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Making Interesting NPCs

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What makes an NPC great?

It’s easy to make an NPC that your players like. John Smith the paladin shows up and throws himself in front of a bullet meant for the player, that player is going to be John Smith’s biggest fan. However, if John Smith is only remembered as “that guy who took a bullet” then it would be hard to call him a successful character. From that thought experiment, we get our first and biggest point.

A good NPC is memorable

This is by far the most important thing to making an NPC stand out as amazing; making them stand out at all. John Smith the human paladin is basically the same as Richard Brown the human cleric, so you can’t expect your players to remember which is which or why they should care. Make your stand-out NPCs unique in some way, with an unusual appearance or an odd mannerism. Give them a name that suits or contrasts their being. Think about how they fit into their environment, and how they don’t. Think about how they may treat the PCs (and maybe introduce some PC-NPC-PC triangles while you’re at it).

With credit to Matthew Mercer: Pumat Sol is a Furbolg enchanter, a race usually more at home surrounded by nature rather than in the capital city running a shop. He has a distinctive voice (hard for most GMs) and speaks in a distinctive way (easy if you try); slower than normal speaking pace and perpetually amused and intrigued by the world. He has three magical clones of himself that run his shop, and is so comfortable in those surroundings that he subconsciously keeps his horns out of the way of the hanging lanterns while walking backwards. Nothing boring or mundane here, a thoroughly intriguing and incredibly memorable NPC.

Of course, don’t go overboard with this. Your players will definitely notice if every town guard they meet has snow white hair with a streak of black, or is the last member of a dying race, or anything else similarly strange (this doesn’t mean don’t be inclusive, definitely scatter in characters of varying race, gender, sexuality and ability; it helps your world feel less flat). If you overuse this tool, your players will get overwhelmed and be unable to focus on the characters you wanted to bring to the fore.

A good NPC can do something the party can’t

This is closely related to the above point. An unusual or uncommon ability can make the NPC stand out, and it can also make them useful. A useful NPC is one that the party will go back to repeatedly, to make use of that ability.

Grandma III is a Wolf of the Maelstrom and a 14 year old girl. She runs one of the only military compounds to survive the apocalypse, perched on a mountain, as did her mother and her mother’s mother before her (see me making her memorable as well). As a Wolf of Control, her very presence is inimical to the Wolves of Chaos that are hunting the players, so they come to her for shelter. Walking around the complex with Grandma they find themselves losing track of what doorways connect to which rooms, as they cross to the opposite side of the mountain peak by climbing downstairs to the top floor.

It’s usually best to make the ability something different from the players’ specialisations rather than just something more powerful than what they can currently do. This leads to my final point.

A good NPC shouldn’t overshadow the PCs (for long)

If your party’s NPC allies are more powerful than them for a long stretch of the campaign, then they’re liable to feel like they’re playing second-fiddle rather than being the protagonists. This comes up a lot when the GM wants to tell a story rather than helping the players to with their stories, and they fill their world with awesome, cool and badass characters to show off. I’ve been guilty of that myself, but it can really suck as a player because you feel like you don’t matter. The best use of powerful NPCs (other than as villains) is as side-characters for the party to outgrow, so they have a yardstick against which to measure their success.

Pale Rider is a Class 7 Blaster parahuman. She’s spent years working as a superpowered mercenary, getting a reputation as a cape-killer by putting her phasing bullets to optimal use by bypassing armor and defensive superpowers with ease. When the party first met Pale Rider as their supervisor she could have killed all four of them before the first one hit the floor. Now however, the party has gotten some experience of their own. They’ve solidified their tactics and gained some valuable combat sense. In a straight up fight now I wouldn’t bet on either side, but Pale Rider has reached her peak while the party are just starting the climb.

For some NPCs, it makes sense that they’d learn and grow at a similar rate to the party. You should keep the majority static though for the same reason that a door doesn’t get harder to break down as you level up. The party needs something to compare themselves to so they can really feel the progress they’re making, and what better to use than the cast of memorable and helpful NPCs you’ve made for them.

Additional Comments

This article mostly covers NPC allies, but there's no reason the same points can't apply to enemies, especially recurring ones. A villain with some unique features is going to be one the party can easily hold a grudge against, unusual abilities make for interesting conflicts and combats, and a high-level party having a second attempt at the boss that wiped the floor with them early in the campaign can really make them feel how much they've grown. Try some things, experiment, and don't be afraid to rethink the roles your NPCs play in the story to highlight the ones that your players love.

Attributions

GM Tech is a series of articles written by Open Legend developer and community moderator Sam Wilby. He can be reached for questions and suggestions through the Open Legend Discord or Forums

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