5 NPCs That Won’t Put Your Players to Sleep

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Are your NPCs drab and boring? Do they all speak with the same voice (yours) and use the same mannerisms (yours)? Do they exist only as plot hooks, sage advisors, and merchants? Then you, my friend, might want to consider spicing up your party’s social life with some three-dimensional NPCs that won’t soon be forgotten. Use this article as a source of quick inspiration when your players start to look drowsy.

The Target

Wherever this NPC goes, trouble follows. They could be a rare celestial creature, a dignitary from a foreign realm, or the child of a legendary hero. Whatever the case, they’re exciting and important, and somebody wants them – dead or alive. The PCs are tapped to serve as the target’s personal bodyguards. Can they escort the target to the destination while fending off constant attacks from the would-be assassins or kidnappers? What if the target vanishes? What if the target was in on the plot to secure a large ransom? What if the PCs are accused of harboring a criminal? Let your devious mind explore the possibilities.

The Object of Desire

This NPC could be a sultry maiden or a handsome hero who seems to be fond of one or more party members. How far will the smitten party members go to give this NPC what he or she wants? What if the fine-looking NPC has sinister intentions, like recruiting the PCs to further the goals of a dark god, or securing them as sacrifices for a bloody ritual? It’s up to the party to figure out what’s wrong with this picture and talk some sense into their love-struck pals.

The Look-Alike

This is a cruel trick, but a fun one. When the party rolls into town, they soon learn that one of them is a dead ringer for someone else – public enemy number one. Start small by having several NPCs look startled when the PC passes, perhaps even calling out to them (with the wrong name). Then have a barkeep accuse the PC of skipping out on a tab. Later, have a merchant yell at them about paying with counterfeit coins. Before long, a growing mob will tail the party, crying out for justice for everything from assault to horse-thievery. The PCs will be in a tight spot until they can prove their friend isn’t the criminal in question.

The Crime Lord

In the tradition of crime bosses everywhere, this NPC will be happy to help the party out – for a price. If the group needs money, he’ll finance their purchases. If they need strength of arms, he’ll send some muscle their way. Magic items? Information? The location of a hated enemy’s hideout? The crime lord has it covered, and he’s ready to make the PCs an offer they can’t refuse. What kinds of favors will he extract as payment? What will the PCs do if they can’t agree to his terms? Will they run away and risk the wrath of his cohorts, or will they try some fast-talking of their own?

The Comic Relief

Sometimes a dose of silliness is all you need to get your players active. You could have the PCs come upon a carnival where a fortune teller makes all kinds of weird predictions about their future love lives. Or you could have them join forces with a crazy ranger whose driving goal is to make jerky from all the exotic creatures of the world. The point of a comic relief NPC is to give the game a dose of light-hearted fun.

One-sentence NPC generator

To whip up some quick NPC ideas of your own, check out the one-sentence RPG generator at roleplaying Tips.

How do you feel about colorful NPCs? Do they add to the game, or bog it down? Do you have some crazy NPC stories to share? Let’s see ‘em!

12 thoughts on “5 NPCs That Won’t Put Your Players to Sleep”

  1. Pingback: Your NPC’s SUCK! « Dakota East
  2. I am just about to spring an NPC on the group of 10 year olds I DM for… I am going to have the big tough half-orc warrior’s pocket picked (incompetently) by a small hooded figure who turns out to be a half-starved half-orc child that everyone in town picks on, i.e. “The Kid”. The Kid will stick around remorselessly having been hero struck by the big tough fighter that looks like him and does not get picked on….

  3. @ The Mente: I’m actually Yax, cleverly disguised as a gamer chick*. So you can thank whichever one of us you prefer. :) Have fun with your campaign!!

    *That’s totally false.

  4. Me and the guys were playing some WhiteWolf tabletop and our gm drops this merchant on us. His name was Vlad. The very first time we met him he wouldn’t sell us much but he first offered us spears. He had a heavy Russian accent and started calling us frequent fliers and giving us free ammunition. Every single time we saw him he tried to sell us spears. eventually he came to like us and we even assisted in clearing his warehouse of bats… with our 9mm’s. They turned out to be spies but anyway, vlad helped us out of a couple tight spots and I almost wish our Gm would bring him back to life in a future game.

  5. I’ve had all kinds of interesting characters interact with the party. I do have several interesting but still two dimensional archetypes that I use regularly.

    For instance my alchemists tend to travel in groups, live in very durable stone and metal buildings, and are the source of no end of destruction and chaos. Frequently the PCs will have something they need to obtain from the local alchemists’ guild and have to navigate the chaos dodging explosions and rolling with blast waves while following the absent minded resident who navigates this mess every day. They also tend to either have wild hair or no hair or eyebrows at all.

    My trinket shop owners are eccentrics who used to be adventurers and managed to obtain quite a few unique curios. Most of the stuff in their shops will be useless, but noone knows, not even the shopkeep, what will end up having a secret property. Some of the stuff is magical, some mechanical, some living, some a combination thereof. They are always eager to see young adventurers play with some of the things that he was wise enough not to mess with. They make great plot hooks for getting the PCs saddled with an artifact that they will need to get rid of for the good of the world as a whole.

    I used to have a DMPC that tagged along with the group and was responsible for pulling something absurd out of his ass whenever I accidentally threw too much at the party. I have moved away from that philosophy because they always end up upstaging the PCs. Also PCs have a habit of getting themselves out of messes if you let them be creative. Some of my old DMPCs have made cameo appearances in later campaigns though.

  6. Half a word: I’m loving it!

    I’m going to rule an adventure, and I think this will be so uuuuuuuseful!
    Thanks Yax!

  7. This is an interesting topic…

    @The Target:
    It can very, very frustrating if not done carefully. Say, for example, you have to protect a child that was born with a dragon mark. You found him or her in the woods, lost, scared, hiding. You must help him or her to get back to town where she can be properly protected from evil forces that know about his or her dragon markednes (sic). The child, of course, is hyper, moves around quite a bit. Has zero skills and he or she has that innate curiosity bug and will stray away from the group just to look at that green scaly thing behind the brushes … a group can spend hours chasing around the kid and then fail ‘cuz the kid got gobbled up by a green dragon.

    @The Object of Desire:
    Excellent prop. It helps if the group is into role playing. However, if not well done this could end up being in the comic relief instead (and not in a good way).

    @The Look-Alike:
    This is an interesting idea. Haven’t had the chance to play these.

    @The Crime Lord:
    This is a classic and a staple of any RPG. Sometimes you have to forge alliances with unsavory characters in order to defeat bigger, more powerful enemies. Many times though, the group ends up fighting the crime lord and his henchmen as well to save their butts.

    @The Comic Relief:
    Sounds good. NEVER,EVER DO IT! :) Comic relief should be spontaneous. Trying to force the issue will not only ruin the fun, but perhaps cause frustration among PCs.


  8. @ Ravyn: You’d be surprised. Maybe I have a lot of lazy DM friends, but I’ve spoken to more than a few who just don’t want to take the time to create and portray three-dimensional NPCs because too much role-play interferes with the flow of their hack-n-slash style. Go figure.

  9. I DO have a few NPC’s, but they’re there mostly to give the players background into the scenario and to lead them to the thick of the plot. For example, I’ve had some memorable NPC’s in the form of ship captains, small town Mayors, street rats, and old woman on rocking chairs. What all DM’s have to bew careful of is having NPCs that are either more interesting or more useful than the PC’s. One good rule of thumb is to NEVER have an NPC with stats. If an NPC has to roll, it’s a PC.

    One trick that my players adore (and it goes straight along with quick prep, Yax) is to use the Homeric method of character introduction when it comes to The Villian. That’s when you slooooowly introduce The Villian over the course of a few adventures (or more)so that by the time the PC’s meet/interact with The Villian the DM does not have to do any characterization…. he’s already well known to the PCs and they have a clear idea of what they’re dealing with. Think Captain Ahab, in Moby Dick, who didn’t actually have an appearance until the crew was well out to sea. Or Prince Achilles, for that matter. An easier reference point would be the aliens from Signs. The audience had a very slow introduction to them, following and planning and focusing and growing, until the final battle at the end, at which point The Villian was already fully stated. It’s good for fast planning because all the DM has to do is come up with one more Villian idea and base a half hour adventure around the PC’s discovering it. “Just a half hour?”, you say. Yes, just a half hour. Between all the late arrivals and spilled java and rules research and side jokes, a half hour adventure will lead into a two hour sit-down, plus whatever you ad lib.

    I got off point, didn’t I?

  10. Why would colorful NPCs bog a game down?

    I’m one of those people who overdoes it; an NPC for every occasion, each of which has their own specific color (yay online chats!) and style. Scary part is that I can keep most of them straight without the campaign wiki, and I’ve got to be upwards of fifty “regulars” at this point. Group seems to think it works pretty well.

    Which means the group has dealt, at times, with one person who finally got sick of being rescuebait and started talking her own way out of things, one who ended up serving as a better example of character evolution through conflict than many of my PCs have, a prophecy-god with understandability issues and a taste for palmier, a villain (one of about five named characters they’ve actually killed) hanging around the brainspace of a very confused friend of theirs, one PC’s snarky sister who only just figured out she doesn’t want to kill him, and a spy whose ferret familiar has beaten a small god in a wrestling match and once showed up at a party better dressed than the rest of the group put together (yes, the ferret). And those are just the ones who show up on a regular basis.

    Since there are still people going out of their way to interact with them, I’ve got to be doing something right.

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