Three Tips for Writing Better NPCs

Everyone knows that a story needs characters, that a hero needs a villain. But what about the people who help the hero? Or those who aid the enemy? Or an innocent bystander? Or the guy whose taxi you happen to get into on your way to take revenge on your nemesis?

Of course all stories need characters. In roleplaying games, the most important characters are your players. As the GM, your characters—the NPCs—are there for other reasons. And that’s the first tip, but I’m not even counting it as a tip, because an NPC’s purpose isn’t actually part of their character. Just as in architecture form follows function, for NPCs character follows purpose. 

Here’s what I mean: figure out how much time your character will be “on screen” — if they’re the Big Bad, their purpose is to be the counterweight to the player characters. The Big Bad is the opposite of their Big Good. 

Other characters’ purposes may be less clear, but the main factor to consider is, Will the NPC be a Star or an Extra. Just like movies, Star NPCs appear in multiple scenes, speak frequently with the main characters (the PCs), and often help to move the story forward through their actions.

NPC extras are also like their on screen counterparts. They exist to make the world feel real. They fill it up and give it life. Unfortunately, the difference between silver screen and tabletop is pretty massive. 

A GM is confronted with the baffling prospect of filling up a world and bringing it to life on the fly. A GM is not a film director with a cast of actors who bring each character to life with their literal bodies. Nor is a GM an author who has the time and space to weave every character clearly into the narrative with 500 words. No, a GM must know which characters are in a room, be able to describe them to the players, and then give those characters voice in some way IF the players choose to actually talk to them. 

It’s kind of a lot. 

It’s not unusual for a GM to get frustrated when they have spent so much time creating interesting people for their players to talk to, and then players ignore most or all of them. There is always a risk that players will not interact with the trap you set, that they’ll go another direction, or ignore your careful designs in favor of something they come up with off the cuff. 

Our next post will explore one of the GM’s most powerful tools, Improv. So if you’re in the minimal prep time camp, like Isaac, then check out his blog post in July!

To keep from wasting your prep time, however, follow the old GM saw: be flexible. If your players skip over some NPCs, don’t ditch them, move them somewhere else. Until they enter the game for your players, they’re not actually a part of the game, they are not yet characters, and are really just pieces for you to place as the Game Master.

No matter how much time you spend preparing for a session, you’ll still want to know whether the NPC you’re inventing on the spot, or that you’ve spent time carefully crafting is a Star or an Extra. Then it’s on to the Three Ds.  

The Three Ds: Desire, Details, and Depth. 

Desire

Many writers believe that “character is desire.” The idea is so common, in fact, no one knows who said it first. That universality should tell us something; namely, that desire is so deeply tied to character that it’s possible that without desire, we simply cannot have a character.

Stop! You might shout. I have a bunch of NPCs, and I have no idea what they want! 

Sure, I would respond. But what you have are “characters” in the same way that mannequins are people. Character without desire is the two-dimensional picture of a person. A character fueled by desire, on the other hand, can come alive with the richness and vitality of a real person. 

Why is that? Because real people have many, often competing, desires, and the kind of desire a person has determines much of their, ahem, character. Consider alignment as desire.

A lawful good character desires to serve and uphold the law and create a good society above all else. A neutral evil character desires good for only themselves. If your game has an alignment system, then the nature of any character’s desire will stem from their moral compass. These morals are desires that determine how a character behaves within society and with other people. 

Desire also has to do with ambition. What does the character want to accomplish? Where do they imagine their lives taking them? That’s one reason Thanos makes such a compelling villain. His ambition to destroy half of the entire universe’s population is epic, a nearly unthinkable goal. The threat he poses makes him compelling and fascinating to watch. 

So how does Thanos’ goal relate to his desire?

Thanos’ goal was to destroy half the population of the universe. But his desire was to bring balance to the universe so that those who lived through his purge would have better lives. The tension between the decency in his desire (helping people have better lives) is overridden by the evil of his goal. But that tension makes Thanos incredibly dangerous as an opponent, both because of the audacity of his goal, and his commitment to his desire. 

Star characters may have larger desires and ambitions than Extras, but not necessarily. And many desires will be difficult for characters to fulfill; indeed, that difficulty can be what helps to make that character rich and interesting to follow. Afterall, it’s not a story unless there are setbacks and obstacles to the hero achieving their goal (see Conflict below).

Back to the GM’s big problem: managing many NPCs, and therefore, many desires. It’s one thing to come up with the desires for your Big Bad, and another thing altogether to figure out what a dozen sailors want (other than your gold) when your party decides to hire their ship. 

For a Big Bad, you probably know what they want: to take over the world; to become a god; to wipe out half of all life in the universe with a snap of their fingers; to steal untold fortunes; to kill you. 

When it comes to the crew of the sailing ship, do we really need to care what they want? Well, yes and no. If you’re in a rush (and let’s be real, who isn’t), keep it simple. Merchants want to make money. Pirates want to pirate.

Not to mention that of course you can get away without knowing what every single salt-etched sailor wants, but your world will feel more real, and every character will feel more unique to your players if you take a few minutes to complete a single sentence for important NPCs. 

This “formula” for characters comes from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft, a book I used for many years in my creative writing classroom. 

Here it is: 

    (name)       is a      (adj.)    ___-year-old    (noun)           who wants _____________________. 

The question, she writes, is, “What can’t [this character] live without?” (96)

So here is the sentence filled out for the characters I play in Fey Light Studio co-founders Isaac’s and Brett’s games. 

  • Josiah Firelighter is a flamboyant 30-year-old human bard who wants to humiliate a local noble and reveal their shady dealings because they mistreated the Firelighter family. 

  • Baruness Demoneye is a brooding 25-year-old tiefling wizard who wants to stop the dark forces that took his family from returning. 

Once you know what your character wants, it’s time to put flesh on the bones with details.

Details

When it comes to character, details can be some of the most fun things to imagine, and are often the things we think of first when we think of that character. Smeagol’s starved and wretched appearance; Mollymauk’s colorful coat and tattoos; Tanis’s red hair and beard; Leia’s iconic buns; Thanos’s Infinity Gauntlet. 

Rather than coming up with random details, however, the thing to consider is how those details spring from desire. The two are connected. Desire informs detail. Smeagol’s starved appearance comes from his cursed desire for the one true ring. Mollymauk’s tattoos and coat help convey his desire for self-expression and liberation. Tanis’s red hair is unusual, but his beard signals his desire to be seen as more human than elf. Leia’s buns reveal a character who comes from the upper echelons of galactic society, and someone who believes in a principled, ordered world. 

Well-chosen details that connect to deeper aspects of their character will feel real to your players, and they will help make your NPCs memorable. 

A cleric whose desire is to share the Light of Pelor with every soul they meet might carry a banner with Pelor’s symbol everywhere they go. While a cleric who wants to spread the Light of Pelor to a distant continent may have learned to sail to reach that far-away land. 

Just like with every character, some details may be obvious to you immediately, perhaps even the inspiration for an entire character. Other times, you may have to figure out how to make those six sailors your party just hired into a group of detailed characters, rather than 2-D cutouts that no one cares about. 

To come up with loads of unique characters, one tool I use is this super handy NPC Generator. Just click the Generate button, and there’s a whole new character, name included, along with a bunch of details. You can even customize many of the criteria in case you need a large group of homogenous characters. 

Some of these details the Generator creates are more useful than others, but if you know what a character wants, then you’ll be able to click a few times until you see some that fit. Pick and choose as much as you want, and customize to your heart’s content.

To use these details in your game, you can weave them into a cohesive paragraph to read aloud upon the character’s introduction, or use them as part of a Perception or Insight skill check a player must make to learn about that character’s personality. 

So at this point you know a character’s desires and the details that help flesh them out. Now onto the tip that will truly make your character unique, the thing that makes them seem most like a real person: depth.

Depth

For a lot of extras this step may be wholly unnecessary, but for stars or any character that you want to feel well-rounded, this step is vital. 

But what is depth for a character, and how do you craft it? 

Many people mistake depth for more detail. The thought is, if I keep adding more details, that will make my character deeper. But that’s not really what depth is. Keep piling on details, and you’ll just have a heap of details and not even be able to see the insignificant character beneath.

Depth is more like Donkey’s onion metaphor in Shrek. Depth comes from layers, and these layers begin and end respectively with desire and detail. The core of your character’s onion is their desire. The skin of that onion are all those details. Depth is everything in between. Depth is how those details and desires interact, as well as how circumstances in the world get entangled with that character. 

Ok, James, it’s an onion, but how do I write an onion? 

Yeah, metaphors don’t help like that. So, a few specific ways to give your character depth are voice, choice, and conflict. 

Voice is maybe the most obvious, in part because the voice of an NPC is one of their most recognizable traits. Matt Mercer’s characters are, in part, so beloved, because of their wonderfully different voices. The insane cackle of the gun-powder blackened Victor, and the melodious basso of glorious Gilmore, are a couple of classics. 

Victor’s wild screech is connected to his devoted quest to make gunpowder. It is a crazy dangerous occupation, and he’s lost digits because of it. Gilmore, however, wants to be the most prominent retailer of “Glorious Goods” in all of Tal’Dorei. His voice, expressive and smooth, represents his desire to appeal to every customer who enters the store. 

You needn’t be good at accents to come up with voices for your NPCs either. Voice is also composed of the kinds of words your character uses, their diction. Do they want to sound smart and so use big words all the time? Do they curse, or use half-baked metaphors? Do they like to tell jokes, or maybe use short, choppy sentences?

A repeated catchphrase or a few prepared answers to questions you expect PCs to ask can help solidify a character’s voice, and thus the rest of their personality. 

Choices represent the ways that a character changes over time. Every choice is a possible turning point, every decision reveals character.

Victor, for example, we learn, chose to sell gunpowder to another character before selling it to Percy. He doesn’t care who he sells to, he is simply happy to sell his gunpowder, no matter whom it will harm. Victor cares as little for others’ well-being as his own.

Meanwhile, Gilmore chooses to follow his friends into deadly combat, revealing a character who will sacrifice himself for his friends, or even for more abstract ideas like freedom and justice. 

To get started considering what kinds of choices a character might make, ask yourself some questions about that character, like:

  • How far would they go to help a stranger? How about a friend?

  • Has the character ever betrayed anyone? Why?

  • How did the character choose their current occupation, or character class? 

By giving your NPCs choices, either in their past or during the game itself, you will add layers to their character, and reveal more facets of their personality.

Don’t worry if you don’t know all these facets when you make a character. Half the fun of role-playing games is making choices as characters in the moment. Just be sure to make notes about those choices and how players interacted with your NPCs to keep their relationships vibrant and authentic.

Conflict is almost just as important as desire. And that’s why I’ve left it for last. If character is desire, then conflict is story. 

I can describe a wonderful villain like Thanos beautifully. His desire is twisted: wipe out half of all life in the universe. His details are unique: massive, purple-skinned, a golden gauntlet of Infinity Stones on one hand. 

But if no one opposes Thanos, we have no story. 

He snaps his fingers. The end.

So what is keeping your character from getting what they want? What forces oppose them? These may be moral conflicts, such as when Josiah was faced with the choice of staying with his sister and the queen, or helping the young princess escape near-certain death.

Or the conflicts may be interpersonal. Your detective who wants to track down the killer is opposed by the killer’s ability to cover their tracks. The detective cannot fulfill their desire until they overcome those obstacles. 

I mentioned earlier Janet Burroway’s question for a character’s desire: “What can’t he live without?” 

To finish out your character, try this question: Why can’t your character have what they want? (And, What will they do to try to get it?) 

What stands between your NPC and their goals? Is it the law? The players? Gods? Dungeons? Dragons? 

Whatever is keeping them from what they want is part of their character, as well as part of the story.

To sum up: 

  • Character is desire

  • Flesh out characters with details, and 

  • Add realism and perspective with depth, using voice, choice, and conflict.

So who are your favorite NPCs? Why do you love them? Tell us about them in the comments below, or share your own tips and tools for creating NPCs!