So You Want To Be A Game Master – Part 3: NPCs

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A secret many GMs won't tell you is that the success of a good campaign isn't measured while you are playing it, but how long your players talk about it after. Math and rules be damned, it is the memory of the adventure that your players will remember for years, perhaps even the rest of their lives. In that respect, the game you run is sort of like a lich. It can be beaten, wrecked, or outright destroyed, but if its any good, it will keep coming back bigger and better than before.

Today, dear readers, I'm going to show you how to make the phylactery of your game.

 "I put a soul in a box."

As we said before, what we are making here are memories. One thing that can live with a player longer than their own deeds in a campaign, is the unforgettable antic of an lowly NPC. Some may be thinking, “Hey Bard, aren't those things just the 'red shirts' of roleplaying games, meant to be little more than quest givers and occasional cannon fodder for my kill-happy murder hobos?”

Yes, but mostly no.

"In memorial of the thousands of Ensign Rickys lost."

An NPC is a character living in you campaign world. They have hopes, dreams, nightmares (probably of your players' characters), and quirks. They are encounter more than any monster, villain or trap in any given game. Therefore, if they are forgettable, a large portion of your game is forgettable too.

We cannot abide this.

NPC creation, as a whole, can be a God-awful slog. Rolling out stats, applying class levels, gearing the little buggers, and for what, your sorcerer to nuke one because he wouldn't budge on the price of a new pair of boots? For the most part, those are things you may never have to worry about, because those are things you will remember, not you players. Therefore, for our super-simple method, we won't be concerning ourselves with that crap. Not yet at least.

The thing you need to remember about NPCs is that they need to stick out. There are tons of people in your average village, town, city, or graveyard. They, like the Slender Man, remain faceless in the background.

 "Nightmares for days."

The NPC should stand out from the crowd. They need something that sets them apart. This can be as something as small as trying out a different accent (I know not everyone can do this), or something bigger like a vestigial limb sticking out of their forehead. But, sometimes, this isn't enough. That is why I tend to give my NPCs a little something extra. I give them a gimmick.

A tried and true classic gimmick is that of the absent-minded NPC. Often time regarded as fun, kooky, or even sweet, the absent minded NPC leaves an impression. It could be a dwarf blacksmith that had been kicked in the head by a horse while shoeing it, and keeps forgetting where he has left his tools. It can take the shape of an elderly librarian, charged with keeping track of thousands of volumes, only to forget where half of them are, and thus sending your knowledge hungry players on wild goose chases. Or even the public figure of a town (mayor, lord, etc.) who cannot tell whether they are coming or going without their tryst assistant that more or less assumes responsibility for their responsibilities.

The gimmick evokes a reaction from your players. They remember this particular NPC because of the trait, and more often than not, they will go back to them, of for no other reason than to experience the gimmick again. It becomes ingrained on the players, and then becomes a lasting memory. Ambitions, and deeper aspects of the NPC's personality can come later, but that first impression is what is the most important.

Your NPC can be more than a one-note joke, though. They can be downright useful, or for that matter detrimental. And there, my friends, is where we get into the difference between an average NPC, and an extraordinary NPC.

NPCs the character find themselves attracted to (yes, in that way, an no, not in that way) is the NPC that can do something for them. I'm not talking about the shopkeep that can get them 10% off. An excellent example is that of Jacob the Trustworthy (pronounced Yak-obb), an NPC artfully crafted by my best friend Jacob was a gentleman smuggler and buckler of many swashes. He was morally ambiguous, but incredibly polite, even to his enemies. He befriended the player characters of that game, and would gladly aid them in smuggling them in and out of enemy territory, “For a nominal fee”. That was o'le Jacob's catch phrase, and it was a simple, boiled-down summary of his entire character. Yes, he would help us, but he was also going to be compensated for it. And you know what? We where happy to pay the man! That campaign ended years ago, but I still remember Jacob's thick accent to this day.

On the flip side, some of the most memorable NPCs are the ones that hinder your players. Not necessarily villains, these characters serve as roadblocks, impeding the players' progress, or acting as a foil. They exist to provoke feelings of anger or annoyance, and in doing so, they make themselves quite memorable. This could be the local Lord who, despite the players making his lands safe for the people that live there, looks down on them a filthy rabble in a lower standing than himself. He looks down on them, and makes no effort to hide it. Perhaps he makes snarky remarks whenever passing in his carriage. He may even go as far as to banish or imprison any player characters that retaliate against his verbal barrages. They players will hate this type NPC, but will remember him for a very, long time, especially if an assassin becomes indebted to them and asks if there is anything he can do for them... anything.

 "I might know a guy."

The final example is the NPC the players are sure they have pegged. Players are a paranoid and suspicious lot, and find it hard to trust (and with good reason). An NPC they can trust and rely on is a hard thing to come by, and an NPC they love to hate is a hard thing not to murder outright. So what happens if the two should suddenly flip? Suddenly you have yourself an NPC twist of Shyamalanian proportions. 

A perfect example of this comes from a game I was fortunate enough to play, run by my best friend (again). We were young adults that had been gathered up by the ruling theocratic government because of our role in a prophecy. We were to be trained to fulfill our destinies. Traveling with us were two military commanders. One was the “cool uncle” of the two. You know, the one that would sneak you a beer and let you watch R-rated movies when your parents weren't around. He would get us out of jams if one of us messed up, or score us extra privileges.

The other was a no-nonsense, stick-up-his-ass fellow that made the Drill Sargent from Full Metal Jacket look like Jim Carey trying to be the Drill Sargent from Full Metal Jacket. Nothing was ever good enough for the man, and any time we exceeded expectations or did anything extraordinary, he would simple say that it was “Acceptable”. My God, we grew to hate that word.

Then came the twist. The “cool uncle” was part of the corrupt religious order that wanted to sacrifice us, and the hard-nosed asshole turned out to be the guy protecting us from his comrade's attempts on our lives. The one we liked and trusted wanted us dead, and the one we hated kept us alive, and wanted us to be better than we were. That session is forever burned into my mind and a beautifully executed plot twist no one saw coming.

If it ever comes to blows, and your NPCs are ever thrust into combat, or even a social encounters, there are a few things you can use to give them a little more crush. Once is a simple method I like to call the 1-20 simplicity method. Basically you, as the game master, look at your NPC, give it an arbitrary AC, hit points, and a bonus to either an attack or skill that ranges between 1 and 20. 20 should be your max for legendary beings that are tested in combat and social etiquette, but your average NPC is going to be in between the 1 and 10 range. Simply roll, add the bonus, and calculate the results. Simple, which is what we're preaching here.

If you want a little more crunch to your NPC, there are plenty of resources for quick stats, skills, and combat abilities. Paizo's amazing Game Mastery Guide and NPC Codex are chock full of ready-made NPCs for any situation, and D&D's 5th Edition Monster Manual has a section in the back of NPCs of their own, complete with abilities and anything else you would need.

NPCs can make a bland campaign seem fun and interesting. Make many, so many, but at no point should they outshine your players. There is a reason your player characters are the heroes/villains of your story.
Do you have any memorable NPCs you've crafted or encountered. If so, leave a blurb about them in the comment section. Next time we delve into the darkside, to one of the driving forces in your campaign...

Make it memorable,

+Ed The Bard 

 Looking for some extra aids to make your game really pop? Check out the Open Gaming Store. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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