Campaign Design: Fleshing Out Your NPCs

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on April 23, 2009

Every campaign world is made of living, breathing NPCs. All of them have stories and a role to play within the campaign setting. From the lowly farmer to the mighty king, every NPC has a function and a purpose. As the campaign designer, your job is to define that role. Is the king a sinister tyrant? Is the peasant forming a rebellion? These are questions that you need to answer in order to bring your world to life.

This part of our series in Campaign Design picks up where the article on Politics and Groups of Influence left off. Now we look at the names and faces that dominate these political structures. Of course, not every NPC requires a fully fleshed out background, but the generalities are required. We’ll handle our look at NPCs in three sections: Common citizens, major players and villains.

Common Citizens

The common citizens are the rank and file NPCs that populate the world. These are the farmers, labourers, professionals, bandits, guards, etc. In short, these are the NPCs that your PCs will interact with on a daily basis, but whom do not require an extensive background or description. You don’t need to create a personality for every NPC in this category, but you do need a generic description for each of the groups in the category. For example, the town guard is made up of volunteers who take their job rather seriously. While they aren’t professional soldiers, their sheer numbers and determination makes outlaws think twice about attacking the village. Generic statements like this allow the PCs to gain a sense of how to interact with members of the guard.

Similarly, you could describe the general outlook of a nation with a general statement. For example, the citizens of Nareeni are known for their love of the arcane. Their highest art form is the blending of magic with music to create symphonies that can mesmerize the soul. This allows your PCs to deduce that there are likely many bards in the population and that common citizens may be capable of wielding magic.

It’s important to have a predefined description for each of the major segments of your main populations. It adds flavour to the world and most importantly allows the PCs to know how to interact with the different personalities that they might meet.

Major Players

The major players in the campaign world are the political leaders, priests, mages and soldiers that your PCs will interact with more than once. These NPCs may also help drive the plot of the adventure forward. In our modules The Magistrate’s Daughter and The Spy In Our Midst, Magistrate D’blasin is described in great detail. He is the patron of the PCs and deserves to be fleshed out. In reading The Magistrate’s Daughter we learn that he is a widow, has one child, was appointed to his position within the last five years and that he was a successful merchant. The PCs also learn that Magistrate D’blasin is a strong man who can hold his own with a sword. While this description isn’t terribly detailed it allows the PCs to form an opinion of the character. This opinion can then change through role playing as the adventure develops.

You will want to develop a suitable description for your major NPCs. You can write full backgrounds for them, however you don’t need to develop ability scores for them. Your major NPCs shouldn’t be fighting enemies during the adventure. They exist to provide flavour to the world and to propel the plot of the adventure forward.

Villains

The villains of your campaign setting require special attention and handling. The first thing to remember is that you don’t need an abundance of villains. A handful of well crafted villains will do the trick. When you design your villain keep in mind how they will affect the overall campaign.

Your villain should have a strong back story that supports why they exist in the campaign setting. Good villains are also recurring; they shouldn’t be killed off in the first encounter. In fact, your PCs may not even face the villain for several levels. It is important to know what the villain’s motivations are, so give some thought to what they do when they aren’t harassing the PCs.

Villains should be complex. Think about Darth Vader: he started as a noble Jedi, however, his desire for power and his love for Padme led him towards a path of evil. He didn’t start out that way, in fact he was a hero, but in the end he becomes one of the most terrifying villains to be featured in movies.

Your villains should be equally complex. What will the PCs do when they discover that the necromancer they have been pursuing was once the royal physician, who took up his dark arts to save the king. His failure to save the king’s life drove him to madness with the promise that death would never again take a great leader from the people.

Fleshing out your NPCs breathes life into your world. It paints a rich tapestry that the PCs are able to interact with and will make for memorable role playing experiences.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Risan April 23, 2009 at 1:35 pm

This is a decent article, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention distinguishing characteristics or memorable traits/descriptions. I think that helps players as well as the DM remember who is who and avoid confusion.

2 Dungeon April 24, 2009 at 9:52 am

This is a good article Wimwick! But don’t just stop at how they were or what they have done. Don’t forget about how they are now. To flesh out NPCs we first need to discuss the steps for creating NPCs.

1. Why is the NPC here, what is his/her purpose?

Most DM’s figure this out first. “Hey! Let’s make a cool pirate.” “Umm… why?”
Of all things, we should find out why this character is here. “For example, the town guard is made up of volunteers who take their job rather seriously. While they aren’t professional soldiers, their sheer numbers and determination makes outlaws think twice about attacking the village.” this brings up a good lay out for an NPC, a guard.
But in this article they divide the people into “common citizens,” and “major players.” sometimes from the player’s perspective this fine line is blurred. Some PCs just want to talk to some random people, and that’s okay. But make sure you (as the DM) know why the NPC is there.

2. is this NPC good or evil, and does s/he help or hinder the players?

To some, this is a straight forward. That villain is going to “attempt” to kill the PCs. That guard is going to help fight off the goblins with the players. But what about that villager watching the fight, does he have the guts to help the PCs or will he run, or better yet, is he in cahoots with the villain? Some characters can be complex. For example, maybe that villager is secretly the “masked robe,” who helps those that are in need, even the villains.
It is important to figure out if the NPC can be useful to the players or will the NPC hinder them.

3. How does the NPC look?

At this point it is nice to just give a description, “before you is a humanoid, he wears scarlet robes and a white mask beneath the hood.” While this is good, you must also remember … did I already use that description on someone else? Did I use that same description earlier when they first saw the NPC?
If you have, do not feel bad. We all do that once in awhile. It is okay to be consistent, however, if it is a different character than something should be different. You don’t want the PCs to think that guard is the same as the robed figure. As a plus, DMs should give more thought into descriptions. Maybe the NPC is smelly, or crippled, or shivers at times. These are traits. To make that one villager different than the others, even only a tiny bit (he smells funny) will allow him to stick out for the players to recognize.

4. How strong is the NPC?

“Hey guys, that Imperial king is really old and looks weak, we should kill him and take his gold!”
“Umm… no, he is much too powerful.” “How do you know?”
Can the PCs really kill that one guy if they feel like it? Even though he is a major character? After all the above stuff is done, usually it is time to determine statistics. Now I must give you some personal advice… DON’T GET ATTACHED TO YOUR NPCS!! You can get attached, but keep in mind, that you should be fair and allow the NPC to be mortal (unless s/he is not). Figure out what the NPC has been through and you will get a rough idea of how strong they should be. For the most part, you can figure out HP, AC, Skills, Equipment, basic stats (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA), and money and other items.
Usually a warrior king should be harder to kill than a political king that just rose to power because his uncle died.
The rest… is frosting on the cake. You can make up other personal things with the NPC, such as close friends and etc. The above steps are not complete and I may have missed a few things, but i hope you enjoy it.
I enjoyed the article.

3 Rook April 24, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Wow! Two articles for the price of one. Thanks Wimwick and Dungeon. A lot of good stuff here. I’m fully on board with the complex NPCs ideology. In fact, I really try to provide most every NPC I use with at least a first name, basic description and have a class or profession in mind for them. Of course I’m not a sadist, so I generally don’t pre-gen most of them. But when I introduce a new NPC, I take notes on each one and every time I add some new “fact” about them, I am sure to write it down for consistency sake. This technique has eventually turned many blasé NPCs into very memorable characters and adds to the flavor and realism of the gaming world.

4 Wimwick April 25, 2009 at 7:24 am

@ Risan
Distinguishing characteristics are a great way to set your major NPCs or villains apart. Thanks for mentioning that!

@ Dungeon
Wow, that’s some great feedback you’ve added on! Thanks, that’s what I like to see from the community.

I broke down the categories of NPCs this way deliberately to make the article easier to write and read. There will often be times where the PCs need to talk with the common citizens to gain information. This can be handled in two ways: 1 – Use of the streetwise skill. 2 – Some simple role playing where you as the DM already know the information that the PCs can learn. I find it’s often difficult to determine exactly what the PCs will do. Therefore, I don’t come up with detailed descriptions of the average NPC ahead of time. I can do that on the fly quickly enough as long as I know the basic background for the area they are in.

You raise some interesting points like how powerful is the NPC. Could the PCs kill the average king on a throne, absolutely. But what are the consequences of doing that? How will the kingdom view them? How will the guards react, how will the royal wizard react? Are the PCs doing this to become the new rulers? Though a king might die in a single hit, I would imagine that if the kingdom was powerful there would be magic that was protecting him and a resurrection spell could easily bring him back from the dead.

@ Rook
I find the most memorable NPCs from a campaign aren’t usually the ones the DM thought would be remembered.

5 Dungeon April 27, 2009 at 9:09 am

@ Rook
You are welcome.

@ Wimwick
The consequences? I knew i forgot something. good point.
And it’s true: most memorable NPCs from a campaign aren’t usually the ones the DM thought would be. So when making NPCs everyone keep that in mind.

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