Thursday, April 5, 2012

Yet Another Guide on Creating NPCs, Part 1

Vital elements of any tabletop RPG is for the players to be able to gather information, get a little help with their tasks, or  to have an enemy to focus on. All of these things are accomplished using non-player characters or "NPCs". But makes an NPC tick? How much detail is needed to make one come to life? How much do they know? What niche do they fill in your campaign? I'll strive to answer those questions and a little more.

What Exactly is an NPC?

The answer to this has evolved somewhat over the years, but has remained fundamentally the same. At first, non-player characters were just that, characters in the adventuring party that were commanded by the players but largely managed and roleplayed by the game master. These NPCs were notably Henchmen and Hirelings. I'm not sure if these guys are used much these days, but back in the days of the White Box and supplements, 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D, and the Basic games, they were essential. The Nodwick comic in Dragon Magazine was a parody of how these NPCs were used. (But mind you, Nodwick was a Henchman, not a Hireling!). Henchmen were trusted companions to the party, and stat-wise almost PCs, but not quite. Hirelings usually were relegated to being hired as cannon fodder, so not as detailed or beloved as the Henchmen. Unless the GM was a stickler for the rules, almost every hireling was marked for death, or at least to be used roughly, given a pittance and sent on their merry way after use. All other NPCs were for color, or were the villains who stood in the way of treasure to be had.

During the very early '80s, this seemed to shift along with the out-dated wargaming and dungeoneering paradigms as the empathsis on more roleplaying began to take hold. In order to roleplay, you must have deeper characters to interact with and that add to the ongoing narrative. So the NPCs who were color characters before began to collect more complex personalities, backgrounds and even Henchman-like stats. This evolution has happily continued to the present time.

Nowadays an NPC can be many personae that interact with the party, be it a trusted companion, a hired hand, the city guard, beggar, King, orc, or a villain. In this article, we'll define the NPC as a member(s) of one of a campaign's defined playable intelligent races who can peacefully interact and gainfully reason with the PCs for an prolonged time, and add to the narrative by way of providing color, information, resources, and challenge if needed.

Monster (Being) or NPC?

OK, we have a working definition of an NPC, but what makes an NPC different than a monster or some other being? Orcs in the days were the common monsters, but nowadays, they're found in many campaign's civilized countries rubbing elbows with adventuring parties and taking on the role of PC and NPC. The same with many other "monster" races. What shakes? This where the game master steps in to decide what races the players can assume. If orcs are playable within the campaign and are willing to interact and reason with other playable races, then they should be encountered as NPCs. But then again, if the element of playability, gainful reason and peaceful interaction are all left out, then they become one of the creatures that are part of the fauna of the world.

What of bandits, cannibals and the other people and beings that are of a playable race, but mean the PCs no good or want no commerce with them? Technically, they're still monsters, except that we don't like referring to them as such since they are of a race we regard in the campaign as playable and "friendly". They may interact and reason with the PCs, but not necessarily in a way that is prolonged, peaceful or gainful.

NPC Basics

Monsters aside, NPCs are what the PCs are not, ubiquitous in the lands settled by races familiar to your PCs. Your PCs go to a farmhouse and knock on the door, and meet farmer Joe and family... NPCs. They go into town and see townsfolk, who are all NPCs. They talk to Bruce, a future employee and NPC. Lastly they finish their quest by confronting Snivelin' Fred, villain and NPC. These NPCs can be divided into a five basic categories; Color, General, Detailed, Companion and Villain.

Color NPCs

Townsfolk, tavern and inn patrons, merchants and other folk who are usually peaceful fill in the living background of your world. They're the people who your PCs don't have much contact with other than measuring how full the bar is, how many people are on the road, or how many possible witnesses or victims there might be. These are the least detailed of your NPCs, and the  measure that reassures your players that they are truely the heroes of your world. Color NPCs are great in number, but lacking in real detail. They'll usually act the same, and in their sameness, they can highlight those other individual NPCs that you want your players to interact with. Also, they're the only NPCs who aren't individuals, they're an abstract of the average when encounter in numbers.

The Nuts and Bolts: You should be able to describe color NPCs in one or two sentences, and ascribe to them perfectly average stats of the appropriate race in your world. If 10 is an average stat, then they have 10s in everything. If carrying a dagger is a common practice, then add that. NPCs should reflect the place they are encountered, rather than calling them out on profession.

For example, we'll note the patrons of a common tavern as NPCs:

Description: A mixture of humans are here to catch a bite and an ale, including dingy day workers, a few tired guards off shift, and a colorful street merchant or two. They are all bunched eight or nine to a table and benches, with five such groups in the common room.  All Stats: 10, HP 5; armed with eating daggers or knives, 1D4 Dmg; No Armor/Guards AC 12; All have general knowledge of the city, talk on successful reaction roll; 1D12 silvers on each.

This gives players have enough information to surmise that they face between 40-45 commoners bunched closely together in large groups, generally armed with daggers for the most part. There are a couple trained fighters that uphold the law and can cause trouble or bring legal relief. Also, the game master knows that if the PCs have an environment where they can ask about the area, get a reasonable answer, eat and drink in peace, and know that the law is nearby. If trouble is to be made, then there are 40-45 men who are witnesses or are capable of fighting and inflicting 1-4 points of damage on opponents. A thief can be daring and choose to rob the patrons, getting 1-12 SP X 40 to 45 people - a considerable haul! Depending on type of tavern, everything can be adjusted to fit.

There will be times where a PC will want to talk to one of these average Joes. Remember, any answers will be general and limited to what they know of the general area. Also, these guys are great for pointing to the NPCs that the players need to interact with, but they should offer no more. Keep conversation to a minimum, because the PCs need to be talking to the more important personae, and not the guys in the background. Another way to think of color NPCs is like the ropes around a boxing rink. They're designed to define and keep the participants the area of action. Don't let the PCs hang on the ropes for too long.

As a last note, always get the description of the color NPCs on the table before introducing any other NPC. They are the backdrop that you'll use to empathize other more detailed NPCs, making them more identifiable to the players.

General NPCs

The local bard in the tavern, the friendly barkeep, farmer Joe or Ted the baker are all examples of general NPCs. They stick out of the crowd of color NPCs and fill general and predictable roles. These NPCs are noted by individual roles and general description, but not much more. General NPCs are tasked to do the simple things, give information, resources or provide a challenge. For example, the barkeep has two possible tasks, provide resources or information. He provides a place to stay and food and drink (resources), and he interacts with the PCs to give them information, be it basic or more specialized via rumor or street knowledge. How much they know is up to you, but what they know should be in part predicated by where they work or what they do.

Nuts and Bolts: Like the Color NPCs, they should be describable in a couple sentences and have a singular average stat. Also, they should be reskinable. Joe the barkeep may be younger than old Darius who keeps a tavern around the corner, but in all else, they're virtual twins. The only thing that separates a General NPC from a Color NPC is that they are 1) individuals and 2) have the ability to dispense resources, specific information or pose a direct mental or physical challenge to a PC, like a city guard.

For example, we'll carry through the tavern scene described earlier:

Description: [Fill in name here] is a plainly dressed fellow, wearing a food and drink spotted linen shirt with sleeves rolled up to expose chubby arms and a stained leather apron that covers his dark breeches to the knees. He's usually carrying mugs of golden ale to patron's tables.(Note: The following info can be changed out to reskin NPC) He has a full head of brown hair, and his youthful smile and bright eyes hide his middle age quite well. All Stats: 10, HP 5; armed with small club under his apron, 1D4 Dmg; No Armor AC 10; Has general knowledge of the city, talk on successful reaction roll; Knows 1-4 rumors from Rumors Table, and can automatically spot anyone looking to employ his patrons.

This description gives just enough information to the players to identify him as the barkeep, and therefore a source of information. The game master knows he can dispense information and defend himself, if necessary. Past that, his part in the narrative is fulfilled.

Sometimes a General NPC can become elevated in NPC status during play. The PCs might grow to have an affinity for the Loathsome Toad Tavern, and Warty Joe the barkeep. If that becomes the case, roll with it! It is an honor and an opportunity to flesh out a part of your campaign that the players can really relate to and feel comfortable with.

Bear in mind that General NPCs tend to be disposable, especially if they are members of the guard and your players are the rowdy sort.

As a last note, these NPCs should be described as the players see the environment, and after you're described the Color NPCs, but before you describe any Detailed NPCs. They are the people who just barely stand out from the people in the background.

Part 2, Yet Another Guide on Creating NPCs, continued...

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