As GMs and world builders, we have a lot of shoes to fill. From the guy that gives your PCs all their jobs to the walk-on role that barmaid has just delivering their evening meal and everyone in-between. Some of those shoes are more colorful than others. And some change over time from lowly flip flops you wouldn’t remember on a bet to a pair of dragon-hide thigh-high boots on the villainous vixen fixing to take over the world.
But what makes one NPC more memorable than any other? I think it boils down to context honestly. There’s more to it, but think about your last trip to the store. Did anybody stand out? Were you looking *at* people to figure out their motivations? Their goals? Their purpose for being there at the same time you were?
So do we need to detail every bloody NPC in the world? Heck no. We’d never get past the doors of the first tavern your PCs frequent. A good sized tavern (even in a small town) probably has 20 to 50 regulars, each with lives of their own and folks that they would interact with… it would spiral wildly out of control and you’d never see the end, even in a minor village or thorp.
What do we do then? Well, I think we have to pick a few key folks and scatter them throughout our worlds with enough of a few key attributes that we know why they’re there.
Let’s take one of my typical sessions where the PCs are out and about on some quest. Usually they’re staying in an inn, have a nearby tavern they’ve deemed their local watering hole, and may have found locations for equipment (general store, blacksmith), healing (temple or local herbalist/healer), and guidance (wise sage, local mayor, stodgy sheriff). Let’s limit that list to:
- General Store (sells some weapons)
- Temple (combination of healing and guidance)
Now let’s see who makes the most sense to provide some details for out of that mix of locations, sticking to genre conventions and tropes to keep things simple.
- Serving girl
- A Local Barfly
- Store owner
That’s six for a small village. Not horrible. And I don’t need a ton of information about each of them. Let’s come up with four bits for each:
So I need 4 pieces of data for each of 6 different main NPCs in the village. There may be others that enter the picture as needed, but these are the keystones to in-village encounters for the PCs and we should be able to come up with walk-ons on an as-needed basis.
Using the random name generator on this site (LPC Fantasy Names I) gets us some of what we’re looking for. Now we just need some appearance, motivation and attitude descriptors…
Now we have all the pieces we need and can detail these six major NPCs for the village (Name/Motivation/Attitude/Appearance)…
- Innkeeper – Nagav/Fear/Derisive/Brave
- Bartender – Kem/Money/Critical/Sick
- Serving girl – May/Romance/Quizzical/Beautiful
- A Local Barfly – (flip coin for male (heads)/female (tails) – male) Ebys/Recognition/Cheerful/Short
- Store owner – (flip – female) Dizri/Justice/Haughty/Manly
- Priest – (flip – male) Borr/Fear/Morose/Ugly
With these details, I can just leave them as hints for my imagination to fill in when I need them during a gaming session or I can come up with a bit more of a description that’s ready when the PCs get there:
- Nagav owns the Charming Wench (using the Inn Generator from Wizards of the Coast) and greets you at the door with a warm, ingenuous smile. He’s more than willing to rent you some rooms, but his contempt for you is barely concealed. You figure he’s afraid of you and putting on a brave face to keep his inn full of customers…
- Kern is the owner and bartender of the Bloody Guard (Inn Generator again) just down the street. He doesn’t look so good, but is quick to take your money for a watered down drink and check your coins to make sure they’re legit.
- May on the other hand is a breath of fresh air – a beautiful girl spreading sunshine wherever she goes. You have no idea how she deals with Kern on a regular basis with her cheerful disposition. Making sure your drinks are full and you got whatever you ordered from the kitchen seems to tax her mental abilities. And if there’s a good looking fella in the place, you might as well fetch your own ales from the bar…
- Stubby Ebys seems to be a regular on his stool by the bar, happy to chat with anyone willing to buy him a drink. He seems pleased when some of the regulars come in and shout his name from the door.
- The Buckler & Folio general store down the way (name generated using the Fantasy Business Name Generator at 1d8) is run by Dizri, a tough old broad all too happy to share why her ideas should save the world or at least fix everyone else’s business. She’s never afraid to render an opinion or sell whatever she has in stock.
- Father Borr at the Temple of Light is not a happy man and spends most of his day hiding inside. Even when he does venture out into the sun, he keeps his head covered in a dark hooded robe and only speaks when spoken to. He seems to know his way around many spiritual matters, but you better be willing to do most of the talking.
Immediately I have a good picture of the village population as well as some ideas for how encounters might go with these folks. Obviously I can have many more items in these lists to make them more well-rounded, but I was able to create what I needed in just a few minutes in case I need it for a future session.
So there you have it… Another way to put some NPCs together for your GM toolbox!
This approach will likely show up in an upcoming product, but in the meantime feel free to play with some of the random generators and pick up one of the other Moebius Adventures products at RPGNow, DriveThruRPG, Paizo, or d20pfsrd!