You can never have too many quick NPC generators. Choice means that you can pull out the weapon most suited to the needs of the moment, achieving better solutions in less time and with less wasted effort. This article describes one that I often use when I need the NPC to have one specific character trait for plot reasons.
The starting point is always the trait that you need the character to posses. This needs to be specified in a particular format in order to employ this technique: the trait must be phrased in terms of a personality attribute, and it needs to have a preceding adjective that is expressive – avoid general terms like “strongly” or “very”. You need to get a little poetic. You need to find a way of describing the trait in this fashion even if the actual trait is something other than personality-related.
This can be a little tricky the first few times that you do it; quite often the best way is to equate apples and oranges, i.e. select a personality trait to which the same descriptor that specifies the non-personality trait can be applied. For example, if you need a nimble-fingered character, the adjective to be applied is “nimble” but you need to apply it to something that can be demonstrated in role-play – “Nimble tongued” or “nimble tempered”, for example. The results can sometimes seem a little clumsy, but that’s okay – this descriptor is only for internal use.
Inversion 1: Adjective
And let’s put it to immediate use. What is the exact opposite of the adjective? Apply it to a different personality trait. You can get a little more creative here, and employ a little more creative license if you have to. If you were to start with “smooth”, for example, “rough” is the obvious inversion – but “prickly” or “sharp” or even “sticky” would be just as valid. The biggest trick here is to be really sure that you are describing a second and completely unrelated trait, and not something similar or related to the first – and that’s not all that big a hurdle, really. But it does specifically exclude the exact opposite trait, and that’s important to note.
Inversion 2: Trait
Next step, take the subject of the original trait – and it should now be completely obvious why it was specifically excluded in the previous step. Once you have that, add an adjective that is different from either of those used so far – even if it doesn’t make sense initially. Finally, work out an interpretation of that pairing that does make sense, by treating the new adjective-trait pairing as a metaphor or abstraction as necessary. “Sticky Anger”, for example, would clearly be a somewhat abstract description of someone who held a grudge and was slow to calm down, once riled.
The Combinations Matrix
It doesn’t take much effort to show that there are only six meaningful combinations of traits:
- Trait 1 alone;
- Trait 2 alone;
- Trait 3 alone;
- Trait 1 plus Trait 2
- Trait 1 plus Trait 3
- Trait 2 plus Trait 3
Deal with these, and we can forget the complications. So, what we need is a list of the specific combinations.
Four Key Incidents
Next, we need to determine how these character traits have influenced the character’s current situation by identifying four key incidents from his past:
First, an incident where two of the character’s traits worked in combination to achieve something that would not have happened without that combination. This could be getting the character into or out of trouble, or getting an opportunity. To describe the incident, there are five things that have to be noted: (1) how recently it occurred; (2) how it affected the character’s past circumstances; and (3) what are the long-term consequences? (Numbers four and five have to wait for a moment). These things should be noted in the appropriate empty space.
The more recently the event too place, the less emphasis there will be on the long-term consequences and the more impact there will be from the immediate consequences; the farther back into the past, the more the long-term consequences will have affected the character’s current circumstances and the more time the character will have had to recover from the initial impact; and, if somewhere in between, the immediate consequences will still be having an impact, but will be starting to fade in importance, and the character will be starting to plan his life around the longer-term consequences.
Having identified the way the trait combination has influenced the character, that should be synopsized as number four on the list; and number five details what the character is currently doing about the situation (if it was a problem) or what he plans to do, or is doing, to enjoy the situation or benefit from it (if it was not). In other words, what is he doing about the situation?
Because these are relatively simple questions in isolation, they are very quick to answer; but the value that they hold is greater than the sum of their parts. A surprising amount of depth can be revealed very quickly and with very little effort. And that’s a general principle that the rest of this system also exploits.
The second incident is a time when one of his traits got him into trouble, but a second trait (or even a separate application of the same trait) got him back out of it. In essence, the same five things need to be documented. These are more about the sort of mistakes that the character has made in the past, and how he has gotten out of them, the life-lessons that he has learned from his past, and how he will react to future or current problems.
Once again, we have a great deal of information about the character crystallized into a single snapshot.
Indecision & Hesitation
Next, we need an occasion in which one of his traits caused the character to be indecisive or to hesitate, and an opportunity lost as a result. This is not only a hint at what the character fears, but also where his self-confidence was weak in the past, and may be again. Unless he has taken measures to improve his capabilities in that area since, of course. Ultimately, this event is about the character’s faults and failings. Once again, many key aspects of the character are revealed by this single quick snapshot.
Victory or Success
Fourthly, and the final element of the character’s background that we are considering, we need an occasion when one of the character’s traits was directly responsible for a victory or success. This could be a very small achievement, or it could be something with significance beyond this one individual. If the previous section illuminated the character’s capacity for, and reactions to, mistakes, this sheds light on the character’s first inclinations and responses, his first resorts when trouble strikes.
Other Known Factors
There are six other things that I list when creating the NPC. These come in two lists of three.
Three Broad Appearance Elements
I start with the three most obvious things about the character’s appearance, including what he wears, and how he acts. These visual or behavioral attributes should be obvious from a reasonable distance – from across the room, for example. They should also be as reflective as possible of the things already described; you want them to convey as much of the message of personality as possible, both to avoid the need for narrative, and to reinforce and reflect what narrative is necessary. Ideally, you want to convey the entire personality (or, at least, the essential parts of it) in nothing more than description and dialogue. Don’t fret if not all of it can be so conveyed; so long as you are aware of it, it will leak through in many ways, and having more depth than meets the immediate eye is a great way of making characters seem real.
Three Detailed Appearance Elements
Next, you need three things that are not visible at that distance, but that are obvious at closer range – when you sit down across the table from the NPC, for example. One of these should reiterate the same inference as one of the appearance elements already listed; a second should reflect one of the attributes that were not immediately obvious at a distance; and the third should be completely unrelated to everything else, a red herring if you will – because that also hints at there being more to the character’s story, and hence adds to the character’s realism and depth.
For some characters, it may be necessary to then assign characteristic values. Use the information already decided as a guideline when this is necessary.
I have to say, though, that most GMs do this far more often than is necessary. I try never to assign a value to a stat until I actually need it; most NPCs in my campaigns never do. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?
Getting The Goods On Him
Finally, does the character have any possessions that you absolutely need to know about? What do those possessions look like?
Let us say that our plot requires the PCs to interact with a very formal individual – an upper class, old-money type. “Very Formal” doesn’t meet the requirements for our first trait, so we need to reinterpret it and encapsulate what we know into another form. (NB: I’m going to forgo explanations beyond this introduction until the end as this system so so easy I don’t think they are necessary).
Trait 1: “Perfect Manners”.
Trait 2: “Flawed Morality”.
Trait 3: “Slippery Connections”.
1 + 2: Perfect Manners & Flawed Morality
1 + 3: Perfect Manners & Slippery Connections
2 + 3: Flawed Morality & Slippery Connections
- Common Ground: Perfect Manners & Flawed Morality: A seducer of women using magnetism & politeness
- Trouble Ahead: Flawed Morality & Slippery Connections: Became entangled in a criminal enterprise, sold out the enterprise to protect himself
- Indecision / Hesitation: Flawed Morality: Missed a dream job because he was involved with the wife of the business owner
- Victory or Success: Perfect Manners: Charm and politeness have landed him a hosting job on morning TV
Three Broad Appearance Elements:
- Magnetic Eyes
- Immaculately Dressed
- Fit & Healthy
Three detail Appearance Elements:
- Wary of surroundings
- Delicate fingers
Commentary on the example
This example really illustrates the effectiveness of the approach. The character that has resulted is not particularly likable, but is charming and seductive. He started out being wholly unlikeable (from an outside/modern perspective), a privileged rich kid and womanizer, but subsequent events have showed a hint of morality (in the service of self-preservation), a sense that he has suffered failures and setbacks as a result of his flaws, and is heading for an even bigger fall in the future, which palliates our sense of justice being served and engages just a hint of sympathy. I get the sense that he is smart enough to want to ditch the “personal protection” as soon as he can find a reliable bodyguard. The character is complex enough to be interesting, yet simple enough to be easily played.
Just as usefully, we can tell where he is likely to be encountered, who he is likely to be with, what he is likely to be doing, and how he will react to being approached by a PC. And it was fast enough to be done on the fly on a scratch-pad while the GM is running the game, or to be generated in advance if you know you’re going to need him. While a throwaway character, he has enough depth that the GM could happily have him make repeat appearances. You want to see what happens to him next!
The Same Example
To further demonstrate the power of the technique, here’s the same example again, showing how different choices lead to a wholly different character:
Trait 1: “Polished Formality”.
Trait 2: “Rude Heritage”.
Trait 3: “Dangerous Content”.
1 + 2: Polished Formality & Rude Heritage
1 + 3: Polished Formality & Dangerous Content
2 + 3: Rude Heritage & Dangerous Content
- Common Ground: Polished Formality & Rude Heritage: Used his silver tongue to parley his birth disadvantages (Mixed parentage born out of wedlock in the Middle East) into a free education and resettlement in a Western Country
- Trouble Ahead: Rude Heritage & Dangerous Content: Targeted by domestic intelligence as a subversive & potential terrorist
- Indecision / Hesitation: Rude Heritage: Although resentful of his roots and the treatment they have caused him, he still struggles to throw off those fundamental lessons. The self-worth issues that resulted caused him to reject a girl that he felt very drawn to because of his unworthiness.
- Victory or Success: Successfully and very publicly challenged an attempt to deport a middle-eastern man on the grounds that his upbringing left him with diminished capacity to interact with a more modern society
- How Recent?: Eight months
- Short-term/Immediate: The legal success has bolstered his reputation and the clientèle of his small law firm. He has a number of personal liberty, public advocacy, and immigration cases on his books as a result.
- Long-Term: His public profile and success will attract people seeking to use his services and ideals for their own ends, which may be opposed to his personal interests, bringing about a personal crisis.
- Current Position/Situation: Overconfident, morally superior, even smug about his success. He can’t see the train-wreck coming.
- Response/Reaction: The character’s future teeters on a knife-edge. He could become a great reformer, a worthy politician, or the leader/spokesman of a terrorist cell. He could become a lawyer and mouthpiece for Wikileaks, or he could join one of the mainstream political parties, or even start one of his own. He has not yet thrown off the resentments and shackles of his upbringing and these can be manipulated against him. The exact circumstances under which the long-term effects described manifest, coupled with the atmosphere created by government policies and actions in the meanwhile, will frame his state of mind when the crisis comes, and hence the eventual outcome.
Three Broad Appearance Elements:
- Slightly swarthy
- Immaculately Dressed
Three detail Appearance Elements:
- Heavy eyebrows
- Passionate eyes
- An air of being dangerous to cross
Commentary on the example
(Okay, I got a little carried away on this one). A completely different character from the same starting point (Very formal, upper-class, old money), this gentleman is the type whose very politeness is a weapon, and one that he employs very effectively to intimidate and dominate. Emerging from a challenged early life, he has smooth-talked his way into a very dangerous and precarious position. Will he rise above the trappings of his background, or will he become its ultimate victim? Like the first example, this is a character heading for a personal and professional train-wreck. Despite being an older man than the first example, in many ways, he is less grown-up. He has the potential to be any of several great men, or to become an even greater evil than those he opposes. Or will he fall, and then rise up to redeem himself?
Once again, this is a character with depth, and with a compelling story which is only in its early stages, great for either a one-off or recurring role within a plotline. We can tell where he is likely to be, who he is likely to be with, what he is likely to be doing, and how he will react to an approach by a PC.
And that’s really all there is to it. Like By the seat of your pants: the 3 minute (or less) NPC and the system I described last week (Ten Million Stories: Breathing life into an urban population), it’s quick and effective, especially when you need a character to serve a specific function within the plot. It’s great power is that it constructs a story around the NPC into which the PCs will insert themselves. The NPC is not a static individual, his current identity is just a snapshot in the middle of a personal narrative. Give this method a try the next time you need a character to fill a specific pair of shoes in your game!