“What does the bartender look like?”
Good question. And there you are, scouring your mind for a few cliches. “Uh, he’s human, kinda balding, and overweight, and he’s got an apron on, and, um….”
Oh, come on. You can do better than that! Why doesn’t he look like Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca? Or why isn’t she gorgeous? Or maybe the bartender is nonhuman — an alien, a monster, a magical sword or a bartending android. The nonplayer characters (NPCs) with whom the player characters (PCs) interact are the blood and soul of a campaign. Maps and history and languages are all very nice, but ultimately the people are what matter.
There are four kinds of NPCs: Main Characters, Guest Stars, Walk-Ons, and Bit Parts. The time you devote to fleshing out each NPC should depend on how much time the NPC will be on stage.
These are the NPCs who form an integral part of the PCs’ social life. They really only exist in campaign settings, so if you don’t run a campaign, you will probably never need to worry about developing Main Characters. Main Characters show up in the majority of adventures, at least briefly. The one important thing that sets Main Characters apart from all other NPCs is that the players choose the Main Characters, not the GM.
It doesn’t matter what profession the Main Character has, as long as the PCs interact with him or her regularly and, more importantly, care about him or her. Thus, a Main Character could be (but doesn’t have to be) a relative, a spouse, a butler, a librarian, a priest, a mechanic, a best friend, a captain, and so forth … as long as it’s somebody to whom the PC turns regularly for help or advice and for whom a PC would be willing to take an adventure, if you decided to use that as a hook.
A GM can never tell who may turn into a Main Character. I’ve introduced NPCs who I thought would become Main Characters but were never pursued, and I’ve introduced Bit-Part NPCs who were drawn into the players’ lives until they morphed into Main Characters. If you find that PCs are returning again and again to an NPC whom you hadn’t fleshed out well, take notice! You may need to start building that NPC into a Main Character.
These are the adventure-specific NPCs whom you don’t expect to show up again. You do need to put a good amount of work into fleshing out these NPCs, but you don’t need to build them an entire life. Typically, Guest Stars are victims appealing for help, key sources of information, or villains. PCs will have fairly long interactions with them, but probably not after the specific adventure is over. Sometimes, however, they’ll end up returning to the NPC, in which case the Guest Star becomes either a Walk-on or a Main Character, depending on the level and amount of interaction that goes on.
Walk-ons are NPCs who have smaller parts—a minor source of information, a henchman or agent, anyone with whom the PCs may exchange a few words—but no more than a few words. Walk-Ons usually begin as adventure-specific NPCs, but if they survive and are located in a place the PCs frequent (say, in the same city), they may become regular fixtures. Yet even though a PC may visit a Walk-On regularly, it’s unlikely that the two will get to know each other well. For example, the shadowrunner’s ammo supplier might get to know the runner well enough to joke about “coming in for refills again?” but the two probably won’t ever get to know each other better than that. Of course, any Walk-On can become a Guest Star if the GM decides to make the NPC the pivotal person in an adventure, or a Main Character if the PCs decide to deepen their interaction with the NPC.
Bit Parts are the faceless people with whom the PCs must interact to get a job done—shopkeepers, port masters, government officials, bus drivers, etc. The PCs probably won’t say much if anything to them and almost certainly won’t draw the person out into a conversation. (“I tell the stable boy that I’ll need my horse at dawn.” “I go to the police station to get the records about last month’s break-in.”) Again, PCs may interact with a Bit Part character regularly (say, the stable boy at their favorite tavern), but unless the NPC is promoted to Guest Star status, s/he probably won’t ever become a “real person” to the players.
If you are confronted with the sudden need to describe a Bit-Part NPC, rely on a stereotype or a favorite book, TV, or movie character. If you’re quick-witted enough, you may consider choosing one that will break the stereotype—a stablegirl who looks like Xena definitely has a story to tell, and with a little off-the-cuff interaction, you might just find your Bit-Part NPC promoted to a Guest Star! (Just don’t do this too often; it has the potential of derailing your adventure.)
Main Characters need to be the most realistic to the players. Fortunately, no NPC starts out as a Main Character, so you have time to flesh them out as the PCs keep returning to them again and again. Ultimately, Main Characters will need the most distinctive features.
Guest Stars need a good bit of work from the start, because you know that the PCs will be interacting with them for a short but intense period of time. They should get two or three distinctive features. Walk-Ons need very little work—give them one or two distinctive features. Bit Parts need no work—if you give them a name, you’re probably overdoing it!
In general, you shouldn’t describe your NPCs too much the first time the PCs encounter them. Spending a few minutes describing an NPC is a tip-off to the players that the NPC is going to be important to the game, and that’s no fun … make the players ask for the information, first! On the other hand, you’re obliged to mention an NPC’s particularly distinctive feature if it’s the sort of thing that would immediately strike the PCs as unusual—for example, you really should mention that the shirtless street sweeper is covered with tattoos. Admittedly, that will attract the players’ attentions … but wouldn’t it attract the characters’ attentions, anyway? You don’t want to put yourself in the position of having hidden information from the players (“What do you mean, the receptionist at our hotel has only one arm? We’ve spent the entire day looking for a one-armed man!” “Well, you never asked what he looked like, so….”).
I’ve listed the following distinctive-feature categories from most basic to most detailed.
Name: A fundamental distinctive feature is the NPC’s name, although it takes interaction (at least a few words exchanged) to learn a name. Nevertheless, I list it first because the PCs are more likely to ask for an NPC’s name before they ask for a physical description—RPGs rely on words more than vision.
If your adventure takes place in a certain time period, try to come up with a name that matches that time period—there are few Ethelberts in a cyberpunk campaign and even fewer Rip Blitzes in medieval England. In addition to the time period, names can reflect gender or ethnicity. Names might also indicate race (“All natives of this planet have 5-letter names that start with a consonant and end with a K”) or status in a cultural hierarchy (“You are Number Four”). Names might be extremely long or extremely short, depending on the time sense of the people (elves could have names that take a good five minutes to recite!). They might be pronounceable or unpronounceable to humans.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about nicknames, too. Does the NPC only go by a nickname? Does the NPC have a nickname s/he is ashamed of? A good exercise is to take a moment to think about how your players might shorten the NPC’s name—players are notorious for assigning rude nicknames to NPCs, so if you can think of an obviously horrible nickname for your NPC, you may want to change the NPC’s name before the game.
Finally, there’s an ineffable quality about names that you should consider when naming an NPC. Not only do names mean different things, but some names convey different feelings to the listener. In one “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode, Buffy is talking to a girl who said she used to be called Chanterelle and remarked on how beautiful the name sounded. Buffy pointed out that it’s the name of a mushroom, which squelched the girl’s enthusiasm for the name. In my campaign, I often play with names—and sometimes the players “get it” and sometimes they don’t. For example, a mute beggar they met is named Benedict (for Bene Dictu, well-spoken or good speaker); a folksy town guard is named Jack Straw (because he was thin and “just off the farm”); and a self-important mage’s guild receptionist is called Narcissus Cadmium (because he was narcissistic and nasty—cadmium is toxic). Have fun with your names!
Physical Appearance: The most basic social category for humans is sex. Is the NPC male, female, or other? Try breaking a stereotype here if you want to make the NPC more distinctive to the players (e.g., by making the bartender female).
The next most basic social category for humans is race/ethnicity. What culture or race does the NPC come from? This will probably (but not always) affect other aspects of the NPC’s physical appearance (e.g., it might determine whether the NPC has dark- or light-colored skin, fur, feathers, or scales).
After that, humans begin to rate the person on a variety of other physical characteristics. Skin color, hair color, eye color; old, young, or in-between; fat, thin, or average? Is the NPC gorgeous or hideous? (Have some fun here by remembering that standards of beauty differ for various cultures or non-human races.) Does the NPC have any physical handicaps? How about just unusual features, like mismatched eyes, a streak in the hair, or a chipped front tooth?
Apparel: As Shakespeare said, clothes make the man (and the woman, too). List one or two distinctive pieces of clothing or jewelry or colors that the NPC almost always wears. This is fun because it can automatically peg the NPC as a certain personality type, and you can make a big deal out of it if the NPC ever appears without that item of apparel (“Bob shows up.” “Is he wearing his baseball cap to the wedding?” “No, just a tux.” “WOW!”).
Is the NPC’s clothing clean or dirty? Neat or disheveled? Expensive or cheap? Does the NPC usually wear one dominant color or a tasteless kaleidoscope of colors? Is there one material the NPC always wears (e.g., tweed, platemail)? Does the NPC dress fashionably or is s/he always out of sync with the times? Does the NPC have a particularly eccentric style of dress? Always wear a hat? A tie? Carry a briefcase? Wear a certain item of jewelry? Carry a cane? Use a cigarette holder? Wear too much makeup? Have an unusual cyberware connection?
Profession: An NPC’s career may be obvious or not, depending on where and when the NPC is encountered and whether s/he is wearing any physical clues to his or her profession. Uniforms, whether formal (a police officer’s) or informal (a baker’s hat and a flour-covered apron) are obvious giveaways. Location is another—the person behind the bar is probably a bartender, and a person breaking into a safe is probably a thief.
Try to break out of stereotypes when you choose an NPC’s profession. Consider matching the profession to an unlikely gender or race, for example (an orkish beautician in Shadowrun? A female stormtrooper in Star Wars?).
In addition, take a moment to think about unusual professions, or at least professions that don’t get a lot of play in most games. It’s easy to say that the NPC encountered in a bar is just another white-collar salaryman or mercenary fighter, but maybe you can be more original. One of my favorite NPC professions is His Majesty’s Royal Ratcatcher, the fellow who goes down into the city sewers and traps the rats (I introduced him into my campaign when he found a clue to a mystery in the sewers and gave it to the PCs). Think about other interesting professions—why not make the NPC a garbage collector? A movie site scout? A minister? A dog groomer? A bookbinder? A winetaster? The fun part about this is that often the PCs will be so struck by the person’s profession that they’ll take down the person’s name in their notes … and then three adventures later they’ll tell you, “we need to go talk to that bookbinder we met!” More often than not they’ll have thought of a plot based around the person’s profession, or realized that the person might be able to give them some clues about their current mission, long after you’ve forgotten the NPC. That’s a good sign, though, because it means you made the NPC memorable.
Mannerisms and Speech Habits: If the PCs interact with the NPC at length or over different times, they may begin to notice the NPC’s mannerisms and speech habits. These need to be exaggerated in a roleplaying game as they are onstage. Don’t try to be subtle! Exaggerate the gesture and do it a lot more often than a person would probably do it in real life.
Mannerisms may include gestures like stroking a beard or mustache, gesturing with one’s eyeglasses, nervously shifting in one’s seat, never looking a PC in the eye, nervously tapping one’s fingers against things, biting one’s lip, scratching one’s head, grabbing the person the NPC is speaking with, slapping friends on the back, and forth. Nonhuman mannerisms are a little more difficult for the GM, since waving one’s tentacles, licking one’s tusks, or changing colors or odors is beyond most GMs’ acting capabilities (the best a GM can do is say, “he says, licking his tusks” or “Bxxzt has started to smell like vanilla now”).
Speech habits can include stuttering or stammering, speaking loudly or softly, using “um” a lot, being verbose or being succinct, using accents, having favorite sayings, relying on jargon and pomposity, using cliches, and so forth. The abrupt loss or shift of an accent ought to raise some questions, and some characters might not speak at all.
Personality: Again, if the PCs interact with the NPCs at length or over time, they’ll come to learn more about the NPC’s personality. Like mannerisms and speech habits, personality must be exaggerated to get it across well. Is the NPC insufferably cheerful or constantly morose? Arrogant or shy? Polite or rude? Brave or cowardly? Up-front or sneaky? Lecherous or chaste? Amiable or prickly? Again, consider cultural differences here. Star Trek has fun with personality and culture—most humans would consider Vulcans arrogant and Klingons rude because their respective reliance on unemotional logic and confrontative braggadacio are undesirable personality traits among humans … but within their own culture, those traits are highly regarded. Cultural differences like this can make interacting with an NPC more interesting and challenging for the players.
Throughout this adventure-writing series I’ve mentioned NPCs and the importance of understanding their motives and secrets. However, it’s possible to spend too much time fleshing out NPCs. It’s not necessary to script an entire life for each random person the players may end up talking to. Part of GMing is learning to roleplay off the cuff. This categorization of NPCs and their potentially distinctive features should help you cut down on the time you spend writing them up.
But remember—NPCs are the most important part of a game. When players aren’t interacting with each other, they’ll be interacting with NPCs, and it is that interaction that will move the adventure forward. Plot is important, and things like miniatures and drawings and props and background music add much to the roleplaying experience—but ultimately it’s the NPCs who will make or break your game. Don’t overlook them!
Originally written November 18, 1998
Image Source: From Thomas Heywood, Philocothomista, or the Drunkard, Opened, Dissected and Atomized (London: 1635).