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How to Create Awesome NPCs On the Fly

Written by Janna - Published on August 13, 2009

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

In some ways, role-players are like children. Specifically, you never know what they’re going to do next, and it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. (There are other similarities between the two groups, such as a tendency to forget their “indoor voice” and pout when they don’t get their way. But that’s another article entirely.)

If your players zigged when you were anticipating a zag, you might need to generate some NPCs on the fly. Here’s some advice for spontaneous NPC generation and how to make it fun for everyone.

If your players zigged when you were anticipating a zag, you might need to generate some NPCs on the fly.

Using What You Know

One way to come up with a memorable NPC is to take an idea you’ve seen before and expand it. When you need to portray an unplanned NPC, don’t be shy about borrowing concepts and character traits from books, movies, and even other games you’ve played in. Inspiration is where you find it, and when you’re required to create an NPC with only a moment’s notice, it’s easiest to find inspiration in familiar sources.

Starting from Scratch

Of course, you can always use an original character concept. This can be done by using character traits to define the NPC’s personality. For example, you could run an NPC who was protective, or one who was overly friendly. You could come up with a control freak, a coward, or someone who lives by a rigid moral code. These traits influence the NPC’s actions and reactions, and the rest of their personality revolves around the core traits.

It doesn’t matter how you come up with ideas for quick NPCs. What matters is how much fun they are for both you and your players.

For quick reference, consider putting together a list of NPC traits you can use on the fly. This can be a deck of cards, a simple list, or a random table. The idea is to have an assortment of basic personality types at your fingertips. Then you get to supply the details.

Making it Fun and Memorable

It doesn’t matter how you come up with ideas for quick NPCs. What matters is how much fun they are for both you and your players. Imagine the fun your group could have with an NPC who shows up drunk to half of their meetings. Seductive NPCs can be a lot of fun. The overly friendly sorts mentioned above are especially humorous when the NPC labors at a traditionally grim profession, such as a bailiff or undertaker.

Remember: it’s better to populate your world with entertaining NPCs than with cookie-cutter types who all talk and act the same. So err on the side of drama and choose over-the-top personalities more frequently than subdued ones.

Keeping it Simple

That said, don’t give your quick NPCs really complex personalities unless you plan to weave them into your storyline somehow. If the party is never going to interact with this NPC again, you could probably put your time to better use by planning more static plot elements. If you run a sandbox-style campaign, your party might return to the NPC multiple times. In that case, keeping the personality fun and simple will help you slip back into the NPC’s mind on short notice.

Is it hard to create NPCs on the fly? Tell us how you handle it in the comments section!

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

 

 Comments

9 Responses to “How to Create Awesome NPCs On the Fly”
  1. Ian Winterbottom says:

    I find creating NPCs, or any character really, easy and fantastic fun. The hard part is weaving them into the storyline! Half the time a figure I paint will spring into a readymade character or NPC complete with backstory!
    Ian

  2. KLaser says:

    When I create an NPC, I have a list of personality quirks (Vocal traits, body language…) that I pull from. I think I got the idea from http://www.DugeonMastering.com actually! But, being able to roleplay a character by focusing on 1 aspect of their personality, instead of creating a complicated personality and background on the fly, has really changed the way I game.

  3. The Reaper says:

    I am an NPC that is vital in my own campaign! Ironic, is it?

  4. GeekBob says:

    Hmmm, I can say, while I’ve had interesting NPCs, I’d say the two most memorable ones cam from my previous FR Campaign. The players even held a funeral for one when they thought he died.

  5. WhitDnD says:

    My biggest turning point for spontaneous NPC’s was realising that my PC’s had no idea the NPC they just met was something i strung together 30 seconds ago or that i’m blatantly ripping off character traits from a show or book. Having a fuax confidence with spontaneous gaming gives the PC’s something to work with. If they see me umming and arring then they tend to follow suit and the game can degenerate quickly.

    A personal NPC method i use is to ‘go with the flow’ and then afterwards make some personality notes to expand on after game if need be.

    Another method i’ve used before is having a sheet full of three to four personality traits strung together and then when i need an NPC i quickly pick something to run with.

    Great Advice Janna
    Whit

  6. Yax says:

    Creating NPCs on the fly can get the players moving when they’re bogged down, even if the NPC isn’t very interesting. If it is great, it gets the players moving, advances the plot, and creates more long term value for your game. There really no downside – a DM’s got to improv.

  7. Olan Suddeth says:

    Agreed, 100%. Pick one or two personality traits from a list, toss in a cheesy accent, and your players think you are a genius.

  8. pirate34 says:

    our game has a rule, someone says out loud the name of a major demon and it appears, its how we’ve destroyed 3 towns…alkazaar.

  9. James McMurray says:

    When I need an on-the-fly NPC, I go to my handy-dandy NPC generator: http://www.colugo.org/jmcmurra/generators/index.php?pageId=1&pageType=1.

    I also sometimes use it during a session for a major NPC, to grab a last-minute name or personality quirk. It keeps the players guessing about which NPCs are “important” and which are “just inconsequential flavor text.”

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