This entry is part 4 in the series GM Toolbox
GM Toolbox

What tools go into your GM toolbox?

Written by Michael Beck, with contributions and editing by Da’Vane.

GM’s Toolbox, looks at tools, tips, and techniques you can use to improve your games. Toolbox offers you a skeleton for running a campaign, rather than fleshed out tips. This series is presented in a discussion style, and we ask you to contribute with comments about your own tools, tips, and techniques at the end of this post.

Preparation tools are maybe the most important tools at the GM’s disposal. In this category, we have the tools you can use to prepare your game sessions.

In part I, we covered campaign and adventure planning, which helps you define the stories you tell during the game.

In part II, we covered encounter planning – what you need to prepare for actual play.

Going one step deeper, we land at single encounters. The tools here should provide you with the details you need for playing out a certain scene or an encounter. In this part, we will explore preparing and running NPCs in your games, to make your games feel more alive and realistic.

Preparing Important NPCs

You may want to flesh out an important NPC as much as a PC, or maybe even more. I say ‘even more’ because it is a common practice out there that players flesh their characters out as they see fit over time.

However, as GM, you are often not in that comfortable position. Sometimes the adventure needs a fleshed out NPC right from the start. On the other side, if life is giving you hard constraints on your prep time, you may not be able to spend as much for NPC creation as you would a PC.

This is a crucial point of the tool you use to prepare NPCs: it should give you an NPC as detailed as you need him or her in a reasonable time. This tool can give you information about:

  • Name of the NPC
  • History of the NPC
  • Mental and physical characteristics of the NPC
  • Goals, fears, friends and foes of the NPC
  • Stats of the NPC
  • Resources of the NPC

Michael: I’m kind of lazy about preparing NPCs. I think that’s one of my biggest weaknesses as GM. Nevertheless, I have some tools that I probably do not use to full scale.

In my D&D campaign, for extremely important NPCs I go through the whole character creation. A good computer program may help here for character creation, but I haven’t found one yet.

Other important NPCs I create by using the tables in the Dungeon Master Guide and alter them as I see fit.

In my Cthulhu campaign, there is a notebook-format GMing aid full of NPCs the characters can meet on their journey. I like to use that, because there are naturally interesting characters in there.

In the Savage World campaign, I draw advantage from the light rule system. Creating NPC here is naturally quick, so I have more time for background and characteristics.

Da’ Vane: When creating NPCs, I try to focus solely on what I need and what the PCs will experience, and make good use of character stereotypes to present iconic types of characters. This leaves me plenty of time for other duties as a GM, and it is often a moment or two to repurpose any character for use somewhere else in the game, just by changing a few aspects.

The players don’t really need to know that their local tavern owner and their local priest are essentially the same character, with a slight personality change, a different hairstyle, and a few different class levels.

Plus, if the players catch on to this, and decide to come up with some theories, then it’s more potential for plot hooks – are they siblings, are they the same person, are they clones taking over the town?

Johnn: Determine interaction type to inform how much to develop for each NPC, and when. Combat NPCs require game stats, roleplaying and service NPCs need backgrounds, personalities, and resources.

Further, NPCs who are only known by name and reputation need background, resource, and tactical development. They do not need game stats, as the PCs will not encounter them soon. Villains, for example, do not need game stats at first, they just need a plan.

I have also learned games are better when you reduce the number of important NPCs and increase their relationships and interactions with each other and the PCs. This approach saves you time, helps you develop deeper NPCs character-style as the campaign progresses, and really gets the party involved.

Further, when introducing new NPCs, regardless of importance, try to relate them to your existing cast of NPCs. Developing ties and relationships embeds these new characters in your games, makes NPC faster because you can share backgrounds and plots, and gets PCs hookedm uch faster.

For tools, I’d like to toot my own horn and link to the book I wrote on the topic: GM Mastery: NPC Essentials. Everything you want to know about building NPCs, be they villains, lords, or rat catchers.

Improvising NPCs

What’s the name of the shop-owner? What does the soldier look like? If the PCs stalk the secretary until she reaches her home, what happens there?

Sometimes, your players confront you with a sudden interest in an NPC you never planned to be important. Sometimes, you just need an NPC fast. I think this is a situation every GM out there has been in at some time.

A quick NPC generator doesn’t have to provide you fully-fleshed out NPC. This tool should give you quick description, some keywords about behaviour, and maybe some further information. It is used to make NPCs different and recognizable.

Michael: For creating NPC in a quick way I rely strongly on quick thinking. I like to think in stereotypes and add or alter something non-stereotypical.

For example, in my Cthulhu campaign, when I describe a barkeeper, I give the description of a typical barkeeper as we imagine in the 1920. Short, good haircut, uniform/suite, standing behind the bar shaking a cocktail with a nice smile on his face, occasionally talking and listening to drunk man.

If the characters start giving him more interest, I add detail. Maybe he is having a strong accent or is having a scar in his face. But, by giving a rough stereotype description, my players and I share the same picture about this person. This is totally okay for an NPC likely never to be seen again.

Da’ Vane: Having quick lists of details helps when you are drawing a blank about NPCs and need something on the spot. This is particularly useful when the PCs enter any environment where they might encounter random people and can stop to talk to one at any moment.

Being able to have a list of male and female names for a region to draw from randomly is useful. Also, be sure to take cues from your players to aid quick thinking – if you can get them to highlight what they are looking for from an encounter with an NPC, then it’s less detail you need to make up, because you can simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Normally, the easiest route for improvisation is to say ‘yes’, but don’t be afraid to throw in a twist or two if it will improve the scene. Using your players’ direction this way makes them feel more involved, gives you direction about what they want, and means you do less work overall.

If you can, for everything the players add to the scene in this manner, add something of your own. For example, if the players ask if the gypsy woman they’ve just seen is wearing a ring, it’s easy to say yes and provide a detail about the ring or another piece of jewellery she might be wearing.

Johnn: I also keep tables of data for on-the-fly help. I create names lists for each campaign, along with a traits list.

Getting to know your world’s cultures gives you an instant base to work with, as well. Just apply a culture onto each new NPC based on their race or upbringing, and then let gameplay inspire what makes the NPC unique.

Keeping Track of NPC Relations

Keeping track of the relations between NPCs and PCs can be a tough organizational problem, especially if you are playing long campaigns with a lot of factions.

There may be different reasons for changes in the relations between NPCs. This could be due to the PC acting in some way, NPCs acting against each other without the PC influence, or just the result of time passing by and NPCs forgiving or forgetting about recent events by others.

Michael: For keeping track of NPC relations I use diagrams with nodes representing NPCs, and arrows representing their relations. Other possible ways could be index cards (for each NPC) or tables.

Da’ Vane: A few systems actually use game play mechanics to deal with tracking NPC relations, with PCs making checks to try and influence other characters to perform actions on their behalf. These systems normally provide a good base for any system to keep track of NPC relations, since you can not only record which characters know who, but also keep track of any bonuses and penalties to such checks directly.

For the most part, events and actions will influence the checks, so a record of previous interactions and other concerns can be kept with the NPC relations – providing a mini-history of their dealings with others.

This is a particularly powerful tool for more intrigue or political games, where discovering and manipulating such relations is often important, and the biggest changes often become the subject of gossip and rumour within the courts and halls of power alike.

Johnn: Here too I go with default based on race, culture, class, or any other leading influence in the NPC’s makeup. Then I let the PCs effect change. For example, let’s say all wizards have no respect for warriors, all warriors mistrust wizards, and dwarven warriors attack eleven wizards on sight because an ancient grudge. That lets me know how several things about relations between NPC and PC warriors, wizards, dwarves, and elves.

However, as a campaign progresses, or in a campaign where things are not so cut and dry, a relationship diagram is my vote for best tracking method. A simple mindmap, or mindmap software, should work.

The king of all relationship software for RPG, however, is The Brain. I’ve used it and love it. You can download a free fully functional version through this link. (Disclaimer, if you opt to buy the Pro version, which I use, then Campaign Mastery gets a small commission, but you can use the free version forever, and it has what you need for building relationship maps.)

Playing NPCs

You want your players to be able to distinguish between the different NPCs. Playing out NPCs distinctly adds a lot of flavour to your game.

Furthermore, playing NPCs is important for the premise “Show, don’t tell.” By good role-playing, you can provide information about the NPC without explicitly saying this information out loud.

For example:

  • Educational background
  • Self-confidence
  • Origin
  • Age

Michael: Here could be any tool listed that actors use. I recently read a book about body language and nonverbal communication (Joe Navarro). I think this can be used to a great extent for GMing different levels of self-confidence.

Also speaking in different accents can be entertaining. Making yourself small or big can help a lot.

Another great tool for getting into the role of a NPC is to imagine the NPC as a strong personality you are familiar with. When you play the mother of three children and think about Arnold Schwarzenegger you will certainly play her very differently than you would if you were thinking of Britney Spears.

Da’ Vane: When playing an NPC, think about why you are playing that NPC. This should guide you in the sort of information you should look to present to the players through roleplaying. A degree in socio-psychology has given me great insight into the construction of identities in many ways, and how they are expressed through words, deeds, and markers.

Sometimes we are aware that we are expressing aspects of these identities, and sometimes we are not. In some cases we spend a lot of time trying to hide some aspects of these identities or express false aspects for various reasons.

With this in mind, try to create and play your NPCs with a few key traits and aspects, and define whether the NPC is trying to hide or express that aspect of their identity, and why. This will lead you to some of the markers to pepper your roleplaying and present the NPC as a fully fleshed out character.

Always focus on what you can present to the players – a character that hates elves will do a lot of subtle negative things towards elves in their presence, generally to make elves feel uncomfortable and intimidate, rather than just shout out “I hate elves” all the time.

Likewise, a character who like elves would do the opposite, doing subtle things to make them feel more comfortable, rather than stating “I like elves” all the time.

A character that is secretly an elf might feel uncomfortable around another elf in case they are revealed, while someone who is pretending to be an elf might try to become over-familiar with another elf in an attempt to assert their own identity as an elf.

Johnn: I suck at accents, and after awhile a campaign full of single-trait NPCs gets silly. Further, I rarely flesh out personalities for NPCs ahead of time unless they are important characters. I prefer to let appearance and actions reveal an NPC’s personality.

A quick appearance description sets the scene in the players’ minds, like the standard place shot TV shows and movies use when returning from a commercial break or doing a scene change. The audience needs to know where they are to orient themselves for the upcoming scene. In this case, the players need cues and clues about who they are dealing with.

Actions create more gameplay. Make an NPC do something in their unique style (using Michael’s and Da ‘Vane’s excellent advice). This bails me out of accents, personalities, and the whole bucket of winging-it perspiration. “The bartend slits his eyes when you walk up, and he reaches for something under the bar with a shaky hand.” Boom – player’s turn, and the PCs have something interesting to react to. Game on.

Michael Beck considers himself a novice GM, but is encouraged in sharing his tips at www.spielleiten.wordpress.com (German language). Having played RPGs for roughly 10 years now, he accepts the challenge of living with his girl-friend, two cats, a non-finished PhD-thesis and two running roleplaying campaigns.

Da’ Vane, or Christina Freeman in the real world, is the owner of DVOID Systems, and the primary writer of their D-Jumpers series of products. With an academic background in science, especially socio-psychology, she is what many would regard as a “know-it-all.” However, the truth is that she doesn’t know everything about everything, but she knows a lot about a lot, especially about her passions which are games, stories, learning, and people. She is a consummate geek goddess, and yes, she is single if you feel like tracking her down and hitting on her some time….

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