Players Create the Best NPC’s

I have never enjoyed building NPC’s. It’s mostly a stat block thing I suppose, my inherent laziness clashes with the “need” to detail out every element of people we feel will be important to the player characters.

Art from D&D's 'Fallcrest'

Players can be turned off by an NPC for any reason…

As DM’s we know that our best prepared plans for an adventure can very easily be avoided or missed entirely by the PC’s, but the same really holds true for NPC’s as well. You could stat up an NPC with all the details in the world, both combat related and not, and the PC’s could simply distrust them based on the WAY you (he/she) approached them, effectively closing this NPC out of any meaningful future interactions. Simplicity has not only been best rewarded at the table, but my laziness certainly appreciates the approach as well.

Players Creating a Villain

Last night during the second session of my 5th Edition campaign, the players (level 1) were standing in a very small town late at night. They were the only ones on the street, other than the owner of a general store who stood in the door of his shop and asked them, “If you are heading out, do you need a lantern?”.

They had spoke with him briefly earlier that day, but did not ask his name so I gave none. He was just a guy behind the counter… but here on this night, upon asking if they needed a light, the Sorcerer (Wild Magic) said, “No thanks, we have THIS!” and used a Cantrip to summon Dancing Lights. Now, mechanically, I don’t think I could ask him to roll on his Wild Magic table but I did anyway. He loved the idea since it was his first real use of magic (in the campaign)…

…and he rolled a 1!

The table erupted, we could not believe it! He would be rolling on the Wild Magic table and who knew what was going to happen then! He rolled a result that found them suddenly pulled into the Astral Plane for a brief moment, and this (I decided) included the store owner!

They took in the sights of silvery clouds rolling past, and dark shapes in the distance, their faces and featured smeared as I described it, tracing behind them. They were pretty scared until they just as suddenly found themselves standing back on the street again.

I described the shop owner falling to the ground and scrambling backwards into his shop, slamming the door. This knocked over his lantern hanging above the door (one he had just offered them moments before), triggering a fire on the street. The players quickly put it out and left (only looking in his window briefly to check on him and knocking on the door to no answer).

…But he has a name now …and the experience has driven him a little mad. I’m thinking he will chase them down later babbling about the experience and questioning them about it. Based on how they proceed with him, he may just become a problem for them… perhaps a very big problem.

The Beggar Worth More Than Any Treasure (Latching On)

While running a 4th Edition campaign long ago, I wanted to impress upon the players the dire straights a particular town was in. Poverty was a very serious problem so I made a note that when they arrived they would find themselves surrounded by beggars, but that one would stand out by offering to help carry their belongings and show them to a nice Inn.

His desperation and “I’ll do anything” attitude struck a cord with the players so they took him up on his offer. When they arrived at the Inn (after a walk that found them getting to know him a little) they offered him more money to seek out the whereabouts of a public figure so they could meet him.

This person, who had no name and came about from a note that said something like “beggar willing to help carry things and do whatever” ended up getting a name (as soon as they asked) and became a major NPC through the rest of the campaign – a very trusted ally was born from their projection of who he was.

The Bad Sheriff (Pushing Away)

If the Beggar demonstrated a case where players latched on to an NPC, the Sheriff of High Pass is an example of one being pushed away. I had a Sheriff who simply was written up as “Sheriff Birk – Good guy, wants to do right, just needs help“. He had no support, in other words, no other officers that could be counted on.

As the players investigated a cabin, he approached them asking if he could help them, but very soon after meeting him it was clear they felt he was useless at the least, or intentionally working against them at worst… and so, I changed up my thoughts about him, and that became the reality. He was (now) indeed trying to not be that helpful, and was indeed looking out for himself more than wanting to help anyone and of course this meant I needed to explore “why” that would be, which implied much more depth (and malice) to his character.

The Sheriff would now be playing a more prominent role than my initial one sentence about him implied, and a very different role at that. They have not seen the last of him.

Present a Big Cast, Let Players Bring Up the Best

With a sheet of names by my side, I am as prepared to build NPC’s as I feel I need to be for the most part. As players explore the world, meeting people and asking for names, I hand them out and respond as them accordingly.

The players will project different things onto these NPC’s. If you would like to have an NPC that the players can go to and trust, manufacturing that can be very hard (“No seriously, you can trust this guy!”)… but if you let them interact with people, they will tell YOU who is to be trusted.

Anyway, I thought I would just share this idea with those interested. This is not a new idea of course, it’s just one that has worked very very well for me.

Thanks for stopping in!

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Oh, and don’t worry – my players do not read this site, or my Twitter, though you can catch me on Twitter @theweem!