Non-player characters (NPCs) play a large role when I run games. Sprawling locations, engaging plots, and player characters’ (PCs) drives or flaws are all centred around these NPCs. They provide a means for my voice as a game master which allows me to deliver hooks or information about the world, and contrast for the PCs which allows the players to feel distinct and be challenged by the views of others. Despite the hefty role NPCs play in my games, I do not use lots of different voices, speech patterns, or even limited vocabulary to reflect the character. Instead, I focus on what makes that character a person and how they relate to the PCs (Ten Tips for NPC Creation, Campaign Mastery) which I believe makes the character more memorable. This post is an effort to codify the process I go through with tracking the relationships between PCs and NPCs to support myself improvising during play or planning future goals or actions for my NPCs.
How do you prepare an NPC?
Preparing NPCs for your game is largely going to depend on what kind of game you are running. Additionally, the level of depth you prepare an NPC will vary depending on how much you expect the PCs to interact with them. The more a PC interacts with an NPC, the more depth that NPC will likely have (Practical Methods for Making NPCs Come Alive, Roleplaying Tips).
In a dungeon crawl adventure, you may have several NPCs such as one for a hook, some monsters to fight, and some to represent the factions of a dungeon. The hook NPC may not have much detail as the only job would be to provide some information to bring the PCs to the site of the adventure, likewise the monsters for fighting may only have a stat block to help you run them during combat. However, the NPCs representing the factions will likely have details like goals and needs to help you run them as a more social encounter in which the PCs can befriend them or use the NPC’s goals or needs to their advantage.
Another example could be a murder mystery set in the rich and isolated estate of the murdered in which each suspect is a dinner guest. In this case, each guest will likely have the same amount of detail which includes whether or not they are the murderer and what kind of clues or information they can provide the PCs.
In any case, these NPCs are tied to a single adventure but what happens if you run a game set around a hub that the PCs return to, or you string together many adventures with NPCs that carry over? You could probably just remember how the NPCs will react to the PCs or you could write down some notes for each NPC in the vague ‘notes’ section of whatever template you might be using, or you could try using my tags and scales system.
How do you use tags and scales to track relationships?
The use of tags is something that seems to be popular with more narrative driven TRPGs such as Apocalypse World and are often more integrated into the mechanics of play. Here, the tags work much the same but are less codified and more akin to short GM notes that can be used mechanically. Scales are a way to provide a little more control over the types of relationships and the way an NPCs is likely to react over a series of social encounters, however this can also be largely ignored if that level of depth is not desired.
Tags are short descriptions that are tied to an NPC. These can be either positive or negative descriptions regarding a PC or multiple PCs and likely the entire party of PCs (it’s easier this way). As PCs interact with this NPC various tags will be accrued which ultimately shape the relationship this NPC has with the PCs. To gain a tag, a scale must be filled.
Each NPC has two scales: a positive and a negative. By default, these scales are set to three. Each time the PCs interact with this NPC or maybe even at the end of the session if not a lot of time has passed in-game, a point on one of the scales is checked off depending on how well the interaction went. If the PCs upset, frustrated, or made the NPC feel any kind of negative emotion then the negative scale has a point checked off, likewise if the PCs encourage some kind of positive emotion, then the positive scale has a point checked off. Once one of the scales is fully checked off then that NPC gains a tag representative of the checked off scale which reflects the most recent interaction between them and the PCs. All checks are then removed.
Something that emerges from this is the range of the scales. The two scales possessed by an NPC do not have to be equal and NPCs can have different scale magnitudes from each other. An NPC with a short temper may have a negative scale of one instead of three as opposed to a patient NPC having a negative scale of five. Maybe the magnitude of the scales changes each time one is completed. Whatever you do, you now have a growing list of short descriptions that will help you improvise roleplaying this NPC when the PCs choose to interact with them. Can we integrate these tags with our dice rolling? Probably.
How do you integrate dice?
There are many different systems out there, so I am going to keep this high-level and short. To add mechanical weight to these tags when PCs interact with the NPC you could be very particular and provide a +1 bonus or extra die for each positive tag (and taking 1 away for each negative die) or you could simply use some kind of advantage/disadvantage system depending on whether or not there are more positive or negative tags.
As an example, let us say we are running an adventure that is a dungeon crawl and one of the NPCs is some mole that has a vested interest in the surrounding earth to the dungeon walls. This mole is upset with people that keep trying to clear debris with explosives or using large amounts of magic as it destabilises the many, many tunnels the mole has dug around this area. For this reason, though it may loathe newcomers, it may provide helpful information to the newcomers if they look like they will remove the resident miners.
Given the context I may say the mole has a negative scale of two and a positive scale of one. It is easy to please, likely because everyone else is just a pain but it also has a fairly short temper.
Here is a brief transcript of how this might play out:
The adventurers arrive at the dungeon. They are just looking for a place to rest for the night.
The mole: You all look very strong. Say, some miners deep in the mines are using explosives to unearth treasure and it is damaging my home. Could you remove them without damaging this place any further?
The adventurers: Is that mole talking? Ah whatever, sure buddy but what is in it for us?
The mole: I.. I have dirt?
The adventurers: That ain’t gonna cut it, buddy.
The mole leaves upset, and the adventurers curiously delve into the dungeon. I check off one point on the negative scale for the mole.
Some time passes and the adventurers spring some trap before the reach the miners, however in an effort to stop the trap they damage some of the nearby structures. The mole appears shortly after.
The mole: Ugh! You are just like those miners. Look, could you refrain from smashing up anything further? I have, like, a family and such. They are trying to sleep. Also, I don’t want dirt falling in my face all of the time.
the adventurers: Huh, I thought I was just hallucinating before. I bet you would sell real well back in town!
The mole runs away, clearly disgusted with the adventurers. I check off the final point on the negative scale and remove all of the checks. I add a negative tag: “Believes the adventurers are greedy home wreckers”
With all that written, I think this approach may have some potential to it. As mentioned, this was an attempt to codify my usual process which typically occurs in my head. To write it out, I would likely do something like what is described here but I would probably limit it to NPCs that play a large role in the narrative as it is more to track. I would also likely only make changes at the end of a session and just tally everything up later. I find that taking notes during a game to be a tad difficult at times. If you find yourself wanting more from your NPC interactions, particularly in longer games, give this method a try and let me know how it goes in a comment below.