Part of the art of telling a good story or creating a good setting is writing interesting , believable and entertaining NPC’s. Hopefully characters that will make you players laugh, angry, engender compassion, utterly bewilder and will occasionally make them cringe.
Hopefully this article will give some techniques that both adds depth to the characters but also speeds up the process of generating interesting NPC’s. I’m specifically looking at NPC’s in the Runequest & Glorantha setting, However most of these concepts will transpose for most characters on most mediums.
I aim to create NPC’s who are
- Individual – There are things about each NPC which are unique and each adds to the flavour of the world
- Believable – The NPC’s must fit with the setting and hold to its internal dynamics
- Generate Plot – They should be active and things should be happening round them.
- Entertain – Their involvement should add to session by adding tension, humour, frustration, relief
- Invoke an emotional response – Players should want to have an opinion about an NPC, love, hate , respect, protect, pity, admire, etc
OK let’s get on with it.
Who are their people and their Gods
Within the gloranthan setting people tend to be strongly defined by culture, religion, gender, status then occupation. These create broad stereotypes and archetypes which are a large part of the basic building blocks of a characters definition.
Interest – Break the Stereotype
These definitions are good place to start, but a very bad place to end. For two reasons, firstly there not that interesting as they are so common, but also they are not really believable as a complete description.
An archetype doesn’t really describe people. It describes areas of commonality between different people in a group or more often the average or norm that can be found across a set of people. Deviation from the archetype is almost universal in life.
Very few people I know can be summed up just by describing a grouping they fit into, most have interesting quirks, motivations, hobbies, desires, skill, talents, relationships, plans and plots. These are what define people on a individuals level and embracing this fact moves caricatures into the realm of engaging characters.
The following techniques are suggestions on how to do this quickly and easily.
Give them a Personal Motivation & Morality
Motivation is a key factor which the archetypes don’t cover. For this I steal something right out of the white wolf storyteller system, which is the natures and demeanours of;
Architect, Autist, Autocrat, Avant-Garde, Benefactor, Reveller, Bravo, Caregiver, Cavalier, Child, Competitor, Confidant, Critic, Curmudgeon, Deviant, Director/Leader, Explorer, Fanatic, Follower, Fundamentalist, Gallant, Guardian, Jester, Judge, Loner, Manipulator, Martyr, Masochist, Monster, Optimist, Pedagogue, Penitent, Perfectionist, Plotter, Poltroon, Praise-Seeker, Predator, Rebel, Renunciate, Rogue, Sage, Sensualist, Show-Off, Survivor, Thrillseeker, Traditionalist, Trickster, Visionary, Wanderer.
This one word starts to give you character a twist and definition. Full definition of the list can be found here.
Very few people ever see themselves as ‘bad guys’ most will have a morality which allows them to perceives themselves to be good or at least not worse than anyone else. Understand how the culture, cult and motivation form to create a morality for the NPC. Some will be clear, others will be subtle and hard to balance. I’m sure some combinations will seem impossible.
Personality – Runes or Not
Defining a personality by a the selection of a number of personality keywords would be my next step. In the new Runequest Glorantha , this will be defined by Runes, this worries me as it suggest most cult members will manifest the same core personality in very similar ways, and variation within a cult will be very limited. Thus creating very predictable and uninspiring NPC’s if adhered to strictly.
I would much prefer selection and improvising based on a broad understanding of the NPC’s runes. The Griffin Mountain NPC record sheet a good source of information, but use it for ideas rather than fill out a full sheet which can be overblown and time consuming.
I will usually select three to five traits from the paired list that would seem to make sensible for the character but give some individuality. There is no reason to give them values or structure, and it is the combination of the words in the list that gives the character flavour.
The list of words with some additions are;
aggressive, ambitious, angry, brave, bitter, cautious, calm, cerebral, clever, conservative, cowardly, curious, dependable, dishonourable, dishonest, dour, dull, eager, emotional, energetic, extrovert, experienced, follower, forgiving, generous, greedy, honest, honourable, humorous, impulsive, implacable, incurious, innocent, innovative, intense, introvert, irreverent, irreligious, jaded, lazy, leader, nervous, open, optimistic, passive, patient, peaceful, pessimistic, physical, pious, quaint, quick witted, receptive, reserved, seasoned, stubborn, suspicious, trusting, unreliable, violent
Ensure that the choice of words doesn’t completely clash with the cult, runes and nature of the NPC. For example cowardly and dishonourable probably would not work for a Humakti Sword Lord, Neither would violent and aggressive for a Chalana Arroy priestess.
If your choosing 5 words I would suggest two or three reflect the persons cult, runes and society and other are used to add personalisation, colour and personal story.
Develop Personality and Interests
Again pilfering from the Griffin Mountain NPC record form I would use a list of possible interests that reflect the culture area and technological level of the game, for Balazar in Glorantha I would use this list.
Ancestors, Animals, Building, Caving, Climbing, Clothing, Dogs, Drinking, Drugs, Engineering, Foods, Fishing, Fighting, Foreigners, Gambling, Genealogies, Geography, Gem Stones, Giants, Gods, Herbs, History, Hunting, Tribal Jewellery, Larceny, Languages, Leatherwork, Legends, Lore, Magic, Medicine, Music, Myth, Pigs, Politics, Sex, Song, Spirits ,Tattoos, Thunder Lizards, Trading ,Travel ,Weapon, Wrestling
NPC’s would have probably only have one or two interests of note, but this a good area to drop a little bit of colour in and to add an unexpected dimension to a character.
They come from somewhere they are going somewhere
Everybody needs a history, answer one or two of these questions and it starts to fill out
- Where did they start?
- What brought them here?
- Did they find what they wanted?
- Who did they upset on the way?
- Who helped them?
- What did they learn?
- What have they lost?
- What are they looking for?
- Who are they running from?
- Why do they stay?
- Who betrayed them?
- Who did they betray?
- Where do they want to return to?
- what do they think will make them happy?
- What one event defines them?
Conflicted or Internally Consistent
Very few people are internally consistent, most people have some level of personal inner conflict. NPC’s should be the same. Clashes in their very nature, clashes between their nature and the culture, clashes between their nature and there God. Clashes between them and those close around them.
The outworking of this is that NPC’s should be to some level inconsistent in their thoughts actions and priorities. So that they can persuaded to the wrong thing, or that they need to be persuaded to the right thing.
Also people are both multi-layered and multi-faceted, very few of us are one thing and our personality will reflect this. In life I am dad, son, ex, boss, team mate, employee, sports fan, believer, gamer, music lover, student and scholar.
Flaws for Heroes, Redemption for Villains
Very few people are wholly bad, on the flip side very few are consistently good. Most of us live somewhere in a sliding scale in between. Villains become more believable if they gain at least one redeeming feature.
Example. ‘Marusa the shrew’ from Griffin Mountain was written and used by myself as pretty much an out and out bad girl. I then noticed the combination of ‘highly attractive’,’ violent temper’, ‘wears clothing neck to ankle with armour underneath’. Suddenly off the back of those traits, I can decide to interpret that she has been subject to violent sexual attacks at some point herself, and is now highly protective of vulnerable women and a vicious opponent of men who prey on women.
Suddenly another level is found another way to relate to an NPC comes to light and Marusa moves from a pantomime villain to something more rounded whom you may find in the real world.
The opposite with hero’s drop in character flaws,
absent-minded, abusive, addict, aimless, alcoholic, anxious, arrogant, audacious, bad parent, bigot, blunt, callous, cruel, cursed, disturbed, egotistical, envious, erratic, fickle, fierce, finicky, fixated, gluttonous, gruff, gullible, haunted, hypocritical, impatient, indecisive. intolerant, judgemental, lewd, meddlesome, meek, megalomaniac, nervous, overambitious, overconfident, overemotional, overprotective, overzealous, paranoid, peevish, perfectionist, pessimist, phobic, philanderer, poor husband/wife, predictable, reckless, sarcastic, skeptic, selfish, self-martyr, self-righteous, senile, shallow, soft-hearted, spiteful, spoiled, squeamish, stubborn, superstitious, tactless, temperamental, theatrical, timid, tongue-tied, troublemaker, unlucky, unpredictable, vain, withdrawn, zealous
I often use the white wolf flaws and merits system for ideas in this area.
These make characters believable, add levels of texture, and make players opinions of NPC’s more complex. They also allow for unveiling of hero’s flaws over time and more multi layered characters.
Attitudes & Relationships
Interesting relationships cans attitudes can add a sense of differentiation to a NPC, a particular friendship or enmity to a with a group, cult or face which would be outside the norm for their culture & cult is note worthy. Once it is decided the reasoning for it needs to be created, and the story starts to fill out.
Also devotion and enmity with individuals can also created a sense of personal story with NPC’s, their foes, rivals, loves, long lost loves, wards, brothers in arms create this picture of a person in the world.
The Element of Surprise – Give them depth
Most people we meet in life a multi layered, they are not fully understood within a simple encounter. In fact we can know people for years and then find out very interesting and engaging things about they, that add a different understanding to them many years later.
Drop aspects into your NPC’s from the start which won’t be visible or understood till much later on. It is very rewarding when players find this out and then start to understand or completely rethink an NPC’s actions.
A Physical Definition
A physical defining feature gives the players and immediate handle on a character, not everyone has one and they can be subtle, but they do add immediate distinction.
short, tall, fat, thin, one eye, extreme tattoos, scruffy, fastidious, has limp, missing fingers, pock marks, scars, long beard, different hair, bald, peg leg, birthmarks, different skin colour, albino, statement clothes, statement weapon, well muscled, stinks, perfumed, dirty, gait, any magical manifestations, hooked nose, large nose
A Manner of Communicating
Distinctive manners of communicating can be interesting flavor to a character. When I run Eryptus the Lunar Commander in Elkoi, his language is always profane, often angry, often showing a frustration about to boil over, but there is a sense of acting to it.
Other characters maybe very particular and precise, witty, quiet, almost silent, warm and complementary, shy, withdrawn, with a stammer, or other speech impediments.
This is hard to do consistently for every NPC but can adding flavor to a couple of key NPC’s will bring a game to life.
Allow Character for Development and Growth
Hopefully your NPC’s will grow along with your characters. This just isn’t in terms of power and influence, but also in terms of personality, story and complexity.
At the start having an idea where and NPC wants to go and what their dreams and motivations are, gives a good idea how they will respond to the story as it unfolds.
An friend or ally who grows cold and ceases to care, a retainer who betrays and foe who befriends are all strong plot elements which can make a game much richer. Having a grasp on NPC motivations form the start makes these decisions seem more believable.
Putting the Stats Together
When writing the NPC stats what may happen is a couple of ideas merge, a couple of quirks may jump out especially when looking at runes, magic and backgrounds, flaws and merits ( if you use them).
I would suggest using them if they add to the story of the character you have created, if they create confusion by adding a whole new dimension id put them to one side and use them for another NPC later.
Conclusion – Make it Simple Stupid
If you apply all these techniques to every character, you will end up with characters which are too busy and no clear picture of who they are will comes through.
So limit yourself three or four of these techniques per character, and try to tie them together to create NPC’s which are unique, entertaining and believable.