We’re talking about Non Player Characters (NPC’s). Not Player run characters (PC’s). And not the occasional shop owner or vendor. Not even the patrons or enemies that try to wreack havoc on the PC’s.
No. We’re talking about the NPC’s that hang out with the PC’s on a day to day basis. For example torch bearers who are handed a bag and a bundle of torches.
First, as a general rule Players do not like nor want NPC’s in the group. This is especially true for D&D 5E.
Players in a D&D 5E campaign spend quite a bit of time and study going into creating a player character. For me I’m showing up to the D&D table with 3-6 pages of data based on whether or not I’m running a magic user or a muggle. And that means that I’m already busy handling my own character.
And the impulse of a D&D Dungeon Master, when dealing with player allies is to hand the players yet another handful of pages to the players and declare, “Here are your allies! Enjoy!” And players don’t want to deal with the added paperwork.
And even if the Dungeon Master (DM) handles the paperwork, players want to succeed on their own.
I won’d digress and discuss the failings of D&D Canned Spam that are so horribly unbalanced that any sane and rational DM feels compelled to toss in half a dozen (or even a full dozen) additional NPC’s just so your PC’s have a chance to survive. (Because I already have).
But let’s drive past the option of “Don’t Do It!”
Because there are good reasons to have NPC’s hang out with the party full time.
As a Game Master (GM) much of what we get to do we do by GM Fiat. But on this subject, I recommend that you park that car in your mental garage.
The first principle of including Party NPC’s is to follow the Players lead. And ultimately get player permission for all Party NPC’s.
Some games deal with Player supporting NPC’s better (eg: GURPS, Savage Worlds, etc.) than others (ie: Looking at you D&D)! and players will be more inclined to introduce allies to the group. (Mechanically, GURPS incentivizes players to add NPC’s because the character points spent on NPC’s can greatly leverage the party with additional skills and raw combat capabilities).
So when a player suggests an ally (either at session zero or later in the game) take some time to evaluate this suggestion and figure out if this inclusion is appropriate for the game. If there is any hesitancy on your part as the GM then either discuss a modification of the NPC so that it works for both of you, or (failing compromise) disallow the NPC. (You are the GM and you still get to drive your GM Fiat around and if some game element doesn’t work for YOU then it’s bad for the game)!
But you need to honor that Player’s concept.
I’ve seen GM’s make mistakes with this often. I’m not exactly sure why this disconnect happens, but you’ll see GM’s listen to the NPC concept, act excited about the new NPC, and then ignore all of the player’s descriptions.
Note that some of the following examples were exagerated for effect. Yes I’m using my creative license to drive my GM Fiat.
As my first example, lets take a player who creates a character with a wealthy merchant background who seems to be running a budding business. We already know that the PC is going to be adventuring so the player spends the character points for a reliable ally who is going to be around all the time and pitches a store manager who’s been with the PC for a long time and they trust each other implicitly.
The GM takes that concept and turns her into a promiscuous woman who routinely invites total strange men to sleep in the PC’s bed while siphoning cash from the till.
For another example the player pitches a love interest (based loosely on Selena Gomez because the teenage player has a crush on said teen pop sensation and NO I wasn’t the player) but love interest turns out to be a traitor who literally stabs the love struck player in the back and then runs of the the player’s “best friend” to join the enemy.
As a third example, a player introduces a barbarian from the far north (cause all barbarians hail from that mighty region) traveling with their trusty wolf hound who the PC raised from birth, feeding the orphaned pup by hand until the two are inseparable.
And as soon as the wolf hound gets its first sniff of the wilderness, it heads off at full tilt, never to be seen again.
Fourth (and much, much later) the Player shows up with his PC accompanied by his well trained, battle scarred, vicious sheep dog. But the dog never attacks in combat because everyone knows that D&D Ranger pets can’t attack unless the PC sacrifices their action so that their inferior pet can attempt an action, regardless of the fact that we weren’t playing D&D and there’s no such restriction in GURPS!
Is anyone shocked to learn that the players at this GM’s tables stopped asking for allies in that game? No? Seriously, with allies like that who needs enemies!
Allies are supposed to be helpful and useful to the PC’s. If they are a continual hindrance, the players will ditch them!
And sure it’s okay for the love interest or dependent to be kidnapped once, to advance the plot, but NOT EVERY SESSION. If you do that, the PC’s are likely to kill the loved one in an act of mercy! (And it will be an act of mercy)!
GM Recommended NPCs are another option to keep in mind.
You know your players.
You know your world.
You know the impending adventure.
You know the player characters abilities.
And you know their deficiencies.
Why not offer a useful NPC?
Does the party need an extra hand? Someone who can hold the torch whilst the group spelunks the local dungeon and who can laiden themselves with an empty sack, free and unencumbered by weapons and armor so that he can carry as much loot as humanly possible? (Yes I’m inspired for this idea by the web comic character Nodwick the torch bearer).
Does your intrepid crew of Star Wars mercenary scoundrels find themselves without a handy pilot or repair technician? NPC’s can help fill out these mundane slots in the team.
Creating PC Allies
There are three approaches to making Gaming Statistics for NPC’s
1) Treat them like full out Player Characters! Crack open the rule book and sort out all of the attribute, skill, spells, etc just as you would if you were preparing to run this character in a game. Figure out what their statistics for every appropriate skill (and then throw in some hobby skills to).
As a GM you should rarely take this approach. There are the occasional NPC’s that are front and center a lot and do quite a bit to help the PC’s advance their mission.
Feel free to calculate out all of the needed statistics for these NPC’s.
2) Just focus on one or two key skills.
Once you get a feel for any Role Playing Game rule set, you’ll understand where competence lies.
And that makes it easier to create NPC’s with minimal stats. Figure out what that NPC’s purpose is and then figure out one or two appropriate stats that the NPC is relied upon for.
Once you are done these NPC’s can be as simple as having a name and one or two skills that this NPC uses to support the group.
3) Skills? What stats?
Do you need to put together statistics for Nodwick? Beyond his capacity to carry heavy loads of loot, he (probably) doesn’t need any game statistics.
This is a yes!
The Players will respect (or disrespect as appropriately may be the case) the NPC’s if you give them some personality.
You can get as thorough as you like with this portion (and you actually may want to spend more time on the personality portion of an NPC than the gaming statistics) or keep this simple.
But if you want the NPC to be well received by the players, then try to make the NPC endearing.
You can start by asking, where the NPC came from, where are they going, and why they want to be with the PC’s. If you can answer all of these questions to your satisfaction, then these NPC’s will probably work out just fine for the players.
Sometimes as a GM I just skip this part, but if you have some physical descriptors, this will also help your players differentiate the NPC’s. Personality is more important, but being able to inject appearance characteristics help the players visualize this game too.
When you think about an NPC’s appearance I recommend starting with the vital statistics (Height, Weight, Age) and then look at their appearance from head to toe (Hair, eyes, face shape, neck, chest, waist, arms, legs) and then unique marks (tattoos, scars, jewelry).
More details can be good, but you don’t need to nail down every feature! If something is ‘unremarkable’ then don’t say anything about it!
And another really easy way to convey a physical description is to compare the NPC to a real world person that the players know, or can look up.
Here are some examples that I’ve come up with (chiefly using the Star Wars RPG campaign that I run).
- Rachel Starrunner: 5’ 08”, Athletic build, Looks like Cobie Smulders. (easy no)?
- Sern: Mirialan Female, 5’ 07”, average build, but unlike most Mirialan doesn’t have any facial tattoos. Ussually has cleaning supplies on hand and can ussually be found cleaning. She has a Gunnery skill of 2 with an Agility of 4.
- Cop’Ruchi: Green skinned Twi’lek Female, Avg height, Twi’lek thin build, brown eyes. She is skilled with Sensor (skill 3 with Intelligence 4) and if pressed to a gunnery station she has a skill of 1 on agility 3. Cop is not skilled with side arms.
- Aliz’Fama: Orange skinned Twi’lek Female, Avg height, Avg curvacious‘human’ build. Speaks with a thick Twi’lek accent. Aliz has some technical background and her engineering skill is 1 on intelligence 3. Her Gunnery and side arms skills are 1 on agility 3.
- “The Hoz” (actual name Krii Hozznavin). Tall, athletic, self confident, and boistrous. A former Imperial TIE pilot who is quick to remind others that he has more TIE kills than any other Alliance fighter pilot (and technically he’s correct). His piloting skill is 1 over 3 agility, but he’s a great gunner with skill 3 over 3 agility. His brawling skill is two on a three brawn, and his side arms skills are 1 on top of agility 3.
- “Drips” (Actually T0Q-IV) is a 2-1B Medical droid formerly owned by the Imperial Navy. He retains most of the coloration from the Empire, but is badly banged up and scared. (Drips actually survived the explosion of one of the ships it served on where it received most of its cosmetic damage). Drips is “programmed to perform 508 medical procedures and treat 2,027 diseases and common illnesses.” It is overly eager to medically treat people and expresses disapointment when people aren’t wounded. Tends to obsess over the ships “Mass to casualty ratio.”
- Rogjar Pullwalp aka: “Hammer!” Human Male, 5’ 10” Average build, square face, curly brown hair with sideburns and warm brown eyes. Easy to smile, gregarious, but can have a loud voice that carries and can be very businesslike. A natural leader. Gunnery Skill is 2 over 4.
- Colijos Wetprou aka: “Cool Juice.” Human Male, 5’ 10” Average build, round face, brown hair and friendly brown eyes. Cool Juice is laid back, affable and intelligent. If Cool Juice has a good idea, he won’t hesitate to share.
- Kryedevo Rapscree aka: “Devo” Human Male, 5’ 10” Average build, heart shaped face, straight brown hair with bowl cut, serious eyes. Quite demeanor and tends to hang out in the background (if given a choice). Gunnery skill is 3 over 4 and Devo is skilled in stealth and armed combat. Always has a combat knife on his person.
Here’s the point with my examples. Write down what you need in order to bring these characters to life for your players. If the NPC’s are distinct enough for you then you may be able to switch voices enough that the players can tell which NPC is speaking through your voice. (It doesn’t always work, so don’t hesitate to announce which NPC is speaking).
Also my notes don’t necessary convey everything about the NPC’s and how they come out at the table:
Rachel Starrunner is Cobie Smulders. Starrunner is a competent, serious woman and is incredibly helpful in getting the team the tools and information (as available) quickly. And having the shortcut of Cobie Smulders movie characters to tap into makes it an easy character to present.
Sern (aka: “Shiny”) is an enigma. I’ve written down a ton of notes on Sern and she is one of the few NPC’s that has a full character sheet written down. She doesn’t want to be noticed. She’ll busy herself cleaning various components of the ship mainly so that she can stay out of the way. The Captain suspects that she might be an Imperial spy so he doesn’t trust her completely. He even threatened to kick her off the ship at the “next starport” and she shrugged and retorted that she’d be okay with that. Most of her encounters seem ‘disturbing’ to the other players because she is a fish out of water character. There’s a lot going on under the surface. The players may never see any of that. And that’s fine.
Cop’Ruchi (aka: “Ghost”) is an educated Twi’lek, who is highly capable at her job as the sensor/communications operator. Outside of that she’s unremarkable. Ghost just saw her first combat recently and didn’t hold up very well under the pressure. She didn’t panic, but it was an emotional strain. But she’s done well to avoid danger so far and will likely do so in the future. It’s also important to me to remember that Ghost is a city slicker from Roon from a more affluent family. (They weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor, either).
Aliz’Fama (aka: “Spice”) is the ‘backwoods’ opposite of Cop. She is the daughter of a farmer and grew up in that environment with appropriate skills and capabilities. However that didn’t prepare her for working on a starship! Aliz did not speak Galactanglic when she first met up with the team and she’s still learning the language. Her accent is very thick and when she speaks its painfully obvious. Aliz is recovering from an “ugly duckling” syndrome as she is considered “overweight” by Twi’lek standards. However, most humans find her quite attractive (by Human standards) and Aliz has been quite receptive to this newfound attention. It’s no secret that Aliz is quite promiscuous. She has also been inappropriately flirtatious (and that’s more of a product of her cultural upbringing).
By contrast Cop and Aliz are opposites.
The Hoz is an unapologetic rip off of David Hasselhoff. Except that the Hoz is more of a comic caricature. I’m almost on the verge of having him speak about himself in the third person, but the Hoz is actually a bit more grounded. The players love it when he enters the scene because he carries himself as an affable larger than life hero. Sadly, the Hoz is assigned to the Alliance Fleet and isn’t able to serve with the crew.
Drips is an NPC that the players either hate or love. He’s a bad combination of C3-P0 and Melvin the paranoid android. He has simple and repetitive conversational algorithms and a very abrupt bedside manner. Drips is delighted when he gets to treat patients and disappointed when you aren’t hurt.
Hammer, Cool Juice, and Devo (And Andy. He bears mentioning here) turned into an interesting intellectual exercise. Toward the end of a session, the players decided to hire on four gunners for their crew. These four friends were introduced and Hammer did most of the talking, explaining that all four had just recently been flunked out of the Imperial Academy. But the four of them were still eager to join up as able bodied crew on a starship. “Sure we can operate gunnery stations! We attended the Imperial Academy!”
At the time I didn’t have the time to flesh them out individually and just chalked them up as four average guys. All four were 5’ 10” average weight, Brown hair, Brown eyes.
During the following week, I spent some time trying to differentiate the four so that each would grow into their own person. By the next week, I was ready.
Hammer remained the vivacious affable ring leader who sold more than he could deliver. He was quick with a joke and fun to hang around.
Cool Juice, also affable, was laid back and a natural follower. He was capable in his own rights.
Devo was the quite kid who stayed in the background. I’ll admit that it’s a cop out as a Game Master to make NPC’s the silent quiet types, but I had four NPC’s to sort through! Shh!
Andy turned into an irascible whiner. If there was a problem, Andy was quick to point it out.
I was surprised by how much these four NPC’s became accepted by the players. (Especially Andy. He was designed to be a foil)!
And as much as these four NPC’s openly expressed their eager support for the Empire, the players still forged on and revealed their affiliation with the Rebel Alliance. Andy freaked out and had to be forcibly detained and expelled from the ship. (They didn’t kill Andy).
Later, it was discovered that Cool Juice and Hammer became Imperial Security Bureau assets and were spying on the crew! The players were devastated to learn about this ‘betrayal!’
And in some ways, they may still suspect Devo of being a spy.
Just random luck
One of the tools that I use (especially when I’m running out of time or just cant think of anything creative during preparation time) is the Fantasy Name Generators (dot com) website. This site can spit out dozens of random genre appropriate names and even has some random physical description, and personality generators.
The important thing to remember when using a random generator tool like this is to reject most of the suggestions.
Spit out a series of random options and mix and match until you are happy with the NPC that emerges.
Prepare More and Reveal Less
It’s good for you to put in some time and effort into creating vibrant and detailed NPC’s.
But, just because the NPC is 5’ 10” doesn’t mean that you need to spill out that specific detail.
I have observed that 90% of my preparation for any game (including the details on chief NPC’s) remains unrevealed to the player’s.
The reason you put all of this effort together for the NPC’s is not so that you can reveal this information to the players later. You do this preparation so that you understand the NPC’s sufficiently so that they come off as being plausible to the players. It’s to breathe the verisimilitude of life into your NPC’s!
Let me speak about Sern a bit more on this topic.
The reason that I put together a complete character sheet for Sern is not because she is central or important to the plot.
Sern was introduced as a throw away NPC. Though I had a pretty good idea what drove her, I didn’t expect the player characters to invite her to join the Rebellion!
But I knew enough about her that I knew that introduction would be appealing.
And then she joined the player’s team because it made sense.
However, I really didn’t understand who Sern was.
In putting together a complete player character style sheet for Sern, I not only organized all of the information that I already knew about her, but I filled in all of the blanks so that I now fully understand her.
She is still an enigmatic cipher. And in many respects a disturbing cipher. But I now understand what got her there and why.
And the more I understand of Sern, the more I understand that the players will never truly know her.
And that’s okay.
I will never need to reveal her dark and brooding back story to the players. I just need to understand what makes her go.
Lastly and probably most important!
The NPC’s should never be better than what the PC’s are trying to be good at!
In a Role Playing Game the players are playing the heros. Not ‘heros’ the heros of the story.
And there is very little that should overshadow the Player Characters. (Except that Big Bad Evil Bad Guy).
Supporting NPC’s should be there to augment the Player Characters.
For example, if your Player Characters are involved in a do or die fight, and one of their allies is able to mop the floor with the bad guys while the Player Characters sit idly by as spectators, then you’ve done something horribly wrong as a GM! (Shame shame)!
This has been a longer than expected article for something that you should avoid as a GM!
But if you try to add supporting NPC’s to the group, do so carefully and work closely with the players so that you get his right!