A quick way to build colorful NPCs

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As a gamemaster, you’re responsible for narrating and describing the world your characters inhabit—but players often take sharp left turns into places you didn’t expect them to go. Sometimes this can severely tax your ability to think on the fly and keep things interesting. So how do you avoid having your characters wander a landscape populated only by featureless cardboard cutouts of people?

I don’t have a regular roleplaying group anymore (it’s just me and my son bouncing ideas for the FAR System off each other right now), but when I did, I filled in all sorts of gaps with random die rolls.

If an NPC’s particular behavior makes a difference to the game—say you need him to back off because you don’t want your players to get injured yet or you need some friendly guy to deliver a bit of intriguing news—that’s a decision that kind of makes itself.

But sometimes you need to build some memorable non-player characters and do it quick. You know, for those inevitable times when your party of adventurers/vagabonds/what-have-you decide to wander into a saloon when you were sure they’d head out into the hills instead.

What I’d often do was to make a rough mental estimate of what any given NPC’s range of responses was likely to be and then determine behavior with a die roll. Say 1-4 means he’s mildly suspicious of strangers, 5-7 means he’s a pleasant guy, 8-9 means he’ll be a bit testy, and 10 means he’d just as soon punch you in the throat as look at you. The dice made the decision for me, and then I could play out the NPC’s interaction with the player-characters with that in mind.

I just ran into an article on the Dungeons and Dragons website that describes a similar technique but takes it to the next level: organization!

By building yourself a simple table with (say) three rows and four or five columns, which you can jot down on a piece of scratch paper in only a couple of minutes, you can give yourself a surprisingly rich matrix of interesting behaviors, attributes, personalities, whatever you need. And the great part is that you can keep your tables around for future use.

It’s a great little storytelling tool. I’ll probably incorporate something like this into the FAR System, so you won’t have to make your own from scratch (unless you want to).

Check the article out here for details on the technique: Randomness: The clever DM’s helper.

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