character dialogue (it also helps to distinguish in-character from out-of-character). I’m pleased that my GM has also taken on voice acting with gusto, providing us with some really interesting encounters.

    A few minor touches can make any character unique. I guess a good way to do this would be to say “What’s the archetype?” and then change it in some dramatic way, as you describe. You don’t even have to go over-the-top (though it doesn’t hurt!). Unexpected works too. What about a fighter that’s out of shape? A powerful wizard that suffers from uncontrollable fits of giggling?

    I disagree with number 3 completely, I’m afraid. Perhaps this is a matter of personal preference, but I feel that would make my work too derivative. Obviously elements of any work will be derivative, but I dislike the kinds of comparison you suggest. Then again, maybe I’m just an anti-video-game snob, as I don’t mind literary comparisons. Yeah, that’s probably it…

    Number 5 is actually a contentious one. I tend to agree that visual aides are good, but I rarely use them for characters as I don’t have minis and I can’t draw very well. I usually use props such as maps, hand-written messages, et cetera. What I like about these things is the artifact you give the players is more or less what is supposed to exist in the game world. Some members of my gaming group would say that visual aides get in the way of imagining what they see. I wouldn’t. For me, the problem with minis is precisely that they are miniature, and I guess that diminishes it for me. How could a tiny pewter model ever measure up to Krog the Destroyer? If Krog knew what I were doing, he would put my head on a pike!

    Great article overall, and extremely useful.

  2. Magic: the Gathering cards can give your NPCs unique faces. Veldrane of Sengir makes a good villainous rogue and I didn’t mind cutting him up to get a token.

  3. @Bercilac – Nice in-depth comment. Archetype is a word I use to describe character concept in a game system I am developing. It’s a good word that sets something more concrete and defined, especially once you add on the extra touches of uniqueness.

    As to your thoughts on number 3 and 5, it all depends on the type of game you are playing and what mood you are going for with the game. I’d never use mini’s in a Vampire game that focused on storytelling. It just doesn’t fit the mood. I’d also not reference the FF swords in a setting that was reminiscent of baroque italy, focusing on political intrigue and courtly politics. In these cases I’d reference something like “The mustache curls, kind of like Kenneth Brannaugh’s in his version of Hamlet.” I like to think of visual aids and references as a starting point to get people on the same page. If I pull out a model of a giant armored sci-fi robot, and then start describing how the steampunk mecha is made of brass and belches noxious clouds of black and grey from its vents, the players might start morphing that sci-fi robot into the steampunk conglomeration I describe. The closer to actuality, the better, and it all depends on the type of game you’re playing.

    Great comment Bercilac!

  4. @Noumenon – Magic cards are great. I used to use them all the time to get inspiration for descriptions. If I had a random encounter I’d just shuffle through a magic deck and pull out a card. Then I would start describing a monster from there. http://www.planetbaldursgate.com/ also had great resources for fantasy pictures. Their user generated section had tons of character images people made or found.

  5. @John Arcadian – And another one for Jenny and the Wimp.

  6. @deadlytoque – Boot to the head. I’m covering my head!

  7. Behavior is key, in my mind. Find an “over the top” schtick and stick with it. Do something that does not always make sense, that is risky, but defines your character.

    Perhaps your character would do *anything* to impress a lady. He could smile, wink, or wave at any or all ladies present before any act of heroism. In an all male situation, he could pine for some lost love. I’ve played a bard who gushed like Baron Von Munchhousen whenever a lady was present. Then he would throw himself at the foe with a flourish.

    Or have a temper. Visible try to keep it in check, but once it breaks (and it always does), watch out! Great for characters who have some kind of rage abilities. Count to 10 out loud, or try to then give in and go wild.

    Con your way to fame and glory. Use social skills to the hilt, disguise yourself, and get yourself into all sorts of trouble. I GMed and Eberron campaign and had a Changeling who *always* tried to impersonate the bad guys, often the BBEG. It didn’t always work, but it was always entertaining.

    Focus on one aspect of knowledge, and filter everything through that lens. This is good for academic characters (Adepts in Dark Heresy, Professors in Call of Cthulhu, Aracane types in D&D…). Constantly refer to your version of Tobin’s Spirit Guide (Ghostbusters), use your knowledge skill, and wonder aloud how romance, sword fighting, and the plague relate to your passion.

  8. I say go for the funny. Like this:
    A dwarf, orphaned at birth and raised by wood elves as a practical joke to think he is an elf. He becomes a ranger who speaks like an elf with a deep dwarf voice, likes his beard braided and clean, and is still trying to get a taste for ale.
    This was a blast to play because he effectively was a fighter good at ranged and melée but rped like a high and mighty elf.

  9. Hi John,

    Thanks for the feedback. I agree that the type of game makes a big difference between what makes fun (which is ALWAYS acceptable, whatever your personal standards or the rules say) and what falls flat.

    In my Green Isles campaign, where a huge gaming group (9 PCs at its peak) sailed around committing dastardly acts of piracy, I think it would have been fun to use costume. Encourage players to get pirate hats, headbands, wizard robes… I wonder whether the fellow playing the Elvish maiden would have considered cross-dressing? Hmm. Anyway, this is something I’d be willing to use in my game. When they go against the evil overlord, pull on a surcoat (charity shop pillowcase, scissors, and a few coloured texters). When they go against the dark sorcerer, pull on my black hoodie and pull the hood waaaay over my eyes. Masks. Props (I had a “staff” that I waved around for a few encounters). Et cetera. I guess I lean away from the visual and towards the symbolic. Just one or two tiny details to evoke the archetype will set players’ minds reeling. This is in the same vein as adopting an accent, I suppose.

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