Creating most NPCs is like boiling an egg. They should take three minutes or less and be ‘boiled’ at the game table, not in advance – though you may want garnishes at the ready. In fact, most should take no more than thirty or fourty seconds.
Doesn’t sound possible? This article will show you how, and along the way will reveal why. I’ll wrap it up with some examples and discussion of how and when to advance and evolve an NPC created using this process.
The core of the system of NPC generation that I’m going to offer for consideration today revolves around 16 decisions and parameters, organized into three groups: Generalities, Dominants, and Secondaries.
- Generalities are three framing decisions that guide the GM to the answers to the more specific questions to follow. They define the broad parameters of the NPC.
- Dominants are the eight most important elements of the NPC. Get these right and the NPC is virtually ready-to-run. Many of them can be decided in no more than a second or two, some may require more careful consideration.
- Secondaries are supplemental elements that may or may not be needed for every NPC, though it is recommended that at least one be included in every NPC.
- In addition, two Optional Extras may be required for some campaigns. If they are needed at all, they will be additional Dominants, so these will be discussed at that point.
With this structure, the factors that determine how long an NPC will take to generate is (a) how quickly the GM can think of his answers, and (b) how quickly he can write his answers down – legibly, because he might need to read it and ‘recapture’ the NPC some years down the track.
These three items are the most important questions to be asked during NPC creation because they frame and serve as foundation for all the subsequent decisions to be made during the generation process. They are:
- Plot Function
- Social Standing
- Table Mood
1. Plot Function
The plot function of the character is the purpose of the character. Why is he in the game at all? What do the PCs want or expect from him, and what does the GM want his presence to cause to happen?
As much as possible, the answer to this question should be a single word, and is often more useful as a quite abstract summation. Ignore the mechanics of literary plot as much as possible and frame the question in an emotional or functional context. “Confusion” is a perfectly valid answer, as is “Direction”. “Exposition” is a common answer, though “Explanation” is usually more appropriate. “Betrayal”, “Merchant”, “Authority”, “Lawman”, “Mouthpiece”, “Soldier”, “Danger”, “Enemy”, and “Ally” are all valid answers. In one word, try to encapsulate who the NPC is and why he is being encountered.
The more abstract the answer, the more layers of meaning exist within it to be explored. The more functional the answer, the more “cardboard cutout” the NPC will be unless steps are taken in later questions to give the character additional depth.
Note that it is important to distinguish between the function of the character in terms of his plot purpose and his occupation. A barman whose role is to sell the PCs a Macguffin or some key information would be a “merchant”, not a “barman” – the latter is his occupation, but not his primary function. This is especially important given that English is such a slippery language – consider the possible answer, “spy”. This might mean that his occupation is as a spy, or that he is present in the campaign to spy on the PCs, if this clarification did not explicitly show the second to be the intended meaning.
2. Social Standing
While this is just one answer, it usually consists of three separate components. What is the character’s occupation, how successful is he at that occupation, and why?
A merchant may be very successful because he’s a charmer, or because he has a monopoly on some important aspect of the occupation, or because he buys on the black market to enhance his profit levels, or because he is widely known and trusted, or because he’s very shrewd, or a good bargainer, or has some inside connection.
A merchant may be very unsuccessful because he’s shifty, or because he is a spendthrift, or makes disastrous investments, or has a greedy family, or is being blackmailed out of his profits (and then some), or because his sense of timing is appalling, or because of a more successful rival leeching all his business away, or is a soft touch, or because he’s too busy running a shadowy cult to properly take care of business, or because he’s obsessed with fishing.
A merchant may be un-noteworthy because he’s unexceptional, or because he’s never had the opportunity for a really big score, or because he’s located in a dingy backwater, or because his suppliers are cheating him blind, or because he’s got a big family or a large debt that he is paying off, or because he’s trying to be anonymous, or simply because he’s lazy. He might have all the prerequisites of success, but also have one or more negative factors to offset that potential.
No matter what the NPCs occupation is, he will have some level of achievement within it (high, moderate, or poor) and there will always be a reason for that level of achievement. Immediately, this combination gives the NPC color beyond a simple expression of in-game occupation.
The character’s plot function may influence the choices made here. If the character’s role is to spy on the party (and not to get caught spying on the party), he will have been chosen for the assignment for a reason; if the role is to explain something to the party, his social standing has to explain how the NPC knows that explanation in the first place, and so on. The social standing needs to be chosen to permit the NPC to fulfill his plot function.
3. Table Mood
The answers so far have been about the character’s capabilities, though there may have been some that touch on the character’s personality; but this answer is focused squarely on that personality and its high-order summation. But it takes its cues from a left-field direction:
What is the prevalent mood at the table, and will this character buy into it, direct it, or oppose it? What is the dominant personality trait required to achieve this?
If the players (not the characters) are glum and downcast, the NPCs personality can:
- deepen this mood by being gloomy in personality;
- direct it by attributing responsibility for the mood to some real or imagined cause (Anything from ‘the weather’s been bad’ to ‘the crown’s been sorely oppressive’ to ‘these taxes are a crushing burden’ to ‘I’m in mourning for my goldfish’; or,
- oppose it by being cheery, light, humorous, wisecracking, ebullient, angry – in fact, anything but solemn and downbeat.
Determining what effect you want the NPC to have on the players, and choosing a personality that will have that effect, not only uses unpredictable real-world circumstances as a “randomizing factor” in NPC construction, but gives the NPC added layers of sophistication; not only is the NPC interacting with the PCs, but also with their players, directly. The normal effect is that the players will engage with the NPC more fully, rather than holding him at arm’s length and filtering the interaction exclusively through the ‘window’ of the character sheet. If quizzed afterwards, the players will often comment that they don’t know why but the NPCs seemed more alive than usual – but it won’t be anything they can (usually) put their finger on, unless you’re silly enough to let them see the wires running to behind the curtain.
What’s more, by eschewing simple labels and employing more abstract and functional labels, the sophistication of the resulting NPCs is far greater than might be expected from the minimalist approach to the character generation. You get more ground covered per second of creative effort than if you focused on generating the NPC at a game-system level.
Once the three top-level questions are answered, the next step is to consider the eight dominant traits of the NPC, his circumstances, and his environment, each of which is captured by specific (if possibly abstract) answers to a specific question. These questions are:
What’s the NPC’s motive for fulfilling the plot function ascribed to him? How does his personality compliment, compound, enhance, or interfere with this function? How does his personality react to this motivation? Understanding the answers to this question not only tells you how the NPC will act and react, but in combination with the personality trait defined in response to the prevailing table mood, will tell you how he will interpret anything the PCs do or say.
What traits and abilities does the NPC need to possess in order to achieve the social standing given him? What else does he need to fulfill his plot function? What are the things that he absolutely has to have in order to be the person already described?
Given his occupation and social standing, what makes this character different from the run-of-the-mill example of a stock character of the defined type? Everyone should have some point of uniqueness or irregularity to them – real people do. This answer’s purpose is to individualize the character. A merchant with unusual strength, a lawman with a gift for languages, a fisherman with a knack for tying knots – give him something distinctive and unusual.
How should the traits already established be reflected in the character’s environment? Does he live in the centre of a whirlwind even when sitting still? Does it appear that he has a bet on which will fall apart first – his body or his environment? Does he have a hobby or interest that can manifest itself in something visible or tangible in his environment? A Fisherman might have a prominent Rod and Reel handy, have a fishing lure absent-mindedly caught on his sleeve, have a “gone fishing” sign that’s a little too close to the door to be needed only occasionally?
If you can use the character’s environment to communicate one or more of his traits, you don’t need to describe or bring out those traits while acting as the character. This not only cuts down on the flavor text required, it aids consistency of characterization by making the character appear to be part of the environment that he inhabits rather than being cut-and-pasted into the scenery, and means that there is less work to be done by the GM in those less-than-three-minutes. It also opens an avenue of communications between the NPC and PCs, it’s a conversation starter. That makes it easier for both sides to roleplay the encounter. Finally, by suggesting something of the NPC beyond the bare essentials, it makes the character seem more rounded and fully-formed.
We all present a face to the world that is slightly different from our true selves. We tidy up our rough edges, polish our manners on social occasions, avoid expressing opinions that we know will be unpopular, wear a personality cloak for effect. This question can cut in one of two ways: if the personality determined in earlier questions refers primarily to the NPCs true plot function, if the personality traits determined earlier are more about his motivations and true opinions, this question is about the character that he appears to be on the outside; if the earlier personality definitions are more related to social standing and other external attributes, this question will relate to his true persona. It is important to add the words “true” and “apparent” where appropriate after determining the answer to this question so that you can later identify what is the real character and what is the superficial seeming presented to the world.
More often than not, what has already been decided will relate to the character’s external persona and this question will relate to his true personality.
How is the character going to express his personality? Just as we all wear masks in public situations, we all make subtle slips that hint at what is underneath. If we don’t do this, the superficial mask appears wooden and stilted, and an obvious subterfuge. The trick, in real life, is to find a way to let the underlying persona shine through the mask without destroying the credibility of the mask.
Consider, for example, the job interview. This is a nightmare that most of us have experienced on multiple occasions. We always attempt to present a veneer of employability, of competence, of being exactly what is needed for whatever the job is; we rarely speak as freely or comfortably as we would in a social situation. The applicants who appear most natural, most competent, and therefore most employable, are those who seem the most natural and relaxed, whose masks are less obviously artificial – who (apparently) don’t have to pretend to be right for the job because they are right for the job. In reality, they may be presenting just as false a mask as everyone else interviewed; but because they are able to respond casually and comfortably, letting a little of their real personality show through the veneer, their superficial appearance is far more plausible and believable.
In a role-playing encounter, we are faced with a slightly different challenge, but one that bears marked similarities to the job interview scenario. The GM is trying to camouflage his true thoughts and feelings beneath a superficial veneer of the NPCs character, which is itself masked by the impression the character wishes to convey. Sure, the GM can simply roll dice and announce that the PCs find the NPC to be utterly believable, no matter how poor his acting skills – but isn’t it better to have the NPC seem wholly and utterly sincere just from what the GM says and how he says it?
So the general question is, how to convert the persona in a plausible fashion?
There’s been lots of advice in answer to that question over the years – accents, body language, props, artificial mannerisms – but we aren’t interested in a general answer. The specific question to be asked right now is how the GM is going to express this particular character’s personality when roleplaying the NPC?
In my previous Superhero campaign, there was a quintessentially British superhero NPC named Lionheart. Apparently aged in his early 20s, he was actually only a young teenager, about to turn 14. In order to make the character seem real, I had to let some thirteen-year-old traits shine through. My notes for the NPC were: “Hyper-enthusiastic, Gosh Wow tone, dripping !!.” At the same time, the character drew his powers from the public confidence in him, so he had to seem to take charge, give orders without hesitation, appear overconfident to the point of insanity (from the perspective of the PCs, who were feeling very un-confident). Because they saw the personality traits described previously ‘underneath’ what the character was saying and doing, he came across as being arrogant, forceful, dashing, stiff-upper-lip, and overconfident – so, when he dropped that mask (out of sight of the cameras), and his true (and typical) self-confidence issues came shining through, they suddenly saw that he was scared witless. The character had loads of depth and immediately became a player favorite – not least because as soon as the cameras turned back on, he didn’t let a trace of his sheer terror show through. He didn’t just talk a good game, he went in, boots and all, with sublime (superficial) confidence in the outcome. Who is more brave, the person who knows no fear, or the person who’s scared witless – but goes in anyway?
All this depth came from three lines of character summary – his apparent persona, his true persona, and the mode of expression used by me when playing the character. The whole is greater than the sum of those parts.
On another occasion, in the Pulp Game, I had to take on the role of Doctor Heinz Zarkovff, a mad scientist who combined Emmet Brown from Back To The Future and Dr Zarkov from the movie version of Flash Gordon (the one with the Queen soundtrack). Eccentric, Loopy, and Brilliant, he always talked to the smartest person in the room (himself) in a semi-deranged running monologue with slightly German, slightly Russian accent. He had the utmost respect for the PCs and their accomplishments, but at the same time he knew that they were not in his intellectual league – no matter how superior they might be in other areas. Everything they said to him was eventually worked into his monologue, as was every hole in the plans they put forward, and the answers and information they needed. Every question or statement made to him was restated as a rhetorical question to himself before being analyzed in every direction from Sunday and then answered. Even while my co-GM was actually running every other aspect of the encounter, describing the NPC, etc, I was quietly monologueing under my breath, my eyes darting wildly around the room. (There was also a little of the Russian cosmonaut from Armageddon mixed in there, with a bit of Zathras from Babylon 5 “No one listens to Zarkovff, never listen until it is too late, and then they come crawling and asking for the help, and this is the wrong tool…”). My expression notes: “Never-ending manic monologue, German/Russian accent, constantly speaks in third person to himself.”
Every NPC needs a hook, something to hang the rest of the character from. It might be something the character does, something he wears, something he says, or an object that he keeps in his possession, but it’s something symbolic of the entire character. If, for example, I refer to a character wearing a Deerstalker, 99.99% of the readers will immediately make the connection to Sherlock Holmes. Data, from Star Trek the Next Generation, is summed up (as early as the first episode!) as Pinocchio – an artificial being who yearns to be human.
Here are some unusual hooks to show you how broad the range of options really is:
- An especially bright, shiny, belt buckle – immediately identifies the character to the PCs even if he is in disguise, it is used as a recognition signal.
- A false scar on one lip – immediately reveals substitution by an impersonator if it is missing, it is used as a doppelganger check.
- Two-face – toys with a double-headed coin when under stress
- The Joker – the maniacal grin says it all
- Clark Kent – the eyeglasses
- Batman – his shadow always has a batwing effect (and usually bat-ears), no matter what disguise he is wearing.
A hat, a cloak, a shoe, painted fingernails, a monocle, a moustache, a green-colored glint in someone’s eye, a gray cloud, the rumble of distant thunder, freckles, a birthmark…
Try these: how long does it take you to figure out who they are from their hook or tagline?
- A white racing helmet that he never opens.
- “No Boom today. Boom Tomorrow. There’s always a boom tomorrow.”
- “Logic dictates…”
- “…with the [a] and the [b] and the [c] overnheigen”
- Ruby Slippers
- “It’s Clobberin’ Time!”
- “Resistance is Futile.”
- “Want a jelly baby?”
- A white rabbit with a gold fob watch.
- “I’ll be back.”
Each of these is an iconic hook that in some way sums up the character. While some people might not get them all, I’ll lay odds that everyone will get all but one or two, three at the outside. That one point of distinctiveness acts as a central focus, a hook to hang all the characterization from.
Last but not least in this category is the name. The more meaning you can build into the name by style and tone, the better. Introducing the characters to ‘Count Edwin Leopold Vatherwell D’etien Moncleef’ gives an entirely different impression of the character, even without a description, than that conveyed by “Bawon Weopold The Twelf”. There’s a reason why I’ve spent so much effort on a series of articles on character names!
Some campaign genres demand something a little extra. Superhero, Pulp, some Fantasy… this is where those extras go. There are two types of extras: Theme and Gimmick.
The character’s Theme denotes the nature of their extra abilities. If they don’t have any, it might also be used to denote the nature of their gadgets. A character with cold-based abilities would have the theme “Cold”. Use as few words as possible to sum up the concept that unites the character’s special abilities, and give an indication of their overall power on a 1-to-ten scale, where 1 is apprentice and 10 is cosmic power – Galactus, or something on that level. Zues, Odin, and the like, would be level 9, other deities level 8 (probably Superman as well), demigods level 7 (probably appropriate for Dr Strange), the upper scale for mortal superheroes would be rank 6 (The Hulk might qualify here), and so on down the scale.
This is actually a fairly practical measure, in a lot of ways. Think of it as the chance in ten that the character has of being able to do something if it can be done at all using the character’s theme, though there is a little necessary flexibility here. No junior apprentice, no matter how talented, could dump 10 feet of snow over the entire globe – but a level 8 or 9 Ice Deity? No problem. The apprentice might be able to dump a foot of snow on a small field or a football stadium. At Rank 6 you might be able to do a small country, or perhaps only a city; certainly rank 7s could handle a small country and possible the entire planet, with a little support and assistance.
You don’t have to translate these abilities into game mechanics; you can use them as a direct index of what the end result of those game mechanics will be and create the actual abilities within the theme after the fact, or as you need them.
If you’ve got a theme, then you’ve got at least one gimmick to show off with within that theme. Sounds fairly obvious, doesn’t it? Thor has his hammer, Iron man his repulsor rays, Harry Potter his wand and broomstick, Dr Who has his Sonic Screwdriver and Luke his lightsabre. This is the place for a signature move or piece of kit, and every character who has a theme should have one that is unique to them.
Secondaries are more mundane and widespread optional extras. Not all characters will need all Secondaries, but it will be rare for a character to have none of them. The first question here is not “What is the character’s (x)” but “Does the character have an (x) at all?”
There are five secondaries to consider. They are:
- Connections, and
Most MPCs should have a secret of some sort, whether it’s a guilty little pleasure, a past indiscretion, or something more significant. The reason is that it provides an area or topic of conversation about which the character will react unusually strongly or in some unusual manner – even if that reaction is a bluff suggesting that they know nothing of it. The secret can be a plot hook to involve the NPC in a future adventure or it can be a justification for getting the NPC out of contact with the PCs if he is too useful to them, too much of a duex ex machina.
Sometimes, the nature of the secret will be mandated by decisions already made, such as an NPC whose job is to spy on the PCs and report back to someone else, or the bartender who is secretly the Grand Master of the Thieves’ Guild, or an informant working for the City Watch.
If the NPC is likely to engage in combat, you need to assign him an attack. The specifics depend on the particular game system in use, but the process of assigning an attack is standardized, and consists of a series of quick, simple, questions:
- What attack would a typical member of the character’s profession have, given his social standing?
- Is there any reason why the character should have a better attack? Adjust the first answer accordingly.
- Is there any reason why the character should have a worse attack? Adjust the first answer accordingly.
It’s really that simple. Assign a to-hit modifier and damage, or an OCV and at least one attack power (just number of dice and any effects that go with it), or whatever. For the standard Hero System, we use the multiples-of-five rule: 5 is poor, 10 is normal human, 15 is superior human, 20 is equal to several PCs and superior to just one, 25 is superior to a group of typical PCs, 30 is superheroic (and the absolute maximum for a pulp character). For d20 games such as D&D, I use multiples of 5 for fighter types (and subtract 5 from the result) and for non-fighter types I use multiples of 4, not 5, and subtract 8 from the result giving -4 is poor, +0 is normal human, +4 is superior human, +8 is equal to several PCs and superior to most single PCs, +12 is maximum for PCs, +16 is demigod status, and so on. Use the power scale from the character’s theme, if they have one.
If you need to know a character’s attack, you need to decide what the character’s defense is. Again, just pluck an appropriate value out of thin air and worry about justifying it later. As a general rule of thumb, for the Hero System we match DCV with OCV as a starting point and then vary it up ore down by as much as 10. For D&D and the like, I use multiples of 6 and add 4 for fighters, and multiples of 4 and add 6 for non-fighters, then tweak as necessary.
Everybody knows somebody, even if it’s a non-existent delusion entirely within their own head. But who will the NPC turn to for help (other than, perhaps, the PCs) if he gets in over his head? Who can he trust implicitly? Most NPCs will have at least one contact who will save their bacon, though perhaps at a price. Many have two or more – but it’s not necessary to list them all, just one or two who will be relevant should the plot function of the character be compromised.
I hate my NPCs to be static and unchanging, unless that is a deliberate choice on my part. For that reason, each time an NPC gets involved with the PCs, I make a note in this section of how his life is altered by the experience. If the answer is not at all, then I add some other change, whether it is minor or major. I want the NPC to be able to say, the next time the PCs speak with him, “Since the last time I saw you…”
I employ different standards based on the likely frequency of contact with the PCs. A recurring NPC who will be seen every week should not have a dramatic upheaval unless it is directly plot related or caused by the PCs in some fashion, whereas one who might not be seen for a year or two, game time, may well have undergone a significant change of some sort – even if it’s just hiring a new apprentice (fantasy) or buying a new car (modern) or something of that sort.
I know that if I don’t include some examples, there will be a demand for them, even though I think this generation process is sufficiently straightforward not to really need any. So here are a couple from different fantasy campaigns:
This is an actual example from game play this past weekend.
- Plot Function: Give Direction
- Social Standing: Sage, Great Reputation, Obsessive Investigator
- Table Mood: Frustrated, Steer with calm competence
- Why?: Inexhaustible Curiosity
- Necessities: Knowitall 15/-, Good researcher 17/-, Honorable, Professional
- Irregularity: Looks much weaker, older and frailer than he really is
- Environment: Musty, dark, organized
- Persona: Bookworm, XXXX a XXXXXXXX XXXXXXX for XXXXXXXXX with XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (redacted to keep secrets from my players)
- Expression: Fussy, precise, detail-obsessed
- Hook: An ever-present air of knowing more than he is telling
- Name: Dominic Monterraign
- Theme: Knowledge acquisition
- Gimmick: His books follow him when he moves, levitating in the air when opened
- Secrets: refer persona
- Attack: –
- Defense: –
- Connections: The Ambassador to the Endless Library
- Revisit: XXXXXXXXXXXXXX will have XXXXXX the XXXXXX (refer persona) in XXXXXX of the XXXXXXXXX XXXXX (redacted to keep secrets from my players)
It took a total of 35 seconds to create the NPC, largely because I already knew the answers to the questions that were to be put to him and where he would steer the PC with his answers. In short, he was a delivery mechanism for the knowledge that the subject of enquiry, a black sword whose wielder ‘must really hate Paladins’, had an Elven forged blade, a hilt of Dwarven manufacture, bindings of dragon creation using the actual flesh of the dragon, and a scabbard whose sole enchantment was to protect, maintain, and repair this particular sword, which dates back to the time of the original Drow Rebellion. Each of the named components has their own enchantment, and a low level of awareness (not to the point of sentience) but can only manifest this awareness when separated from the other components. Oh, and it’s a +3 Bastard Sword with 1 major and 2 minor abilities which resist Identification.
This is an example from last year or the year before, when this process was still in development. It took slightly longer, clocking in at about 45 seconds.
- Plot Function: Sell the PCs information (directing the PCs into a trap)
- Social Standing: Poor, due to partial ostracization from his native society
- Table Mood: Eager, aid overconfidence by downplaying difficulties
- Why?: Recognizes PCs as enemies of the state, desperation to regain former social standing
- Necessities: Negotiation, Sly, Observant, Bluff
- Irregularity: grossly overweight but very fleet-footed
- Environment: bric-a-brac piled on rubbish piled on flotsam and jetsam, equivalent of a $2 shop
- Persona: Appears a bumbling, lazy, fat, harmless merchant – used-car salesman
- Expression: Oh, woe is me, everyone takes advantage of poor helpless [name]
- Hook: “purveyor of junk and household necessities for the discerning buyer”
- Name: Abdagashi Himono
- Theme: –
- Gimmick: –
- Secrets: refer plot function
- Attack: –
- Defense: –
- Connections: Local Priest of Beneck Wu
- Revisit: Destitute wanderer, having been stripped of his business when the PCs escaped the trap he was instructed to lay for them. Bitter and angry, hates the world, possible convert to PC cause if they fast-talk him.
A tip on the side: If you need to stall for a couple of minutes, open a rulebook and pretend to read and take notes…
Using The NPC
Remember those three sub-questions from the section on Attack? Well, here they are again:
- What attack would a typical member of the character’s profession have, given his social standing?
- Is there any reason why the character should have a better attack? Adjust the first answer accordingly.
- Is there any reason why the character should have a worse attack? Adjust the first answer accordingly.
Exactly the same principle, the same three-step process, is used to determine any capability the NPC wants to exercise. A PC wants to sell him some knick-knack or doodad? Use the abstract parameters provided to determine whether or not the character is interested, how much over- or under- price he thinks it’s worth, and how good his bargaining skill is. The NPC attempts to shadow one of the PCs? Use the abstract parameters provided to estimate how good he is at stealthy movement and hiding in shadows. The character wants to shoot at a PC with a crossbow? Use the abstract parameters to determine his base attack ability, how likely he is to know how to use a crossbow, and so on.
For a paranormal character: The character wants to escape? Think of a means of doing so using his theme, and give him the appropriate power, at an appropriate strength, according to the abstract parameters of the character. Don’t worry about fine detail, just decide how many dice of effect he puts out and any direct modifiers to the ability’s effectiveness. GMs of superhero games have (effectively) an unlimited budget, so don’t worry about whether or not the books balance – give the character a reasonable ability, jot it down for reference next time, and let fly with it.
Refining The NPC
Take a moment to notice what we haven’t done. No stats, character classes, spell selection, hit point rolls, detailed equipment lists, detailed histories… we have created the bare minimum required for the NPC to function in-game as a personality or opponent.
Decide such minutia only when it becomes essential. And if your maths doesn’t quite add up – if you gave the NPC too good a skill check, or too low an AC, or dudded him out of a point of damage on each of his attacks – so what? Correct it, or choose to keep the incorrect score, and move on. The essential question is whether the character has served the plot function that was the only reason for its existence, or not? And if not, what can you learn from the reasons for the failure to make next time more likely to succeed?
When this is not enough
There will still be times when this is not going to be enough, though it makes a darned good starting point for full-scale character generation. In particular, important enemies and any NPCs who might become future PCs need to be detailed fully. But most of the time? A thumbnail personality that gets right to the heart of the character – why he’s there, what he can do, and what is his personality – is ample.
This approach seems tailor-made for two methods of function: first, a database or spreadsheet using something like Crystal Reports, or second, a set of index cards. In which case, keep an index keyed by NPC name, but keep the records themselves in order of the plot function and the profession. Why? Because sooner or later you will need another NPC to serve the same function, and you want to make sure that this one is different to the last one – and the easiest way to do that is to know what characters of that type you have done before.
Alternately, you may find that you have already created the perfect NPC for the desired plot function – you just need to explain what he’s doing in this part of the world. Try to avoid the concept of coincidence, it never rings true to the players – unless the purpose is to foster suspicion and paranoia, of course. Instead, employ some form of deliberate cause-and-effect. “A witch foretold that you would come this way”. “I liked the sound of this town so much when you told me your adventures that I had to move here.” “I’ve been searching for you for months!” “I paid a Wizard to teleport me to wherever you were going to be.” Save “What a coincidence! What good luck!!” for those occasions when you WANT the players to respond, “Coincidence? Luck? Yeah, right – and I’m a goldfish.”
Just a heads-up that this approach works especially well with the techniques described in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On The Fly and the sequel, By The Seat Of Your Pants: Six Foundations Of Adventure!