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.
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