Tuesday, 9 November 2021

What Pops an NPC?

 I am putting together some NPCs for a thing and am having the usual problems: limited space, lots of information to deliver etc, etc.

So I come to you, the sacred few, and subtly, silently, sneakily, I hook up my brain-hose to your skulls.

When you read an NPC - what is it that makes them POP off the page, and you think "Yes I can run this, I know immediately how to do it"?

A few axis of investigation;

- Looks, vividness/simplicity of description.

- How many signifiers is too many?

- Behavioural quirks; too heavy, too loose and vague?

- What's useful for imagining them, for helping players imagine and remember them, and for portraying them, which might be a slightly different axis.

- Motivations, the want/don't want lines. How simple do we want their wants to be?  Like specific objects = like "a pie", personal qualities like "to be complimented", very general social motivators like "high position, dominance"? and how quickly do we want these wants and don't wants to be integrated into play?

It depends a lot, doesn't it, on how long we expect that NPC to stick around.

Right now I'm trying to put together a kind of 'night market', or something like a fey market
with lots and lots of potential contacts to create a sense of overflowing possibilities but also many possible sources of information about a complex world to which the PCs are being introduced. But at the same time, I don't have a lot of space to hang about and probably few to none of these people will be sticking around later.

Many should be possible sources of information but I don't want them to be like vending machines, where they give "as you know your father, the king" speeches, neither do I want them to be too hard to deal with, as I want the PCs to be able to soak up a lot of info about the setting, and for people to feel particular, yet not to have any heavy drama this early on.

Its a lot of demands on the idea and then when I come to it I will probably end up just eyeballing it. 


I am interested in what worked for you, books and adventures you thought were good, blog posts you thought were good, personal experiences etc.

Got nothing to do with this post, pretty great though!


  1. I look for three things that tell me what I need to know to run any intelligent being:

    1) Aesthetics : what they look like, choose to wear, sense of taste.
    ex: Knowing that The Crow wears tight black leather and white facepaint tells a LOT about the attitude to imbue in him.

    2) Background : where they come from and where they reside.
    ex: Batman and Gotham are part of the same vibe, ditto a troll living under a bridge, or Midas in his palace of gold.

    3) Sociability: who they know, how they act in conversation, mannerisms and charisma
    ex: Beowulf boasting to the bros in the mead hall, the green knight during his entrance scene at christmas dinner.

  2. For an adventure, saying what they do, not suggesting "what they often do" is very helpful. As a reader and designer, I can reject and morph ideas at-will, so don't "softball" them. When players come across them, what are they doing? Just one thing is fine, a table is fine too, just nothing that screams "waiting for the players to stumble upon their sorry souls." Also saying what they will do is great. "They will ask adventurers to help them with their ______ and give _____ as a reward."

    Bullet points are great to reference in play, especially as a summary to longer prose.

    I've recently outlined NPCs with the following traits:
    -Title (role, job, etc)
    -Quirk (helps portray them at the table)
    -Desire (motivation beyond survival)
    -Talent (something that usually doesn't pair with their Title)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I like to think of an actor and an unrelated role. "They are like young Sir Lawrence Olivier playing Blackadder", that sort of thing. Then maybe add a catchphrase or common gesture like sniffles or a stutter so I can refer to them to the players that never remember names and won't be aware of the actor and role I'm using.

  5. I also like the way Doomslakers in his Blackpudding zines gives NPCs Turn ons and Turn offs which nicely defines the character but I haven't used that yet.

  6. Most important 3 details that GMs should know. Random tables!

  7. I could probably come up with a lot of answers to your questions, but one thing that sticks out in my mind is the power of the scenario's artwork in helping you to portray NPCs. It was in this review of the Waking of Willowby Hall that Ava Islam wrote (https://bonesofcontention.blogspot.com/2021/08/brain-infestations-waking-of-willowby.html) where she pointed out how the art isn't merely pretty, but also VERY STRONGLY conveys personality and voice to the referee. Like, just looking at the art for "Helmut Halfsword" immediately tells me what accent to give him and how he responds to things and the kind of humor I should be creating with him.

    But alas, this is out of the writer's hands.

  8. I'm pretty close to Dreaming Dragonslayer on this. In my experience, simplicity and clarity is key. Players don't pay a lot of attention to NPCs unless they're obviously mission-critical, so you need them to STAND OUT.

    My own notes tend towards a format like this: 'VISUAL HOOK. A SOMETHING that is doing SOMETHING. QUIRK.'

    Some examples from my own current campaign:

    DEBORAH: Ash-grey skin. Smells of smoke. Claims to have been built by her mother out of fire, blood, and mirrors. A desert spirit searching the ruins for magical items with which to free her imprisoned grandfather. Looks youthful but actually over a century old, full of stories about the long-dead heroes who roamed the desert when she was young.

    FAZANA: Sickly teenage girl. Has fits, visions, nightmares, convulsions. The leader of her community, who regard her as a holy woman and come to her for healing and oracles. Illiterate, owns the scriptures but cannot read them, and bases her religious teachings on sermons she vaguely remembers from childhood. Mostly making things up as she goes along.

    RUSTEM: Involuntary snake-mutant, with scaled skin and huge clawed hands. A scholar and man of culture,forcibly transformed and pressed into service as head mechanic to a bunch of mutant gangsters. Wracked with self-hatred. His clumsy murderer's fingers keep tearing the pages of the books he tries to read.

    I think motivations can usually be extrapolated from who they are and what they're doing. If they have some special desire or aversion above and beyond those it can usually function as their quirk!

    1. Josephy none of those were simple and only one was described performing an immediate action! Hang thy head in shame!

  9. 2 things
    - what do they want (example: the.mknsters in the Iron Coral)
    - touchstone for their mannerism ("behaves as a spoiled child""behaves as a good dog")

    This was extremely helpful for me

  10. Also I don't want gibbery fantasy names but names PCs will have an easy time remembering, possibly because it's tied to the NPC's appearance, personality or talents

  11. I have an NPC Formula and I think it's pretty good!

    NPC: [Adjective] [Occupation] and [Hobby/Other Notable Activity] who [Personality Quirk]

    A few examples:

    Kennedy Fitzpatrick: Thicc computer science professor and white-hat hacker who has no time for your nonsense.

    Jordan Suleiman: Neurotic bespectacled crime journalist and jazz fan who aims to become a politician.

    Bam Bam: Ambiguously European art student and intramural athlete who speaks mostly in gibberish.


    1. Extra points for making "thicc" a primary adjective.

  12. Do you remember that scene in Firefly reads Badger and does a bit about why he is the way he is, and does his Cockney accent? If an NPC description can give me _that_, I'm golden.

    1. I don't but also I think maybe you missed bits out of the sentence there

    2. For what it's worth, this is the scene in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZQbSaN8R_o

  13. I think a powerful *drive* helps open the world to an NPC when you, the GM, have a limited number of brain cycles to devote to him in the course of play. Now, the temptation is there to make the character a one-note, predictable ham, but if you can avoid that, a powerful drive is the key that unlocks the world for that NPC in the hand of the GM; you’re not wondering about how the NPC plugs into a given situation because you can see the world through his or her eyes, his or her desires, and so you know what he’ll ultimately make of what’s around him: whatever will help him reach his goal, blatantly or subtly, now or later. Doesn’t mean that every NPC needs a powerful drive, but without motive force an NPC gets closer to being window dressing/a football/fodder for explosions etc

    Having an interest also helps; there’s at least a little nerd inside a lot of people about something, even if it’s fly fishing, engines, local history, the intricacies of their job
    I use this as an IN for the party, as in if they can talk the subject with the NPC then it forms the basis for a friendship, rather than a way to convey scene setting, although you can use it that way if it’s something sufficiently exotic

  14. Good advice above - all I would add (particularly for your night-market piece) is two things -
    a) how informed the NPC is
    b) how much they care about what is going on

    You can have a row of scruffy badger folk be different if one of them is loud about what is going on and quizzes the PCs, one does not want to talk about it and one is completely oblivious.

    I wrote up some thoughts on a similar topic here:

  15. For me it depends on the purpose.

    If I know that this is a person that I will need to reference mid-game, or pull from a random table, then short and concise it better. I want to look at a small blurb that gives me a one(ish) sentence description, what they want, why they want it, and how they plan to get it / their capabilities.

    Carl is a brackish, rootbeer-float brown ooze the size of an abandoned car. It wants companionship because it is lonely and will use its lulling whale song to bring you to it. It can shape itself into a dish and use powerful sonic clicks to ignite flammable material, scramble brains and, when hungry, shoot down birds.

    If I want to add complexity I provide conflict. If it’s antagonistic to the players, I make sure what it wants is at odds with what they want. To make it deeper I have it want two things that are incompatible.

    The twitchy bear-wasp shopkeeper knows all his goods are cursed and doesn’t want to sell them, but he has larva growing at home and needs money for winter.

    This is also good for providing lore in a non-dumpy way.

    If taxes have recently gone up - the king is big on infrastructure - and this is somehow important lore you need to give the players, then perhaps the bear-wasp is complaining that, ‘I understand that we need roads, but if I can fly, why must I pay the tax?’ and directly ask the player’s opinions. The conflict is tied with the lore and the players can interact with it.

    That’s what I’m hoping for when my players are waiting and I pop open a book looking for inspiration.

    Now, all of that being said, there is something truly special about long and beautifully written descriptions of NPCs and monsters. I find they’re usually ungameable in the moment, but if I take the time beforehand they stick in my mind like nothing else. If done right, every sentence adds another layer of sediment to my understanding of the thing. I don’t have to go back to the text while running the game because it feels like they’re already living in my brain.

    I love a certain quality of apophasis to monsters and NPCs that often a single paragraph can’t really get at. What a thing is can’t directly be stated, so you have to weave words around it until you can see its shape. What I love so much about the work you and Scrap do is that the art, combined with clever use of metaphor and simile, create such vivid imagery and bizarre intuition in my subconscious.

    (Also, Valery Slauk’s art gives me life)

    1. Useful comment thanks very much

    2. Happy to man. I hope it helps.
      Running Deep Carbon Observatory for some friends tonight. I've been wanting to run it for years and finally have the opportunity.

  16. For NPCs with smaller show time, I'd say put needs/wants front and center and obvious, or they won't be found at all
    Perhaps tie the larger set of needs to a specific ones- An NPC wants a "pie" and also "seeks new and exciting experinces" or w/e

    For a fey market with depth, perhaps having a lot of interconnected needs/wants? "I want to fuck up my competitors display" "I want to deliver a love letter to my boyfriend" "I want to fake a love letter to my enemy", just a ton of small but present connections between NPCs to help create a sense

    1. Oh god, interconnections. Its a good idea but the WORK!

  17. Agree with most of the above. My list of three key things I'd like from an NPC description are (1) their basic role e.g. occupation, what they're doing here (2) some kind of desire or strong character trait that will colour their interaction with the PCs (3) one or two stand-out identifying details that will stick the players' minds. The last of these is key because players never remember NPC names. A bit of memorable visual description is good, but a verbal quirk like an unusual speech pattern or catchphrase is also handy because I'll probably spend more time voicing their conversation with the PCs than describing their appearance. A couple of examples:

    Thrammi 'the Rook' Skelson is a grizzled watch captain whose prime concern is to resolve all disturbances as quickly as possible so she can resume playing a never-ending chess series against her second in command, who is currently leading by 812 games to 794. She despises the Tarnished Pearl gang, and is unable to mention them without loudly wishing that they might be devoured by tunnel-ghouls and their bones shat out in the sewers.

    From a distance, Jepperton Markey looks as if he's been flayed alive, but in fact this young barber-surgeon has just had his skin tattooed with neatly labelled diagrams of human musculature as an aide memoire. Despite his grisly profession, he secretly cherishes a dream of finding romance with one of his patients, and if he finds someone attractive he will nervously compliment them on their shapely ligaments and jaundice-free complexion.

  18. Probably (?) not usable in anything intended for publishing, but it helps me to think what actor would play the NPC. eg:

    The Mayor's (Gary Oldman in Batman) vizier (Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element) plots to kill him. Can the PCs stop the vizier's assassin (Grary Oldman in True Romance) in time?

  19. Description, but I would limit it to 2-3 descriptors.

    Desires (1-2 is best) (except in like, shopkeepers) because they engage the player. The whole point is engagement. Fears can be a desire--as long as the character WANTS TO DO SOMETHING. Otherwise they might as well be a painted sign.

    Lastly, a Riffable Hook something that the players will latch on to. Players don't always remember NPCs by their descriptions (horrible old woman in rags) or their desires (to kiss kittens) but how they interact. This one is hard to define, but basically it just gives the players something to riff on. Often humorous. Examples: always bursting in and interrupting, always threatening to eat things that bother him, being in love with one of the players.

    This last one (the Riffable Hook) is the most important one to get players engaged, but it also the most nebulous and probably the most essential. I think I wrote down "barfing goblin" once and the players had more fun meeting that two-word NPC than anything else I wrote that day.

    Optional - Something that helps the DM roleplay them. This can be a behavioral quirk (stutter) or a personality trait (shy) or just a reference (like David Bowie in Labyrinth).

  20. I've been getting some mileage out of this format for my own notes and more recently applying it to published adventures and have a few thoughts why


    Name, appearance and mood (preferably one word each) then activity. If it's a more important character the activity will tie into a motivation too but generally it's a bit of color for players to ignore

    Things I don't find useful in NPC notes: what actor they sound like, how their backstory explains their motivation, or a physical description of anything unexceptional. Definitely mention the dwarf has an eye patch but why say he has a beard?

    I also dig Nate from swamp of monsters' idea of all NPCs having one line of dialogue written as a freebie when you're running and draw a blank on what to say

  21. Uhuluhappoa sprang off the page for me in Matt Finch's "Cyclopean Deeps". Clearest NPC I've ever read because he's like Gunga Din, who is himself a clear-cut character. As soon as I read Uhuluhappoa, I could run him in a fun way at the table, no kidding.

    Also, his obsequiousness (as I interpreted it) provided fodder for the next guy the party hired, who was playing a different grift, but using the same kind of script.

  22. -An off game description for the GM of some real life recognizable person with similar demeanor/ physical Characteristics ie. (Imagine De Niro being the town's butcher/ Emma Watson the barkeeper) as a reference only for him (GM)

    -A Short Description of NPC's quirks (i.e He won't drink ale from a common Pitcher, will instead ask for his own beverage/He-She tends to look directly in the eyes when talikng if upset/ Does not tolerate cowardice/ Has a very good sense of smell and tends to sniff things often an unnanounced, etc.)

    -An automatic reaction when things go bad ( i.e Will lie to save himself/ Won't leave people behind / Will paralize in fear / will go berserk-flee /Will try to defuse situation etc.)

  23. Motivation is probably the most important to me. If I know what they want I can improvise the rest.

    It helps if I have a set of tropes summed up quickly that I can lean on. A simple declaration of Class often does this.

    This combination won't make memorable NPCs but they will make usable NPCs that I can then turn into memorable NPCs on my own.

  24. The only thing important is what the PCs interact with first, then secondary information (motive, secret, and how it would relate to an adventuring party). All other stuff is extraneous and should be eliminated (needless background, history, and such unless it’s going to directly impact the interaction)