Originally Published at Rob.BearSwarm.com on 2010-07-12.
I got an e-mail from a listener (Neal Dalton, to be specific) about BS! Episode 112 and my comments on how I make NPCs. Neal’s succinct letter reads:
I just wanted to let you know that I really liked your (I’m assuming that Rob is the one that monitors the contacts) method of making NPCs. I was wondering if you had considered posting it on you blog or in some other written format. It is definitely something I would steal for myself.
Well, who am I not to give our listeners what they request? After the break you can read my method of turning NPC creation over to your players.
Before we get into the new rules it should be mentioned that not every NPC needs to be created by the players. Many you can do yourself. There is a website called Seventh Sanctum that helps make this a cake walk. Remember that in using my method we don’t need super detailed characters, just a jumping pad. Start with something simple, pick a Name Generator of your liking and roll up a random name. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Quick Name Generator. I also suggest generating 5-10 and picking and choosing. The Quick Name gave me the following male names:
- James Hunter George
- Kory Glen Robinson
- Landon Roman
- Michael Tommy Johnson
- Rosendo Jan Hart
I take a look at this and pick and choose a few names that jump out at me. First, Landon Roman sounds fine. Then we’ll make Kory Hunter, Tommy Hart, Glen Johnson and James George. I always suggest making multiple NPCs with this method. You never know what name is going to match with what description.
- The delusional, outgoing leader who can’t resist a fight.
- The non-athletic , moralistic rascal.
- The athletic, open-minded fighter pilot.
- The non-athletic policeman.
- The strong, brave librarian.
- The aged, broken-hearted, philandering manager from a bad family.
- The stockbroker with an odd birthmark.
- The sickly murderer who can’t resist a fight.
- The sickly, hypocritical soldier.
- The strong, unwise acrobat.
As a rule of thumb I always generate more Characters then Names to give myself some room to play. Outta that list I like the non-athletic policeman, the strong, brave librarian, I also want to drop some details and make a the aged, broken-hearted, manager and a . Lastly lets keep a fighter pilot but let’s make him sickly. Now I look over the names and match up names with brief descriptions.
- Landon Roman: The aged, broken-hearted, manager.
- Kory Hunter: The hypocritical soldier.
- Tommy Hart: The sickly fighter pilot.
- Glen Johnson: The non-athletic policeman.
- James George: The strong, brave librarian.
Not bad as a start, but lets give them a little more detail. Lets tie in some of the Character Scrambler stuff. We’ll generate ten scrambled characters and come out with:
- The moody art student whose loyalties are suspect and ever-shifting and who is seeking True Love.
- The technical guru who keeps trying to relive their youth and who follows the protagonist anywhere.
- The mysterious yet totally ineffective magical knight who wants everything for their children.
- The super-sexy super spy who tries to uphold their beliefs.
- The antisocial miser who is a bit wacky and whose time-traveling creates their own past.
- The rightful heir to the empire who only gets loud because they care.
- The scoundrel with a heart of gold who is on the run from the law and who has lost it all.
- The innocent and loving girl whose sexual preferences are in question.
- The strong but not very smart man who is completely confused about their own past.
- The wanderer with a unique gift who is driven insane by their strange powers.
Oh, we’ve got some “loyalties are suspect and ever-shifting” and some “trying to relive their youth”. Good stuff, a bit over used but it’ll help us build a bit of depth. Lets look at our five characters with some new details added in.
- Landon Roman: The aged, broken-hearted, manager who wants everything for their children.
- Kory Hunter: The hypocritical soldier who has lost it all and is on the run from the law.
- Tommy Hart: The sickly fighter pilot with a unique gift who is driven insane by their strange powers.
- Glen Johnson: The non-athletic policeman who keeps trying to relive their youth.
- James George: The strong, brave librarian whose sexual preferences are in question.
Wow, so Landon is a family man now. Did his wife die? Did she leave him? Maybe she’s still alive and he’s in love with someone else and maybe that someone else is a PC? Then Glen, a cop trying to relieve his youth. Sounds like a lot of potential plot fodder there. And lets not overlook Tommy’s strange power. Is that why he’s sickly? Maybe his magic is a cancer and he’s just trying to get rid of it. Or maybe he is sickly because he’s been committed to an asylum. Read over your NPCs and start asking yourself why. Why is Kory on the run? Why did Tommy get powers? Why is James sexual preference in question? Then ask what can that do for your game.
You’ve generated hundreds of one-line NPCs now, thrown them all in the game, and let the players start interacting. You’ve determined a few things here and there, on the spot, and made the players feel like their in a living setting. Now, one of your players has expressed a great interest in Jame George. He wants James to be more than just a one-line character. Here’s the system I teased earlier.
NPC Creation System
First we assume you’re using the Three Things method of character creation. Every NPC is composed of three facts. That’s all they get… until they get more. We already know a bit about James George, but those are bonus things. This process turns the Three Things over to the players. First, they need to spend something to do it. If you game has a luck balancing mechanic (Bennies in Savage Worlds, Action Points in D&D, Force Points in Star Wars, or even Willpower in World of Darkness) use that. If not, then it is on you to figure out what to use. The player who wants to create an NPC has to pay SOMETHING.
Everyone is playing a World of Darkness game and Paul decides that James George is his kinda guy and wants to know more about him. James is just a lowly librarian and Rob lets Paul define the character further. Paul spends a point of Willpower and tells Rob that he’s going to create James George. Rob nods and the process moves on.
After points have been spent that creating player is allowed to define the NPC’s basic information: (Name, Gender, Race, Class, Clan, Organization, whatever is basic in your game.) and then they cite One of the Three Things. Just one. They get full reign at this point. Even if they’re creating an existing NPC into something more, Maybe James George isn’t his real name and maybe librarian isn’t his real job. The basic stuff is all up to the creating player.The game master can say no though, I urge against it. Instead ask them why? Why isn’t James George his real name? Try to figure out what the player was trying to get out of it and work with them. If you have to say no, pay them back equal points to what they had to spend. If you have to say no, then it shouldn’t cost your player anything. Here’s the big secret, their doing your work for you anyway.
Paul first says that James George is actually his first and middle name, his last name is Westerbrook. That’s right, of the infamous New Hampshire Westerbrooks. He’s just been going by George so he doesn’t get treated differently. Rob nods and jots down James George’s first Thing.
Once your creating player has decided on the basics and given the first Thing everyone else at the table has a chance to offer suggestions. These eventually become the other two things. The creating player collects the suggestions, writing them down if he needs to, then picks his favorite two. Maybe he combines ideas from a couple of source or maybe he takes one of them verbatim from another player. It doesn’t matter because those become the other Two Things. Then the creating player decided who gets rewarded. Two players get rewarded for contributing facts that get used. Each player then gets the same amount of points that the creating player spent. Typically it is if a player’s suggestion is used but sometimes the creating player might reward someone for a good inspiring idea. Again the GM has veto power over these Things but they must pay back out if they just say no.
Mike suggests that James Westerbrook is actually asexual and comes across as a possible homosexual because of his udder lack of interest in women. Bryan then suggests that James joined the military as a way to get away from his family, which is why he’s so strong for a librarian. Jacob offers that James is actually deeply in love with another woman and tries to hide it, which is why his sexual preferences seem odd. Mike, seeing that if Jacob’s suggest is used then his can’t be, offers another option for Paul. Mike suggests that James is a cultist, secretly working with the very organization that the players have been working against. Elder suggests that James was engaged to his character’s sister, a librarian before she died, and he honors her memory by working in the library. Paul considers carefully and then gives points to Bryan and Elder.
This last step is exceptionally important. The GM then writes down the Three Things, adding appropriate interpretation where needed. We know that James is ex-military but we don’t know what branch. And no one has decided WHY James’ sexual preference is in question. Maybe these questions don’t need to be answered, but the GM is always allowed to. Remember that if you change a Thing too much you might need to pay out extra.
Rob writes down the final notes and then runs the finished character by the players:
James George Westerbrook III
- James George is a strong, brave librarian who lost all desire for physical relations after the death of his fiance.
- James George is actually a Westerbrook, the third James George of the the infamous New Hampsire Westerbrooks, rumored cultists. James tried to break away from the Westerbrooks and opted to use his middle name as his last name.
- James joined the US Army as a way to get away from his family, he served a tour in Iraq before his term was up. He still maintains the fitness regime.
- James was engaged to his Elder’s sister, who was a librarian before she died. He honors her memory by working part-time in the library.
You’ll notice, if you look carefully, that a lot of the other player suggestions were lifted into this character. The players made solid suggestions and while only two get rewarded for them there isn’t any reason why you can’t use all of the ideas given to you. You might even want to jot down some of the unused ones for other characters.
Anyway, that’s my system. Use it as you will. Comments are always appreciated too.