In any role-playing game, one of the most important aspects is creating a non-player character (NPC) that is both believable and memorable. Here are a few tips on how to create an NPC that will stand out:
1. Give them a unique name. Something that is easy to remember but not too out there.
2. Make them relatable. Give them quirks, hobbies, and interests that make them feel like a real person.
3. Make their appearance distinct.
Let’s deep dive into different areas of creating a memorable NPC.
- Know your character's backstory
- Understand your character's motivations
- Develop your character's personality
- Create a physical description for your character
- Give your character a unique voice
- Decide on your character's arc
- How to create a believable character
- How to make your characters stand out
- How to ensure your characters are relatable
- How to give your characters depth
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Know your character’s backstory
When creating a non-player character (NPC) for your role-playing game, it is important to know their backstory. This will help you make them more believable and three-dimensional. Here are some things to consider when creating an NPC’s backstory:
1. Where are they from? This can help determine their accent, dialect, and manner of speech.
2. What is their family like? This can give you insight into their values and how they were raised.
3. What is their profession? This can help determine their skill set and knowledge base.
4. What are their hobbies? This can help round out their personality and make them more relatable to players.
5. What is their relationship to the player character? This can help create conflict or tension between the two characters.
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Understand your character’s motivations
As an actor, it is important to understand your character’s motivations in order to create a believable and memorable portrayal. Similarly, when creating a non-player character (NPC) for a role-playing game, it is important to understand what motivates your NPC in order to make them interesting and three-dimensional.
What does your NPC want? Do they have any goals? What drives them? Answering these questions will help you create a more well-rounded and compelling character. If your NPC is simply a plot device with no real motivation or personality, they will be forgettable at best and downright annoying at worst.
Take the time to flesh out your NPC’s motivations, and you’ll be rewarded with a richer gaming experience for both you and your fellow players.
Develop your character’s personality
Give your character a handful of positive and negative traits so that they are a more well-rounded, believable person.
Maybe your NPC is smart, talented, and studious, but is also devious, arrogant, and dismissive of others.
Or your NPC could be kind, observant, and steadfast in her beliefs, but insecure, forgetful, and erratic.
Create a physical description for your character
Next, think about your character’s appearance. How do they dress? How do they carry themselves? Do they have any distinguishing features?
You are really looking for a one to two sentence description that will also tell a little bit about the personality of the character as well. Does their resting face show concern because they are kind or empathic? Or do they show scorn or contempt because they are arrogant or believe that they are better than others or just their present company?
Example physical description
“Uthar, the dwarven general with streaks of grey hair in his perfectly manicured beard, intensely stares through you as your party enters his sparsely filled room. He doesn’t acknowledge you as he stands up and walks over to a well-worn battle axe. The silence that fills the air is almost deafening. He turns to you and begins to speak slowly and deliberately. You can feel the sheer power of presence coming from him and the many battles he has been in.”
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Give your character a unique voice
When it comes to giving your character a unique voice, there are a few things you can do to make sure they stand out. First, start by thinking about how your character sounds. Do they have a distinct accent or way of speaking? This can be something as simple as adding a bit of twang to their voice if they’re from the south or making them sound more formal if they’re upper class.
Next, think about your character’s personality and how that affects the way they speak. Are they always joking around? Serious? Sarcastic? Their dialogue should reflect this. And finally, don’t be afraid to give them some catchphrases or quips that are specific to them. This will help players remember who their character is and what makes them special.
Decide on your character’s arc
In any good story, the characters are what make it memorable. This is especially true for non-player characters, who often don’t get the same development as protagonists. A well-developed non-player character can be the difference between a forgettable side quest and an unforgettable adventure.
Think about the purpose of this character. If you make everyone unforgettable then all your characters are forgettable. Instead, pick a small handful of NPC’s that your players will interact with on a regular basis and focus on those characters for a full story arc.
This doesn’t mean that one-off characters in an adventure can’t be memorable, but they don’t need a full character arc unless you plan on bringing them back in some way.
NPC’s that have a character arc you should decide where their arc finishes. Are they a surprise villain? A hidden ally? A friendly face and potential savior for an upcoming situation if they play their cards right?
What do you need this NPC to do in your game? Are there dependencies that need to happen for the NPC’s arc to be fully realized? How does the NPC’s story arc interact with the choices of the characters? Does this story arc get revealed in a dramatic fashion or slowly over time?
Track the following:
- Player’s name
- Max Hit Points
- Spell Casting DC
- Darkvision (if applicable)
- Passive Perception
- Saving Throws
How to create a believable character
When creating a believable character, there are a few key elements to keep in mind. First, think about what motivates your character. What drives them and what do they want? Once you know what your character wants, you can start to flesh out their personality. What kind of person are they? How do they interact with others? Are they outgoing or shy? These are all important details to consider when creating a believable character.
Another important element to consider is your character’s back story. What kind of life have they lived up until now? What experiences have shaped them into the person they are today? A well-developed backstory will make your character feel more real and relatable to readers.
Finally, pay attention to the small details. How does your character dress? Do they have any unique mannerisms or catchphrases?
Bring out these quirks and share parts of their story to gain the trust of your players. What you do with that trust is up to you as a dungeon master. I would suggest you only break that trust occasionally (i.e. trusted ally is actually working with the villain or maybe is the villain).
How to make your characters stand out
One way to make your characters stand out is to give them a unique physical appearance. This can be done by making them taller or shorter than average, giving them an unusual hairstyle or skin color, or dressing them in Eye-catching clothing. You can also use props and accessories to make them more memorable, such as a cane or monocle for an older character, or a pet cat or snake.
Another way to make your characters stand out is to give them quirks or mannerisms that are not common among most people. This could include fidgeting with their hands when they’re nervous, speaking in a high-pitched voice, or having a stutter. Characters with disabilities can also be made more memorable by giving them unique ways of coping with their condition, such as using sign language or braille if they’re blind.
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Accents / voices
If you can do accents or different voice inflections correctly you may want to think about creating a voice for some NP’s. It can be hard to do this correctly and I am not that good at it frankly, but I have had a dungeon master did this to great effect for 3 different NPCs.
Another way to do this is to add a literal prop for some characters. It could be a hat or a special piece of music that plays when you introduce the NPC again. Anything that can bring the character to life and have a little fun.
In a Shadowrun game I was running the players’ contact for new jobs was a man that played the piano in a bar. When I was introducing him, one of my players stated, “Oh our contact is the piano man?!?” So I pulled up the song from Billy Joel and every time we saw the piano man I would play the song. Everyone had a fun time with that in an otherwise serious game about corporate espionage in the late 2080s.
How can you make one or more of your NPCs stand out?
How to ensure your characters are relatable
One of the most important aspects of creating a memorable non-player character is making sure that they are relatable. There are a few key things you can do to ensure your characters are relatable and interesting to players.
First, avoid making your character too perfect. Everyone has flaws and weaknesses, and these make characters more relatable and easier for players to connect with.
Second, give your character a backstory and motivations that make sense. Players should be able to understand why your character is doing what they’re doing, even if it’s something as simple as wanting to find a lost artifact.
Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment with different personality types. A good way to make sure your character is relatable is to give them quirks or mannerisms that set them apart from other characters in the game.
If you are feeling adventurous borrow some of the characteristics of your players (the good ones) to incorporate into one or more NPCs.
How to give your characters depth
One way to make sure your characters are memorable is to give them depth. This can be done by giving them a backstory, vulnerabilities, and flaws.
A character’s backstory is their history leading up to the events of the story. It can include information about their family, friends, enemies, and experiences. This helps to make the character feel more real and three-dimensional.
Vulnerabilities and flaws
Vulnerabilities and flaws make characters more relatable and sympathetic. They also make the character more interesting, because people want to see how they will overcome these challenges.
Some ways to show a character’s vulnerability or flaw are through dialogue, inner thoughts, or actions. For example, a character who is afraid of heights might avoid situations where they would have to climb something high. Or a character who is insecure might constantly seek approval from others.
You can have your players find evidence like letters or journals in their travels about an important NPC to give them a way to see that NPC’s innermost thoughts, motivations, and history. They could also run into lesser NPCs that can give warnings or other important information about that NPC to further any kind of storytelling you need.
You don’t have to overthink this
Note this may feel like you are creating a tome of knowledge. It doesn’t have to be that in-depth. It could be as simple as a paragraph or two stating that this person watched her father get killed by bandits and then went to study magic to ensure this would never happen again. Now they rule with an iron fist as a neutral lawful 12th-level wizard over a thousand humanoids of mixed races. They seek peace and are willing to kill to obtain it. Breaking the laws in their land is normally met with the death penalty this wizard meets out personally as judge, jury, and executioner.
With that information, you can drop hints about their back story with rumors of it in a tavern. Don’t go to the lands in the east. An archmage rules there and kills without mercy. Or an old letter can be found letting the parents of a man know that he has been executed for stealing and that his remains can be picked up in the next three days or they will be disintegrated and cast to the wind. This wizard could be a powerful ally to the players as long as they don’t transgress a law. He doesn’t have to be the villain but could be hunting the villain as this villain was one of the bandits that killed his father all those years ago.
In conclusion, by following the steps above you will be able to create a memorable non-player character that stands out, is relatable, and has depth. By giving your character a believable backstory and motivations, you will be able to create a character arc that is both unique and believable.
About the Author:
Dwight Scull has been playing tabletop role-playing games (starting with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) back in 2001. He started being a dungeon master around 2005.
He loves to play many different types of TTRPGs, including Pathfinder, GURPS, Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension (and other White Wolf Games), Nights Black Agents, and others.
Fan of mysteries, light horror, co-op board games, true crime, sci-fi, and fantasy.