Wax poetic about your NPCs

edited May 2013 in Make Stuff!
It strikes me that there's no real repository of information like this. I love playing off the cuff as a GM, but one thing I can't pull out of thin air is NPCs. If I do—if I try to run them without motivations and personalities I've worked out ahead of time—they're never as good as they could've been.

Does anyone have anything to share? I'd love to see it, regardless of if it has setting information or not. Generic is boring.


  • I always think about the context, why am I introducing this NPC? Does it live here? Is it a trespasser? I have an English dictionary by my side. The first word I see is their name and the second their nature.
  • I tend to have a 'list of setting appropriate names' on a sheet in my GM area and just tick them off as they are used for various folks they encounter. Once the session is over I'll pop them into the Dramatis Personae proper so I don't make a mistake next session by forgetting.
    When writing up a Dramatis Personae, it tends to include name, identifying features (In a fantasy game this would be where race would go), profession, home, background and dirty little secret. From that it is often enough to synthesise motives and reasons in play.
    People I consider 'super important' in more traditional games tend to get one of these when we start.... Erm... I guess the ones I am particularly proud of are:

    The Skinrider: Race: ? Gender: ? Thief
    Background: In ancient times, there was a Goddess of Thievery who exhorted her followers to steal ever grander prizes. One individual, whose name and appearance has long been forgotten, was a paragon of his craft, capable of stealing even the ephemeral, a cat burglar who would break into mansions, steal the finest artworks in plain sight, stealing the image of his face from the eyes of others, stealing their will and strength to resist. But to steal things from the mortal realm was not enough. His devotion to his Goddess demanded ever grander tribute, and so he stole the grandest prize of them all, the most well protected thing in all of the Universe. The soul of the Goddess of Thievery herself.
    As his patron frittered away into the dust, the Skinrider's retribution was swift. His arrogance imprisoned him for years, where he has lain in wait, cursing the sour grapes of his mistress. He won that divinity fairly, and she had no right to deny him it. If he were to be released... well...
    He works from his prison, riding upon the bodies of others, stealing their senses, for just a little while, ever conspiring his escape.
    Dirty little secret: He knows he cannot escape himself. He needs other willing beings to release him. But to admit it would be to admit that he was incapable, that he could not steal himself from his gilded cage. That he would need a greater thief...

    Mr Timothy Orville Till (T.O.Till): Race: God Gender: Male? Job: Quetzacoatl/Headmaster
    Background: He's Quetzacoatl. When Prometheus was last imprisoned under Birmingham by the works of Erasmus Darwin and his group of fellow Scions, he took it upon himself to establish a school upon the premises to ensure that the seal would never be broken, by training young Scions to fulfill the duty of gate guardians of this mouth to the end of the world.
    Dirty Little Secret: He's ritually killing delinquents in the school during detention hours to ensure a sturdy OFSTED report... and ensuring the sun will rise tomorrow. But he's mainly concerned about the OFSTED report, to be honest.

    Dr Moreau Male 'Scientist'
    Background: They thought Moreau was mad. He is actually one of the founding members of the school of Pokemon Psychology. Pokemon, Moreau believes, is not a biology so much as it is a state of mind. Whilst the British Government fails to publically recognise his research, instead more openly funding the work of Russel Wallace's 'Punctuated Evolution' experiments, Cambridge University has been ploughing pounds into his facility on Madagascar, thanks to the vouching word of one Professor Moriarty. Recently, he has discovered that with enough psychological coaxing, if a human can learn to accept the orders it is given without questioning, a process of conditioning that often takes decades of hard work, they can be caught inside Tesla's new devices, and for all intents and purposes, cease to become a human...
    Dirty Little Secret: His facility is built on the remains of another, researching ruins in the area. Strange, since there was no recorded human population. Certainly not this advanced. He hasn't told anyone about the heiroglyphs... Or what they say to him at night...
  • One of the best recurring NPCs from my recent 4E Dark Sun campaign started as a throwaway named "Old Bones" that sold the best "meat-on-a-stick" in Tyr. One of the PCs decided to strike up a conversation and asked questions that I had to make up answers for on the spot. Turned out he was a retired caravan guard/cook who wound up providing a lot of information (some of which both he and I were making up) and a magically imbued chuck box that kept morale up on the road by making even burnt lizard taste pretty good.

    Not all NPCs need to have intrinsic pre-ordained motivations. On first meeting, they will be a mystery to the players and their characters. With the right mindset, you can let the players' questions and interaction sketch the NPC for you. Just be sure to make a few notes...
  • For important NPC's, sometimes I pick a favorite song to represent them. I once took this too far and actually had an NPC in a Nobilis game named "Ana Ng". It works better if it's behind the scenes, just a coherent set of moods and themes that are attached to that person.
  • You can actually wing it for good just with two words as a description and an emotion, which all three may come from randomizers like the ones I posted above. I prefer card randomizers because they are faster to use in game than tables (rolling and then cheking up on a table and then making up something coherent from the results takes way forever in game even when you're used to it)

    So, eg tall, greedy and afraid not only define an npc, but depending on the context these words may even create a plot hook!
  • One of the things I've done in my TSOY campaign is assign a title to NPCs as well as a name. Examples I have right now include "the Blue Star Wizard", "The Wanderer", "The Army Leader", and "The Army Sergeant". I don't share the title with the group, it's just to categorize them in my head. When I'm creating a new NPC, I make sure his title is sufficiently different from every other so he sticks out as a separate character.
  • To practice, I used to stand outside my house late at night, watching the few cars that passed by, and trying to imagine who the driver might be, where they were going and why, at that ungodly hour. It;s not just about notes and traits and systems and so on, it's also about exercising, in the most pragmatic sense, the imagination for this specific task.
  • In Burning Wheel, I've been having huge success with NPCs, and the system helps. When you're writing three Beliefs and potentially three Instincts for important NPCs, they suddenly become vivid. Beliefs and Instincts serve as flashpoints for a character's actions and motives, which are the most important pieces.

    Where I really lack is making them physically colorful. Hopefully Short Order Heroes will help with that.

    I definitely make NPCs to clash with the current situation. That either prompts the PCs to change things, or else it throws things into an upheaval. Both are desireable outcomes.
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