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NPCs in Full Color

Posted By Don Mappin On December 15, 2011 @ 2:00 am In GMing Advice | 5 Comments

The most common descriptions used to build a memorable NPC focus on their visual appearance, unusual quirks and mannerisms, or perhaps a voice or accent. In a few rare cases other senses, such as smell (seriously, I’ve used this) or…taste. One area that’s seldom used is the color pallet to describe an NPC. On the surface this sounds strange I’ll grant you, but it works!

I stumbled across this several years ago while reading Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. At some point during the enthralling book I noticed that in my mind’s eye that I was associating many of the characters with specific colors. On a second read through I noticed that several characters had repeating colors used in their descriptions, most often in describing their wardrobe, a crest, or sigil of some kind. The colors were subtly used but subconsciously, as the actors played their roles in my head, I was seeing them, perhaps for the first time, in full color.

A few years later I did a rather expansive Fading Suns campaign with a broad dramatis personae. During each write-up I also included color keywords so that when the players interacted with the NPCs I would use those same terms/colors repeatedly. (Coincidently this is also where I used a little bit of smell with some major NPCs, the smell of roses lingering in the air as they pass by, for example.)

I’ve only a small sample size to work with, but I’m told by the players that it did work. The NPCs were more memorable and that, subconsciously, when asked about it much later, the players described the NPCs back to me, also in full color.

When you use an awesome tool such as “Masks,” we have, of course, tried to appeal to as many GMs as possible to maximize utility. Space constraints also dictate how much detail we could use and still make the entries quick and juicy. Consider writing in the margin and assigning colors to your NPCs and then reference them subtly during play. Also, expand your own color pallet with shades and variations. Don’t go with “brown” or “red,” use more evocative colors such as “cherry red” or “the hue of a deep, red rose.” Reference a Crayola crayon box for shade ideas, car paint colors, or other online resources.

The key is to remember to include these colors either on or around your NPC to reinforce the association. Because this is something new, it takes some practice; you’ll find yourself having to be deliberate in your descriptions, rather than ad hoc.

What interesting or unusual ways do you describe your NPCs to make them stand out in your player’s minds? Share below!

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.




5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "NPCs in Full Color"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On December 15, 2011 @ 5:51 am

It’s true, your players will never forget ol’ Tealbeard the pirate.

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 15, 2011 @ 10:20 am

First time I was conscious of color being used as part of the storytelling: Santa Claus is coming to town, the old Rankin Bass Christmas special. Kris and his allies are always in bright colors, the folks of Sombertown are in browns and greys. As characters become allies of Kris, they begins to get stronger hints of color.

#3 Comment By randite On December 16, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

Excellent concept, I shall be sure to purloin it for my own nefarious purposes.
I’ve found that repetition of odd details about NPCs can really bring them to life. A scientist character in an Time Traveling, Steam Punk game I ran, obsessively organized everything “from smallest to largest from left to right.” It got to the point where the players would smile and finish that particular phrase before I could get past smallest. When the PCs finally got back to the dimension several years later the players were oh so happy to find a mansion built “from smallest to largest from left to right.”

I’ve also found repetition of certain details helps to set up a rhythm of play. Sentences like the “the night passes without even,” and “dawn dawns dawningly,” have helped me to set up the notion and sensation of a long journey into the minds of my players.

Anyway long rant short, I really liked the idea and plan to make good use of it.

#4 Comment By randite On December 16, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

^event not even.

#5 Comment By spikexan On December 17, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

I ran a long-running Vampire campaign where the Mage Max was a bit hyper. He would rock back and forth on his feet whenever he spoke to the characters. They couldn’t tell if he was bored with them, anxious to fight, or had to use the restroom. Years later, many of them are hard-pressed to remember dear Max’s name; however, they always mention the Mage in sweat pants who was always moving.


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