John Fiore is a “low-prep” GM and a connoisseur of stuff that makes his life easier. His guest article sold me a set of these little cubes on the spot. Thanks, John!

I wouldn’t have spent a single minute with Caitlin — let alone date her for almost six months — had I known in advance that she was a militant vegan with severe dependency issues and a fondness for Coldplay. Our relationship was, at best, terribly inconvenient for me, and I could have done without the lot of it, most especially that unpleasant evening when she tried to stab me with a fork.

Still, I don’t beat myself up over it too much. I couldn’t have known during that first encounter what Caitlin was really like. When a guy peers over the edge of his laptop and spies a cute girl on the other side of an Internet cafe, he can discern only so much before uttering those initial words of introduction that unwittingly start a giant ball of psycho-crazy rolling across his life. It’s the nature of human interaction and the glorious mystery of it.

To genuinely get to know someone — to meaningfully move beyond a person’s obvious traits and discover the personal and intimate details of his or her life — one must invest time in conversations and activities that encourage familiarity. So it should be, I believe, with NPCs.

Of course, a GM cannot possibly conceive of a richly layered background for every potential NPC that players might encounter. That would be an utterly unreasonable expectation, as unreasonable as — oh, I don’t know — expecting me to still trust you after you lock me in your bathroom for two hours because you think I’m leaving you for another woman when I am actually just going home to feed my cat.

So, a suitable invention strategy is needed to aid a GM’s creation of NPC backstories on the fly. If you’ve got a set of Rory’s Story Cubes and the confidence to create spontaneously, try the following method. It’s fast and fun and works exceedingly well for folks who, like me, are low-prep GMs with high-prep egos.

When the PCs want to get to know a new NPC that you have not prepared, roll all nine Story Cubes and assign a different cube’s image to each of the nine “NPC Backstory Elements” below. Let the context of the adventure’s setting, the PCs’ current situation, and any recent events be your guide, but allow your imagination to interpret the images with wild abandon!

The NPC Backstory Elements are divided into three levels of revelation: Obvious, Personal, and Intimate. The PCs should have to use their abilities, win a few social rolls, or role-play magnificently to acquire all levels of the NPC’s backstory, whether the information proves useful to them or not. Moreover, some details of the NPC’s backstory may be so sensitive that a greater amount of time must pass to earn the NPC’s trust before anything Intimate can be shared, regardless of what the PCs do.

NPC Backstory Elements

OBVIOUS: discerned by clothes, demeanor, and casual conversation.

  • The NPC’s role in the world.
  • The NPC’s current home or home-base.
  • The NPC’s signature/unique talent.

PERSONAL: offered after establishing trust and expressing a similar view of the world.

  • The NPC’s special knowledge about others.
  • The NPC’s special item/tool/useful possession.
  • The NPC’s ally/true allegiance to a group or organization.

INTIMATE: learned only when the NPC is really won over.

  • A past experience that has shaped the NPC’s current self.
  • A present situation in which the NPC is embroiled.
  • A future goal the NPC is hoping to attain.

Here are two examples of NPC backstories generated via the above method:

Example One: Science Fiction NPC

Setting: A gritty, frontier planet on the edge of the civilized galaxy; it has a single city where the lowliest of scoundrels congregate.

Situation: There is a data facility here – a library, of sorts – that contains outlawed materials. The PCs enter the facility to continue seeking answers to their current quest. The GM casually states that there are two or three other beings using the facility at the same time as they are. The PCs surprise the GM by wanting to talk to the nearest one.

Rory’s Story Cubes (Original Set) rolled: bridge over river, five-story building, sheep, person using parachute, mobile phone, sad face, turtle, typical house, eye.

Obvious NPC Backstory Elements

  • Role [person using parachute]: By the NPC’s uniform, she is clearly a member of the crew of a Star Cruiser that the PCs knew had recently been destroyed in a nearby space battle earlier in the campaign. She must be one of the few whose escape pods had safely made planet-fall. As such, she won’t be adverse to any assistance the PCs can provide while she and her mates await official safe passage off this world.
  • Home [turtle]: The NPC is from a well-known completely shielded planet that serves as an anchor for the Galactic Federation. Here in this unsecured, lawless city, she is obviously ill at ease and feeling constantly vulnerable. Anyone from a similar Galactic Federation planet will be deemed a friend by her very quickly.
  • Talent [bridge over river]: The NPC is a technician particularly adept at bypassing data-flow and rearranging AI arrays to disrupt cognition hashes. In other words, she can literally change an AI’s personality in seconds, including populating its memory with false information. She is quite proud of this morally questionable ability and is seeking banned manuals on the subject in the data facility.

Personal NPC Backstory Elements

  • Special Knowledge [sheep]: The NPC knows that the Star Cruiser attack was faked by the Galactic Federation to get “survivors” to infiltrate various factions on this frontier world. Appearing as innocents in distress, they hope to collect the intel needed for the Federation to conduct a takeover of the planet’s primary resources.
  • Special Item [sad face]: The NPC possesses her own homemade Sad Jack, a magnetic electro-dampener that, when in contact with an unshielded AI, slows its processing, giving it the appearance of being depressed. The AI can still complete its tasks, but its speech interface is slurred and its performance speed is at 50%.
  • Important Allegiance [typical house]: The NPC is sympathetic to the Lunar Settlers Movement that the Galactic Federation opposes.

Intimate NPC Backstory Elements

  • Past Experience [mobile phone]: As a child, the NPC had little physical contact with her parents, both important Federation delegates. They raised her remotely through computer interfaces and their collection of robots. Her familiarity with AI began then.
  • Present Situation [eye]: Although she was trusted to be on this mission, the NPC believes that certain elements within the Federation have her under surveillance, but she has no proof of this. Perhaps it’s true, or perhaps it’s just paranoia stemming from the trust issues she developed from her parents’ absence in her youth.
  • Future Goal [five-story building]: The NPC hopes her current technician assignment will lead to advancement within the Federation organization, especially within their high-clearance Artificial Intelligence Division. She has plans for the shape of robots to come.

Example Two: OSR Fantasy Monster

Setting: A dungeon. That’s it.

Situation: The Level 1 PCs randomly encounter a single wandering Hobgoblin. The GM rolls for its reaction on a table and gets “Indifferent.” The GM tells the party that the Hobgoblin grunts at them and continues on its way in another direction. An Elf PC, intrigued, wants to chat up the Hobgoblin.

Rory’s Story Cubes (Voyages Set) rolled: ray gun, raven, steaming bowl of food, rain cloud, treasure chest, spectacles, tyrannosaurus skull & neck bones, monkey, shield.

Obvious NPC Backstory Elements

  • Role [shield]: The Hobgoblin is a bodyguard for the Hobgoblin King.
  • Home [treasure chest]: The Hobgoblin currently resides on the floor of the Hobgoblin King’s Room of Shiny Things You Get Killed A Lot For Touching.
  • Talent [tyrannosaurus skull & neck bones]: The Hobgoblin is known for killing things bigger than he is. The puny PCs’ skulls would not be worth his effort.

Personal NPC Backstory Elements

  • Special Knowledge [steaming bowl of food]: The Hobgoblin is also good at cooking things bigger than he is, but he doesn’t readily admit his culinary leanings.
  • Special Item [ray gun]: The Hobgoblin possesses a wand that emits a ray of heat which can be regulated by the wielder, permitting precision cooking.
  • Important Allegiance [raven]: The Hobgoblin is true to his King, but, with portents of death being issued by their tribe’s shaman every other day, he’d rather not be around the King that much if he can help it. Thus, he often volunteers to “go out and make big food” for his leader, which is what he is trying to do right now.

Intimate NPC Backstory Elements

  • Past Experience [rain cloud]: The Hobgoblin once went out on a surface raid during a rain storm and hated being drenched. He fears “sky water” now.
  • Present Situation [monkey]: The Hobgoblin is concerned that his enjoyment of cooking will cause his tribe to view him as weak, even though he kills big things so well.
  • Future Goal [spectacles]: The Hobgoblin wants to live long enough to eat lots of big things. To be an old, fat Hobgoblin would be a great success!

Of course, the GM could have had the above sample characters go about their business and ignore the PCs, entirely avoiding the need for any sort of backstory development. That would be perfectly appropriate if it helps to move the game along.

This NPC background invention strategy is merely offered to invite the option of random creativity into sessions and to give another tool to the GM who wants to be ready for anything. Alternatively, the same method could be used before a session to help design unique NPCs that a GM would never have been able to conceive of without an inspirational nudge.

Try this out a few times on your own to see what you get, and feel free to modify the NPC Backstory Elements to suit your campaign. Hopefully, this method will add surprises, cool characters, and convenience to your games.

About  Guest Author

The article you just read was written by a Gnome Stew reader. We can’t say which one in this bio, since the bio appears with all guest articles, but whoever they are we can all agree that they possess supernatural beauty and magical powers, and are generally awesome. Gnome Stew readers rock!

24 Responses to Quick NPC Backstories with Rory’s Story Cubes

  1. We have these in at my place of work, which means my staff discount gets me all this loveliness for a little under six English pounds. Even being as poor as I am, that’s just too good an opportunity to pass up. Great article!

  2. That sounds like a wonderful idea! And as I have the original set, something I could put to use immediately. Also, I may look for this ‘voyages set’ that you speak of!

    I am curious, for you, how long it took to allocate each die to which of the 9 Backstory Elements. It seemed that it was not just done in a left-right order from what you listed as rolled. Of course, this step will vary for different people.

    And as it is pretty simple, you could make notes on a file card as to what you rolled, and perhaps a couple of notes on the back to help you remember.

    • As soon as the first notion hits me when I glance at the icons rolled, I go with the inspiration regardless of order. Most often, I roll three cubes at a time and start with the Obvious elements before rolling any more for further information. Unless the PCs succeed at learning more about the NPC, I might never go beyond the first set of concepts.

  3. Just so you know, for the tech savvy, there is an iphone app for Rory’s Story Cubes. It’s only $1.99

    • Ahhh, that’s a pretty good deal! Ive actually just now been searching to see where they may be available. A third set is About to be out as well it seems.

      The App however, is iOS only. No love for the Android! *chuckles*

      • Also, the app is only the original set of 9 cubes. Currently, there are three sets available (2 only in the US right now, I believe). The “Actions” set is just OK on its own, but when mixed with the other two sets, it affords a pretty incredible range of inspirational interpretation!

        I keep all three sets (27 cubes) in a single dice bag and draw them from there. The range of possibilities never ceases to amaze me!

      • Great article, John. I continue to be amazed by your uses for Rory’s Story Cubes as a solo GM.

        Dhonal, Never fear! The Android version is nearly complete, along with an updated iOS version. You will even be able to add Actions and Voyages through in-app purchases.

  4. The Voyages set just became available in the US last week or so. Your FLGS should be able to get them for you.

  5. Wait… what? Am I the only regular Gnome Stew reader who noticed the three paragraphs that had absolutely nothing to do with gaming and everything to do with John Fiore ranting about his ex-girlfriend?

    That segue made absolutely no sense. Bad, bad, bad.

    Is there not some kind of private chat room John can frequent where he can unleash his vitriol about past relationships to other dudes who care about such things (and I seriously have no clue what kind of a stranger WOULD care, but that’s up to John to figure out, I guess)?

    Why is Gnome Stew apparently allowing their site to serve as a launch pad for attacks against exes who may or may not be “severely dependent” (and one wonders what exactly John did to provoke someone to stab him with a fork? Surely it didn’t happen out of nowhere… but wait! I don’t care to know why! I want to read about RPGs, not try to waste my time deciphering what the heck a “militant vegan” is! Was she planting IEDs in butcher shops or… wait — again, I don’t care!)

    Can we not simply focus on the actual gaming advice? This ain’t just stylistic. Gamers, particularly the online variety but I can see how some tabletop gamers also qualify, are already seen on balance as being immature and unfriendly towards women. The opening paragraphs of this article don’t help the reputations of either John or this site.

    In case anyone thinks this is a drive-by trolling, I’m a frequent reader of this site and actually authored a guest post that appeared just a few days ago. I have no idea who Caitlin is or whether she’s even a real person — but if I were her, I’d assume that this level of post-relationship bitterness means she came out the winner after that breakup.

    • I took it as John trying to be funny, always a tricky proposition. It didn’t strike me as offensive, but I’m not the arbiter of anyone’s tastes. I’m sorry that the article gave offense, Jonathon.

      (I have no idea if Caitlin is a real person, or a real person named Caitlin. Much liked D&D Next didn’t turn out to be a game about erotic farts.)

      • Hey Martin. Thanks for the fast reply. I read John’s article twice before I left a comment because I thought maybe I was overreacting at first — but it’s just such a weird opening.

        It can be really funny to be self-deprecating when bringing in an anecdote about past relationships. Maybe that would have been a better way to go.

        But the funny gets lost when it seems like a bitter one-sided rant with no punch line. And the weird segue just killed it for me.

        Here’s how I read it:

        “I met this super-cute chick in an Internet cafe this one time and picked her up (so yes, you can assume I’m awesomely charming) but she turned out to be a total psycho stabby person I wish I’d never met and MY GOD vegan!? Coldplay? And she’d call me like 3 times a week! Crazy, right? What a horrible person!

        “Now, while I’m on that topic, let me tell you about NPCs.”

        Is that an unfair interpretation? I don’t think the April Fool’s joke is even in the same ballpark. Other commenters can decide. But the point is that the piece opened it up to that interpretation.

        Anyway, keep up the good work, Gnomes. I do love all the other articles I’ve seen in the last month or two. Great advice all around. Good things!

      • I thought it was hilarious. I can’t think of many people I’ve known who haven’t dated someone and then discovered that the book behind the cover wasn’t worth the time invested. Or crazy. Or completely incompatible. Or whatever.

        I got what the article was trying to convey and it was funny too. I guess anyone can be offended about anything these days.

        • Cheers, Bryan! That risk to “time invested” is the part I need, as GM, to remind myself ought to be an element of my challenge to players. So, the layers of Obvious, Personal, and Intimate are helpful reminders to me that when a group of fatigued and scruffy blokes sidle up to the tavern bar after spending days underground messing about with degenerate sub-humans and oozes, it’s rather unlikely that a stranger will divulge his or her life story to them after the first, “Lovely day, yes?”

          I’ve been quite guilty of using NPCs as expedient plot movers, giving away critical info far too quickly to PCs just to get to the good stuff when, in reality, folks can be as impenetrable as an adamantium fortress about their lives and the sensitive info therin. The fewer NPCs I’ve created in advance, the less likely I’ve been to be so forthcoming, but that doesn’t mean I’m winging all of my secondary characters these days. Just acknowledging that these layers of intimacy exist aids me in remembering that NPCs sometimes should be tougher to get information out of than they’ve been for me in the past.

          This keeps the players on their toes and wondering if the time spent on getting to know NPCs will be truly worth it at all!

    • Jonathon, I agree completely.
      I like the advice using story cubes. Brings me back to good old Everway. But this relationship story was… it seemed so raw but still treated so tongue-in-cheek. Not a hit with me.

  6. Well, you can’t please everyone, all the time. Seems like there is some famous quote about that somewhere.

    I also think Ive heard, for pleasant company, if you cant say something nice, dont say anything at all.

    Perhaps an email to the author or to the Head Gnomes would have been better.

    Personally, I thought it was very poignant and appropriate, since he was discussing creating character traits from looking at the images on the Story Cubes. And that sometimes, what you see on the outside, may not be 100% indicative of what is on the inside. (Example one fits this really well.)

    I’m new here, and Ive not contributed anything, so, take my words for what they are worth. i.e., probably not much.

  7. Has anyone considered that Caitlin could simply be a product of using the story cubes in the manner John is suggesting?

  8. That was the impression I got. Was actually expecting to see the roll that made it. On a slightly unrelated topic I got a set of these for Christmas – now I just need a game!

  9. So do you guys prefer the dice or story forge cards?

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