How to Make NPC’s Matter

Yesterday’s post took a look at the reasons that I attribute to the degradation of NPC’s in the tabletop RPG industry.  It is crucial to note that this does not happen in every game and there are games out there that encourage it to be done the right way but in reality these are not mainstream games.  If the mainstream games are not supporting the proper use of NPC’s then over time more and more players will come to accept the cookie cutter two dimensional style NPC that has been perpetuated by the computer game RPG franchise into tabletop gaming.  Today I hope to give you some ideas, or tools if you will, to begin to break the stereotype of the computer game NPC.

The good news about all of this is that the games themselves do not perpetuate this style of NPC.  In fact if you read the creating NPC’s section of nearly every tabletop RPG they give you great advice about how to do it.  Don’t be surprised that a lot of the material that I give you today will emulate a lot of the games that are out there today.  Also, do not be surprised that a lot of this work to create meaningful NPC’s is just that.  Work.  You will need to put in some effort to create a game that feels like it has real NPC’s.  It may not be a lot of work when you become more experienced at it but you need to practice it because if you do not, you will never achieve the great NPC’s you want.

Murder Hobo’s and Rewards Systems

That is not a term that I am altogether comfortable with BUT it does tend to describe the attitude of the major games.  I will level a finger here and point it at Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder as well as numerous other RPG’s (normally fantasy games) that encourage this behavior.  The type of behavior typified by the murder hobo style is the idea that you see creatures/NPC’s and/or a map and decide it is combat time.  You wipe everyone out and collect the treasure and the XP.

NPC Carrot stick
What are you rewarding the players for is a good question to ask up front

How do these games encourage this style?  Well they do it largely by using experience.  The aim in these games is to improve your character so they become tougher and more proficient in the art of being a murder hobo so that you can kill more things, get more experience and more loot.  They do this by undervaluing social interactions.  They undervalue these interactions in two ways.  First, they provide a mechanic so that the interaction with an NPC can be reduced to a purely mathematical formula (which is not all bad but does discourage playing in character) and they rarely ever award experience for negotiating a situation rather than turning the NPC into badly cut up offal.

There are a couple of ways that this can be remedied in a game.  Take a look at the 13th Age advancement model.  Here is a game that has been borne out of D&D as much as Pathfinder has BUT they did away with experience.  The GM controls leveling and it has nothing to do with the amount of creatures you kill, gold coins you pick up or items you stash.  What it does is allow the GM to control when players should level up regardless of the way that they handle encounters.  Presented the same situations in the same order, if the Bard overcomes everything with their silver tongue or the Barbarian overcomes with his axes the players should level at similar intervals.  Social rocks just as much as a great sword.

This makes it appealing to try different things because the player realizes that they are not missing out in any way by trying to negotiate with the vampire as opposed to putting a branch in his heart, taking off his head and burying it at a crossroads.  In fact it is almost inviting the player to find out more about the situation rather than opening the door and lobbing in a fireball.  Think about the way you reward your players.  This is one of the most customizable sections of any game.  As you sit at the table for the first time tell the players up front;

  • “I only reward XP for role playing be that in or out of combat”; or
  • “I do not award XP, I just let you know when it is time to level up”; or
  • “We level up after every fourth session, is that OK?”; or whatever you want

If you are up front and clear, the players will generally go with you on it.

Take a Long Hard Look in the Mirror

Are you a gamer?  And by gamer I mean someone who picks up a controller or a keyboard and leaps in to the worlds of RPG’s online or on the console/computer?  If so then you may be a part of the problem.  Sorry for saying it but I know there are nights where I am definitely part of the problem due exactly to this fact.  You see, as advanced as computer RPG’s are these days they are still nowhere near the complexity of what a tabletop RPG can generate, and in reality I think the industry has spent some time dumbing down the NPC in the computer game in the past decade.

NPC’s roles in the current bunch of computer RPG’s are to provide one of two things.  Quests or motivation.  You see, the story of all of these RPG’s are set (some might have varying endings but they are still set) and the role of the NPC is to sucker you into following the main plot OR set a quest so your character can improve to the point where they can continue with the main plot.  The game designer in this style of game is balancing expected difficulty of play vs the leveling system or the skill that the player should have developed over the time required to play the game to that point. That is why they, when reviewing games, will give you an estimated time that the main story can be completed in.

Modeling your NPC’s as well rounded individuals for a tabletop game is thus a poor thing to do in this case.  The games do not offer the same kind of play style and nor are they measured off the amount of time it takes to play them.  I dare you to go and find a tabletop RPG that tells you that you should get through x amounts of encounters in x hours.  You may find it via anecdotal evidence in a blog but it is a very rare RPG that lists that material in the rulebooks.  In my experience the amount of time to get through an encounter is as long as it takes to get through the counter.  It may be five minutes or less or it may take up the entire session.

In Short, the Story is What the Player Character’s Make it.

A truly great story at a tabletop RPG is one that has just as much input from the player characters as it does from the GM.  Even more importantly to me is that the story is built up out of interactions with NPC’s and the players to create a cohesive, logical thread that the players build their stories on.  That does not mean that your books and books of bestiaries or monster manuals are wasted, it just means that the reasons for battling these creatures have more meaning to the players.

This can be frustrating too as a trend with all of the bestiaries and monster manuals over the past decade or so has been to reduce the useful information in a description and just put information in on how it fights.  I really do miss the details about their ecology and breeding habits as that often would be used by me to flesh out my random encounters to create a reason as to why a creature would be aggressive, and with it an alternate way to deal with the issue.  There are some great products out there for Pathfinder at least by Rite Publishing that are called 101 Not so Random Encounters that focus on cerain locale types.  Each encounter is stylized with its own story ready to be dropped into a game at a moments notice that have all this built into it.  I strongly recommend you check it out.

In reality though it is the stories and threads that the player wants to investigate that make for the most memorable games.  I have played in dozens of games where the initial scene flat out states with neon signs “This is the plot that you will be following!” and while each of those games are fun, they have not been the games that have longevity in my memory.  I do not want you to be scared though, especially as a novice GM with this advice who has just spent an hour, a week, a month or whatever developing their first game with a solid plot.  The secret to making a player want to play what you have prepared is the NPC’s.

Make Your NPC’s to Stand Out

Not every NPC is going to be a beautiful prince or a dazzling bard that will catch the player’s attention.  What you need to make the NPC is memorable though in a description that introduces them in a  way that does not focus on them too much but brings them to your players attention above all other NPC’s present.  Tolkien’s initial description of Strider (that turns into Aragorn) is very brief and mentions only a hooded man in a throng of revelers that sits by himself and watches the hobbits at the table.  He does not reveal himself immediately as the lost King and it takes some time before the group of hobbits realize that this ranger is none other than the King that will return and take his place in Gondor.

NPC matter
Small differences can make an NPC stand out from the background. Image shared by Robert S. Donovan under a Creative Commons Attribution Generic License

That is what you want from your NPC’s.  They need something so they stand out from the crowd or the other set dressing NPC’s without being singled out with two paragraphs of descriptive text.  Nothing lets the players know which NPC you have spent time developing than a one sentence description of some thugs and then a paragraph or two of text on the one person.

The spacer bar is filled to the brim with late night revelers, lights, smoke, waitresses balancing on grav skates in skimpy skirts and tight sweaters, noise and an acrid sweaty smell.  One waitress limps her way back to the bar with a broken grav skate, the bald bartender frowning at her slow pace while trying to pour the next round of drinks.  Everyone seems oblivious to each other as people bang into one another without even looking or caring.  Apart from one cyborg that pushes over a party goer as he stares levelly at the bartender, his hand inside his jacket.

In that above piece of text I would imagine that my players are going to pick up three NPC’s that they may want to talk to.  If I heard that as a description I would be focussed on the waitress with the broken grav skate or the cyborg but I know that some of my players would be curious about the bartender.  the full paragraph describes a busy bar scene though and literally the players have the freedom of the place.  But I have made some of the NPC’s stand out just a little.  In reality the waitress may just have a faulty power supply to her grav skate.  The bartender may actually be the waitresses brother and worried that she is going to lose her job.  The Cyborg may be worried that people are trying to pick pocket him.  All of these things could be true.  Of course the waitresses grav skate may have been disabled on purpose to distract the bartender.  The bartender may indeed be about to sack the waitress for her attitude and the cyborg may be a paid assassin.  All of these things can progress a memorable story as the players fan out and interact with the NPC’s from the scene.

The NPC is Not There to Serve the Player

NPC’s should be people in the world of the game.  They do not stand outside of the Blacksmith and give the same person the same greeting every single time they meet them.  They do not focus on one ideal and they vary in moods on a daily basis.  They alter according to the happenings of what is going on around them.  They are certainly not standing around just to talk about personal quests they want done by the first group of murder hobos that walk in the city gate.

In fact, they should be modeled a lot like interactions in the real world.  You know some people blurt out what is sitting right at the top of their brain with no filter, but those people are in the minority.  Sure, people want other people to help them but before they share stuff like “My ancestral sword was stolen by a bunch of bandits” to a group that likely look just like the bandits they will want peace of mind that they are on the same wavelength.  Many games assume that a virtuous priest will tell the same story to a Paladin as they would to a shady assassin if you believe the video game version of NPC’s.

The NPC wants to look after one thing, their own interests.  If a group that look like a bunch of murder hobos wander in the city gates they are likely to cross the street rather than tell them their deepest desires.  That is unless they belong to the local gang and can sense that they might make some good recruits in the longer run.  In short, the type of NPC’s that will deal with an NPC depends on how the player acts in view of that NPC or the people that NPC deals with.

This may at times make it difficult for you to play the types of games that you want to prepare for.  Just like you, I want to tell certain types of stories.  The sign of a good GM though is that they make those types of stories appeal to the characters that the players are running rather than preparing the adventures and then finding the players that are going to ruin the adventure because they just aren’t interested in what you provide.  That means as a GM if you want to tell the story of Baba Yaga and how she got kidnapped in a power play you need to design that adventure so it has lead ins via NPC’s for murder hobos and paragons of virtue as well as everyone in between.

Every NPC Has Their Own Story

Just like a player, every NPC has their own back story.  They have quirks and hangups.  They have family, lovers, children, and friends that influence them in their lives.  The thing about developing an NPC is working out the scope of the NPC and how much of this story that you need to think about up front.  I would say that there are probably three levels of NPC’s and the consideration that you need to put into each differs a lot.

  1. Set Dressing NPC: These are the revelers and normal waitresses in the spacer bar description above.  They are nameless and faceless beings that are in place to give a sense of atmosphere and movement.  The description makes me feel cramped like I was in a busy nightclub and these people are not my main focus.  But there is nothing stopping a player from grabbing the nearest person and asking them something so the preparation that I make for these NPC’s is likely a sheet or web page of random names I can assign quickly to them and I would wing the interaction, picking up perhaps one quirk that makes them unique during the interaction “The reveler introduces himself as Jim Stent, he has glasses that change colors as you speak to him in response to the music.  Apparently he comes here all the time after he finishes work as a broker.”
  2. Functionary NPC: These are the NPC’s that the player may approach but may not carry a lot of information at this time that the character is after.  To me this is the bartender in that piece of text.  I would have a few dot point notes that detail;
    1. his/her name: “Ken Bender”
    2. short description: “balding and sweating man in white pants and a rayon blue shirt stained with sweat from constant movement”
    3. Few dot points about what he knows: local criminal henchman, waitress names, local prostitutes and drug dealers;
    4. A hook: “Speaks with a nasal wheeze.”
  3. Story NPC: The NPC’s that you expect the players to interact with given a set description.  These NPC’s should be well fleshed out in response to the likely questions they will be asked.  Let’s use the waitress of the description as an example (it would be the waitress or the cyborg that I would expect to see the players involve themselves with)
    1. Name: “Star Velina”
    2. Description: “The waitress is short and slightly overweight.  She has a pretty face framed by brunette hair with olive skin and freckles peeking through her thick makeup.  You see wet hand prints across her breasts where drunk customers have assaulted her and as she looks up you see a small hint of fire behind her brown eyes as she readies herself for another assault.”
    3. Some personal details: “Star has a boyfriend but it is nothing serious.  She is in debt up to her back teeth and works two jobs just to keep one step ahead of creditors.  Generally means she works on average a ten hour day.  Her parents live in a different sub-sector and she fled home sure of a bright career in the holo-vids only to end up waitressing and temping for the agencies she thought she would be acting for.”
    4. Give her some interesting hooks that may interest the players in helping out with: “Her boyfriend went missing a week ago after bringing home some crystalline drugs to sell at the college he attends.  She is very worried about his safety but because of the illegal nature of the drugs and the 10,000 credits she had show up in her bank after he went missing she is scared to go to the officials.  The wet prints across her breasts are not from customers but from the bartender Ken who sneaks up behind her on breaks and tries to force himself on her.  She wishes she could find someone to teach him a lesson.”
    5. A hook: “Did acting classes when she was younger and speaks very clearly without a trace of an accent.”

You can see the difference in the types of NPC’s right there.  they all have their purpose and they are all usable to provide a convincing bar scene which can lead the players into some interesting adventures.  To tailor your games to the type of story you want you need to get the Story NPC’s and perhaps the functionaries to have some lead in to the main plot so work out how they can get your players into your game through interaction.

Be flexible too.  If the players focus more on the bartender then you may have to do some on the fly bumping up the food chain so he becomes a story NPC.  Or drag some material out so when the PC’s are talking to the bartender have him mention Star and tell them how he gets her out back and shows her “what a man really is”.  If the players are heroes they will teach him how wrong he really is and possibly garner a bit of trust from Star or if they are murder hobos they may turn a blind eye and see what Ken is all about and take a bribe or two.  Heck, maybe the cyborg in the room is a friend of Star and he is about to teach the bartender a lesson.  There are so many ways that this scene could play out.

The key is here make the NPC’s have their own life and their own worries that the players can feed off.  If the players are investigating something already then the NPC’s are likely to know something that will help with that BUT they have their own stuff going on too so the players may take a secondary role to their concerns.  They are not just there to say “Bring me the star of Eiderth and I will tell you everything about the Mystical Gate of Avernath”.  They should be much more realistic than that.

In Conclusion

A lot of this is my rambling about how I handle (or should) my NPC’s.  Even professional module based NPC’s should be fleshed out so that they become more than just a short description.  The writer of the module does not know my players like I do and hence I need to spend a bit of time working with what they wrote to come up with an NPC that will fit with my players in the role the module needs.  it is not just the NPC’s that you want the players to deal with all the time either.  Well thought out and fleshed out NPC’s make for great villains.  Murder hobo games rarely use recurring villains but if you can flesh some out so they work in that way all the better!

Remember too that it is not just the way you design the NPC that matters too.  If you set your players up with the expectation that they only progress by kicking down the door, killing the monster and grabbing the loot then that is exactly what they will do.  When you spend the time building up the misunderstood ogre that has information on the way forward and they kick down the door, kill the ogre and look for loot then it is you that the fault lies with, not the players.

This problem can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be.  Talk to your players if you have a kick down the door game and see if they would like more interaction with NPC’s.  They might not and may be happy with the way you are doing it now, and if so ignore everything and keep doing it.  But if they say they would be interested in that then spend the time and have a discussion with your players about what they want and what you want and meet somehwere at a compromise.  At least if you have had the discussion then everyone should be on the same page.  Until next time, keep rolling 🙂

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