The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Roleplaying NPCs

For some reason, a couple of people I know have pigeonholed me as a roleplaying guru. I’m not talking about the mechanical parts or “gaming the system” or whatever, but I’ve had several people comment that I can astound them with my NPCs (non-player characters for those viewers joining us now).

Really, I feel bad that I’m a pinnacle of roleplaying prowess that can never be matched, since my style of NPC construction not that hard a feat to accomplish.

Creating an interesting and cool NPC on the fly is pretty easy, if you know all the basic materials you have at your disposal. It helps if you’re quick on your feet as a GM, which is something I’m more proud of than my NPC construction, but whatev. They also work as how-tos for new roleplayers and people who want to know how to make their characters more interesting on a fluff level.

  1. Give your character a funny accent. Doesn’t matter which kind, just give him one. As long as you can pull it off, go for it. Sadly, I can only do the basic ones… German, Russian, Old West Prospector, Irish, Creaky Old Wizard, Mock Theatricality, and Drunk, but not the really cool ones, like Robot orAsian or Peter Lorre. Is it a real accent? Who cares, make one up. Probably the NPC with the most “character” I ever made was this Appalachian hick with a slurred accent that doesn’t actually occur in reality. At the very least, having 50 bland characters with different accents is better than having 50 bland characters who all sound the same.
  2. Give the character a personality trait, then play with it, round it out. It can be as short as you want (one word) or as long (a quote, a creed, a catchphrase). Maybe he’s greedy, so he calls dibs on everything, or eyes something warily before saying “Nice [item] you got there.” Invert it: maybe he’s greedy, but he can’t say no to helping those in need: after declining to help and walking away, the PC stops, sighs, and turns around to give some gold to the local orphan, or accept their quest, or whatever. Maybe they’re brave, and will jump to be first in line for the action, but have a terrible fear of bloodshed, or start to stop caring a few moments after jumping into action and no action appears after 2d12 minutes. Maybe you only speak in malaprops or palindromes, who knows.
  3. If you can go with a physical mannerism, do it. Again, don’t overdo it, but don’t forget the visual aid. How you hold yourself can be key—the frightened child hunches into a ball, refusing to make eye contact. The gruffy old west prospector hitches his hands over his chest where suspenders would be. One-handed people only motion with one hand; irritating people look smug; Men with No Name sneer over cigarillo butts and grimace and have shifty eyes. The bird-dude makes jerky bobbing motions with his head. Drumming your fingers to a set beat is a neat one. Be subtle about it, because a little goes a long way.
  4. Add in your own details, and keep doing so. My favorite roleplaying moments are when PCs throw stuff in for me to play off of—going too far is kind of breaching RPG etiquette for some groups, but there’s a lot of simple stuff you can do to flesh out a background or add some verisimilitude (a totally awesome word you need to go Google) without stepping on toes. Claim that the thing you’ve just killed was “like the beast mentioned in the song of Saint Bardoth” if you’re a cleric or bard; maybe if you know something, mention that your parents or mentor or whoever taught you about it. Go ahead and name an NPC or look for a contact you knew if the game’s now in the area your character grew up in; Joe Blank getting renamed to Roderick isn’t going to hurt a thing. My favorite was the merchant PC who lied and misrepresented everything he sold to barter and make as many sales as possible; upon hearing the other PCs were looking for the Necronomicon, claimed to have it. What made it all the better was he really did have it—the GM had put it on his sheet as a plot point.
  5. Don’t overdo it. Any of it. There’s a fine line between “character personality trait” and “walking stereotype.” And too much walking stereotype gets annoying, because it shows either you don’t know what you’re doing, that you’re trying to be annoying, or that you’re a noob. It’s okay to let a few gold slip by your greedy character, as long as you ram that trait home on something that’d interest them. The brave character doesn’t have to jump into every fight she runs across; it’s not brave to get groceries or cross the street, and once you’ve fought dragons, jumping up to fight kobolds is insulting. The guy with one hand doesn’t have to motion with his good hand or otherwise point out his disability every goddamn time he speaks; offering to shake hands or saluting with the left hand instead of the right ought to suffice.

Hopefully that helps; those are the keys to making a good character. Doing so off the top of your head takes practice and time, but there are shortcuts. Keep a list of character traits in your notes/binder and random roll if you have to. Names don’t have to be aggrandized and full of j’s and k’s just to make them “elfy,” I like the Black Company naming style where you have people like Croaker and Silent and Whisper.

Also.

  1. You don’t have to have thirteen pages of background notes and character to make a good NPC. The focus of the game should be the PCs; even if they’re not the movers and shakers in the world, they’re the ones who are moving and shaking the campaign. Spending all that time detailing an NPC is fine and good, but since by design NPCs are supposed to share the screen for a minute amount of time, not dominate it for hours… I tend to stick to quick on-the-fly NPCs and be done with it. There are exceptions—recurring villains or mentors, allies and henchmen—but most of the time, you don’t need to know the sordid background to Smith Bob’s love affair.
  2. There’s nothing like a catch-all NPC who’s good at everything to make the PCs feel inadequate and start to wonder why they’re showing up to your game. Related: don’t roleplay annoying NPCs too often unless the players like them. You might think they’re awesome, but thankfully, the players aren’t you, and might have some taste. (Or visa versa, in which case don’t spoil them with your brilliance.)
  3. Read, watch, and listen to fucking everything. The more you have jammed away in your noggin, the more material you can draw from to populate your world. A good part of roleplaying is improvised theft—not always a conscious decision to “borrow” something from one source, or retuning an idea from a different inspiration—but it’s one of the few jobs in the world where, if you do it right, you can get away with scott-free. Plus, the more you know, the more experience you have to draw from: a lot of movies and books are pretty terrible for their actual execution, but they can be brilliant as idea generators. The same goes for roleplaying games, short-stories, paintings, you name it.

A few examples.

In my Legacy of Fire game, at one point the characters ended up shopping in the bazaar of the bizarre—Katapesh, the world’s trading hub. (While it might not be the biggest, it’s the place which everything, from relics to slaves to drugs to trinkets, flows.) Wandering around in the Night Stalls, I needed some quick personalities to populate it with, since one of my PCs—Malik, gnoll-killer extraordinaire and Scion of Vardishal—was an orphan raised in the Night Stalls. What I came up with was a “crazed” old doomsayer, with a sandwich board proclaiming the world’s destruction (referring to one of our other games). I probably had a combination of Life of Brian and Lankhmar in the back of my mind, because he was in the midst of returning to the local beggar’s guild to pay today’s dues, and thus, being off-shift, was no longer a frothing-at-the-mouth portend of fate.

Everybody Loves Pezock – it’s a new sitcom on Fox.

In my Serpent’s Skull game, the characters ran across Pezock, a tengu rogue who’d been shipwrecked on an island decades before and was going sligthly mad. So I played him as going slightly mad… and a bird-dude. Inoppertune squawks, bobbing head, looking at people askew, talking in slightly broken Common, etc. His character trait was that he loved to barter, and so ended up the comic relief mascot the PCs dragged across the adventure long after he would otherwise have fallen to the wayside—just so they could see what newfangled ruin or smashed contraption he tried to pawn off as “beachfront property, fixer-upper” (a half-submerged, rotted-out rowboat) or “legendary lost artifact, handmade by ancient Azlanti craftsfolk” (some crudely carved oak avians made by another PC).

One more for the road.

In my Weird War II game, we ended up with the most enduring, hated and loved NPC in William Jefferson Spitzel—“Spitz,” the Appalachian mountain man. I gave him the aforementioned horrible accent, which must be replicated to be believed, and gave him a sling of personality traits. Plenty of backwoods lore and little snippets of wisdom (“bats are the turtles of the air”), a fear of technology (cameras stealing souls, etc.), and thanks to a one-off comment from Matt–“Great, I lose all my gear, but Spitz’s fifty fucking cans of possum juice are safe”—good old Spitz gained a hearty possum subplot. That’s probably what everyone in that game remembers about Spitz—the many “passum stories” about his backwoods family, such as how to properly cook a passum, Uncle Jesse and the Wheelie-Foots, and the Saga of the Poopin’ Bench, fueled by sleep-deprivation, gaming long into the night, too many creative people being in the same place, and a few too many highballs.


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