Non-Player Characters, or NPCs, are extremely useful tools at a DM’s disposal. These are the characters that you create to live in your world and interact with your players’ characters. NPCs can serve nearly any purpose, but it’s important that they feel as real as you can make them. Getting your players invested in these characters will facilitate many opportunities for plot insertion as well as occasions for excellent role play. Let’s take a look at creating NPCs.
Regardless of how long you’ll use an NPC, you’ll need at least a basic description of their physical characteristics. Race, age, gender, and occupation will do if they’re just a throw away character. Not every baker needs an elaborate backstory, but all the power to you if you’d like to go the extra mile.
Characters that you plan on using regularly should have a proper backstory. If they’re powerful in any way, you might want to create a character sheet for them like your players have. You might find it to be a useful reference if the plot demands they suddenly have to fight.
Your NPCs should also have some kind of personality. Try to challenge yourself to make interesting characters who are not cliches. Not every Dwarf has to be a alcoholic blacksmith. In fact, some of the most interesting characters are the ones who fight against cast-typing. Your players will be more interested in finding out why that Dragonborn became a poet versus finding yet another Halfing who’s trying to pick their pockets.
NPCs should also have a goal. As a DM tool, their goal might simply be to tell your players about a quest line or side story. Fully realized NPCs will have more elaborate ambitions in life. NPC goals might be to bring someone who wronged them to justice, learn a new skill, or find something important that was lost long ago. Your players may choose to either help or hinder your NPCs with their ambitions.
Adding Depth to NPCs
Character depth is not something that you can quickly create. It takes time for characters to get to know each other, just like people in real life. If your players won’t engage your NPC with idle chat, take it upon yourself to ask the questions or offer insight and personal history. Revisit the same characters when players return to previous locations, or have familiar characters pop up in other world locations. After all, not everyone stays in the same town they grew up in their whole life.
The more detailed an NPC is, the life-like they will be. Giving your players a short introduction to a character is an easy way to add authenticity to your characters. If you make an NPC who features prominently into a quest, give them a proper introduction before they even say a word to your players. A physical description coupled with tone of voice (and accents if you’re up to it) will go a long way in creating a clear mental image for your players.
Giving your character a quirk of some kind is a quick way to make your NPC more life-like. A grizzled war veteran may be covered in scars. A priestess may have two different colored eyes. A character’s uniqueness will help them be remembered by your players. These characteristics don’t have to be purely physical though. Your players may encounter someone in your world who likes to make jokes at the worst possible time, or maybe they meet a guy who won’t stop bringing up the time he wrestled a bear.
A Life Well-Lived
Unless your players are interacting with a newborn, chances are very good that your NPCs had significant moments happen in their life before they met your players. Pepper in some backstory elements wherever relevant.
If an NPC is navigating your players through the wilderness, have them point out a tree they carved their initials into a tree. Have them tell the story of why they joined a mercenary group.
If your NPCs are trying to seem real, have them live a life that seems that way. Even the most backwoods characters should have something to talk about, even if it’s only about the biggest turnip they ever grew.
Secrets and Lies
Just like real people, your NPCs may have secrets they don’t wish to immediately (or ever) divulge to your players. This is what Insight Checks and Zone of Truth were made for. Perhaps your players run into a local baron who asks them to look into thieves stealing from local farmers. The baron might not care about the farmers at all, but he knows having outsiders fix the problem will discredit the town’s master of arms, a man the baron has been trying to get rid of for years.
If your players don’t have enough agency to see if a character is on the up and up, that’s on them. No one in real life would ever trust everyone all the time, and your players shouldn’t be able to trust all of your NPCs.
Plot Hooks and Connections
Using NPCs and their relationships in the world you create is an easy way to make quest introductions feel organic. Sure, you can always put plot hooks on the local job board for your adventurer’s to find, but that doesn’t add much life to your world. It helps players feel invested and adds depth to that character when the NPC mentions a problem they’re having. A character who begs for help with an issue garners more sympathy than a faceless name provided by the DM.
In addition to introducing quests, NPCs offer your players opportunities to be more prepared for whatever they may encounter during a quest. A drunk solider in a bar may have a key that will allow your players access to a previously off-limits location. A wandering Druid might create a distraction which siphons off half of the goblins from a camp they are trying to infiltrate. Allow your players opportunities to gather help in the world, but don’t force it on them. Your NPC may offer their services to the players, and it is totally within your players’ right to refuse that help.
Make sure that your NPCs are just there for support; don’t allow them to outshine your players. Here it comes again because it’s so important: Do not allow your NPCs to make your players feel unnecessary.
Having overpowered, omniscient, or invincible NPCs takes a ton of the fun out of the game for your players. People don’t play D&D so that their DM can create characters that constantly outperform them. Assistance is good, glory stealing is bad.
If you’ve created a powerful NPC, you can temper their buffness by having them either be very reluctant to help your players, or make them likely to break away from the group to complete another objective. After all, the king’s personal bodyguard can’t drop everything to follow your players into a dungeon. However, he can give the players information or tools to help them get through the dungeon faster.
Each of your NPCs do not live in a vacuum. Just as you interact with different people each day, your home-grown creations should interact with each other as well. Some may get along well and have cheerful, familial interactions while others may be bitter rivals intent on destroying each other. A bartender may still hang the old ruler’s flag in his tavern in defiance of the new ruler. A mother who lost her son in a war might protest daily outside of the noble’s quarter.
Use these interactions to develop your story and add options that your characters can choose from. The impact of a single character can influence what side of an issue your players will take. Your players might surprise you by choosing to side against the cranky old woman who snaps at them and be charmed by the slumlord who’s kicking her out of her home.
Even better, make two opposing NPCs whose motivations are equally sympathetic. That way your players will feel torn when they have to choose a side. Defeating two obviously evil despots vying for power is a no-brainer for most players. But when you have two wholesome (or even just morally grey) NPCs fighting it out, your players will have to do a little bit more thinking before deciding on a plan of action.
Creating NPCs on the Fly
It goes without saying that your players will catch you unprepared in one way or another. It’s the same when populating your world with NPCs. A player might ask to visit a certain kind of shop or want to interact with nobles, and you might not be ready for that.
No worries, though. It’s completely unnecessary for you to have already created every NPC in your world. It may reduce your stress to have a list of names, races, and occupations that you can choose from. The characteristics of your newly birthed NPC should match the area you create them in. While normally it wouldn’t be odd to see a Dragonborn blacksmith, it might be odd to see one in an Elf only city.
Improv and Generators
As we like to say here, generators are your friends. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to use them. If your players want to know who the shopkeeper’s wife is, there’s no real reason you should have that prepared. Having a generator on hand while you play, like Auto Roll Tables, Donjon, or Orc Pub , will help keep the game flowing.
There’s no need to completely populate every NPC in your world right from the start. Just make sure if you’re creating NPCs on the fly that you make a note of the character you created. You’ll want to be able to remember them if your players return to that area.
If you’re confident about your improvisational skills, feel free to just create an NPC on the fly. You might really enjoy the whimsy of a character you create off the cuff. Even if you’re unsure of your improv skills, it never hurts to give it a shot. Ridiculous, goofy characters have a way of becoming endearing to your players, so don’t worry about messing up. Besides, practice makes perfect.
Be sure to add plenty of life and personality when playing as your NPC. If all of your characters act the same way, your players will be less likely to remember them or want to revisit them for more interactions. The more memorable your NPCs are, the fewer you might have to make in the future.
NPCs are great tools that should be used to give information, advice, and assistance to your players. Characters that DMs create should have not only physical descriptions, but also personality traits and personal motivations. Not every character has to be sympathetic or useful. Adding depth to an NPC takes time but it also makes your world feel more real and lived in. Remember that NPCs are there to help, not to steal the spotlight from your players. You’ve gone to all the trouble to create a rich world. All you need to do now is populate it with rich characters.