Jump to content

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

Chimpions-GM

Simple tricks to give your NPC's depth.

Recommended Posts

I base NPCs on people I have known, but haven't seen in over a decade, and whom the players in the game have never met. Makes it easy to draw on arbitrary nuances.

 

As an example, in the Champions forum is a thread by Hermit titled The People of Campaign City. Near the end is a retired engineer I posted. He's based on an old professor I knew; him being dead now for more than 20 years, the NPC has the real person's name, which makes it very easy on me.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Somethings I've used in the past

Myers Briggs short hand.... an INTJ cop will be very different from an ESFP cop...together, they fight crime!

 

Take the Alignment system and use it, but in a deliberately sloppy way "Female CEO appears LE in the board room, but is Chaotic Good on the Dance Floor!"

 

Gender Flip another character from TV/Movies...female detective is weary looking, often nods dimly and goes 'uh huh' as if just agreeing because its easier...and then after being underestimated, catches the clues she's been causing you to drop all along and throws them in your face. It's Colombo... if he were a she, but not every player will catch that. Tweak further if you want more individualism.

 

Base a person's personality on one of the four elements as you see them. Have an NPC with a fire personality? Temperamental, Creative, passionate, perhaps with ambition or appetite. Water? Easy going, possibly lazy, adaptable and maybe with a purity of essence. you get the idea

 

Secretly give each NPC a spirit animal even if they would never believe in it. As with elements adapt. A Fox NPC might be sly, slightly selfish, and charming.  Lion guy could be regal, commanding, but also expect his due and not take any disrespect ever. Owl, perfers night time hours, has keen insights.... but is impatient with tootsie roll pops. Of course, how you see animals is different from others, but the players aren't supposed to know anyway.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I use different actors as templates. Generally I ask myself, "OK, who's playing this NPC?" And I try to make it someone with personality. I don't think my old Traveller group will soon forget the shopkeep at Uncle Murray's Quality Space Junk who was played by Joe Pesci....

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Usually if they are bit characters, I try to give them a voice I liked from a film or TV show, just try to grab that personality and tone... or pick one particularly noteworthy personality quirk and play it up: paranoid, slutty, optimistic, angry, defensive, frightened, confident, sleazy, etc.

 

With more substantial NPCs, I build them as a character then slip into the role as if its one of my guys.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just pick one playeer, and make the NPC just like him or her. Only more powerful, better looking, more experienced, and cooler. If you're stuck on making him (obviously these rules don't apply to female NPCs, who are there for teh sexy--) cooler, just make him more stabby. You know, with knives and swords and maybe swords that shoot knives. Unless it's a sci-fi campaign, in which case substitute "guns" for "knives," and "very big guns" for swords. So a very big gun that shoots guns? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like to steal traits for real people I know or have heard of and from characters in other stories.  When using characters from other stories, I also like using characters from genres other than the one being played.  You have a rough and tumble female fighter in a fantasy campaign.  Instead of looking for a fantasy source, how about Annie Oakley instead?  Sometimes, I mix and match elements.  For super detective specializing in conspiracy theories and strange phenomenon, I mixed in a little Sherlock Holmes with Fox Mulder and Philip Marlowe and put him in pulp era trench coat.  Stuff like that.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like real life inspiration.  In my 7th Sea game I based a couple rival gang leaders off actual mob bosses in the Cleveland area back in the 60's-70's.

 

And a canon NPC slumlord and all around horrible person based on a certain Republican presidential candidate. And, much like real life, the PCs didn't take him seriously until it was too late...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Accents can also be a good way to define your NPCs.

 

If you are good at accents. I can do a pretty good Midwestern United States accent and beyond that.....*shrugs*

 

Similar to accents is cadence. How fast or slow the characters speaks. Add long pauses or perhaps trail off. Alternately, speak as fast as you can. Throw in a nervous tick or two and that will add some uniqueness to the character. I had the privilege of meeting a Chinese person who has okay English skills but he uses the phrase "bop bop bop" as a sort of emphasis or filler when he cannot fully express what he wants to with English words.

 

But those are only speech patterns and may not be the only things that imply character depth. Getting to the core personality of the character, I usually define the role that the character plays in the game. If they are the Big Bad, then they get a full treatment. If they are Disposable Lieutenant #4, then I usually fall back onto an archetype that I flesh out with a few questions/answers.

 

One of my tricks is actually having a rogues gallery built in advance. In FtF games, I keep a little 3x5 index card with the basic personality and motivation on it. In a VTT environment, I keep little files in OneNote or a Wiki. That way, I've answered most of the personality questions ahead of time. All I have to do is figure out how they ended up where they are in the story. Sometimes, that little detail can wait until later because I already have an idea how this person will act under stress or when faced with temptation. That brings a point that I usually take a few minutes after each session to look at how the story evolves around the NPCs. How they change as the conditions inside the campaign change helps to round them out.

 

Example:

 

Alvarez was a bad guy from my Gemini Ascendant game. When I first introduced him, he was a Lieutenant in Fleet Intelligence, handling unofficial assets. During his evolving backstory, he came into contact with something that changed him into a much more powerful and corrupted individual.

 

Homeworld: Some backwater farming colony world that I have yet to name

Motivations:  Power, both Physical and and Political. Grew up poor and resented the people who had power over his colony. Joined the Fleet to get away from his world and as a path to find personal power.

Traits: Ambitious and intelligent. Above average but not excessively impressive physical characteristics. Likes to establish a battlefield where he can toys with his opponents. Overconfident to the point where he fails to realize how competent his contemporaries usually are.

 

Those are basically the types of notes I take when building an NPC. No game stats just yet.

 

As I drop a character into the game, I might add a few notes to flesh out the character. The Gemini Ascendant game started out in the Star Frontiers universe, which had recently seen an invasion from an alien species called the Sathar. One of my questions for every character was how did the Sathar War affect them. Where were they at? Was their colony or world affected? Did they fight or flee the Sathar invasion? I decided that, for Alvarez, he was too young to fight in the Sathar War, having enlisted several years after its conclusion, and it had no direct impact on his colony world. Aside from watching conscripts get shipped off to fight, Alvarez was untouched by the war. Of course, watching people "escape" the colony world instilled a deep desire to "get off this rock" inside of Alvarez, which was his ultimate motivation for enlisting when he came of age.

 

After dropping him in the game, I needed to only have a visual and a character sheet.  I use a very abbreviated stat block for most NPCs, so that is not too difficult. For the image, I chose one of the characters from the Area 51 video game. Here is the character token taken from a screen grab from the Area 51 game.

post-206-0-57007300-1468330748_thumb.png

 

Character done. He would evolve as the game went on and ultimately met his fate when his overconfidence allowed for one of the PCs to slay him.  Note that it probably took a LOT longer to type this message than it actually took to build the character.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'd create most of my NPCs using the Indiana Jones technique ("I'm making this up as I go.").  Few lasted in the story long enough for them to merit more attention than that, so as long as the character made sense for the situation, I was good.  If they came back, I'd write up at least a basic stat block and back story.  In the waning stages of my GMing career, I'd start keeping generic characters (bartender, supply officer, pilot, etc.) around, and if I found an interesting one (e.g. the players' commanding officer), I'd flesh them out more, sometimes with a complete PC writeup of stats and back story.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like real life inspiration.  In my 7th Sea game I based a couple rival gang leaders off actual mob bosses in the Cleveland area back in the 60's-70's.

 

And a canon NPC slumlord and all around horrible person based on a certain Republican presidential candidate. And, much like real life, the PCs didn't take him seriously until it was too late...

 

Neither did the rest of us...sigh.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I often let it happen a bit organically. Sometimes I need a certain NPC to do something or things. From that need, I ask myself why, why they do it the way they do it, etc. I rarely try to flesh out any character whole in a short time, I let a seed take root in my head, put it out of my head a bit, then return to it later.

 

I also let little things give me ideas around me. Some annoying thing, or bothersome thing. Had a huge millipede crawl out of my sink WHILE I was washing my hands a while back, game me a whole idea of this sort of cursed character who is pursued by demons. Then, had to think why, what about them is so attractive.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Getting to the core personality of the character, I usually define the role that the character plays in the game.

This. The most important thing you need to know about an NPC is their purpose, ie - what is this person doing in my story? How do they relate to the stars of the show, the PCs? Are they a villain? Potential ally? An obstacle? Plucky comic relief? Or just mobile scenery? Motivation is good because you need to know what the character wants, but purpose is what the story wants the character to do; everything else flows from that. It also gives you a sense of how much time you need to spend on a particular NPC. Of course, their role can change during the course of the game, but you always need to keep it in mind.

 

I think of it like this:

  • Purpose is the spine, ties everything together
  • Personality, motivation, etc are the bones
  • Mannerisms, voice/speech & physical description flesh things out

Accents are fine if you can do them. But like a lot of people I can only do a few halfway-decent accents, and cycling them through over and over can get repetitive. But you can do a lot with manner & style of speech - do they talk fast in a bubbly high-pitched voice? Or low and slow like Lurch from the Adams Family? What's their style of delivery: Bored functionary? Used car salesman? Pompous Aristocrat? Captain Kirk?

 

Think about how they use words differently to describe the same situation:

  • Xander: “Now that is one seriously humongous snake. We’re talking Sand Worm class here, which is a Dune reference in case you STILL haven't read the books.”
  • Giles: “Good lord. I’ve always wanted to see a Fnorian Serpent Demon up close. Well, perhaps not this close, but the coloration on its scales is most remarkable...”
  • Oz: “Wow. Big snake.”

For NPCs that will be around awhile, I try to think of one physical mannerism I can use to portray them. Not a physical description, more of a physical cue I can act out. This nobleman strokes his beard a lot. That noblewoman plays with her hair. That guard cross his arms and glares at the PCs like they owe him money. This girl sits with one arm over the back of the chair casually. This merchant talks with his hands a lot. Whatever. No rule says you can't move around a little.

 

Last note: don't overdo it. More than 2-3 mannerisms per NPC and you'll overload and confuse the players.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like that, BigDamnHero.

 

I actually view one aspect slightly differently, but it doesn't change that much. I view the personality and motivation as the spine. It is the source of the purpose.

 

BUT, we often first know the purpose, and so I tend to look at an NPC and say, well, here are the purposes they need to have for my game. What does this combination say about what their core personality is? Once I have an idea on that, I then go back and look and say, okay, having this core personality, and these purposes, how would someone with this core personality achieve these goals?

 

Kind of a feedback loop.

 

Some of this reveals itself in play. More than a few times has an NPC I thought would just have some small role become an important part of either the story or the feel of the campaign. More than a few times, some NPC I thought would be cool for the game just never gelled. Sometimes, I think the strongest trait a GM or storyteller can have is recognizing the story outside of their expectations of it, so that one isn't trying to push something when the story (in gaming, a story that has more than one storyteller) just isn't supporting.

 

The more one can make it look like a character that isn't gelling was never meant to be anything important, and the more one can make it look like, oh yeah, I always intended this old lady selling onions was something more*, the more suspension of disbelief is maintained and everyone has a good time.

 

 

*Actual example. By total coincidence, I described the same old lady and her vegetable cart being at two major events. She was someone they passed all the time, their enemies had a suspicious knowledge of their doings, I had a spy in their midst, I didn't intend for her to have anything to do with it. The players suddenly became certain she was either a spy or behind it. Thus was born The Lady of Tears.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I actually view one aspect slightly differently, but it doesn't change that much. I view the personality and motivation as the spine. It is the source of the purpose.

This is the classic writers' dichotomy: do you start with character first and then work towards plot, or plot first and then character? I typically start from plot, so the character's purpose determines their personality, motivation. Sounds like you do it in reverse. No right or wrong answer - there are plenty of way-better-than-us writers that fall into either camp.

 

I once saw a panel of screen writers at a conference. All of the writers had multiple imdb credits. The moderator asked them that question: plot first or character first. One woman - an Oscar nominee if memory serves BAFTA winner, tho I can't remember what for, something art housey - talked about how she starts by thinking up some interesting characters and then she'll write a few hundred pages of them interacting until she finds a plot, throw away everything she's written and start over keeping that plot idea in mind, write a few hundred more, throw most of that away but maybe there are 10 pages worth keeping...lather rinse & repeat until eventually she's got 100 good pages and an actual story.

 

At the other end of the table were two writers who did a lot of studio work and made-for-cable movies. When the moderator got to them, one guy just said "Dude, I write on deadline; I don't have time to throw away 1000 pages looking for a plot! They hire me to write a helicopter movie; so I start with that and try to think what sort of characters would be interesting in that movie."

 

Again, no right or wrong answer - these were all good & successful writers. But I know which end of the table I sit on: the gang is coming over tomorrow night and I don't have time to dick around - where'd we end things last week? :winkgrin:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Usually if they are bit characters, I try to give them a voice I liked from a film or TV show, just try to grab that personality and tone...

I played with a GM once who went a step further and would actually tell the players: "picture this guy as played by Patrick Stewart" or "picture a young Angela Lansbury." I had mixed feelings about that technique. On one hand, there's no question is made it easy for us to visualize and remember NPCs. On the other hand, the NPC themselves got lost in the actor "playing" them. It was never "We go talk to that Castellan that helped us out last time," it was always "We go talk to Patrick Stewart."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just pick one playeer, and make the NPC just like him or her. Only more powerful, better looking, more experienced, and cooler. If you're stuck on making him (obviously these rules don't apply to female NPCs, who are there for teh sexy--) cooler, just make him more stabby. You know, with knives and swords and maybe swords that shoot knives. Unless it's a sci-fi campaign, in which case substitute "guns" for "knives," and "very big guns" for swords. So a very big gun that shoots guns?

I want a very big gun that shoots guns. That's going on my Christmas list.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You can always use characters from movies and TV shows you like, even borrow their way of speaking.  Having that knight talk like Alex Trebek or Christopher Walken can be fun.  Maybe the court wizard has Walter White's personality and behavior.  Maybe the princess is more like Lady Gaga.  Its a cheap, easy way of building characters if you're not the kind that can whip up personalities and types on the fly.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You can also fall back on stereotypes in a pinch, so long as you don't overdo it and you're not planning on those characters having lots of repeat appearances.  For instance, your mooks can fall into categories like Grizzled Veteran, Lazy Guy, the Rookie, Big Bully, etc.

 

This past Sunday, a hero was sneaking up on a group of VIPER agents, and the player wanted to know what they were talking about.  Winging it, I had the Grizzled Veteran giving some advice to the Rookie.  "You're lucky, kid.  Other than Covert Overwatch, you'll find Rear Guard's the best duty.  If the guys up front run into heroes, we have a better chance of getting out of Dodge."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

One thing to try to NPCs that reoccur is to write down, say, five character traits they have. Then, anytime they appear, pick, say, 3 of those traits to showcase.  This way, the recurring NPCs aren't hitting the same personality notes all the time, but they can still generally be recognized by the traits they exhibit.

 

Example:

character has five traits:

 

Extended family: this character always has a cousin getting married, or divorced, or need a favor, or whatever

 

Allergies: this character is allergic to many things, and will often be coughing, have a runny nose, hives or similar

 

Foot problems: this characters feet hurt.  They will not want to walk anywhere to meet the PC, and will want to have meetings sitting down.  They will prop their feet up on things, etc.

 

Travelling gift giver: this character travels a lot, and will often try to give the PC minor gifs that they got on their travels.  Food, books, pictures, whatever

 

Habitual gesture: this character often (rolls on table) rubs their hands together.

 

So, on encounter 1:

Allergies

Travelling gift giver

Habitual gesture

 

Encounter 2:

Extended family

Allergies

Travelling gift giver

 

Encounter 3:

Allergies

Foot problems

Habitual gesture

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

×