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Posted: Mar 28 2006, 03:11 AM
Member No.: 1
Joined: 21-March 06
As every experienced gamer knows, NPCs are the people that populate the world. They are the people on the street and in the shops, the people who have to be rescued, and the informants. In any well-developed campaign there will be many of these people and the game depends on them. If these people in your world do not seem real and interesting then neither will the world.
Properly portrayed, NPCs will move the story ahead, establish the background, give characters the essential information you need them to have, prod slower moving characters, create necessary obstacles for the more dangerous and destructive characters, and can even provide a well-needed laugh now and again. In other words, good NPCs invigorate your campaign.
Despite this essential role, RP-creators barely scratch the surface when it comes to portraying realistic, fun, and integrated NPCs. Why is that? Some people think that creating an NPC takes too much time. Others simply think it is unnecessary and believe they can create good NPCs ďon the fly.Ē The truth is that creating an NPC can be simple and quick. And NPCs created ďon the flyĒ tend to end up looking and acting more or less the same.
One common solution is to decide what is needed and build a random character. This can give NPCs some beliefs, religious or political affiliations, reputations, or other signs of life and personality. But that is not enough. NPCs should be more than 2-dimensional constructs. They should be recognizable and "real." So, how do we make them such?
Obviously, first item to decide is what type of adventure you are running. You want your NPCs to add to the genre, not detract from it. If you are going for a light and fun campaign you probably donít want too may NPCs who are dour and serious, except as occasional comedy relief. If you are going for a medieval fantasy campaign then you probably donít want too many people who are overly educated and knowledgeable, except as the occasional McGuffin (an element of the story that serves a definite purpose to make sure something specific happens).
Then, you need to decide who would normally be in the environment you are creating. In an old west town you are going to need people taking care of horses because everyone has horses and they donít take care of themselves. There will be people stocking general stores, people working nearby farms and ranches, and, of course, the local sheriff. There are going to be the missionaries working the frontier, and itís almost mandatory to have a bartender in his (or her) saloon. It takes no significant time to imagine who should be there if you can picture the environment. In a far-in-the-future space terminal you are going to have dock-workers (lots of them) loading and unloading ships, maintenance workers and mechanics, traffic coordinators, and people collecting fees, taxes, tariffs and import/export duties. The basic idea is to think about who needs to be there to make the environment work. They make that environment independent of the players. Simply by having people there doing their jobs you give an impression of a well-developed world.
Modern-day resources can give you a sense of the NPCs you need to develop in other environments. For example, a spaceport is comparable to the major shipping ports or the major airports today. It is fairly simple to find out who works in ports and airports. Real resources are a simple internet search away if you need to know about people in Wild West towns and many other environments. Photographs may even be available to give you a good feel for who they were. A few minutes on your computer can be immensely valuable. If you are doing a modern day adventure in New York City, you can look at the internet for the happenings around town, and for the flavor of various neighborhoods and their residents.
Okay, next step is to figure out what information about the adventure each NPC needs to know. But it is important to be careful here. NPCs do not exist solely to help the characters. They exist because every story requires that they exist. Some may help characters, some may impede characters, and some may be distractions. Most simply create the environment that the players have to negotiate.
If you want particular NPCs to be useful then think about the extent to which you want them to be useful, and the natural limit to how useful those people could be. Individual NPCs should have a range or limit to their knowledge and abilities. For example, a bartender is going to know almost everyone and their personal business. But there are limits on how much he can tell you without offending his customers. A mechanic in a Spaceport can help you with physical stuff (like that lock-down device that has been attached your ship) and will know the local bureaucracy, but probably wonít know much about the people who come and go.
These are just the beginning steps to decide what NPCs are within a given scenario of your adventure. We hope we have already made the point that they do not need to be cardboard cutouts that you just put a new costume on.
Make sure that your NPCs are there for more than just being a warm body or giving the NPCs direction (or misdirection for that matter). In other words give them something to do. If it is a particularly important NPC then go a step further and give him (or her) beliefs, social and political views, areas of interest outside of just work. A bureaucrat NPC who spends all his free time playing baseball with the guys might use baseball analogies to explain things. This kind of background, if expressed, gives players a way to connect with that NPC, get in the NPCs good graces, or get the NPC upset (perhaps by mentioning your support for the wrong team).
Background could also be motive. If your NPC has a grudge against someone, that NPC could steer the main character towards an adventure as a form of pay-back against the teamís opponent, or maybe against someone on the team.
We all have a tendency to make our characters with stereotypical personality traits. We have a "too-chipper" girl scout type, the "boy scout" who can do no wrong, the psychotic, the angry woman, etc. Even worse, often all of the NPCs will have your own personality. We have all been in games where every NPC acts exactly like the main character. How about giving your NPC some real personality of their own. People's personalities change depending on their mood, what has recently happened and how they are treated. Their personalities also depend on what they value and what they despise. Someone who likes to gamble on the weekend, who thinks competitions are interesting and who likes to pick sides is going to act very differently than someone who doesnít gamble, hates conflicts and tries to keep people calm and reasonable. So it pays to have a general sense of an NPCs current mood and their general personality.
One good way to add personality to an NPC is to base them on people you know. In your notes, next to that NPC write the name of someone you know from work. Next to that other NPC, write the name of one of your aunts. You know how a bit about how these real people act. That gives you a quick reference for how NPCs might act, and they wonít all be clones of you.
This can really breathe life or death into your NPC portrayal. If you have your character sitting around not really interacting with anyone or anything, then they might as well be store mannequins for how believable they will seem. We have seen many RP-creators have a number of NPCs and only a few interact while the rest are basically background furniture.
If nothing else you can move to the next step beyond this. You can have the character interact with objects in his environment. The bar patron breaking a glass and flinching before picking it up, a little girl playing with her favorite toy and reacting to what it does, etc. can at least mimic a living being. It doesn't require a lot of work and can add texture and believability to a scene.
Of course, the best is interacting or reaction to the main characters and other NPCs. Not just your main NPCs need do this.
When NPCs do interact with main characters, then how the main characters interact with them can change what information and assistance they give. Roleplaying has a purpose and if they are going to be given the same info and help regardless of what/how they play then roleplaying is pointless. Give your players some control of what their characters learn. Good roleplaying leads to good information and more of it. Bad roleplaying leads to less information, or maybe bad information. Giving your players both good and bad information sees how much ability they have as a team to work out ALL the clues together. Plus, the whole scene comes alive with plot devices and intrigue you just couldn't get with your average two-dimensional NPC.
Combining all these traits makes for a more vibrant, "real" scene. Add in your own plot twists and intrigue and your campaign is exactly what it's supposed to be: fun.
I do realize, seeing that this is a free-form roleplay game, that NPC's are rarely used; however, given the significance of NPC's, I think its a great idea for others to include them more often. There are a lot of people willing to sign-up for specific roleplays, and that's fine, but they need to recognize that the people who sign-up aren't the only people in the world. Perhaps, if you're travelling in a party, and walk into a town, you could go to a few shops (if this were a fantasy RP) and purchase better equipment from the shop owner. He himself would be a NPC, and perhaps he could have some sort of influence over the main character. Maybe he has a secret sword in the back of the store that is 'cursed', or a secret potion that makes you invincible. There are so many extra things you can do to make the story more interesting.