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.
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.
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