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Better NPCs: 5 questions, 50 answers (Part I)

Written by Expy - Published on July 22, 2007

NPCs can be fascinating -yes, to your players too. But how are great NPCs created and introduced in a game? To make my non-player characters more lively, real, and unique I steal a page from the fiction author know-how. Novelists write hundreds of pages for their stories. These novels are often based solely on characters. How do they do it?

5 questions, 50 answers

When I have a general idea of what an NPC will be – and I usually have a few boiling ideas at all times – I’ll ask 1 question about the character I’m creating. Once I’ve written down the question I’ll write down 10 answers to that question from the probable to the ludicrous. Finally I take only one answer – the best, or more interesting one. From making that choice on the NPC more questions usually arise. I choose one more question, write it down, and repeat the process.

Let’s try it. Let’s create a villain

All right. I have a new campaign and I need a fascinating villain. I randomly call him Diedric Flagstone. I’ll ask questions about Diedric and answer them myself until I’m happy with the results.

Question #1: What makes him a villain?

  1. He’s a crooked politician.
  2. He murdered someone.
  3. He stole jewels from a rich lady.
  4. He deals with goblins and orcs.
  5. He’s a necromancer.
  6. He runs a shark loan business.
  7. He plans to overthrow the king.
  8. He beats up his wife.
  9. He is posessedby a demon.
  10. He belongs to an evil sect.

Great. I have 10 possibilities. The one I like the most – and I didn’t know that I did until I was done answering the question 1o times – is the jewel thief (#3). To me it is the most interesting storyline because he is stealing from the rich, which is traditionally done by “good guys”. I can already picture that rich old lady and how obnoxious and demanding she will be, generating sympathy for the villain. But for now, the villain is still the villain. Let’s keep working on him.

Question #2: Why did Diedric steal that jewel?

  1. He is a professional jewel thief. That’s how he makes a living.
  2. The jewel was renowned the most valuable in the king’s land.
  3. He was hired by someone.
  4. The owner of the jewel humiliated him in public. It’s revenge.
  5. He’s the husband of the old lady and just hid the jewel.
  6. A neighboring king believes the jewel belongs to him and ordered it stolen.
  7. The jewel has magical powers.
  8. The old lady gave the jewel to Diedric and then declared the jewel stolen.
  9. He wants to offer the jewel to his girlfriend / wife.
  10. He is a retired thief and was challenged by a younger cocky rogue to steal the jewel. Diedric said yes.

OK. By now I’m completely stoked and am considering a new adventure based around Diedric. I am tempted to take 3 or 4 answers from this list. I’ll keep some of these ideas for future campaigns but for now, I’ll choose answer #10 and combine it with #9. Diedric is retired. He used to be a rugged adventurer and is quite rich from the treasures he acquired in his youth. But he’s getting old and he got into a fight with his wife because he was settling down and wasn’t adventurous anymore. She certainly didn’t mean for him to steal the most valuable jewel in town, but Diedric was drinking at the tavern to forget about the marital fight when the young cocky rogue pissed him off and challenged him. He decided to show off and get a gift for his better half at the same time.

Now we have a twisted plot with 4 characters!

  • Diedric the retired rogue is in deep trouble for stealing a valuable gem. Can the players find an old but experienced rogue in his home city.
  • A young and arrogant rogue knows about the theft and threatens to tell the authorities. Can you spell blackmail?
  • An old aristocratic obnoxious and demanding victim. Will the players help Diedric out of spite for her?
  • A wife in distress. Diedric offered her the gem and disappeared for a while to make sure no one arrests him. What is she going to do?

This storyline could make for an amazing city adventure. I am running out of time here, so I’ll ask 3 more questions in my next post and we can see where this technique will bring us.

EDIT: Part II is now available. Read it now.

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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