We know the cliché: you spend a week and a half preparing an
NPC (Non-Player Character) that sees about 5 seconds of game time before they are
either forgotten, ignored, or killed by the party, while the town guard (whose name you pulled out of a hat) ends up becoming their lifelong boon companion.
So how do you create an
NPC that is so compelling, so original, so amazing that the players simply can’t
relegate them into obscurity? The answer is you can’t, and you shouldn’t. Not
only does this plotting and scheming go against player agency, but most players,
if not all, are primed by pit traps, mimics, double-crosses, and plot twists to
be extremely paranoid of any NPC that has a back story. Other NPC-avoidant players tend to just be dicks
that want to see the GM squirm.
So, if you can’t make the players engage, let's address the
other half of the issue: the amount of time spent prepping the NPC. The following is my method for quick-and-dirty NPCs.
Step One: Give ‘em a name. Simple, name the NPC. There are hundreds of random name generators on
the internet if this step vexes you.
Step Two: Answer these three questions with relation to the
NPCs role in the scene:
What does the NPC want?
What is stopping the NPC from
What is the NPC willing to do to
Now, if you find yourself struggling to answer these
questions with regard to the immediate scene, step back and answer these questions
for their long-term wants and goals. Then, look at the scene and determine what they can accomplish in it to bring them closer to their end goal.
What we have done by answering these questions is established the NPC's root desire and defined the core conflict of the scene. All sentient beings want something, at any given moment of their
lives; it could be something as simple as being left alone, or making the
other person smile, or selling a pair of stylish shoes for a handsome profit. It is this "want" that drives our decisions. You can use this root desire as a touchstone
for your NPC's reactions. All their actions and dialogue are tools for them to steer
the scene towards their objective. The best part is, even if the players ignore the
NPC, they can still pursue their goal in the background, advancing their agenda and giving the world a life
of its own. If you understand these core elements of your NPC, then the
rest of the elements are just window dressing.
Step Three: Window dressing. Fill in the cosmetics: race,
class, shoe size, fetish, accent, etc. These can either stem from the three
questions, or you can randomly generate these as well.
There you have it! You’ve just created an NPC in less time
than it will take your party to ignore them. Good gamin'!