Well, I’ve been incognito for a while, but Ask the Dungeon Master is finally back with another question. This week we take a look at good NPC development:
Hello Dungeon Master,
I am just beginning to DM my own D&D game for a group of brand new players. I have been a player for several years now, between multiple groups and games, however most of these groups were focused more on combat and dungeons and less on NPC interactions and plots. The group I am DMing is very interested in the NPCs of the world, and any time I try to describe them and roleplay them, I always fall flat. Is there any advice you can give to help me with that?
Anyone that follows this blog knows that I’m a fan of the softer side of Roleplaying. I love NPC interactions, interesting plot-lines, and basically everything other than combat. It’s not that I dislike combat, it’s just the least interesting part of Roleplaying for me. Every DM and Player is different though, and as I’ve said before, the most important thing a DM can do is get to know their Players. You’ve already done that, and now you’re doing what a good DM should do by trying to alter your DMing style to make everyone happy.
(Just a word of caution before we move on: Don’t bend completely to the whims and desires of your Players, otherwise you’re going to end up hating being a DM. You need to remember what you enjoy as a DM and provide that for yourself. Don’t be afraid to be a little selfish. This is why I always have robots in my campaigns.)
Your question comes at an opportune time as I’ve started a brand-new campaign with a group of mostly brand-new Players. Like your Players, they too would rather be Roleplaying than fighting things. (Side note: I’ve noticed over the years that newer Players seem more interested in acting, interacting and character immersion than seasoned Roleplayers do. I have no hypothesis as to why this is. Perhaps it’s just what they assume Roleplaying is, or maybe they get excited about the prospect of playing pretend. Whatever the reason, your Players seem to be of the same mindset.)
So what do we do as DMs? The first thing I would suggest is to plan more extensively. At the very least, have a list of names available, if not name every NPC you anticipate your Players interacting with. My Players are fairly unpredictable, so I’ve simply printed out a large list of names that I can choose from whenever I need to. There are plenty of internet resources and even some smart phone Apps that can help you with this. Naming NPCs might sound like the least of your worries, but I can assure you, having to stumble over an NPC’s name can be real a mood killer.
Aside from names, personalities are important. I recommend in one of my blogs that you develop a cheat sheet for personalities as well. I like using names from movies, television and books. They should be personalities you’re comfortable with and can adopt with relative ease. My cheat sheet might look something like this:
Captain Malcolm Reynolds
I think you’ll be surprised by how potentially helpful this can be. If you know your NPC should act like Han Solo you’ll feel MUCH more confident in your responses to your Players. (Another word of caution: Don’t ham it up to the point where your NPC feels too much like the fictional character, as this can make Players feel kind of ripped-off, like they’re just interacting with uninteresting proxies of other people’s creations.)
The next tool in your arsenal should be good improvisation skills. This is something that only comes with time and practice, so your Players will need to be patient, and you’ll need to take it easy on yourself when you fall short. I wrote another blog on this very topic, so I won’t re-hash it here.
The last thing you’ll want to do to make a memorable and interesting NPC is character depth. Once again, I’ve already dedicated a blog to this very topic, so check it out here.
Something I’ve realized from writing this response, is that I don’t use a lot of my own advice. It’s easy to get lazy as a Dungeon Master. We have a lot of prep to do, and sometimes it can feel like our Players don’t appreciate all the hours of work we put in to have a good time. So thanks for asking this question and making me remember that good DMs are active DMs. I’m going to make sure my session this week kicks mega-ass.
Roll it like you mean it,
The Dungeon Master
As always, we need more questions!
You can also see me in action in the webcomic, One Die Short.