Non player characters are essential to any game because they make up so much of the world. Any role not filled by a player character belongs to an NPC, from the people who cook the food to the people who run the kingdom. And while the PCs are the primary focus of a game, NPCs allow everyone to experience the cultures, troubles, and victories of a setting. They provide challenges and show how much the PCs have been able to change things. When you give them more thought and developed personalities, NPCs can help make your sessions feel like the best books and films. I encourage every DM to use NPCs to their fullest potential, whether they are major villains or simple tavern maids.
Even if you run your games on the fly with little preparation ahead of time, you can give further depth to NPCs either by making the decisions in your head, or by spending a little time outside of the game putting some people together. If you tend to prepare more of your game before you run, you will have the time to put into people, but you'll want to spend it wisely. You don't need to reinvent the wheel with every personality, nor do you have to unravel the DNA code for each person; what you will be trying to do is choose a few details that will be distinctive, at least at first.
You can figure out your cast needs by knowing where the last session left off and having some idea of where the next session is likely to go. If you know your group well, you will probably have an easier time of it, but in the meantime, you can make a few major figures that you can put down nearly anywhere (a warrior can be found in any just about any town, right?). If it helps you to use note cards to keep organized, try them for NPC note-taking. If they get unwieldly, a computer file can give you an easily searchable reference base.
You can start an NPC with a seed concept that is pretty simple, either based on your immediate story needs ("a ranger the party can hire as a guide across the desert") or on things like traits, or just cool ideas you'd like to throw into the game ("I know! Cat people!"). You might even design an NPC to specifically appeal to or interact with one particular player character, such as introducing a love interest. From this very basic idea, you can develop different branches of the NPC's persona to give them further flavor, but you don't have to grow the whole tree to get started.
On the most basic level, an NPC will begin with a likelihood of positive, negative, or mixed interactions with the player characters. This starting orientation can help you form a basic personality. If you are hoping that the PCs will get along with the character, you will have to shape them to appeal to the PC's interests. Maybe the NPC is boisterous and fun or generous and kind, or perhaps the NPC is looking for daring partners in crime and has enough mischief to appeal to the party. If you want the PC to be disliked, consider how they will start to rub the party the wrong way. Is the NPC arrogant? Standoffish? Or are they outright bitter and unable to be appeased?
For instance, at one point in my first campaign, the party was going to need a guide across the desert. They were renting hippogriff mounts from a prosperous and magical city of good alignment, so I figured a ranger would likely be sent. Since I didn't use gnomes very often, I chose that for his race. I wanted him to get along with the party, so Jedrek was friendly but in a quieter way. As the group traveled together, he started to get in some of his own jokes and to prove himself wise and useful. He also started to hit up the rogue for some late-night entertainment and she happily obliged. When they were all captured by the drow and Jedrek was sacrificed in front of them, it was a terrible blow to the party because by then he felt like he was as much a person as the PCs.
When they escaped and managed to get back to the city they'd hired Jedrek in, I decided to complicate their long-term view of the gnome. When they told the locals about Jedrek's death, the PC's found out he had a wife and son he had never mentioned to the party at all. They tracked down his family to deliver the news and were uncomfortable knowing that Jedrek had cheated on his wife during his time on the road. The rogue was definitely not happy. But the paladin of vengeance tattooed Jedrek on his arm as a reminder of why the wicked drow needed to die. Jedrek wasn't perfect and he'd had sins to atone for, but he died a brave death, and deserved righteous vengeance.
Just remember that nuances take time to develop. You can't control how the PCs will respond, but the better you know the party, the better you will be able to anticipate their reactions. I didn't force the group to like Jedrek, but managed to bring him across in a way that was quite amusing to them. The rogue decided to fancy him on her own, and I wasn't sure how she would feel about the fact that he was married. Her character's reactions were up to here. I also didn't know how the paladin would react; he could have rejected Jedrek entirely. But the tattoo was the paladin's idea and became a symbol for his quest against evil drow - which made the epic feel personal.
Is it necessary to come up with the height, weight, hair color, eye color, clothing description, and bearing of each and every NPC you develop? Should you introduce each NPC in a cinematic sweep of small details? The answer to both of these questions is, probably not. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to come up with a description, but honestly, a full portrait will be developed during play. When we meet people in real life, our eyes skip over their faces and bodies, looking for details that stand out; as Dungeon Masters, we should try to do the same thing with NPCs. Which physical details will make the NPC seem different? Which details will help the players remember the character?
Age and gender are things you can quickly mention, and they can help build an early sketch in players' minds. If the NPC has outstanding physical statistics (Strength and Dexerity), they should probably be reflected in their bodies, though this might not always be the case. Chasing after a rotund gentleman who nevertheless nimbly sidesteps around people in his way can make for a memorable scene. It should also be noted that Charisma can represent physical appearance in D&D, but a high score doesn't always mean that the character looks like a model. If a character's Charisma is more representative of his force of personality, he'll probably stand out because he has that special something that draws interest to him.
Focusing on a few distinctive details will keep your players from getting bored and will save you time and effort. Anything that is better or worse than usual can help. The Dungeon Master's Guide has a chart of 100 traits and some of them are physical, like a missing finger. Clothing might be worth mentioning if it is particularly elaborate or lacking, or if the style indicates something special, like a guild or a church.
A solid portrayal will cement an NPC in players' minds. Even if it feels silly at first, trying to take on the persona of an NPC can pay off in the long run by making them feel more like a person and inviting interaction. Changing your tone of voice, the way you put sentences together, and your accent can help. You can learn a lot by imitating characters in your favorite movies and television shows. Changing the way you arrange your body might also add the right touch without a lot of effort on your part: slouching casually, straightening up sharply, or slumping in discomfort doesn't cost much, but sets a tone.
Instead of feeling like you need to be some kind of professional actor bringing up a character from scratch, you can put one together based on people you've seen and heard (either on screen or in real life). People can have more proficiency with mimicking than they think and it can be relatively easy to build a personality from a well-known trait. You can also think in broad personality types: serious/flippant, introverted/extroverted, self-sacrificing/selfish, emotional/detached, aggressive/passive, flexible/unmovable, individualistic/conformist, traditionalist/anarchic. Just mixing and matching some of those types will lead to many different personalities. If you add a little thought to the reasons such a personality developed (a.k.a., personal history), you will have powerful glue binding the character together.
For my first campaign, I remembered a secondary character from the television series North and South who was the perfect wife and had a lovely Irish accent. I used her accent for Eliora, an NPC who might not have become anything special, but she caught the eye of our PC cleric and ended up becoming his wife. Eliora had led a good life as the friendly daughter of an enterprising innkeeper whose wife had died. Eliora spent time with dwarves before moving aboveground into a human town, so she was not afraid of the thought of following her husband-to-be to another mostly-human city. She was a warm woman with a knack for making others feel at home, and she made friends almost without having to try.
If I ever felt like I was forgetting how to portray Eliora, I'd pop in the show, watch a bit of the character in North and South, and that would help me reconnect with the NPC I'd based on her. Eliora became a pillar of the group's home town experience in a way I could not have anticipated, and everyone visited Thorik's house in character at some point just to sit at her table. She's probably the most beloved NPC I've made yet, and it all started with an lovely accent I remembered from a 1980's television miniseries.
Every story has a beginning, middle and an end, and so does every NPC. We tend to meet NPCs in the middle of their lives, after having spent years living and loving and hating. Years build up layers of ideas, experiences, failures and revelations. You don't need to establish such things for every single field hand and stable boy, but giving layers to NPCs that don't seem like they're very special can give your players a pleasant surprise. And establishing some ties between people and some history not only makes them seem more real, but it also can lead to adventures.
It can help to consider who is important to the NPC (and who might be important for the player characters to meet). Family, friends, coworkers, church brothers, and enemies can provide strong and easy webs of attachment. If the local lady wants to raze the graveyard to stop the undead from rising from it but the high cleric wants to handle it, it might be because they are sisters and the cleric is sick of doing what her older sister demands. Just a simple tie and a simple history can make interactions more interesting (and sometimes more difficult!). Want to make a town feel like someplace you could actually visit? Set up grudges, rivalries, crushes and marriages between its inhabitants and have those ties affect how the place runs.
Knowing even a few major events from an NPC's life can help reinforce their personality, choices, and reactions. If an NPC has been rejected and scorned at every turn, despite her best efforts, she could be very suspicious when the player characters offer to help her for nothing in return. For a quick history, try to imagine one important event in the character's life for each life stage they've been through so far: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, old age. For a more nuanced history, come up with more events per life stage (perhaps, for humans, every five years). And to keep things interesting, you might want to come up with one secret per NPC.
When my player characters acquire Leadership, I try to give their followers histories and personalities, and to see if I can weave reactions between the different followers. In my evil campaign, the blackguard Augustus came into the game with a new batch of followers, so I used Tarot cards to try to gain inspiration for them. (Batch creation can be a bitch.) The reading gave me two major aspects: completion, capability, perfection; conquest, destruction, loss, dishonor. So I named her Glykera and wove her story thusly:
Glykera of Akanax, courtesy of Worldspinner Portrait Workshop
I decided she came from a city with a strict military culture and that her father was a military historian. When he died, she became determined to serve and use all he'd taught her. Women were not conscripted and sent out, but usually trained to hold the city while the forces were away. Since there wasn't enough money to send all her siblings for training, Glykera challenged her brother to a duel and killed him, claiming his place. She followed the Red Knight, a goddess of tactics, and served her city proudly - until her forces were defeated in battle and she was sold into slavery to Augustus, the blackguard PC. Instead of keeping her a slave, however, he told her she was free to follow him and earn a new life.
When I portray Glykera, I speak in complete sentences without contractions as much as possible. She is formal, given to salutes and stiff postures, and she is serious in demeanor. She actively dislikes Virosanne Valturri, another woman who follows Augustus, since she came from the city that defeated Glykera in battle. Worse, Viro is loud, sloppy, and spur of the moment; although both women are fighters, Viro is almost Glykera's opposite in personality. This makes for some tension in the ranks (without going overboard), as well as individuality. When we started play, Augustus didn't know that Glykera was aiming to convert from her goddess to his god, Bane; she kept that secret until she was ready to make a sacrifice worthy of her conversion, but she ended up needing help to obtain her sacrifice.
Non player characters reflect their environments in different ways, and you can use this to your advantage when you are trying to make a location feel unique. All you have to do is choose what a place is going to be like - angry, reserved, corrupt, joyful - and then put people in it. Ask yourself how those people feel about the location and how they react to it, whether they are aware of their reactions or not.
An NPC can love where they live, work, and/or play and reflect it directly, such as the sunny cleric of agriculture who nurtures his town like a well-tended field. He will probably show more warmth, friendliness, and optimism than folks in other places. If he treats the PCs well and offers them help, asking for little in return, they might feel bad when he and other local clerics are killed, leaving the fields to wilt with the goddess' displeasure. Likewise, an NPC might act opposite of how they feel; a cleric might be more strict and harsh because he loves his city and wants to maintain it.
An NPC can hate where they are at and be looking for the first opportunity to leave. (That can be a great way to introduce characters who will act as followers for the Leadership feat.) Or they might be so tied down that they can't leave, so they are known for their bad temper. This doesn't necessarily mean that they'll become a villain but it could complicate things for the PCs. And it could be hard to go against someone who acts like they love a place when they can't stand it, like the head of the mining town who generously gives her workers all they can drink - but plans to poison the town when the operation is finished.
It can be even more interesting when an NPC reflects their location in a way they're not aware of. An NPC might have become quite hardened after years in the city, but she might believe she is still as sympathetic as the next person. In any event, NPCs will help make an impression in a way that simple description can't touch. You can tell the party that the house is dark and foreboding, but introducing them to the little boy who is terrifed to live there will probably leave a deeper impression.
One of the easiest ways to make your setting seem alive to your players is to involve them with the people who live there, but that means you have to make time for interactions. Think about it this way: How many people do you talk to in a single day? How many conversations do you catch snippets of as you walk from place to place, even in an office building? If you were in a D&D game, you would be a player character and all of the people around you would be NPCs. Ever bumped into someone you once knew working somewhere you wouldn't have expected to see them? Grocery stores, movie theaters, gas stations, mall shops? All NPCs in the story of your life. Think of your gaming NPCs in those terms - they're everywhere, sometimes leading perfectly boring lives, but usually with more going on than meets the eye.
As the PCs move around the world, think about where they can encounter NPCs, and not just for combative purposes. Even in the wilderness, people live and work and plot and scheme. The PCs can encounter someone with a problem they need help with in a tavern or a backwoods cottage. Let the NPCs address and react to more than one party member; even if the PC's have one character that acts as their "face," the other members are likely to be around. See if you can get everyone to join a discussion. When the PCs return to places they've been before, let them get recognized on the street or greeted at the inn. If the party is camping for the night, start a conversation at the fireside meal. If you do allow Leadership, have followers check in for dinner one night. In fact, meals can be great ways to invite social interaction, since they are occasions where people regularly get together.
The better you know your NPCs' histories and motivations, the easier it will be for you to figure out what they are up to and why. The most convincing NPCs have their own desires and plans, as well as their own biases and faults, and they are not just standing around while the PCs are off on their own adventures. NPCs are their own agents taking baby steps toward their own ends and though their agendas will not always square with the desires of the player characters, the conflicts that result are the meat of stories. For recurring NPCs, it can be helpful to come up with one short term goal and one long term goal that they want (and might need the PC's help to achieve).
The better you know your NPCs' attitude and motivations, the better you will be able to portray them in any given circumstance. Always remember that as the PCs are reacting to the NPCs, the NPCs are reacting right back. As you get to know your NPCs, you will understand where they are coming from when they snap at or fawn over the PCs, or when they walk on, unimpressed by the PC's proposals. After a time, you will be able to hold whole conversations from the NPC's point of view and you will be able to answer even deeper questions from their world view. This can make your NPCs a joy to speak with and entertaining to listen to.
NPCs provide several vital functions to the Dungeon Master, and you should keep them all in mind:
First of all, NPCs enrich your setting and the believability of your world. The ties that bind are important. NPCs are bound to the player characters as well as to each other. Do you know how much time we spent talking about each other in real life? Or how much time we spend talking about the past? Gossip, old dislikes and feuds helps to underpin the new bit of reality you're trying to create and demonstrate.
Secondly, NPCs are often the way that DMs deliver plot points and quests. Your PCs aren't always going to be moved by strangled screams in the night, but news from a friend might spur them into action.
NPCs are also the bait: "The township of Cerra's bein' held captive by orcs. No, lad, the orcs didn' kill the folks, they're keepin' 'em. Horrible, isn' it?" You can use the friends and family of PCs to weave plots with: your brother's been poisoned, your mother died in childbirth and you're being called home, your niece is being married to the evil lord and you'd better bring one hell of a wedding present. Think about all of the ways that you interact with folks in your life and use them - wedding parties, funerals, dances, get-togethers, reunions, divorces, the whole gamut.
NPCs can deliver entertaining plots just in being around. Does one of your player characters find the blacksmith's niece enchanting? Go with it! Is the thief in the party still being hounded by the rival of their playground years? Use that! Is a player character married to a total ass who wants more than anything to keep her home and away from her adventuring pals? Side-plots abound!
NPCs can help to reinforce the boundaries and consequences of your world. If the player characters run rampant through a town and plunder everything, the next town might be alerted. The NPCs of that place might just be ready to attack the rebels and bring them in for justice. If a player character tries to go the evil route and is suspected of something heinous, the gossip will spread and folks will react. NPCs are not just the workers of your world. NPCs also encompass the kings, soldiers and city councils. You can use your NPCs to help your player characters better understand their morality: is a repentant man worthy of mercy? Is the efficient government right in enforcing zero-tolerance laws?
Beware the urge to create a GMPC, my friends. It can be a strong urge, particularly if you feel like there aren't enough player characters to round out the party and you want to add an NPC to their ranks. It can be good to add such NPC help and I don't advise against it, but avoid making that NPC your personal avatar, your PC, because it will invite complications that really aren't necessary. It can be all too easy to grant your GMPC knowledege that they really couldn't have obtained, or to keep giving the party clues through your GMPC when they really want to find things out through other means. Without meaning to, you can end up making your GMPC not only the most useful person in the party, but the star of the show. While NPCs will get some of the spotlight, especially if they are run as their own people, the PCs should share the lion's share of the limelight - and they should not have to muscle past a GMPC to get it.
Of course, you think that you are level-headed and would never allow such things to happen, and you might be right. And why shouldn't you get to have your own PC, especially if you're the only one who's been running games and you never get to play? If you manage to keep your GMPC useful but balanced, just another member of the party, you could add an extra layer of fun for yourself But if it turns out that you start to favor your character, you will add an extra layer of hell for your players because, in all likelihood, you will not realize what you've done and if you feel entitled to play because you never get to, you won't want to stop.
Few things can feel as frustrating to players as having to deal with such a situation, if only because they can feel like they are at an automatic disadvantage. In many groups, the DM runs the show and makes the final ruling. So how can they tell you that they're sick of your character without pissing you off? How can they get you to see the favoritism when you've made it clear that you think your character is perfect as they are? It's not easy to swallow the resentment that builds up to try to talk these things out rationally; some people would rather just leave a game. It is easy to nip this in the bud by maintaining just a little extra distance between yourself and your NPCs. You can care about them, sometimes quite a bit, without inviting the full privilege that comes with being a PC.
Everyone has a job of some sort, a niche that they fill. Most people spend a good deal of their time working and some jobs come with a lot of politics. Was the local butcher framed by a competitor, who put poison in some meat delivered to the nobles? Are the guilds at war? Below is a small list of professions for NPCs taken from my own thoughts and the 2nd edition Dungeon Master's Guide. They are mostly general categories (I am not going to list every kind of cook, for example). If you have any suggestions, feel free to email them to me.
Animal Trainer / Breeder
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