As I look back on the hundred plus adventures I’ve Dungeon Mastered as well as the hundreds of hours I’ve spent as a player, I can really only think on one campaign that didn’t have any NPCs. It was a long drawn-out dungeon with nothing but traps, riddles, and endless hordes of monsters. In fact, it may have been an Undermountain campaign redesigned with no exits (at least, that’s how it felt). As you might suspect, it was not one of my favorites with no story and no real antagonist. Exactly the kind of campaign I have repeatedly warned against any level headed DM creating/running. In my mind, comparing campaigns with NPCs to those without is akin to comparing silent movies to ones with sound; they just add so much more to the experience.
Now, with that being said, I have had the good fortune of creating a few NPCs that I would consider to be excellent and the regretful experience of creating a few that were well below average. Sometimes they are someone you need in a pinch to sell a magic item to a PC and will be in and out of the campaign in no time; sometimes they are going to be a companion to the party to help explore a dungeon or an area and will be around for several sessions; and other times they could be the main antagonist of the story and will cause havoc from day one until the final battle. I feel that the length of time that the NPC is going to be present in an adventure dictates the amount of effort a DM must put into their creation, backstory, and personality. You don’t want to spend an hour working on an NPC that is only going to appear in your story for fifteen minutes and oppositely you might want to spend more than fifteen minutes working on an NPC that is going to be in your campaign for multiple hours.
So, for those times when you need a really excellent NPC to make an impression and stand up to the test of being involved in the story for long periods of time, I have devised the following five areas you should focus your efforts to make the very best NPC possible. Here they are in no particular order:
1) Use an actor/character you already know as a template.
Who is this character like? This is usually the first question I ask myself when creating an NPC. Is he a tough guy like Rambo? Is she adventurous like Lara Croft? Is it a bit crazy like Gollum? If you have a character/actor in mind, then you’ve got a great base from which to build. In the past, I’ve used actors from all walks of life as my inspiration for NPCs. Some examples include Brad Pitt, Steve Buscemi, Sean Connery, Emma Watson, Samuel L. Jackson, Nathan Fillion, and Katharine Hepburn (who, by the way, provides the template for almost every Drow Matron I’ve ever portrayed). I’ve also used characters from fiction with no real actor attached to them such as DC super hero Green Arrow, anime character Edward Elric, the characters of RA Salvatore and Robert Jordan, as well as characters from classical sources like Shakespeare and the Roman/Greek myths.
2) Give them a distinctive voice/accent.
Players will appreciate an NPC a whole lot more if you can make their voice come to life. Now that doesn’t mean you have to be an award winning actor or spend countless hours learning accents and inflections. Simple changes can make a huge impact. Talk slower or quicker; use a different pitch or tone; employ catch phrases that are unique to certain characters; and place emphasis on certain sounds like “s” or “f”. It might be a bit cliché, but I usually drop my voice to its most baritone level for larger NPCs/monsters and pitch it into alto for goblins and tiny creatures. Personally, I do have an ear for accents and will quite often throw in Scottish, Irish, Queen’s English, Cockney, French, German, Jamaican, Russian, Indian, and Chinese on occasion. And before anyone objects, I don’t do this to be disrespectful or to make fun; I do this to make my NPCs vibrant and distinct. So, if you feel comfortable with any of these, I say go for it.
3) Give them a memorable name.
I’ll admit that this is one area that usually gives me trouble. I’m terrible with creating interesting names on the fly, which is why I have to either try to create them in advance or have a good name-generator standing by. Out of those two choices, I much prefer to make up my own names because I find most name generators are very poor; however, sometimes you need an NPC on the spot and don’t have the luxury of really brainstorming a great name. Another naming option is to “borrow” names from other sources of popular fiction/history. However, it is my opinion that if you are going to swipe a character name from some popular place (like history, a novel, or television, etc.), you must endeavor to make your character fairly similar to the original. This will help your players remember them even more and it will give you a good guideline to follow when portraying them. Regardless, a memorable name is essential to having your players believe in the realism, respect the words and actions of the NPC, and successfully integrate them into the story.
4) Give them a memorable feature.
Think about it, almost every memorable character in history has had one or more very memorable features. It might be in their mannerisms, looks, clothing, fighting style, or in their inventory but they are usually there from the beginning or picked up along the way. Gandalf has his pointy hat, Captain Jack Sparrow has his almost drunken posture, Thor has his hammer, Drizzt has his scimitars, and Neo knows Kung Fu. There are an almost unlimited number of ways to make an NPC stand out and the DM’s job is to find the one that is best suited to both the character and the situation of the story. Maybe a pet lizard might be a good fit for an NPC but it could be a poor choice if the story is set in a frozen wasteland where it would quickly freeze. Personally, I like to adorn my NPCs with some memorable flaws like addictions, tempers, and phobias. Choose wisely and you’ll be surprised how much one or two unique features can make a good NPC great.
5) Create a backstory.
If you’ve left this task to last, look back at the previous tasks and you might find creating a backstory a lot easier. If you’re doing this task first or in the middle, ask yourself this fundamental question: Who do I need this character to be and what backstory is going to a good fit for that role? If this person is going to be a teacher or mentor for the PCs, where did he/she/it get their training? If the NPC is going to be a villain, ask yourself why are they doing the horrible things that they are doing and what drove them to this evil? If the NPC is going to be a loyal henchman, or a squire, or a turncoat, or a traitor, it would be a good idea to understand their motivations for being who they are. I also have a rule for backstories that has served me well: “The weirder the character, the more detailed the backstory”.