The One Thing You Want to Know About NPCs in RPGs

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Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to be talking about character motivations, particularly of the NPC variety, in tabletop roleplaying games like fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. We Game Masters know we’re not supposed to get too invested in these characters because they are not spotlight characters. Not really. The game should focus on the player characters. But there’s an art to NPCs, and not being the focus doesn’t mean they don’t have to be complete characters. No, I’m not saying you need a dozen notes for the backstory of Bob the Baker. What I’m saying is, you should know what his goals are, what he wants, and how to leverage him.

NPC GM tips character motivation
Whether he’s promoting his book or handing out in the taproom of the Yawning Portal, reuniting with old friends and mulling over his next book project, Volo has wants and needs too. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

GM tips for NPCs

Why bother with character motivations for NPCs?

But Megan, I hear some of you saying, why should I bother figuring out what this NPC wants if my PCs are probably just going to kill them as soon as they get in the way anyway? I have a combat encounter planned. Isn’t it more important I know how much damage he does when he pokes them with his sharp stick?

Sometimes, sure. As with everything else, it depends on the kinds of players you have. But if you have even one diplomancer, you need to know.

If you’ve met me, you know I’m this kind of player. The one who wants to talk my way out of everything instead of getting into fights when I can avoid it. I’ve frustrated many a GM this way, but likewise, many a GM has frustrated me. And it isn’t just NPCs that Are Going To Fight You No Matter What ™. It’s NPCs that stubbornly stay the same kind of pain in the butt about the same thing throughout the whole campaign.

I will give you that if a character is protecting something extremely important like their god’s temple or their child, probably nothing I can say is going to sway them out of my way. I can accept that. However, the miserly shopkeeper probably has a price. Obviously he’s trying to make money, right? So if I give him a way to make more money than he already is there’s no reason he should keep being a sour grape to me, right? Right?!

Except apparently not, because too many times I’ll be with a party and get into a low stakes situation and because the GM wants to be unpleasant and see the party squirm, logic goes right out the window.

Listen. We want the NPCs to be little shits sometimes. It gives our characters something to rail against and some problems to solve. But there’s a limit to how many of them you can have doing it just for the sake of it, and that limit is probably a 1:10 session ratio before it starts to feel like the world was just made to give us a hard time.

I mean. It was. But much in the same way you don’t want the players acting like they’re a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper trying to get experience (because guess what, we are), you don’t want your NPCs to feel like they exist only to be a problem for the PCs. They should want things, too.

What you should know about your NPC

NPC character motivation
Talking your way past a knight of Bahamut by quenching their thirst with a tasty beverage? This tracks.

For some people it’s going to be as simple as knowing what an NPC wants that the PCs can bribe them with. I’m sure many of you remember Pokemon Red and Blue, where you couldn’t get into the city because the road guards were being sticklers.

“I’m on guard duty. Gee, I’m thirsty though!”

That was the cue to our little child brains we needed to get the guard a drink and they’d let us by. It doesn’t have to be that anvilicious. You can be super subtle about the things your NPCs want, and you can dole information out at other points in the narrative for players who are paying attention.

Your players are not stupid. If a player wants to talk their way through their problems, they are going to notice when Old Man Jean waxes rhapsodic about his old days with the town militia and know the militia insignia they found in the mineshaft probably belonged to him or one of his compatriots. They’ll know to use it to soften him up.

And if you don’t have a player who does that kind of thing or notices, chances are good none of them are going to get frustrated when they can’t figure out how to leverage this guy anyway.

Applying character motivations to your game

You don’t have to build in the diplomatic route to any of your encounters. When you make a note of your NPCs, just add an ideal. You might have a number of hit points, an attack, and an AC. You might have a few notes on how to roleplay this NPC, like remembering she stutters. So make a note of what she wants.

Common motivations include money (you don’t have to foreshadow a bribe), love (imagine the wizard hamming it up and reading this person’s fortune telling them of the tall dark stranger in their future), revenge (”Why yes, I saw the six-fingered man in the town past…” as you quietly roll Deception) or even status (after all the guard captain isn’t going to like that you held us up).

Pick something simple, and mention it once so the players have a chance to pick up on what it is. And if they catch you with a character that doesn’t have one, you can always make one up on the fly. Didn’t think that far ahead with your city guard? Show him polishing the one medal he’s gotten and have him say something about some great hero from the songs. Then let your PCs figure out how to talk him down.

Everybody has a price. That price isn’t always measured in gold. Even someone who stringently respects the law might be persuaded that what the PCs are doing is lawful, depending on their character motivations. If players are trying to speak your NPC’s language, they are doing it right. Let them.

Oh yeah, and stay nerdy.

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Follow Megan R. Miller:
Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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