How (Not) to Write NPCs

Let’s kick this off with something uncontroversial: the ability to create and portray NPCs is one of the game master’s greatest tools, and NPCs can easily become the most memorable part of a tabletop roleplaying campaign (heck, BloodLetterPress is named after an NPC from a game that Nagi ran a few years ago). Here’s the problem: NPCs need to be written under a different set of principles from every other part of an adventure.  Let’s look at how even the big names stumble,  and how we can dodge or alleviate those problems and create some useful and memorable NPCs.

I imagine that most writers and game masters of tabletop RPGs have heard the old saw “show, don’t tell.” It’s good advice; honestly, I’d rather play with an evocative GM who doesn’t know what a d6 is than a GM who’s memorized the rulebook but can’t make a fight scene visceral. Consider this, though: artwork and fancy presentation aside, pre-written adventures are documents that exist to tell. That’s not a bad thing—pre-written adventure material has, at its core, the goal of clear writing, writing that describes the events and encounters in a way that is useful at the table and easy for the GM to parse. The “showing” is up to the GM. The book tells the GM that there’s a pit trap in front of the door; the GM shows you how your successful saving thrown barely saves you from a yawning pit full of slick and grimy spikes. But when we come to NPCs, to that plot-important knight or inkeeper, efficient description of that NPC’s physicality, motives, or even speech patterns are insufficient to make those NPCs come alive.

Example: the NPCs from the official 5th Edition D&D campaigns. Now, I’ve only run Tyranny of Dragons and Princes of the Apocalypse and played Against the Giants, so I can’t speak to Curse of Strahd or Rage of Demons (maybe Drizzt scuttles this whole article and saves the day again!), and overall I rather enjoyed them, but out of the three full-length official Wizards of the Coast campaigns that I’ve read, I can recall one NPC who was useful straight out of the book: Blagothkus the cloud giant from Tyranny.  The worst example may be the council of metallic dragons in Tyranny—to the writers, the five dragon ambassadors have perfectly distinct personalities, but to a GM, the only things that separate them are which player races they don’t care for and what they want the PCs to give them. There’s no material there that helps the GM channel each dragon’s high-concept goals and attitudes into meaningful dialogue. Negotiations with the dragons are projected to take a session or two by the book—they took my players twenty minutes, if that. Tyranny, Princes, and Giants are adventures from the people who wrote the book on fantasy roleplaying, in every sense of the idiom, but somehow, hundreds of NPCs across three full campaigns fall flat.  If you took that success rate and applied it to, say, the dungeon maps, or any other integral part of the game, these books would have been widely and scathingly condemned.

Last I checked (this past Tuesday), all of the NPCs my players remember from Tyranny and Princes are ones I invented or overhauled, sometimes on the spot: our warlock’s bellicose quasit familiar, our bard’s mad scientist uncle, dog-man mercenary Boswall DeGroo, etc. (An aside: notice how all of these NPCs, except for Boswall, are defined by their relationships to the PCs at a glance—NPCs become memorable when they’re consistently useful, or consistently adversarial).

So how do we fix the problem of writing captivating and useful NPCs in a tell-don’t-show context?

Let’s consider what works. Most GMs I’ve met have stables of recurring NPCs. These are characters who the GM already knows: how to play them, how to talk like them, and how they think. The GMs know these things because they’ve spent time with the character already—there’s history there. If we as writers give the GM tools that allow them to personalize the NPCs to their own experience and their own history, we create characters who feel like real people. They don’t even need to be people. Want to play dog-man mercenary Boswall DeGroo? Imagine the biggest, dopiest, happiest dog you’ve ever met. Imagine the kinds of things you think that dog would say if it could speak. Slap that personality on a muscly seven-foot-tall dog-man body and give him a greatclub that used to be a chair leg from a giant’s house. Put that in your game. That’s Boswall. He loves you. In a bit of a tonal 180º, Vincent Baker uses this technique for his game kill puppies for satan, which instructs the GM to play Satan as someone with tremendous personal charm from the GM’s own past:

somebody friendly, interesting, kind of complicated but easy to like, someone who makes you smile when you think of them and who you maybe wish you’d known better. for me it’s ms drummond, my tenth grade english teacher.

You don’t even need to draw from your own characters for this. Old saw #2: “good artists imitate, great artists steal.” Kidnap characters from books you don’t think anyone else at the table has read (you probably already do it for names; this is one of the reasons why running games for kids is fun). You can even get away with copying characters from television or films—but if you’re going to imitate them, imitate them badly, or with variations. The less recognizable, the better.

That shortcut aside, in writing and reading tabletop RPGs, I’ve found that the best NPCs can be boiled down into a name and a few adjectives or adjective phrases. When I’m writing modules, I try to provide names and descriptions for even the lowliest mooks; you never know who the PCs are going to take a shining to, or kidnap and press for clues. The second edition of Unknown Armies (not the new one, but gosh I want the new one) does this pretty well; the NPCs in the back of the book and in the “One-Shots” supplement all have a two-sentences-maximum character description right before their stat blocks.  I’d even go leaner and pick three or so descriptors.   Callo, Jackalope enforcer, is brutal, loyal, and impulsive. Namfoodle the Lightbringer, who carries the torch, is a neurotic, excitable worrywart.

When writing these key descriptors, consider that an NPC is different from a character in a piece of fiction or a stage play. Characters in those mediums can be understood on the basis of their recorded actions and dialogue. In an improv-heavy context like roleplaying games, in which there are no scripted lines (unless you’re playing Polaris or something like it), we need to use different tools if we’re going to get a feel for a character right off the page. Rather than a full description of how an important NPC speaks and acts (which, in my experience, feels like micromanagement in the same way that read-aloud text does), focus on the core of the NPC: personality.  Give the GM concrete, punchy descriptors, and they’ll have an NPC to play. Focus too much on the NPC’s secret plans and complex backstory, and the GM and NPC both are much more likely to flounder.

Hope these tools are handy! Stay tuned for more, and may your NPCs delight your players.