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Better NPCs: lower your expectations

Written by Expy - Published on August 14, 2007

I like to keep my NPC descriptions simple. I think that less is more when it comes to introducing an NPC in a campaign. Whether the character will never be seen again or is the uber-villain you should settle for one – only one – role-playable characteristic. Nothing else matters. The NPC’s motivations or stats matter only after that initial encounter with the PCs. And that initial encounter will be memorable if the character has one obvious – and possibly annoying – mannerism. Let me explain my train of thought.

Avoiding meta-gaming

My players are notorious for remembering more about a campaign than I do. I’m behind the scenes, planning, planting, acting. They just enjoy the ride. So it’s not surprising that they remember some details better than I do. It’s often impossible for them to know if a fact is essential to the campaign – the kind of stuff I remember – or if it was made up on the fly – the stuff I forget about.

The danger lies in forgetting about details that the players deemed important. It triggers meta-gaming in a hurry. The DM doesn’t remember so it wasn’t a good lead.

Besides the obvious solution – taking notes – I use one other technique to make NPCs memorable and to make sure I remember the NPCs too.

Expy the dragon says:
Quirky NPCs are easier
to remember and they
taste better too.

NPC quirks

Actually it should be NPC quirk – singular. To make sure everyone remembes an NPC, I keep the description vague and I act out only one quirk the NPC has. The mannerism has to be caricatural. For example, one character has a hunched back. Another speaks very slowly. An NPC could gesticulate wildly. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s obvious enough for everyone to see.

This allows to cut down on the amount of notes to take. I just write down a name and a quirk for NPCs I create on the fly. It also bolsters role-playing and eliminates unnecessary description. If an NPC surfaces again during a campaign, the players might have forgotten everything about that character but will always remember the funky behavior that the DM role-played a few games ago.

Annoying vocal habits

Looking for unforgettable quirks? You can check out the Annoying vocal habits generator by Slack & Hash. I’m a big fan of this website – their random tools are mostly hilarious and sometimes useful.

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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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16 Responses to “Better NPCs: lower your expectations”
  1. Pé0 says:

    Try annoying, we’ll remember everytime an annoying NPC. The only problem is that he won’t last very long. So annoying and powerful would be a good combination!!!

  2. Yax says:

    Yeah. The best way to keep an NPC is to never let him near the PCs.

  3. niggle says:

    I’m lucky and kinda annoyed, for the fact my players forget every time what happened in the previous session. I’m very lucky if they catch on to NPC discrepancies. But good tips, I think preparation is the key to not being caught with your pants down. I scribble notes like mad whether playing as a DM or a PC.

  4. Pal Mercy says:

    My players don’t remember much. They always say they love RP, but they sure get excited when a fight comes along.

  5. Rebekah says:

    I checked out the vocal habits generator – some cool ideas in there!
    I agree that “doing the voice” helps both you and your players get to know the NPC’s. My players insist they know who I’m playing just by the voice and mannerisms that I do.
    It can be taken to an extreme though – I had a weird bird that the group found that only spoke in poems and riddles and boy was that hard to keep up!

  6. Robert says:

    This is embarrassing, in a game session with my kids my 9 yo told me the other week, “Don’t bother with the sill voices, Dad. We know.”

  7. Yax says:

    Ouch! That had to hurt! Nice try, Robert!

    It’s so easy to go overboard with the mannerisms. I’ve done it many times. I’ve been sticking to easy-to-act-out and unobtrusive quirks.

  8. Erica says:

    One thing that can make for an interesting npc is to have them say a phrase often. If you look at your own speech patterns, you may see a word that you use in a certain way (I’m guilty of often using “obnoxiously” instead of other qualifiers- “D & D is an obnoxiously fun game.”)

    It won’t work if you use it every time, but it makes things interesting. Maybe they say “doncha know” a lot, or they misuse a word in a certain way. On an episode of Dr Who, one alien always started her sentences with “Chan” and ended them with “Tho”, a quality of her culture. It’s the only reason that I still remember nameless alien # 4.

  9. Solomoriah says:

    If you want your players to remember your NPCs, take a leaf from Harry Potter… introduce them slowly. Don’t dump an entire NPC party on the players and expect them to remember the whole group… instead, let them meet new ones in groups of no more than two or three. Introducing them alongside known NPCs allows you to pull off a “crowd” while enabling everyone to remember them.

  10. Ronin says:

    You’re articles are excellently useful. I have made use of your 30-minute campaign articles more than once. Thanks for the insight.

    Just FYI, your link to Slack’n’Hash is wrong. Their URL is http://www.slacknhash.net.


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