Wednesday, May 16, 2018

GM 101: Quick & Dirty Memorable NPCs

Pathfinder Face cards or similar NPC artwork
can help imprint NPCs into your players' memories
There is a plethora of great advice on the web on making a memorable NPC, but often that advice assumes that NPC is one you have hand-crafted for a campaign as a spotlight character. Sometimes, you need an NPC on the spot, and you don’t want your players to regard him or her as “Random NPC #5”.

In a vibrant campaign, the potential should be there for the party to create a relationship with any NPC met along the way. Often times, the most surprising role playing can come out of a chance meeting with a random NPC.

There are a couple quick and dirty tricks I use which I call the “Quick & Dirty NPC Generator”. It's basically a sheet of paper with some notes to have nearby during your sessions. Here's how it works.

Have a List of Names 

This is fairly obvious and easy one. Choose 6 male and 6 female names to have at the ready. There are tons of random name lists, even one in Xanathar’s Guide To Everything. However, you don’t want to look at your phone, laptop, or scramble for a book when you need one on the spot. Have the list within easy reach. Nothing is worse then saying, “Uhhhh…. Bill…. Board. His name is Bill Board.” because you have a brain fart in that moment. If you have something ready, the player immersion in the scene does not get interrupted.

For each list, write down 3 names that are appropriate sounding for the region the PCs are traveling in, and then pick 2 or 3 that are “foreign” to the area in which they are traveling. That way you can quickly give them the name of a “local” or have a “far traveler” name at the ready for a chance encounter.  As an example, you could have 3 Germanic sounding names (if using a pseudo-European setting) with one Spanish and one Polynesian (for the "exotic" travelers). If your non-human NPCs also have exotic naming conventions, have a 3rd short list with about a half dozen non-humans names.

The important thing is to have these ready in advance so there is no pause in the narrative when the players introduce themselves to a new NPC. The players should never know if this NPC is critical to a plot hook, or just a chance meeting you are role playing out off the cuff. Without that meta-clue about NPC importance, all the party's NPC interactions may become more significant to the game.

Pick a Personality Trait or Quirk

A good way to make Jill Random NPC stand out is to give them some flamboyant trait. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top, but make it obvious and recognizable. This can be a simple catch phrase, or a facial tic, or some other obvious mannerism. Again, there are tons of these to find with a quick internet search. Write a half dozen of them down on your “Quick & Dirty” NPC generator.

While your traits don't have to be "over the top" crazy, don't be afraid to be flamboyant. One of my players' favorite NPCs was a swashbuckling "merchant" who had a Mediterranean (esque) accent. He spoke a bit like Hondo from Star Wars Rebels, and was an instant hit.

Consider Using an Accent

I know this makes a lot of new GMs nervous. I often see GM posts on social media saying, “I’m terrible at voices. How do I make an NPC stand out?” Believe me, we all are… but that’s also what can make the NPC memorable and a lot of fun to portray.

I have been GMing for years and I’m still bad at voices, but I get a little bit better each time. And I’ve got to tell you than when I try a different voice for an NPC, my players immediately sit up and take notice. Even if the NPC is a complete nobody, by trying to add some flair, the players will believe that this person may be a "somebody" and it will help with their immersion and role playing in the scene. That random NPC now could potentially be an avenue which you use to deliver plot hooks, rumors, or clues to the party… or just a red herring.

Consider also that a “voice” doesn’t have to be an accent. It could be a tonal quality -- raspy, high-pitched, whiny, monotone, odd cadences...

Don’t be afraid to try different things. The best NPCs have sometimes resulted when I’ve tried an accent and what came out was some weird multi-ethnic mix by accident. (Wait... Is he German or Jamaican?)

When doing a voice affectation, know where the line is.
What works for a comedy, may not at the table.
One note of caution: I’m just a regular white dude, so when I do accents, I do my best not to portray a stereotype. If I have a faux-Asian culture in my game, for instance, one way to portray that character is to use what I call the “Firefly method”. That person may speak normal English, but then casually drops some phrase or curse in their native language from time to time (Google translate, FTW). That way, you can emphasize a different native tongue without resorting to some borderline offensive stereotype.

Just relax and give it a try. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at the player reception.

Bonus Round: Physical Details 

This is sometimes a little harder to do on-the-fly, but consider adding some extra detail to their description when you introduce them. You can make some notes on your Q&D NPC sheet to provide ideas. Consider the NPCs age. Are they plain or comely? Do they have a scar or wear some notable piece of jewelry or clothing? The players are more likely to remember the verbal affectations of the NPC, but small physical details can also create a memorable attribute for the players to notice.

Visual aids like Pathfinder Face Cards or pre-printed NPC portraits from a Google image search can really make any of your random NPCs appear to be "spotlight" characters. It is unfortunate that many of the best Pathfinder card sets are now out of print, but keep an eye out for re-prints.

Final Thoughts

Don’t forget, that NPC is now part of your world. In your campaign notes, write down the NPC name, the town/location, the accent and affectation(s) you picked for them. Now you can use them as a recurring character in future sessions! You can even flesh them out later with their own ideals and motivations... but for an improv NPC during a session, you don't need to worry about backstory, motivations, ideals, etc.

Cross off already used names and personality traits and re-write the list when you need a fresh set of attributes for future sessions. It really only takes a few minutes of preparation to have your Q&D NPC Generator at the ready for any given session. Be sure not to roll on a random NPC table with the players watching. That will clue them in to the fact that this is a random NPC, rather than a Person of Interest. The whole point of the Q&D method is to disguise your random NPCs.

By having your list prepped in advance, your players won’t be able to metagame which NPCs are important vs. which are insignificant cannon fodder. This method makes all NPCs appear significant and opens up story opportunities for both you and your players.

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