NPCs are the bread and butter of GMs allowing us to flesh out a world and spur character development and interaction with our players. With that in mind, how do you go about fleshing out NPCs, especially on the fly?
First, remember to take notes as needed or delegate that to one of your players so you can keep it consistent.
Think Archetypes not stereotypes – When making characters on the fly for the PCs to interact with, be careful to avoid falling into stereotypes. These are cheap ways to describe a character, but all too often end up derivative and sometimes insulting to the players. Even in fantasy settings, avoid too many gruff gold-obsessed dwarves and instead look to archetypes to give you direction. Think about central casting ideas so you have a template for what would matter to a merchant, but deviate every so often. Is this person a Hero, even if a low-level security guard?
Choose one or two distinguishing physical characteristics – Once you know what the basic contours of the NPC, pick a distinguishing physical feature or two when you describe them to the PCs. It can be as simple as a redheaded and freckle-faced appearance or as subtle as a slightly shabby and oversized coat. Don’t be too specific or too subtle – this is to create a mental shorthand for you and the players to remember the NPC.
Choose one or two distinguishing interaction characteristics – By the time they get to speaking with the PCs, you need to know one or two interaction quirks that will set them apart. One great example from Shadowrun is Max Foley’s constant use of the phrase “Amiright”. It is distinct (and infuriating). Do they only talk to certain characters because they are prejudiced against specific races? Are they upbeat and memorable?
A red headed dwarf with freckles at the guard shack who speaks with a valley girl voice is like totally more memorable than that lame-o gruffy mcgrufferson dwarf at every other guard post.
After the session is over, remember to collect and collate these NPCs because recurring NPCs are a lot of fun and when you make memorable one, your PCs will seek them out again and again. Keep track of the name, location, archetype, physical quirks, interaction quirks, and any notable relationships/interactions with the PCs. That’s a pretty short list, but you can expand on it if you are so inclined.
There is a man sitting at a back table in the coffee house. His fairly nondescript in his sport jacket and jeans. Not out of place in a university campus, though none of the other customers in here are university students or faculty. He looks to be in his mid 50’s with a horseshoe of hair that is light brown in color. He sports a close cropped beard and mustache. Why do you even notice him you ask?
Well you aren’t sure why you noticed him at first. Then the little things come more into focus. You notice that his phone is sitting near his hand but you don’t recognize it. As you look closer at the man himself you notice his jacket is embroidered with something that is not a pattern that sits still. You are sure it has moved since you saw him the first time.
What is going on? You aren’t sure. It seems like things don’t seem quite right now there almost looks like a heat shimmer around this man. You are not sure how but you are right in front of him. He looks up and you see the machinery in his eyes whirring into place. The voice that comes out next is smooth and cultured. “Welcome my name is Jacobson what can I help you with today?”
Most people will ignore the weird,quiet guy; counting on his fingers and muttering to himself. You really shouldn’t. I’d also recommend that you learn how to count in binary, octodecimal and hexidecimal. It’s probably going to save your life in the future. Or at least give you a head start in booking it in the other direction
“Learn Binary?!” I hear you ask. “Why should I learn Binary?”
There’s too much to explain, so I’ll just sum up.
With the emergence of magic and the surge of technology the eventual merging of the 10 (little binary joke there) became a foregone conclusion.
They’re called “mathomancers” colloquially and they are truly terrifying. You see, all information that’s in the universe can be encoded in ones and zeroes. Off and on. Yes and no. These Mathomancers are able to see all existence as a string of binary numbers. (As an aside, some more esoteric ones can see the world in base 8 or base 16… keep your electronics FAR away from those guys). And through magic and willpower, they can change the string of numbers to whatever they want.
Perceiving the world as a string of ones and zeroes and having the ability to manipulate those strings puts a person on level with the gods. Logic dictates that no human should have that kind of power. Mathomancers as a rule of thumb are creatures of almost pure logic, so hopefully common sense may be part of that mental package. But since their emergence is quite recent, data proving this hypothesis is sadly nonexistent.
So if you see an individual muttering to himself and doing strange counting things with his fingers, back away slowly. And if you get a message on your pad showing only the number “4,” count yourself lucky, immediately apologize then run like hell.
For those that are unaware, you can count in binary on your fingers. The number four is represented by an extended middle finger.
Everybody needs a friend, and Paulie is just the man you need! He’s a little bit older, a little bit more worn, maybe around 50, but he doesn’t ask questions. His salt and pepper beard is almost as memorable as the spiky mohawk he still sports. The most memorable thing about Paulie, though, is the twinkle in his eyes. He veritably lights up every time you come around and he slaps you on the back always coming in for a hug.
His black leather jacket is weathered and studded with patches of bands and places long since gone. Nevertheless, he flags down a round of beers and genuinely wants to know what has been happening in your life. It’s hard to say why you trust Paulie so much, but he hasn’t let you down yet and seems to have no intention of doing so. In fact, he can make some calls, show up with a van, or even give you a couch to crash on if you need it.
One day Paulie calls you up. He actually seems a little panicked. He didn’t know where else to turn. His day job is looking at him as a possible source of some problems. He works remotely from home as a cutting edge computer programmer … and the code he develops for his employer has just shown up in a competitor’s product ….
Bijou noun bi·jou \ ˈbē-ˌzhü \
Definition of bijou
plural bijous or bijoux
1 : a small dainty usually ornamental piece of delicate workmanship : jewel
2 : something delicate, elegant, or highly prized
First Known Use: 1668
Origin and Etymology of bijou
French, from Breton bizou ring, from biz finger
Popularity: Top 40% of words
Zendead- Polyhero Dice
Joules- Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep
Guard-a-Manger- Cyborg 009: Call of Justice
Music is courtesy of The Enigma TNG you can find his music on YouTube or on Bandcamp
Show- Email, Twitter, Facebook
Zendead- Email, Twitter, Facebook
Joules- Email, Twitter, Facebook
Nulloperations-Email, Twitter, Facebook
Guard-a-manger- Email, Twitter
And Thanks to Merriam-Webster for our Lexicon segment
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