When it comes to NPC bookkeeping, I feel that the Alexandrian’s Universal NPC Roleplaying Template is an excellent resource, and I recommend that everyone go and read that article. I’ll be using it to prepare my NPCs for Legacy of Disaster, and the purpose of this post is to provide my own context for a few items on the template. It’s all well and good to have a list of information that you ought to have about an NPC, but I think that it’s also important to understand what pitfalls you’re avoiding by including it.
At the end, I’ll provide an example of how I intend to use the template for Legacy of Disaster.
I will be adding a section for NPC goals to my own template. As I have discussed previously, goals are extremely important for NPCs. In fact, I think they are so important that I’m going to include this section right underneath the NPC’s name. If I’m ever uncertain of how an NPC might react, I can easily glance at their goal and obtain an answer.
I recommend starting with bullet points for this section. You want to capture one or two key features about the NPC’s appearance. Once you are satisfied, you can work those bullet points into a few sentences, and read them to your players at the table.
I cannot stress enough that you should only include significant features in this section. Your description of an NPC might be detailed enough that a sketch artist could draw them, but your players will very likely only pick up on one or two things that they associate with that NPC from then on.
Use this section to list several cues for yourself when portraying the NPC, and make sure they are vivid and interesting. The most well remembered, and beloved, NPCs are the ones whose roleplaying traits deeply cement them in the mind of the players. The ex-adventurer with the tragic backstory might be forgotten after a session, but the farmer who whistles when he speaks will be remembered forever.
I’m not suggesting that all of your NPCs be caricatures, or that players don’t give a hoot about an NPC’s life story (sometimes they do). In my experience as a GM, players gravitate more toward NPCs that are easily distinguishable from the faceless extras filling your game world. Writers have ample time to develop their character in subtle ways, but you, as a GM, have to cook up a connection as quickly as you can. The alternative is to have your NPCs treated like information vending machines. As I’m sure you’re aware, the selection from the vending machine is not nearly as palatable as the righteous feast contained within your GM lunchbox.
If you are comfortable with improvising during dialog, then this is another section where I recommend bullet points. This is the NPC’s backstory, so it is highly unlikely that they will begin reading boxed text to the party! Give yourself some talking points, and then let your creativity take over. If you improv something really cool, then just make a note of it. The goal here is to make it easy for you to portray the NPC casually discussing their life. People don’t think about their lives the same way a history book does, and neither should your NPCs!
As discussed in the above article, this section is a very flexible tool, but I’m only going to talk about its usefulness when trying to keep track of what scenario information an NPC has. Part of me feels like there is an entire article hiding behind the phrase “What the goblins know,” but I’ll try to be brief.
When designing an NPC, you should take the time to decide what relevant information they might provide to the PCs. If you are making good use of node-based design, this task very nearly completes itself. Once you’ve decided, stick to your guns! I’ve seen players try to milk NPCs for information that they just don’t have, and I’ve seen novice GMs (myself included) magically gift an NPC with knowledge that they realistically have no way of knowing in an attempt to placate the party. I suspect that this occurs as a result of many new GMs being afraid to let their adventure go off the rails, but, again, that’s a different article.
This is not to say that an NPC can never know something that wasn’t initially written on their sheet; the very nature of situations is that they change. However, you should trust your instincts to know when this has occurred, not the result of an intimidation check.
I personally feel that there is always a chance you will need stats for an NPC (due to Murphy’s Law, this chance increases exponentially if you don’t have them), but there is an equally likely chance that the NPC will never be called on to make a roll. This can be a frustrating dilemma, especially if you have a large number of supporting characters. To stat, or not to stat? That is the question! Luckily, the solution to this dilemma doesn’t need to be so binary.
The first, and easiest, way to improvise stats for an NPC is to just assign a difficulty class (DC)! Most (if not all) RPG rulebooks contain a table providing example tasks with their associated DC. You must make judicious use of this table in order to whip up a meal, err, NPC from the ingredients you have! Consider questions such as, “Is trying to charm this mayor easier, or more difficult, than trying to grasp the existential horrors of the cosmos?” etc, etc.
Of course, this method only works in situations where the player is acting on the NPC in some way. If the situation is reversed, or there is need for a contested roll, then things become a bit more complicated.
My second solution is to simply “invent” these stats if I need them. By this, I don’t mean that I unfairly assign bonuses; I decide how skilled the NPC would be at whatever they are attempting, based on their background, and generate a bonus accordingly. This process need not be difficult; think about the skill in question, and decide what DC this NPC would be able to beat 50% of the time.
This latter method of improvising stats admittedly requires more familiarity with the system you are running, but I urge you not to get bogged down in probabilistic minutia. To paraphrase a far greater GM than I; when in doubt, there is nothing wrong with a +2.
Ultimately, both of these methods need to go in your lunchbox. Being able to quickly flip between them will produce NPCs that take less time to prep, but provide more utility at the table. That said, if an NPC becomes a consistent character, then you need to spend the time required to stat them out.
As promised, here is an example write up, using the magnanimous Doji Haruki as a guinea pig.
GOAL: Recover the daisho of Seppun Daiori, and advance his political career.
APPEARANCE: Doji Haruki is a slight man, with long, silvery white hair tied partially into a ponytail. His silk kimono is pristine in every sense of the word, displaying the traditional sky blue colors of the Crane. His features are haggard, and gaunt.
- Relentless flatterer
- Modulates between manic rambling, and exhausted mumbling
- Talks with his hands
- Ambitious, but ordinary daimyo who has never accomplished much
- Met Seppun Ayumu at the Imperial Court several years ago
- Ayumu gifted him with the daisho of Seppun Daiori
- Hoped to increase his political station by giving the daisho back to Seppun Ayumu
- GM ONLY: Has been cursed by the daisho, which amplifies his negative qualities, and has been slowly feeding on his life force
- The blades were present in the audience chamber two hours ago
- Did not see anything
- Insists that Hida Samano is behind the theft
- Squabble about trade rights, political ramifications of new buildings in both villages, and complain that the other makes the region inaccessible to visitors
- Believes that Samano stole the daisho to humiliate the Crane
- Will give the PCs traveling papers into Crab lands, access to his personal stables, and a map of the area
- Groundskeeper Ganasu might have seen something, or maybe someone at Tochigi’s Finest did
- PCs must return the daisho to him in a secluded glade just off the road headed north, on the second morning after the daisho was stolen