An NPC to Remember

This week we take a look at Character development!  Daddy DM asks:

I have found some of the most memorable & fun NPCs to play were the ones who were extremely exaggerated in one way or another. Have you found this to be true & do you have any examples of what you did to expand that idea to help fill out NPC background & NPC’s environment (city/town/village)?

Creating good NPCs can make a huge difference to a campaign.  Non-combat encounters can become stale and boring quite quickly, and the biggest reason I’ve found this to happen is as a result of Players feeling like they’ve been pulled out of the moment.  Nothing kills a scene like having to stumble over an NPC’s response, or having a Player decide to interact with an NPC you didn’t even give a name to.

As a DM you can’t be expected to build every NPC in your Universe as a fully developed person.  That would be absurd, and I don’t think our Players actually expect that much out of us (unless they’re complete tools).  But there are short-cuts we can use to create interesting characters on the fly, and I think our reader has really hit the mark:  exaggeration can work wonders.

Players, as they so often like to do, make choices we don’t expect.  When they walk into a tavern and ask for a list of all the patrons in the bar and decide to sit down and talk to the lonely looking dwarf in the back corner without a name… well, it’s slightly annoying.  But either you populate the bar with pointless people, or every bar they walk into is going to have 2 people in it: the bartender and the guy with information.

Sometimes these encounters are flat and boring, mainly because I’m trying to steer them in a different direction, and sometimes I go with the flow.  Usually, I’ll pick a personality trait or two (crotchety, insane, perverse, depressed, etc.) and run with it.  I’ll play it up as much as I can, until something emerges.  Often it falls short, and ends up silly (but silly is ALWAYS better than flat), and every now and then an interesting NPC is born.

I think the reason they become memorable characters, is because really well-rounded, and realistic people are boring.  Most people I meet every day bore me.  It’s the over-the-top people you remember.  It’s the caricatures that leave a mark –  the people who act big and react big.

The important thing to remember, especially when building major NPCs, is that exaggeration and caricature doesn’t mean shallow.  Make well-rounded NPCs.  Give them depth and history, give them motivation and goals, but find that aspect of them that you really want to emphasize, and OVER-emphasize it.

Another point to keep in mind is what you emphasize.  Clichés are caricatures, but they’re dull characters.  The evil genius, the tyrant that thinks he’s saving the world, the silent savior with a dark past… these are expected.  Don’t go over-the-top with how vile and evil someone is, or honorable and noble they are, think outside the box.  Pick a less obvious personality trait and exaggerate that instead.  It could be something as minor as a strange obsession, or something as big as their deepest fears.  But let it shape them and define them.

The thing to keep in mind is that these things don’t need to be important to the story or the campaign.  I think they add more depth when they aren’t important.  When your evil tyrant just happens to be hopelessly obsessed with some weird religious cult, but isn’t interested in converting the world and spreading his beliefs, it just adds a little more depth to him as an individual. It will certainly influence some of his decisions, and that’s good, but your story doesn’t need to revolve around it.

Back when I was running a Star Wars campaign, my Players were a bunch of smugglers making a drug run for some minor drug lord with a name and nothing more.  He was intended to be a minor plot piece that would never even be seen.  My Players got a little aggressive and over-zealous, got into a fight with some henchmen, and all Hell broke loose. 

To make a very long story short, they ended up going to see this drug lord, building a business relationship with him, and ultimately robbing him blind.  But the intended adventure never even happened.  I had to create EVERYTHING on the fly.  It was very intimidating, but also a lot of fun.  The drug lord became a major NPC that was based on a goofy caricature of a sex-addicted, straight-edge, drug dealer that loved really bad dance music.  Eventually a fully formed individual with hopes, fears and a lot of shame was born out of this, and the Players loved to hate him.

I had to create an appropriate environment for him as well, which reflected his own exaggerations.  It turned into a weird goth, stripper, dance club, which ended up leading the Players into all manner of seedy adventures that I had never anticipated.  In short, good NPCs make for a good time.

Roll it like you mean it.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Dungeon Master

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This entry was posted in DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy, Geek Culture, General Roleplaying, Player Advice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to An NPC to Remember

  1. Pingback: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About NPCs | Ask the Dungeon Master

  2. Ask the DM says:

    true, but i think it always makes for good times.

  3. Darren says:

    One must be aware that characters CAN be over-developed ^^

    I learnt that to my expense when my players chased after a City Guard captain who was too… interesting 😀

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