GM Advice: How To Design NPCs

Great NPCs can make or break an adventure. The crusty, fastidious innkeeper with a terrible secret and the one-legged, foppish bard dreaming of battle glory are memorable folk the PCs will remember long after the adventure is over. Bob the peasant is less so…

 

By William McAusland

By William McAusland

 

Designing NPCs isn’t hard, and it can be just as rewarding as creating a challenging encounter or new magic item. Cool NPCs add flavour and depth to an adventure or campaign.

A GM shouldn’t freak out, though. Not everyone has to be memorable; some NPCs only interact with the PCs for a few moments. Others – such as recurring villains, allies, foils and so on – deserve more design time. The notes below provide an easy to follow framework a time-crunched GM can use to quickly and easily create memorable NPCs.

  • Name: A name can make or break an NPC. Joke names, real-world names or clichés should be avoided like the plague. Names should fit with the locale and campaign world. If the folk of a kingdom use Norse-style names using an Egyptian name is either bad design or marks the NPC as someone different (and therefore perhaps more interesting).
  • Background: Everyone comes from somewhere. No matter how brief, an NPC should have a back-story. A love torn farmer searching for his lost lover is far more memorable than a farmer wandering about for no apparent reason. The PCs don’t necessarily have to learn all about the NPC’s background, but having a solid grasp of where a person came from enables a GM to better roleplay the NPC.
  • Personality: Some NPCs hate elves, others are perpetually confused or drunk. Yet others are colossally boring or incredible extrovert. You don’t need to design an NPC’s entire personality, but giving him one or two traits creates enough detail to roleplay a memorable encounter.
  • Mannerisms: Does the NPC lick his lips when nervous or does he refuse to make eye contact with strangers? Adding a notable mannerism – preferable one a GM can act out – is a great way of highlighting an NPC’s nature and provides a handy way for the players to remember the NPC.
  • Appearance: Don’t overload the PCs with details. Provide enough to give a suitable first impression of the NPC. An NPC’s appearance can give important clues to its profession, current activity and so on. A battered and bruised peasant may have just been attacked by a corrupt local lord while a priest wearing perfectly clean robes could have a phobia about getting dirty (or perhaps never bothers to leave his temple to tend his flock).
  • Distinguishing Features: In the same fashion as a mannerism, a distinguishing feature is a terrific means of differentiating the NPC from his fellows. Whereas a mannerism is likely something the GM roleplays, a distinguishing feature can be richly described, and act as a kind of signpost or name badge for the NPC.
  • Hooks: Some NPCs can act as hooks into small adventures and side treks. Others might have a special reason for interacting with the PCs. Use hooks sparingly, but adding them to a memorable NPC is a great way of bringing the campaign world alive.

So there you have it – address the seven points above when designing NPCs and you’ll have deeper, more rounded folk to interact with your PCs.

Help Fellow Gamers!

Do you have any other NPC design tips? If you do, please share them below and help your fellow GMs make better NPCs for their campaigns.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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14 thoughts on “GM Advice: How To Design NPCs

  1. Not disagreeing, but can you elaborate on your strong feeling about avoiding joke/pun names for NPCs? Would you feel the same if the adventure in question was intentionally designed for a healthy does of humor?

    • If it’s a fun/humourous adventure then pun names are all good. In a “serious” campaign funny names can really kill the mood. For example, imagine playing a bard called Barian and introducing yourself as, “the bard Barian.”

  2. great ‘character sheet’ but i’d recommend separating ‘hooks’ and ‘goals’. hooks are things that happen to your character and are out of his control. goals are things the character is going to try to make happen on his own. both are important but they are probably different enough to get their own entries.

  3. No disagreement with the points you made there. I work to the rule that an NPC is a person who exists beyond their interaction with the PCs. This helps me to visualize how the NPC might more believably act and allows the situation to evolve out of the PC’s view. Instead of the same NPC waiting in their shop 24/7 for the characters to come visit them, maybe they get a significant other, or go bankrupt. Perhaps that city guardsman who doesn’t like the party gets a promotion etc.

  4. The one thing I disagree on is the names. What’s wrong with using “real world” names? A Norse name culture like you mention IS using “real world” names. The Norse were real people.

    As for the majority of people using Norse names while one suddenly uses Egyptian… that’s normal too. Most people in the area I lived had typical “black” names, but there was a girl named Apulia. No reason for the name except that her mother had read it in a book and liked it. Human nature is human nature. Would people in a fantasy world not every now and then have a parent who just loved elven names and gave one to their child?

    I just don’t see the issue. People love to paint everything with a single brush. All elves are this, all dwarves are that. While having racial traits that are generally right on is nice, I think having a few exceptions here and there, that don’t always lead to “Oh! This person is different and therefore important!” adds depth and realism.

    • I agree with your disagreement if the adventure is taking place in the real world. So–obviously–if your game was set in the Viking era and you were playing a Viking you’d use a Viking name, But generally, I find the use of names I perceive to be a real world name too disjarring.

  5. If you can get your hands on a copy, there was an excellent article in the old Dragon Magazine (there is an online pdf archive somewhere…) entitled “the Seven Sentence NPC”. The very first thing that struck me on reading this piece is how easily the ideas presented would mesh with that concept. Acting almost as a template for the details of each sentence.