One of the crucial things about world-building and making your setting come alive is creating believable yet memorable non-player characters. When it’s just you acting out and designing the plethora of characters your adventuring party may come across, making them all individuals takes a bit of extra thought. It might feel like extra work at first, but it will soon become a reflex. An instinct. You will do it without thinking, and your world will come alive before your players’ eyes!
This is going to be the first part of a series on NPC design.
Let’s start with the background NPC. These are the people your PCs are bumping shoulders with on the streets, pulling aside to ask for directions, spreading rumors amongst, etcetera, etcetera. You get the idea.
For the background NPC, there’s a fine line we need to walk. We don’t want to populate our world with cardboard cutouts, and we probably don’t want everyone to become the most interesting person in the world. They can be interesting, sure, but they shouldn’t distract from the adventure, or more importantly, your players.
We’ll get more into not distracting from your players later in this series.
So, how do we find the sweet spot? One common piece of advice is to give them something physically distinctive, like a missing arm or face full of piercings. Another thing commonly done is finding one aspect of their personality and exaggerating it. Think the seven dwarves.
I always try to have a list of names for unplanned background NPCs. I just make a word document and generate some names for each of the main races of my setting. It goes a long way to give good names on the fly. Really brings the players in.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
The party warlock needs to find a library. He asks you if there are any studious-looking individuals around. This is great, your player already gave you a good description to work off of. So, you describe an elf clad in robes moving through the crowd. Her hair has a gray tinge and a pair of round spectacles cling to her nose. Her name is… Celia. Alternatively, you could just say the warlock sees an elven woman moving through the crowd. She holds a thick tome tight to her chest.
Background NPCs aren’t always spontaneous. Let’s say there is an inn in our city, The Dancing Mephit. Well, we need an innkeep. A half-orc sounds good to me. We’ll name him Kamak. To make him distinct and memorable, let’s go with a mood this time. Kamak is fairly popular in his neighborhood for always being happy. He is an unabashed optimist, and almost always has a smile on his face.
Those things will surely make the NPC memorable. Be careful not to do either of them to excess. Don’t be afraid to be subtle, you might be surprised at how effective the little things can be. Celia could just be wearing thick glasses, Kamak could just always be smiling and laughing.
Another thing that could be useful to look at is how this NPC will interact with the world around them. This is something you can decide based on an entire region or settlement. Most people in one area will probably interact similarly with the world.
Celia and Kamak both live in the same city, we can call it Morwal. The people of Morwal live under tyrannical rule. This probably leads them to be a bit mistrusting of outsiders. Who knows who’s secretly an agent of the evil Wizard-King Szorvaeldiir. Maybe Celia tries to avoid the party, or just gives directions as quick as she can and goes on her way. Kamak might offer a free round of drinks to get on the players’ good side, but tell them there are no rooms available. Both Celia and Kamak could probably be convinced to trust the party and might do so anyways once the party has helped out others in the area.
Remember, if your players take a liking to a background NPC or you suspect that they might become important later that you need to write down whatever basic traits you have assigned them. I think it’s a fairly common occurrence to have a background NPC, especially a recurring one, become a foreground NPC. The party could start going to Celia for all historical inquiries or use The Dancing Mephit as their base of operations. Eventually, they might learn that Celia’s father is a famous cleric to the god of knowledge. She can’t fight, but she tries to win his approval via more academic means. Kamak is actually a survivor of the plague that ravaged the city a few years ago. His near-death experience gave him a new outlook on life. He never did find out the name of the masked plague doctor that saved his life.
That’s going to be it for part one of NPC Design. Next time we’ll discuss the foreground NPC.