As the game moderator or dungeon master, it is your job to set up challenging scenarios, interesting NPCs, and worthy opponents for your players to face. As the GM/DM you will put more time into preparing your games than you spent on calculus, and your workload will multiply exponentially if you ignore pre-prepared modules, downloadable maps, monster manuals, and other fan-made resources.
In short, if you plan on running a game, expect to invest time, money, or both.
So let’s assume you’ve already built your world and have populated it with peons, civvies, scrubs, pugs, mobs, or whatever derogatory word you use for everyday NPCs— you know, the townsfolk who are most likely to be put to the torch by the PC’s when a villager gently suggest that the shiny stuff in the market isn’t free.
Now that you have a sample population to occupy your urban jungle, as well as farmers to work your rural estates, you’re ready to introduce the next tier of NPC to your game; the talking heads. These are in-game characters that represent the little man. They dole out quests, tend bar, dicker over prices at the shop, reward the player for a job well done, and on rare occasion join the party for a quest. In other words any time you’re speaking to the party, not as the DM but as a denizen of your world, you’ll be doing it through one of these characters.
To aid you in developing interesting, provocative NPC’s that the players will love or hate (for the right reasons) here are 5 methods for introducing characters to your game’s narrative.
1) Try out new personalities, but stick with ones you can sustain over time
I once made the mistake of introducing a surly dock manager who spoke almost entirely in curse words. Every time he (and by ‘he’ I mean ‘I’) opened his mouth, a blue streak of expletives poured out in wondrous, colorful array of curmudgeonly dickishness. He was usually half-crocked from morning mead, and was racist against every variety of Fey, Elf, Orc, and half-pint humanoid.
The party loved him.
The problem with the players becoming enamored with this foul-mouthed blue collar leatherneck, was that the party wanted to visit him every time they hit town, if only to hear me curse for five minutes straight. In very short order this became exhausting for me, since I am not a trained drill sergeant. Eventually I made this NPC unavailable with some lame excuse about him retiring from the docks, and no, they couldn’t go seek him out at home. The players not only stopped visiting the wharf, they stopped visiting the town altogether, unless their quest explicitly called for it.
Give NPC’s fun accents. Describe them with three defining character flaws or quirks (old writer’s trick). But make damn sure you can replicate the mannerisms of the NPC. To be safe, practice the voice and rhythm of a character until you’re sure you could sustain it for an entire session if necessary. And learn from my mistake: Nobody but Sergeant Hartman can pull off Sergeant Hartman for any length of time.
2) Try to use an established mouthpiece
Once you have an interesting, well-established NPC who you can rely upon to deliver news or plot to the players, keep them in your back pocket. Even if this means you must transplant an NPC to follow the party at a distance, do it. Having a direct line to the players that you’re comfortable using is worth its weight in gold, and will save hours of watching the players fumble around directionless.
If you develop a fop of a merchant from Deskenvalemoor who speaks in a natural style both you and the players find agreeable, have him uproot his business to become a traveling salesman, who peddles wares out the back of his wagon. If the players respond well to the aging gunsmith who speaks with a doddering voice (and you can keep it up) install his grandson as the new shop owner, freeing him to travel the world before dementia claims him.
It’s perfectly alright to have an NPC defy logic or good business sense if it lends you a mouthpiece to communicate to the players. This frees you from having to invent a new talking head in every prison, bar, and dungeon they wander through.
3) Bring back established characters (it saves time)
I’ve talked about bringing back old henchmen and villains before, but a close cousin to this is dropping in a familiar NPC face the party will recognize. Bringing back an established NPC does several things to your campaign, depending on what terms the NPC parted from the players during their last encounter. Say, if the NPC…
Screwed over the party? This sets the tone for the players to immediately mistrust the NPC, as well as any business opportunity they’re about to offer the group. Some of the most dynamic missions start with a greasy conman offering glory and riches to the heroes, knowing full well nobody trusts his lying ass.
Was saved by the party? It fosters deep trust when a previous victim returns to thank the players for their good deeds, and makes them more apt to listen to any future pleas for assistance.
Tried to kill the party? If you can prevent the players from seeking swift and instant retribution for a perceived slight from an earlier game, this can make for some wild gaming. Have the Big Bad Mastermind come to the party on his knees, unbidden, begging them to help him evict an even more sinister threat than himself. This will lend serious gravitas to the mission.
4) Do not munchkin or Mary Sue your NPC
Do you have old character sheets lying around? Got a neat idea for an interesting hero rattling through your brain?
Maybe you had plans to roll a psionic clown who uses balloon-animals as weapons. Or a cybernetic gunner who leaves an actual calling card as his calling card, in case his enemies want to chat about how accurate his .30 caliber aspirin is. However awesome or elite your character ideas are, or how beefy your old characters became before the group disbanded, you must resist the urge to become a player in your own game.
Let me say that again. You are not the player.
As the GM/DM you are a storyteller, and every NPC you put in the game is a supporting character for the cast of heroes to play off of. Your players are the heroes. If you ever bring an NPC to the table who is more heroic, more legendary, or more powerful than the players, he damn sure better have a purpose other than to show off your character creation skills.
If you introduce a high level Valkyrie who could turn the players into strawberry jam against her shining aegis, then in the next scene she should be hiring the thoroughly impressed players to do a job for her. Or the players discover a court plot against her, and must decide how they’ll act. It’s perfectly OK to have an NPC more powerful than the players in your game, but you should always be careful not to let them take center stage. And never make the heroism of the players redundant or unnecessary next to the NPC.
5) Let the players decide their favorite NPC
A final mistake I see with dungeon masters, inexperienced and veterans alike, is the desire to craft sexy, interesting, or badass characters for the players to encounter. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to make the players love a character you’ve put significant time into creating. Or introduce an imposing villain, and expect the players to be stricken speechless because your warlord sits at the head of a skeleton army and rants at the PC’s when they’re helpless.
Use all the tricks up your sleeve to make interesting characters. Threaten to cut the players’ tongues out if they don’t tell the villain the location of the rebel base. But always be prepared to abandon an NPC if the party is unimpressed by them. Likewise, be willing to promote a throwaway character to travel companion or supervillain if the players pay them undue attention.
During the last game I ran, the players encountered a rowboat with three Kobolds. The trio was arguing loudly, snatching a tri-corner hat from each other. Each in turn would jam the hat on their head and declare themselves Captain of the rowboat for a few seconds, until the hat was stolen again by one of their peers. By chance, one of the Kobolds had a lisp, and would shout “I Napkin!” whenever he seized the hat.
Because of one small, insignificant speech impediment, Napkin became one of the most popular characters I’ve ever accidentally introduced. The party became so fond of him they later tracked him down and hired him as a crew hand on their ship. To this day my players will snatch something from the table, and shout “I Napkin!”