Welcome back to my little corner of the Yawning Portal. Today I want to help you create life! But not really, I mostly want to talk about how to construct believable non-playing characters to populate your campaigns. First I must say that there is no be all, end all way of doing this but through the years I have picked up several tricks to make this process more enjoyable for me and my players. As each storyteller builds his NPC´s differently some of these tips might suit you while others might not. There is no “right” way to make this omelet but you do have to break some eggs so do not be afraid to try new things and integrate the ones that work for you…
Everyone Has Something To Hide: One of the first thing I write up during the creation of a NPC is his or her deepest darkest secret. That one little thing that will cause the person to commit murder or to betray what he holds dear. It might be something big or it might be something small or easily hidden, just as long as it gives the NPC a reason to act a certain way. Consider the case of my vampire Carthian Prefect of Staten Island a few years back. He had hidden the fact that he was far younger than he claimed, was actually an undercover agent from a hostile faction of the Ordo Dracul covenant and had participated in the murder of the former prefect as a way to sow chaos, not realizing that he would be voted as his replacement. This secret gave a normally beneficial ally of the coterie a genuine reason to dispose of any interloper into his affairs as the stress of his position and how he got there chipped away at his already fractured psyche. Another NPC in the campaign had the secret that he was at heart a coward and would seal himself away from the world within a specially prepared tomb at the first real sign of trouble. That secret had far less impact on the players but it did leave a faction of vampire politics leaderless when they could least afford it and without it being an overt action from a hostile faction. Even if their dirty little secret never comes close to seeing the light of day this little jagged piece cutting them up inside forces their hand and gives them genuine feelings, even if the feeling is fear of discovery.
Give Them A Face, Give Them A Voice: It’s been close to a decade since I started to assemble a cast of characters to play my NPC´s not unlike the campaign was a television series. I find that assigning each NPC a actor not only gives him a face but also imbues him, in the minds of the players, with a voice and mannerisms. You could describe a NPC a certain way, say a middle aged African-American man in a suit, but the choice between casting him as Lance Reddick from The Wire or Andre Braugher from Brooklyn Nine-Nine says a lot about how the players picture, and hear, him in their mind. I have on more then one occasion used player assumptions about the actor “voicing” a character to throw a wrench into their plan. The both times occurred during World of Darkness campaigns with the first one involving a smarmy celebrity hypnotist not unlike Darren Brown that was “voiced” by James Callis who is best known for his portrayal of Gaius Baltar in the remake of Battlestar Galactica. As Baltar was a very untrustworthy character my players instantly decided that this person was not to be trusted and it set the stage for the characters murder and later realizations that this was in fact the one character that could really have helped them get to the bottom of their mystery. The second time featured the aforementioned Lance Reddick appearing in two roles, first as the Outer God Nyarlathotep during a large battle being fought in the Dreamlands and secondly as rather creepy handyman appearing to the characters in the real waking world. This greatly unsettled the players as, even if they had seen several characters appearing in both worlds, they had always appeared first in the real world before showing up in the Dreamlands, being easily explained away as people you know appearing in your dreams. With the arrival of a person from their dreams into their waking life the stakes suddenly seemed so much higher and it set the stage for a huge showdown with this person at the end of the campaign. This can also be used by groups during character creation to breath more life into their characters.
Conflict Breeds Curiosity: Once you have a NPC´s deepest secrets and how he or she sounds like it’s time to see how well they play with others. When I construct my web of NPC’s I try to have the NPC´s form relationships based on things that fit their background. Its best if these things have little to do with the actual plot line you are going for to diminish the likelihood that the players feel trapped within a railroaded plot line. I try to have each NPC like one other NPC, distrust another and hate the third for various reasons that help me build their background. This will help you as a storyteller when you have to come up with a reason on the fly for a NPC´s actions or his likelihood of cooperating with the players. Imagine for a moment the classic small town that player characters often journey through on their way to and fro adventures. The people populating this town should have relationships with each other, be they beneficial or adversarial, without it affecting they players what so ever. Did the barkeeps wife date the tanner when she was younger? This might affect each NPC in different ways. Did the mayor strike the captain of the guard during a drunken row one night? Even if the incident was kept on the down low the captain might still harbor some resentment toward a town leader he considers lacking. Canny players might be able to turn these relationships to their benefit or crash like bulls in a china shop as they try to turn fast friends against each other and failing. No matter how you use this a basic idea who the NPC likes, distrusts and hates will go a long way of giving him or her some agency in your world and make them more memorable to your players.
There are a hundred tips and tricks out there for creating living, breathing non-playing characters that stick around in your players minds and I have as much to learn as the rest of you but these three steps have helped me to get better at my craft and I wanted to share them with you. I would love to hear from you, the reader, on what works for you and also if you have any questions about storytelling in general. Until next time, game on!