Non-player characters (NPCs) populate Gamesmasters’ game worlds providing a life source alongside the vitality injected by the player characters (PCs). Unlike PCs, however NPCs do not need to be complete characters. The level of completeness of an NPC is directly related to their level of intended interaction with the players. And to a lesser extent their role in the campaign or in a given scenario.
Those constructed to have some individuality identifiable by the players and even a modicum of believability can make the difference between a bland, artificial environment and a vibrant, exciting, living world. Applying layers of detail is a proven technique in NPC design that can payoff in spades during play.
The Five Layers
A believable NPC can be described as an interesting, engaging, and memorable character. This is in addition to the fact that they are likely to exist in the campaign world in the first place. To create a believable NPC the GM can employ five layers in their construction. These five layers are:
- Physical features
- Gear (clothing & equipment)
- Skillset (skills of note & combat style)
How Much Detail?
The first concern when constructing an NPC is the level of detail needed. This is preliminary and aside from a quick rundown of each of the five layers. Simply inserting a single generic item in each layer can quickly generate mooks (nameless fodder) or a background NPC. However, these will be suited only to limited contact with the PCs. The level of contact an NPC has with the PCs is important. This as you do not want to waste time adding minute detail to a character that shows up once, says next to nothing then has no other significant/repeating contact.
The Interaction Hierarchy
Game masters should have a basic hierarchy for their NPCs besides the main antagonist(s). These would be (in ascending order): background, foreground or limited interactors with limited appearances, those with limited interaction but the potential for multiple appearances, frequent interactors even if their appearances are limited, and those who interact regularly with the PCs.
The higher up you move along the NPC interactor hierarchy the more detail needed. NPCs can move up the hierarchy or become elevated by ongoing interactions even if not designed for long-term existence. These gaining added detail either acquired from play (shear improvisation) or details and minutiae added by the GM. Often this occurs as a response to player inquiries or in an effort to give the NPC extra story weight. After determining the interaction level of an NPC, the very next concern is Archetype.
Archetypes & Stereotypes
Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are useful tools in the hands of a talented GM. The latter pair are often considered cheap tricks (especially stereotypes). Stereotypes can if the GM is not careful or sufficiently creative, become cliché. And if the GM is not mindful, offensive. Archetypes carry the connotations of role, skillset, and ability. Stereotypes convey assumptions and preconceptions about behavior, motivating factors, and “genetic traits.”
Common stereotypes found in fantasy tabletop roleplaying include Evil-Murderous-Orcs, Suicide-Attack-Goblins, Bad-Guy-in-Black-Adorned-in-Batwings-and-Skulls, the Common-Thug, etc. These are trenchant and brief descriptions with an attached assumption.
An archetype on the other hand is a sort of blueprint. It is often built into or associated with various settings and works of fiction. It gathers together certain attributes. These presenting a general sketch of a character and possible patterns of behavior packaged together with general appearance. The archetype should be selected with the NPC’s role in mind. Stereotyping, on the other hand, is shallow shorthand communicating specific character traits to players. based on a large social/economic/regional/ethnic group. An especially useful tool when there is limited playtime, while in a pinch, or in a faster-paced part of the game.
Certain classic archetypes found in roleplaying include the Do-Gooder-Paladin, Prefers-the-Wilderness-Ranger, the Might-Makes-Right-Barbarian, and the Sticky-Handed-Backstabbing-Rogue among others.
Tropes, another tool in the box, allow the use of a shorthand statement to easily communicate certain aspects of NPCs. These can be as short as a name for a fantasy race or profession. Perhaps a short description not containing a value judgment or opinion in and of itself but carried by familiarity. GMs can use tropes to influence the players’ in-game actions dependent on their reactions. If the group groans at the mention of specific tropes, the GM probably shouldn’t use it. Unless, of course, trying to raise the ire of their players. This actually holds true for stereotypes as well.
Examples of common fantasy tropes include the Knight and variations on, the Archer, the Spell-Slinger, Half-Dragons, the Scholar, etc.
The second NPC layer, distinguishing physical features and build, begins to grant the archetypal NPC more individuality. Race, in roleplaying terms, is a way of communicating the most general physical features and behavioral patterns to the players simply by attaching a label to the NPC. Race is a combination of stat templates and stereotypes promoting a general idea, right or wrong, about personality and role. Again, a simple mook character does not need much more than that. Maybe some equipment. But a well-rounded NPC would need a few more visual cues to deliver some additional information to the players. This information can include a verbal exchange. This is good to use with a simple encounter as well to drive home the NPC’s intentions.
An NPC’s face is a roadmap of experience particularly if they have had an especially brutal life. Acquiring scars, tattoos (which can carry their own symbolic meaning) or losing teeth, eyes, noses, etc. adds character. Prototypical pigmentation that carries meaning in the game that the players can clue into, is also useful. Even a deep suntan and very visible tan-lines can reveal occupation before the GM names it. Alternately, regional racial features can distinguish an NPC from the racial norm. For example, a lighter shade of green or very tall points on the ears. These hinting at a different origin than the racial norm can communicate some ethnopolitical information expanding the game world. Physical disability can also add layers to the character. This due to birth defects, the mutilation of war wounds, or more specific instances of physical trauma; abuse, ritual mutilation/scarification, accidents, or draconian punishment.
Gear & Clothing
Costume and equipment, the next layer, can be used to express the character forthrightly. Alternately, it can hide their true nature or intentions, heighten the anxiety of players. Or it can feed them hints/clues as to the wider world, the NPC’s fighting ability, skillset. Or reveal otherwise unexpressed aspects of the NPC’s personality as well as connections to other individuals or organizations. Mooks and background NPCs need only the gear to carry out their brief and likely, temporary purpose with perhaps some token details.
NPCs should have an equipment list comparable to their interaction level. As well as a role and an appearance that distinguishes them more as individuals from the lesser interactors. The players should take one look and know that these are more than just nameless minions. Personal items should be on this list, which can give clues to their religious beliefs, sentimentalities, and pastimes. Their costume can also reveal that the face they are presenting to the players may be a façade. Details such as neatness, quality, and the relevance of clothing style or equipment used to hide their true nature.
Here, certain visual tools, particularly heraldry, are very useful. An NPC warrior with a family crest or striking heraldic image across their chest is set apart from the crowd.
Another very important point when building an NPC is what skills they have at their disposal; their skillset, not necessarily their whole skill-list just the ones they are likely to use in-game. This including their combat ability and fighting style. They should have the tools required to make use of these skills and implements cogent to their combat style. Variation in combat style can demonstrate personality during a fight even without any verbal communication.
NPCs can also have customized gear identifying the piece as their personal property. Also, keep in mind the symbolic significance that the weaponry you equip your NPCs with can convey. For example, a spiked club indicating a real brute and probably a powerhouse.
Ultimately, personality distinguishes vibrant and detailed NPCs from simple mooks. The previous four layers can help to steer you towards a disposition that fits with the rest of the characterization. Alternatively, you can start here then make the rest of the layers agree with (or disguise) the predetermined core personality. Personality feeds into attitudes, reactions, and displays of emotion based on the surrounding world and towards the PCs. Personality can be conveyed in brief exchanges before combat, inciting comments, or during any kind of verbal interaction.
Quips and a nasty comment in the right place in an exchange can convey a lot. When it comes to straight-up combat NPC disposition will be reflected on many levels. This includes levels of aggression and the strategies, techniques, and types of attacks employed. Personality influences weapons and equipment as well. A character that desires attention or is a showboat will desire a level of flash or bling others will not. This can also determine how they decorate their gear. Comparatively, shy characters that have no desire to be the center of attention will wear less ostentatious clothing/gear. Likewise, a shy character who deep down craves the attention that they cannot bear to pursue may wield something flamboyant in battle like a scythe. The personal taste and interests of high-interacting NPCs should not be discounted.
Using Personality as a Tool
The GM can use an NPC’s personality to surprise the players. Subverting tropes using an unexpected personality or displaying contradictory behaviors to what is expected. This can also subvert the apparent stereotype of an NPC. It can also be contrary to what is expected for one of their archetype, especially through reaction. Just take the previous example of a shy character wielding a scythe. However, NPCs should react at least somewhat realistically to the actions or even attitudes put forth by the PCs. Take into account what the NPC’s goals are, what they can read about the PCs visually. Similarly, take into consideration any raw gut feelings, unanalyzed emotional reactions, and disposition that they may have. The NPC’s attitudes towards the PCs are of note. What the NPC has experienced outside of the players’ purview influences their opinion of the PCs.
Another tool that should be used sparingly if at all is personality quirks. Nevertheless, an obvious quirk or tick can overpower an NPCs other qualities. It may become their singular defining characteristic in the eyes of the players. For the most part quirks, not to be confused with habits, have the effect of creating a character that has been set up from the start to be a one-trick pony. Obviously, this is not the best idea for long-term NPCs. Although it can help to single out a character that may only appear once or in a limited capacity. In this case, it will be their only memorable characteristic.
However, this can lead to gimmick personalities, which are essentially a form of bad stereotyping. A ‘gimmick personality’ is where all of the character’s actions and reactions revolve around their quirks or a single unique personality trait diminishing them to an unchangeable monolith rendering them utterly predictable. Quirks should be used sparingly and be reserved for one-shots unless somehow the quirk is not so ostentatious. Subtlety is required for use with recurring NPCs.
Habits & Vices
Habits and vices, unlike quirks, alter character behavior adding to personality depth. A habit is a behavior that the character will participate in as a matter of usual business with some regularity. The most obsessive types of which you could set a clock to. Some habits are dictated by occupation e.g. a clerk opening a store at around the same time every morning. But the primary concern in regards to NPC’s are personal habits.
Personal habits are those that NPCs have acquired in order to make their lives easier, out of a sense of security, addiction, or tradition. Personal habits at times are dependent on the character’s vices as well. Vices are behaviors the character participates in willingly for personal pleasure. Keep in mind that an NPC will carry the artifacts of their habits and vices as personal items. These are keys, lucky charms, mementos, paraphernalia, etc.
Most NPCs do not call for naming unless of course, the PCs ask. And as unpredictable as players can be, you can never be quite sure when they’ll ask. Therefore, it is wise to have a list on hand so you can name NPCs on the fly. Be sure to cross off the used names so as not to have multiple instances of the same name in-game. To be fair it is probable to have NPCs of the same name. However, it is just confusing to the players during gameplay. Also, do not dismiss the use of nicknames or Homeric Epithets, which can be easier to remember in some cases.
Note that friends, family, associates, and contacts give nicknames. These are often terms of endearment that can be embarrassing to the so-named NPC and a potential source of humor. Nicknames reflect the character’s background to some degree. With nicknames, the NPC’s behavior and occupation/profession will definitely come into play in the naming. This does not discount a specific incident that may lie in the character’s past, however. Nobody lives in a vacuum and neither do NPCs. They will have relationships enmeshing them in a web that represents the social portion of the in-game world.
GMs have several options when it comes to the relationships of NPCs and the strength of those bonds. Family relationships include relatives, parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, children, friends, and partners. At the very least, they may have comrades that could miss them when they are gone. Relationships are dependent on a character’s background. But instead of writing out a complete background, the GM can simply make a list of connections between NPCs and organizations referring to it during gameplay as necessary.
All non-player characters serve a purpose in the game determined by the GM. They, as fictional characters, have no actual agency or motivation. However, to be believable they need to have an in-game reason to be doing what the GM has set them to. NPC motivation is often simple such as a service to appetite, revenge, greed etc.; for most NPC’s there is really no reason to go any further. Those that are higher in the interactor hierarchy however should have some goals set for them taking into account their personality and contacts.
These types of NPCs, those with goals, should display some agency. They take the steps to get the metaphorical ball rolling. This is done by starting rumors, setting out bait, paying off the right individuals. Possibly carrying out what they see as the proper action at the right time. The more goals an NPC has the more they should be fleshed out. This is because the more present they will be in the campaign.
The GM must decide, often fairly quickly, what an NPC is willing to SACRIFICE in the quest to achieve their goals and how strongly their motivation and personality fuel this desire to fulfill these goals. However, usually, only specific factors will push an NPC to the ultimate sacrifice. Such as those that are coerced with credible threats; their families will be killed if they do anything other than die in the attempt to succeed in their mission. This can elevate even the most generic mook beyond the Manichean model. This is especially so if the players discover this after killing them.
Bringing It All Home
Archetype, physicalness, gear and clothing, skills of note & combat style, and general personality are required to build complex, lively NPCs. This five-layer strategy assists in generating, and fairly quickly, NPCs with enough detail to easily suit their roles and cover their intended interactions with the PCs while keeping the game interesting and varied as well as deepening the game world. However, true depth results from long-term development arising from interactions and reactions accumulating in player memory (and the GM’s notes).
All characters within a campaign, PCs included (hopefully), grow and deepen with time. The longer they are played the more detail they accrue eventually growing beyond their initial meta-purpose. Meta-purpose being the reason the GM put them into the game and for which they were initially written. NPCs that the players remember and include in their war-stories are the true measure of success. A completed and fully developed NPC should have several layers like a fresh onion. Should that bulb happen to get diced, a few tears, and not just the Gamesmaster’s, should flow.