NPCs serve many purposes. They’re friends, allies, enemies, quest givers, shopkeeps, exposition dealers, and most importantly, their an integral part of what gives the world life.
If they’re not dynamic and interesting, then the world they live in likely suffers the same fate.
So what makes NPCs interesting? What gets players engaged? What makes them come alive?
When I create an NPC, I answer 3 or more of these seven items, but these are not the only things to think about, nor are they the only way to address creating dynamic NPCs. Use these ideas as a springboard to figure out what matters most to your players, your world, and your games.
What do they sound and act like?
This is actually its own post available here, but I’ll break down the basics into bullet points so vague you’ll wonder if the original post is worth reading (it is):
- Their word choices
- The tone of their voice
- The speed at which they speak and what makes them slow down or speed up
- What words they accentuate with inflection
- What specific quirks they have
- The volume of their voice
- Their posture and nonverbal cues
What are their motivations and goals?
Everyone wants something, whether it’s to find a spouse, get rich, or go home and pet their cats.
A shopkeep might be stern about prices because they’re greedy or because they want to provide for their family. Both scoff at discounts without gaining something of significant value, but their motivations will change how they view the players and other customers. The cleric at the church or doctor in a small community may immediately refuse to heal or resurrect a PC because they have friends who need their attention more or because they feel entitled and demand respect the other PCs are not giving them.
So whether they want to have a successful business, go on an adventure, have a quiet life, or escape the situation they’re in, figure out what this NPC wants and let that influence their interactions.
What are they willing to do to achieve their goals?
A kitchen helper who wishes for an opportunity to rise above their station isn’t going to act the same as a kitchen helper who would literally kill to get out of their situation.
A shopkeeper with a 5,000 gold piece debt to some loan sharks is likely to be stingier about prices, or they may lower prices of items if the party buys more (buy 1 magical amulet for 4,000 gold or buy 3 for 8,000). They’re also more likely to sell bogus of faulty items for quick cash despite the possible consequences. A shopkeeper a 5,000 gold debt that’s due tomorrow will probably be even more desperate.
Desperation doesn’t have to be negative. An alchemist trying to make his last 5,000 gold so they can buy a boat and sail the seas may also be willing to use the same tactics.
Also, when determining what they’re willing to do, consider what would make them push past those limits.
What can they do other than their NPC occupation?
No one only does their job. Your building’s super? Plays guitar in a 90s cover band. The person making and selling jewelry made of bones at the Renaissance Faire? They are a master of copycat recipes. The manager at the local coffee shop? Total film buff.
Despite that, games often have blacksmiths who are just blacksmiths and shopkeepers who are born, live, and die behind their counter. That’s silly and ultimately damaging to the world building. Think about what activities, talents, and pursuits an NPC would have. Some can be tied to their profession, but others should be personal interests, whether they dabble in it or do it so well it could be a profession of its own.
Whether your blacksmith is a matchmaker or your city guard captain writes poetry, make sure NPCs have their own personal pursuits.
What problems or triumphs are they dealing with right now?
Are they suffering through insomnia? The loss of a loved one? Their kid was kicked out of VAS (Vacation Adventuring School)? The sewers are overflowing with rat kings? Do they hate their job? The town is in a recession? They and their partner are apartment hunting? What’s their status in the community, and did it recently drop? There are many other problems they could have, each with a range of severity.
Likewise, something great could have just happened to them. Maybe their partner got a promotion. They recently played the accordion before an audience for the first time and they’re still excited from that. They had a great date last night. They won the election to become mayor.
So in and outside of their profession, what problems and triumphs are they dealing with right now?
How do they view the party?
How they view the party can dramatically change their attitude. Does the party have a reputation (good or bad) that they could have heard of? Do they like or hate adventurers? Do they favor or dislike some association a member of the party has (a religion, race, economic class, etc.)? Do they have a thing for people in shining armor or pointy wizard hats?
Their preconceived notions or assumptions about the party or the kind of people they think the part is will alter their attitude.
What’s their opinion on the state of the world right now?
It doesn’t matter who you are, you have an opinion on what’s happening in the world around you. Even “Meh, I don’t care” is an opinion and speaks volumes about the viewpoint and attitude of the one saying it.
Do they think it was better in the old days? That life is better now than it has ever been? How do they feel about the influx or lack of different kinds of people in their home? What do they think about the growing or fading of a specific religion or practice? Do recent events make them scared, hopeful, or some combination of the two?
We don’t exist in a vacuum, and NPCs are no exception. They should know about and operate within the living, breathing world you and the players create and inhabit. Make sure NPCs know they exist in it.
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