Be Fruitful and Multiply…Memorable NPCs

Hello Dear Reader(s)! Welcome back once again to Always Split the Party. I have been, and always shall be, your friend Jim the DM.

Today I would like to talk about something so important and essential to your game, that without it, you might as well be playing a board game, like Descent, or Hero Quest. This important and essential thing is, of course, memorable and realistic NPCs. Good non-player characters can transform a flat and otherwise colorless campaign setting into a living, breathing world, full of rich and believable people.

Now, for many DMs, NPC creation is easy. Crafting a rich backstory, coming up with good motivations, and working out stats and level progression is second nature to them. However, making the NPC memorable to the players is often another story altogether. I think I have a few techniques that you can use to help NPCs stand out to players enough that not only will the players remember their name (that would be a blessing in itself, wouldn’t it?) but also feel emotionally connected to the NPC (wonder of wonders!).

First things first. If an NPC is around long enough, the players will eventually come to remember them. Familiarity will ensure that. If you plan on having an NPC stick around for a long time, then chances are they will become memorable to the players without you having to do anything too extraordinary. However, many DMs struggle making a good first impression with their NPCs, and so players quickly forget them unless they do have that constant contact.

To fight this, many DMs resort to the old standby: extremely unusual features, such as eye-patches, facial scarring, a funny voice, a strange name, and other such things. These are all decent things to use, but if overused will give your players the sense that everyone used to be a pirate, or was mauled by a bear when they were young. Most likely, this will not be true in your world (although I would love to play in the campaign where it was true!). Most of your NPCs will be more mundane; the blacksmith, the tavern keeper, the town guard, the mayor, the wizard in the tower on the hill behind town are all fairly common NPCs to encounter. They can’t all have funny voices and eye-patches! How are you supposed to make them memorable to your players?

Well, do not despair, for there is an old saying which holds the key. “First impressions are the best”, it says smugly, and it is right! The first time your players meet an NPC should stand out to them! Make sure they get a clear image of what that NPC is all about when they first meet them.

Now, you might be tempted to think that this means describe what they look like in great detail. Many DMs use this technique. Colorful descriptions of their physical appearance are good, as far as they go. But, in my opinion, one step better is to describe in great detail the activity and surroundings of the NPC, as well as his or her physical description. Think about the meeting as a scene from a movie, rather than a description on Craigslist. Here are two examples. Think about which one makes your “mental movie” more memorable.

Before you stands a tall man, with huge, muscular arms. He has a great, brown beard and a bald head. In one ear is a silver ring, and several of his teeth appear to be made of silver as well. He is wearing a simple, grease-stained shirt, and breeches, which are covered by a soot-blackened leather apron. Peeking out beneath the apron are a pair of brown boots, covered in buckles. He holds a hammer in his right hand, and his arms are crossed over his chest. He says in a deep voice, “Welcome! My name is Ajax. What can I do for you?”

Memorable, right? Well, how does it compare to this next one.

As you enter the blacksmith’s workshop, a wave of oppressive heat engulfs you. It is dark in here, lighted only by the dancing flames from the forge, and the small beams of sunlight which sneak through the few cracks in the walls. The repeated sound of a hammer crashing into metal reverberates around you, making it difficult even to think.

Hunched over the anvil near the back of the workshop is a huge figure, black against the fire of the forge. As you approach you see that it is a massive, broad-shouldered man, his bald head glistening with sweat in the flickering firelight. He brings a large hammer down onto a piece of glowing metal on the anvil again and again. Each time he does, sparks fly up, some catching in his beard and sending up little puffs of smoke. He is simply dressed, but the metal ring in his ear, and the many-buckled boots he wears show a care about his appearance that would seem at odds with his profession. 

He glances up at you, his eyes shining through the dim light and a deep voice booms forth from behind the bushy beard, “Hello there. My name is Ajax. This is my place. What can I do for you?”

Do you see a difference? The first is good for painting a picture. The second is good for making a scene! And scenes are what this game is all about. Now your players don’t just have an image of a big guy, but a memorable encounter with the blacksmith. The dark and stuffy workshop, lighted by beams of light and a dancing fire almost demands your players’ interest. They will not quickly forget the denizen of such a place. I guarantee it.

Another way of making NPCs memorable is to turn the players’ expectations upside down. Take a staple of fantasy, like the tavern keeper, the old wizard, or the wandering bard, and switch things up. Maybe instead of a fancy, conceited pretty boy, the bard is a huge half-Orc, who is terrible at his instrument, but everyone is too terrified of him to say so to his face. Maybe instead of being a fat, balding gossip, the bartender is a very handsome high-elf, who desperately wants to sell the place. Have tee-totaling dwarves and bloodthirsty halflings. Make a drunkard dragonborn, and an honest and honorable tiefling, of whom everyone speaks well. Play against type! Not for everyone, of course, or your players will come to expect it. But this can be a very powerful tool for making those few characters you want to make stand out to your players.

Another way you can establish NPCs firmly in the minds of your players is to show your NPC interacting with other NPCs. This establishes him or her as a part of the world, quite separate from your players, and it also gives you the opportunity to establish what kind of person this is. If he is obviously scaring the other NPC, then he is obviously someone scary. If he is cowering before the other NPC, nodding obsequiously, and cringing whenever voices are raised, then he is probably not going to be a threat (or is he?).

In one of my campaigns I had a non-player character who was almost always in charge of every situation. She was calm, confidant, and strong willed. She got her way. Rather than telling the players that she was this way, or having them hear this from someone else, I made it so that when the PCs first met her, she was negotiating with a tough looking old dwarf. The PCs watched as she took this old dwarf for everything he was worth, and had him thanking her for it at the end. Later, when they needed reliable information and advice, they went straight for her. They knew that someone like that would be sure to know what was going on in the town. And they were right. They remembered her because of the way she interacted with the world, and the way it interacted with her.

When you make an NPC, don’t worry about figuring out all the details of their personality or backstory right at the beginning. Those things will come out over time. Instead, focus on one or two important traits, and then establish their relationship to the world around them. What do people think about them and what do they think of the others? Then, establish a good “first scene”. Finally, if they belong to one of the cliches and tropes of RPGs and fantasy, try turning it on its head. I bet your players will begin to remember these people. Or, at least more than they used to. Which is always a good thing, right?

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Let me know what you think of these tips and techniques. Do they sound like they would work? Or have you found them to not work in your own games? What are some ways you have found to make NPCs memorable to your players?

Until next time, happy gaming!

And Always Split the Party!

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7 thoughts on “Be Fruitful and Multiply…Memorable NPCs

  1. How many of these scenes do you prepare ahead of time? Part of what I am preparing to do is to keep things minimal and let characters drive the story more. It seems like I may have trouble doing that, as well has having memorable scenes like the one you created.

    I would love to have scenes like you described with the blacksmith, it really does make the story and NPC seem more alive, I just am curious how I could make it work in a campaign where I don’t have much of an idea of where the characters will take the story.

    Do I have all of the NPCs written out with a characteristic? Or would you suggest that I have just a few standard NPCs, blacksmith, innkeep, maybe a guard. Just NPCs that could be important in the future.

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  2. That’s a good question. The short answer is that I don’t. I never write up a box of text to read to the players. When I know that the players will be meeting a certain NPC for sure, I make a list of bullet points about important characteristics (not too long, though), and make sure I am familiar with them, and then I improvise the meeting. If I have no idea that the players will be meeting someone before they do, then I try to come up with a description like this on the fly. It’s actually not too difficult, and gets easier with practice.

    I wouldn’t write out every NPC your players can run into. I might make a list of random names and characteristics (physical and otherwise) to choose from on the fly. That way you can simulate having made every NPC without actually doing that. When the players are on their way to the mayor’s house, or the wizard’s tower, or the gypsy’s tent, look at the list and choose a name and a couple characteristics that stand out. Then think about how you want this guy to appear to the player.

    The only NPCs that I have fully fleshed out and detailed way before the players meet them are my main antagonists. Even if you are running a true sandbox, the players will still need realistic and dynamic villains. When making a world, I always make three or four separate villains, who have plans that run all across the world I’ve made. That way, no matter what the players do, they will encounter those villains, or at least their plans. Now the players can choose what to do about the villains (including nothing) but I make sure that they are fleshed out with motivations and characteristics long before the players actually meet them face to face.

    Does this help at all? I think my next post will be about world building, and I might address some of these things there too.

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  3. An example of the bullet point thing, using the above example, would be something like this:
    Ajax the Blacksmith:
    -Large, muscular man with bald head and big beard
    -friendly and well meaning
    -simply dressed, with a few special ornaments (earring, some fancy piece of clothing, etc.)

    This way, no matter what situation the players actually meet him in, I know what he would be like. If they meet him at home, the description they hear will of course be different from the one I wrote above, but the essentials would remain.

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  4. I personally try to avoid the tropes as well as the anti-tropes as much as possible, and focus having my NPCs act as much like real people as possible. The most memorable NPCs for my players are the ones whose actions impacted them personally or emotionally. Too often NPCs are simply dispensers for one kind of a resource or another that we forget that unlike video game sprites these folks should have homes to go to, families to support. How often do the PCs go to the blacksmiths shop? One a week? Often enough for the blacksmith to invite them over for dinner to meet the missus and the boys?

    On the other hand, and even more strongly impacting are those NPCs who intentionally or not oppose the PCs. The charismatic cleric whose followers won’t talk to one PC because Brother Aesop disapproves of him? The street urchin who lifts one character’s favorite piece of jewelry? The low level magistrate who obstructs a weapon license because he was a rival for a girl’s affections when he and a PC were children? Not major villains, but memorable because they are a frustration.

    Anything that evokes an emotional response from your players will be memorable. Make them feel your NPCs and they’ll never forget them.

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    • I definitely agree that all too often NPCs are just dispensers, either of plot or of goods/services. That’s a different topic than memorable NPCs, however. As I point out in the post, many DMs are great at making NPCs realistic, but fail to capture the players’ imagination.

      Also great point about the opposing NPCs! It’s funny how little things will stick in players’ minds. One of my NPCs could not correctly pronounce a player’s name, and that player HATED that guy. For the rest of the adventure, he had it out for him. On the other hand, make an NPC who particularly likes a PC, who compliments him, who gives him a discount, and other such things, and that player will really be attached to that NPC. It works wonders!

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