Running the World-Machine: Little Touches: Making Memorable NPCs

On this week’s Running the World-Machine, we talk about how to take your non-player characters and turn them from forgettable nobodies into characters your PCs will remember long after the game is done.

A difficult thing in a game is to get players to remember who the NPCs are.  It doesn’t matter how grand your plot, how in-depth you’ve written them in your notes, or how many times they’ve showed up over the course of the game.  A lot of times, they just don’t stick, and it can lead to frustration as a GM.  But there are a few things you can do to help alleviate this:

Don’t just make your NPCs quest piñatas (aka give them a life!).  What’s a quest piñata, you ask?  It’s an NPC whose sole purpose for existence is to be found by the players, turned upside down or beaten on until the quest comes out, and then returned to for the sole purpose of getting a reward before the party of murder hobos (aka PCs) (shout out 2 GMs 1 Mic!) moves on to their next adventure.  Be sure your NPCs have lives, and have their lives intersect with the PCs in little ways during their interactions (such as their kids running in on an important discussion and having to be shooed out).  Even better, have the quests/missions/tasks they give out relate to who they are personally, so that the quest couldn’t have been given by anyone else.  This makes it so they aren’t interchangeable with any other NPC, and their personalities (as expressed by the lives they lead) will be tightly interwoven with the PC’s interactions with them, integrating your story with the gameplay and making them easier to remember (and not requiring too many, if any additional scenes of dull exposition).

Voice acting.  Giving your NPC a funny or distinct voice is your friend here.  I myself have trouble with this, because I don’t trust my voice acting skills.  But I should really get over it.  Why?  Because it’s a lot easier to remember who someone you’ll never see (due to the nature of tabletop games is) when they have a unique voice.  (And if you can’t manage accents or varying your vocal range, try to at least give the NPC a unique speech pattern).  To help you realize how useful this can be, I want you to imagine talking to a group of people on the phone and they all speak the same way.  You wouldn’t be able to remember who was who either.  Plus unique voices give your players another way to remember the NPCs besides physical descriptions, and it will come up more often and reliably at the table regardless of the situation than most other identifiers.

Defining character traits.  Giving your NPC a defining character trait beyond their voices can be a big boost to how memorable they are.  A lot of this goes hand in hand with personality, but think of this as a way of expressing that personality to the world.  Maybe the NPC is reckless.  So have them charge to the front a few times, consequences be damned!  Or maybe they’re sneaky, so the PCs catch them pickpocketing in the marketplace (or perhaps have a few of their coins filched).  Or they could be smoking in every scene they’re in, regardless of how appropriate it is.  These traits can lead to breakout moments for your NPCs, or give them a quirk the players love them for.  And whatever that trait is, it certainly makes them more memorable than a flat NPC who just jumps when the players ask and otherwise does nothing.

– Reuse your NPCs.  One of the big problems with large-scale or long campaigns is that you tend to end up with a lot of characters., and your players can only be reasonably asked to remember so many.  So whenever you need an NPC to fill a role, ask yourself if you don’t have one already made who can reasonably do the job.  Fewer NPCs makes them easier to remember and gives them plenty of time to shine and for the players to build a relationship with them.  This can also lead to new plot lines as players grow to care about certain NPCs or despise others for messing with their plans.  And if you can get them to that point, you’ve transformed your NPC from a bag of useful stats and quests to a character in the players’ minds, and they’re sure to remember that.

These tips should help you make and run NPCs that your players remember well beyond the scene you first introduced them in.  If you just make your NPCs feel like actual people instead of cardboard-cutout quest dispensers and keep the cast of your game somewhat consistent you’ll be well on your way to a world full of memorable characters.

As always, if you have any additional questions or a specific scenario you’d like help with, hit me up using the contact links on the sidebar.  I’d love to help you out.

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