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.
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.
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.
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.