I know there are already tons of articles on the Internet- and even a bunch here on DMing- about NPCs. And I also know that many DM’s completely fudge stats/numbers in the interest of better story. But here are Aces’s 5 quick and gritty rules for More Natural NPCs:
- To be believable, they need to have believable personality: if I know you as an actual person in RL, I will eventually use you as a NPC in my FL, because basing imaginary people off real people is both an effective way to begin creating characters and a realistic way to shape them.
- Stereotypes do not have to become caricatures: I know stereotypes have a bad rap these days but if you say stereotypical you sound like a doctor… study root words and let that sink in. Drumner the goto Cleric NPC in the High Forest is a drunken dwarf. But he is also haunted by a mistake he made decades ago that got everyone around him killed. He survived by the will of his god but his confidence is shot. So he drinks to remember that young brave officer in the dwarvish military that he once was. It’s not War and Peace but it had some depth going.
- Your NPCs have to memorable! Give your players 3 chances to remember if after the third meeting they don’t recall anything about particular NPC then that NPC should either receive a makeover to make them more interesting or simply be replaced entirely. If they don’t remember the NPC they won’t care what happens to the NPC- I.e. red shirt syndrome- so fix or remove any unmemorable persona.
- Your NPC’s need to screw over your players: Vola the half-Orc Barbarian runs the bar in town. She also is a hero-for-hire. At one point she led the Keepers of the Keep to the baby copper wyrm they were looking for. After the heroes had distracted the guards she ran off, she was hunting the bounty on the King of the castle and didn’t give a hoot about the dragon. Giving NPCs agendas and differing goals adds depth and you get players really engaging with NPCs when they are more then just totally good, evil as fudge, or neutrally only loyal for the coin.
- They need to be nutty: You have a person who had the skills of an adventurer but isn’t, why is that? Black Bess the half-drow paladin of Selûne is batshit crazy. She has the no quit, no fear, tamed a wyvern mother because she was the only thing fiercer than the wyvern attitude. But, you mess with her mentally ill mother and she loses her shit. There has to be a reason why NPCs with class levels aren’t doing what your PC’s are doing if they have similar skills. Try to make it something that can’t be easily be solved. I.e. nothing that only requires a spell. Kids and spouses are good starting place. People lose their life when their kid goes missing a mix of inability to more on mixed with a boiling thirst for justice and vengeance same with spouses (Jigsaw anyone?)
Till next time; Feed the Owlbear before it feeds on you!