4 Components of Crafting NPCs for your RPG Experiences
Salutations, nerds. Let’s sit down and talk a little bit about how to craft a good NPC for tabletop roleplaying games like fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve talked about how to get characters and players to like an NPC and today we’re going to get down to the base designs for 5E D&D or any RPG of choice.
GM tips for memorable RPG NPC moments
I think we’re all on the same page when I say almost no one wants to sit for days on end having to come up with every little detail of what a character is and their entire history for every NPC in the entire game. I say almost because I know there are folks who exist out there who very much do want to do this. (You’re in good company.) But for most people it’s better to get a few ideas down and move onto the next thing because a lot goes into a game. It’s more than the NPCs. It’s the setting, it’s the encounters, it’s the puzzles. The idea is to try to make this part of RPG design and preparation a little bit easier.
Illusion of a person
An NPC doesn’t have to be an entire set of memories and experiences. It only has to feel like it does to players. The trick is putting details in the right places so the NPC feels like there might be more to know about them beneath what the party finds out about this individual.
In a way a Game Master is an illusionist for players in this regard. A GM gives players the surface senses so they don’t need to scratch too far in to believe. The good thing is if a GM has players at the table they’ve already got half the job done for them — players want to believe. All a GM has to do is not break the spell. This means keeping in mind certain things about the NPC as they interact with the party and playing to who they are over what you need out of them.
What a character wants
Keeping an eye on what characters want is a double edged sword. First a GM needs to pay attention to what players want out of interactions with the NPC. Is this a character the party wants to hang out with? Are they trying to get paid? Does someone in the group want to romance this character?
A GM ought to consider if and how they can give the players this experience and if it’s plausible. Working in this direction can give the party a hook into the RPG world they might not have otherwise had. The party should get close to some people.
This also means keeping in mind what the NPC wants. Everyone has something with the potential to use for leverage and it’s really obvious to players when a GM plants an NPC in front of them and no matter what they do or how carefully the party plans the NPC steers the situation into into combat anyway. If this is the case it ought to at least be really satisfying to bash their cardboard cut out face in.
Listen to the out of character chatter
Sometimes GMs change things on the fly. Sometimes players mutter something about being worried about being betrayed by the NPC they have with them. Sometimes the thing players worry about happening is the most compelling direction the story can take. Sometimes players worry about something the GM hadn’t considered and it sends their mind off in a different direction entirely. Regardless a GM ought to want to know players expectations because once this groundwork is laid a GM can either play to them or break them entirely.
And all of that leads to…
If players have been building to a boil over hating an NPC it’s going to be satisfying to then best this NPC in honorable combat. If a player has been trying to court an NPC it can be completely satisfying to see this through, or sometimes the satisfaction comes from seeing the knife twist when things go poorly. It’s all about the build up. Reaping what was sown.
The most important thing in this is not to flinch when the time comes. Whatever a GM builds up to represents the pay off and sticking to it creates a memorable RPG experience. If the GM takes care to show a character being shady this gives players the opportunity to see the back stab coming. Taking the shot pays dividends.