One of the questions I constantly ask myself when writing and designing modules, is how many NPCs are needed or how many NPCs are necessary. Good NPCs can greatly enrich a narrative but too few or too many can make things worse. What is the right number of NPCs?

Perhaps one of the issues I most ponder on when I’m writing and designing modules is the number of NPCs, if I have too many or too few. I often find myself spending way too much time wondering if this or that NPC will actually add anything to the narrative, whether I need to put down stats or some things like that. We need to have a certain number of NPCs, but I try hard to keep the number of named important NPCs to a bare minimum, simply because I don’t like hearing my players go: “Who was that again?”

Still, you need NPCs because they make your setting more believable and they add to the picture the players have in their mind. I like to think that the NPCs are what adds colour to a black-and-white world. Just as in plays, you have secondary roles who help the main characters to further the story along. These are important, but you don’t want them to outshine the main characters. Keeping that balance and finding the right number therefore can be quite tricky.

Dramatis personae

Your dramatis personae are your PCs. They are, or should be, in the limelight as much of the time as possible. Their choices, their mistakes and their triumphs is what roleplaying is all about. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious here. But this is important and it’s important to keep this always at heart.

When you write or design an NPC you need to figure out its relationship to the PCs. Since the narrative revolves around the PCs, every NPC introduced need to have some connection to the narrative. When you weigh that relationship, you quickly spot the NPCs that need to be fleshed out and who don’t.

Important NPCs

Characters that have an impact on the narrative, either as to help the PCs or to hinder them, characters that seriously add their weight to the storyline are the characters you need to flesh out. Think about Goldmoon and Riverwind from Dragonlance Chronicles, Dumbledore and Hagrid in Harry Potter or agent Coulson in Avengers. In the terms of roleplaying games all of these would be NPCs.

Still, each of these add enough to the narrative to be fleshed out properly and as a game master you’d be hard pressed not to write at least a few lines down about each of them, if not create a statblock for them. The PCs need to know much about these people and further more, they could evolve and change as the story progresses, and even need to.

Non-important NPCs

Many characters don’t have a heavy impact on the narrative, but still need to be named. Think about your average innkeeper, the bard at the tavern, the town’s merchant or the village’s sage. Characters that don’t have a direct relation to the narrative but still can in some manner help the PCs, e.g. provide leads or rumours, sell equipment to the PCs or provide shelter.

These characters never evolve or change during the narrative, they are kin to the background but add more colour and credit to it.

Make them stand out – differentiating NPCs

All the important NPCs need to have something that the PCs and players remember them by, something that makes them stand out. Here are a few simple tricks that can help you.

  • Use the alphabet – Don’t let the names of any of the important NPCs start with the same letter. Most narratives or modules don’t have over 20 different important NPCs so, use the alphabet. This simple trick can really help players remembering NPCs’ names.
  • Break the cliches – When it comes to non-important NPCs go big in cliches. The village’s sage is an old man with long beard, wearing a top long hat with sequins and arcane symbols and the town’s ranger is a wood-elf archer wearing a green leather armour. But when it comes to important NPCs break the cliches, make them special.
  • Choose one instinctive feature – Make sure that each of the important NPCs has something that the PCs and players remember them by. Perhaps the leader of the thieves guild has a lisp. The captain of the guards wears an eye-patch or the handsome prince always smells of elderberries. Also, by appealing to different senses you help your players to keep a track on the NPCs.
  • Make them feel it – People tend to forget the things you say, but they never forget the way you make them feel. This applies as well to NPCs. Make sure that your players feel them. If the someone is threatening them, don’t just let the die roll show it, make them feel it. Use your body language, your tone of voice and your demeanour to show it. Narrow your eyes, speak slower, make your voice sound a little tougher.
  • Take notes – This is probably the single most important thing there is when running NPCs. Note down how the PCs interact with each NPC and let it come into play. Did they treat the NPC well, did they steal from her or did they threaten her? For every action there should be a reaction. Make sure your NPCs also remember how the PCs make them feel. It makes the NPCs not only more believable, but also more remembered.

Don’t be afraid to go big

As mentioned above I usually choose to have rather few important NPCs in my campaigns, but I try to go as big as possible. I create statblocks, write backgrounds and secrets, note down their relationship with the PCs and other NPCs and try to flesh them out as well as I can. I find that this helps me keeping everything in check and I feel that it helps my players to remember every important NPC in the campaign.

Also, despite the fact that I’m awful at voice-acting I give it my best when it comes to acting these characters, and I try to make sure that my players feel that they are talking to the character, instead of a third-person relying information.

In my experience, players tend to be forgiving, knowing that you’re doing the best you can, and believe or not, your effort to make things more fun for them usually pay off, despite how awful you felt your performance was. And even better, we get better with practice.

Don’t force it

Let the PCs interactions with the NPCs be in the natural flow of the narrative. Forcing the NPCs down the players’ throat does not help them remember the NPCs or help with their interactions. Allow the PCs to form their relationship with the NPCs on their own terms and let it be a part of the narrative.

So, what’s the right number of NPCs?

There’s no correct answer to that question. While a game of some political chess among the vampires of a city might need scores of NPCs a game of post-apocalyptic zombie survival could only need a handful. While your group can handle many NPCs the next one might be fed up after 5 NPCs and quickly lose count after that.

You need to figure out the right number for your group and your narrative. It’s not simple, I know, but the players, if you don’t ask them outright, often give us hints. Questions like “Who was that again?” and “Why are we talking to this guy?” can give us a glimpse of how the narrative and the NPCs are perceived. Act on and use these hints and you’ll be a better game master for it.