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.
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.
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!