For me, NPCs are the heart of my RPG campaigns and the manner in which I create a NPC for my RPGs has changed over the past two campaigns. Now, no matter what system I use, my NPCs will always include four key elements: a drive, threat, dilemma, and conflict.
Originally inspired by an RPGgeek user, Chuck Dee, linking me part of their campaign prep in a public forum resulted in the use of a drive and threat for my NPCs (though their prep document was about a macroscopic view of a campaign rather than NPCs). I used this approach in my Electric Bastionland campaign but I felt like a certain level of dynamism was missing.
Recently, after reading Chris McDowall’s blog post titled “Problems”, this approach was refined to incorporate two other elements, a dilemma and a conflict. This is my current approach for my Night’s Black Agents campaign and I have found that the NPCs feel more dynamic as they provide more threads for players and I to follow during play.
In this post, I am going to describe how I create my NPCs for my RPG campaigns.
What is a NPC?
A non-player character, or NPC, is a denizen of the story or world that hosts your campaign, adventure, or one-shot. Typically, the game master controls how NPCs behave, react to the players, and portray the world.
For me, NPCs are important for conveying the world and driving the players towards action.
I use my NPCs to provide hints to players about what is happening in the world around them, which can be used to foreshadow potential events or show that the world has changed due to their actions. Additionally, having a rich merchant under threat is a sure-fire way to motivate financially oriented players into action.
No matter which system I use, I always like to have my player characters tied to at least one different NPC each.
I find having my players create NPCs helps them become more invested in the world, gives their player character something to fall back onto if they become stuck with their character, and helps me better understand what kind of story my players want to help tell.
How do you make an NPC?
Depending on the system you use, you may have different elements used to create a NPC, such as a stat block, but I always include a drive, the threat, their dilemma, and in some cases, the conflict.
Each element for an NPC is described with a single sentence:
- The drive is the overall goal for this NPC and largely explains why they do what they do.
- The threat is how they impede the progress of the players.
- The dilemma is what is currently troubling the NPC.
- The conflict is the kind of problems the NPC might cause the players should a fight break out.
Sometimes, if the NPC is less pertinent to the overall campaign, I may omit some of these elements or blend the drive and dilemma together. Additionally, I often omit the conflict element as I may not expect some NPCs to cause that kind of conflict or they might simply be NPCs that would refuse to fight.
Overall, I find knowing why my NPCs behave the way they are, how they threaten the goals of the players, and what is currently a stress in their fictional lives helps me to improvise my NPCs better and design NPCs that have a better chance of adding relevant drama to the lives of my player characters.
What are some examples of NPCs?
A tough-as-nails police officer in an eldritch horror game might look like:
- Drive: Ensure her daughter has a good and safe life.
- Threat: Suspects the player characters are involved in the recent disappearances.
- Dilemma: The principal of her daughter’s school is threatening to expel her daughter.
- Conflict: Will call for backup as soon as she has an opening.
A socially awkward druid in a fantasy game might look like:
- Drive: To protect the forest from anyone that would harm it.
- Threat: Prevents the players from entering the forest.
- Dilemma: Loggers on the other side of the forest are constantly threatening the forest.
- Conflict: Will ensnare players in vines and lead them into pit traps.
A scientific alien in a sci-fi game might look like:
- Drive: To replicate the human genome.
- Threat: Wants to harvest the human player organs and sample their blood.
- Dilemma: The bank is refusing to continue funding their experiments.
- Conflict: Has a psionic blast that disorientates targets.