Creating Compelling NPCs

Today’s #worldbuildingMonday post is all about best practices in creating compelling, three-dimensional NPCs for your story world.

Unless you’re planning on playing your own story in your own world – certainly possible by the way – as the worldbuilder, you’re crafting a story world for player characters. Like any story, the characters will interact, grow, thrive, struggle, succeed and fail and everything in between.

But they’ll likely also come across many characters in your world which they don’t personally control: non-player characters (NPCs). NPCs are the “spice of life” in a tabletop role playing game and today’s worldbuilder advice centers on some best practices for developing NPCs your characters will love in just about any genre of story. This advice is by no means complete but rather, a solid starting point to get your creative juices flowing.

  1. Layered
  2. Not Perfect
  3. Either Humorous or Straight-Laced

Layered

A core tenet of three dimensional characters in any story-medium is that they have layers. Meaning, that over time through the course of the story, characters reveal aspects of their personality and their history in interesting and nuanced ways.

Take Han Solo of Star Wars fame as a basic, instructive example: at first in a New Hope, Han Solo is introduced as money-first, rogue-ish character who lives life from job to job. He asks for a King’s Ransom to get Obi Wan and Luke to Alderaan and says, more than once, he’s only around to get paid. As the audience, we see the layers get peeled back more and more to the point where he’s able to successfully rescue Princess Leia with the team and get the audience to believe he’s seen the light. As the Empire is closing in, Han bails, lending the audience and characters to believe he hadn’t turned a new leave after all. But at the last possible moment, with Luke in Darth Vader’s sights, Han reappears and redeems himself and allows Luke to destroy the Death Star, preserving the Rebellion.

If the audience were to know Han truly had a heart of gold from the beginning then there wouldn’t be much of a payoff when he redeems himself at the end of the movie. It’s that periodic act of peeling back the layers of a NPC that pulls the player characters into the gravity of the NPC’s orbit which serves at the basis for their three-dimensional growth.

Not Perfect

Another important NPC trait is that they shouldn’t be perfect. Part of being human – or any non-omniscient species – is that we have flaws. Players tend to relate to NPCs far better if they’re flawed because they themselves as people have flaws. But just because you have flaws, doesn’t mean they have to expose themselves all the time either.

Take, for example, an alcoholic who has been dry for a decade. Their flaw is that they’re addicted to alcohol but a major character trait is their discipline in managing their disease. They are not without flaw because they were successful! Same too with the Paladin who righteously hunts and purges evil in all its forms. What if this noble warrior stalked a vampire serial killer who had been plaguing the countryside and gained pleasure in their killing of this evil scourge? Surely killing is a flaw but their grappling with that feeling inside would make for a far more deep and interesting NPC for the players.

Humorous vs. Straight-Laced

There’s an old tradition in comedy known as the Double Act that rests in the strength of the relationship between the “Straight Man” – reasonable, serious, and intelligent – and the “Banana Man” – funny, goofy, naive, and less intelligent. These two opposite personas play off one another with various arrays of setups and interplay between the two roles. Acts like Abbot and Costello and Laurel and Hardy made famous this style of comedy in the early 20th century and serve as great examples and anchor points of attaching comedy to your TTRPG NPCs.

In the case of a tabletop role playing game, oftentimes the NPCs will serve as half the duo in an interaction with the player characters. So if you have a self-righteous, humorless paladin in the group, consider giving a major NPC “Banana Man”-like tendencies. And of course, vice versa: if you have a goofy, hilarious bard, consider making a major NPC more like that paladin. Oftentimes, the interplay between these types of characters is absolutely hilarious because there’s a natural friction in how they each approach conversation and life in general.

And of course, feel free to mix and match these characteristics. The above are merely well-worn guidelines to get you started and illustrate patterns which have worked for a long time.

Good luck and let us know how we can help you create great NPCs for your next tabletop role playing game…

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