Last month, we looked at several interesting and effective roles that NPCs are likely to play in your campaign. Here are the remaining steps to preparing an NPC for play.
The Anatomy of an NPC
A fully developed NPC consists of four things: game information, a description, one or two memorable character traits , and (possibly) a secret. Before you determine any of these things, think about the specific role or roles the NPC is likely to play in the campaign. As noted last month, your choice of roles is bound to influence all the other facets of the character.
1. Game Information
Game information consists of statistics, equipment lists, spell assortments, and other information you need to handle the character in play. It is not necessary to fill out a full-blown character sheet for each of your NPCs. Don't forget the First Rule of Dungeoncraft! Concentrate your efforts on creating only the information that's likely to become relevant during play.
In general, this means that there's no reason to figure out the king's Dexterity score. The PCs are unlikely to fight the king himself, and it's therefore unlikely that his Dexterity score will ever become an issue. In fact, on the subject of NPC ability scores, it's probably a good time to introduce you to the Third Rule of Dungeoncraft.
The Third Rule of Dungeoncraft: Whenever you have no idea what the probability of success should be for a particular situation, consider it 50%.
In other words, suppose a metal portcullis is slowly descending in a dungeon. One of the PCs unexpectedly slides a wooden chair beneath the portcullis, hoping to delay the falling gate long enough so the entire party can crawl beneath it. What's the chance the chair can hold the portcullis long enough for the party to pass? Well gee, I don't really know much about the structural integrity of wood vs. heavy metals so it's, um ... 50%. This is certainly inexact, but it's simple, it keeps the game moving, and it's usually plausible enough to pass muster.
How is this rule relevant to NPC attributes? Some quick math produces a nice corollary to the Third Rule. Ability scores are often used to conduct ability checks, and a character with a score of 10 has a 50% chance to pass such a check. This means that if you need an ability score for an NPC and haven't already determined it, the Third Rule of Dungeoncraft suggests that you use a score of 10.
This rule jibes nicely with what the Player's Handbook has to say about ability scores ("Ability Scores and What They Mean" in Chapter One)--a score of 10 is an average value for the typical inhabitant of an AD&D campaign world. This means that when you assign ability scores to your NPCs, you should only bother thinking about and listing his or her exceptional scores--those substantially less than or greater than ten (say, those scores less than 8 or greater than 12).
During play, if a score you haven't created becomes relevant, simply presume it's 10, and move on. If you take this advice, you suddenly have far fewer numbers to create and record. This may not save a lot of effort right now, but after your campaign grows and you have several dozen NPCs in play, you'll recognize the benefit. You'll also notice that you can dispense with determining ability scores altogether for a wide range of characters who are unlikely to have any extraordinary abilities.
Thus, the first step in creating ability scores for any NPC is to decide which of the six abilities is likely to be extraordinarily high or low. You can then go through these abilities one by one and assign the appropriate value. Note that it's usually not a good idea to generate NPC ability scores randomly. You should decide the NPC's role in the campaign first, then assign the values you think are appropriate. This approach makes it easier to create NPCs who feel like true characters rather than random piles of numbers.
Once you've created the NPC's relevant ability scores, you can quickly decide on a character class, level, alignment, and hit point total. Remember that the inhabitants of your campaign who are not extraordinary adventurers or their equal should probably be 0-level, with few hit points. At this point, it's a good idea to make sure that your choices of class and hit points make sense with the character's various ability scores and level.
For equipment and spell lists, again focus your attention on the extraordinary. List only those special or magical items the character carries and those few spells he or she uses most often. During play, you can improvise additional items and spells as necessary.
The idea of improvising spells makes some DMs nervous. Since the players must select their spells before play begins, they feel it's unfair to allow NPCs to cast spells at will. While you should definitely make sure that none of your NPCs is casting more spells than his or her level permits, don't worry about figuring out which spells each NPC has memorized; it's just too much work.
One of your responsibilities as DM is to make sure that you don't take advantage of the fact that you are making up the NPC spell lists as you go along. Your NPCs should definitely not have access to the perfect spell under all circumstances. If you ever come across a situation in which you can't decide whether or not the NPC would have thought to memorize a specific spell, you can always roll for it. The chance the NPC has access to the spell is, um ... 50%.
Note: The Third Rule of Dungeoncraft is a useful tool for keeping the game moving, not a replacement for your own good judgment and knowledge of the rules. Use it wisely!
This entry is pretty self-explanatory. You should invent an appropriate physical description for each NPC. Don't strive for anything too elaborate; just a few sentences will do. Again, try to concentrate on the unusual. Create just one or two interesting physical features for each of your NPCs, and stress them. One NPC might be unusually tall, another might have an unbelievably long beard, and a third might have an elaborate facial tattoo. Of course, nothing says that these distinguishing characteristics must stem from the character's anatomy. An unusual wardrobe, particularly interesting equipment, or an unusual demeanor all do nicely as well.
The real purpose of your NPC descriptions is twofold: to provide the players with details that spark their imaginations, and to serve as simple reminders that help the players distinguish the NPCs from each other.
At the start of a new campaign, you can expect your players to confuse Ragnar with Hroth and Skjold. The moment they're reminded that Hroth is the old guy with the long white beard and Skjold is the fair-haired man with the lute, though, they'll get back on the proper page. Therefore, to get the most mileage from your descriptions, remind the players of NPC descriptions the first several times they are encountered. Try to keep these reminders as subtle as possible. "You see Ragnar, the extremely tall warrior, enter the inn" is more cumbersome than "You see Ragnar enter, ducking low to clear the threshold." If you have access to a large library of AD&D game products or Dragon Magazine back issues, try to find an appropriate illustration to represent each of your major NPCs. (The "PC Portraits" column in Dragon Magazine is perfect for this task.) Not only does this let you dispense with most descriptions altogether, but pictures tend to work even better than the most effective text. Each time the players meet the NPC in question, just flash the picture. If you go this route, try to photocopy the illustrations and cut away any text and graphics that surround them so the players aren't distracted.
3. Memorable Personality Traits
To create an effective NPC, you must also know something about his or her personality and general demeanor. Many beginning roleplayers mistakenly believe they should strive to create deep, complex characters and prepare for each game session with all the gusto of Robert DeNiro readying a new role. You're much better off setting more modest goals for yourself and allowing your NPCs to develop slowly over time. As with the descriptions, your best bet is to concentrate on creating one or two unusual behaviors, tendencies, or idiosyncrasies for each NPC. By focusing on just these few things, you'll give yourself time to get a handle on the character and you'll also create another way for the players to distinguish between NPCs and remember which is which.
When creating these personality traits, confine yourself to simple behaviors that are clearly demonstrable during play. "Hrothgar has a deep-seated hatred of his mother" is not a useful trait, because there is no way to demonstrate it to the players short of pausing every so often for Hrothgar to say, "You know, I really have a deep-seated hatred of my mother." "Hrothgar is hard of hearing and asks everyone to repeat everything they say," "Hrothgar is clumsy and bumbles every task he is given," or "Hrothgar is a silent loner who almost never says a word" are all much more appropriate. Each of these characteristics can be easily roleplayed in a wide variety of situations. Note that a valid and useful personality trait needn't necessarily say anything obvious about a character's personality at all. A catch phrase (Homer Simpson's trademark "D'Oh!"), a gesture, or a funny voice are all workable. Once you start to use this method, you'll learn that the traits lead to the character's personality almost by magic.
The Second Rule of Dungeoncraft tells us that each time we invent a significant detail about the campaign, we should also invent at least one secret pertaining to that detail. Many NPCs are important enough to qualify for this treatment themselves. As a general rule, any NPCs the players are likely to encounter consistently for a few months of game time or more deserve their own secrets. Valid exceptions might be NPCs who tend to remain completely in the background, such as innkeepers, merchants, and other service people.
Yes, this means that your campaign is bound to resemble a soap opera, with never-ending twists, turns, and unexpected revelations. This is a good thing. Many people become addicted to soap operas for a reason--the desire to uncover the next secret or unravel the next plot twist is a powerful urge. By giving your players plenty of mysteries, you'll keep them interested in the campaign and coming back for more.
We've already discussed strategies for creating secrets elsewhere (Dragon Magazine #256), but there are a few approaches that work particularly well when it comes to NPCs. Unexpected relationships ("Luke, I am your father!"), shady pasts, and hidden motivations all work well. If you're having a hard time creating a specific secret for a particular NPC, you can look back to the various roles I outlined last issue for a clue. An NPC designed to provide the players with exposition probably knows a secret about the campaign world, while an NPC designed to provide the players with a service might have access to some secret item or power that the players will eventually earn an opportunity to win for themselves.
Once you create the various secrets related to your NPCs, don't forget to write them on index cards and add them to your "deck of secrets" (see Dragon Magazine #246). Later, as you flesh out the campaign world, these cards will become a useful resource.
Tarrin and Jarrak
To refresh your memory, Tarrin is the second-in-command of the Ironoak stronghold and the captain of the guards stationed there. Years ago, he lost his left hand to the curse of an evil cult leader. Jarrak is a powerful and mysterious wizard who once devised a potent spell that saved the stronghold from devastation. So far, Jarrak has never shared the secret of this spell.
Tarrin is obviously a skilled warrior, so he probably has a high Strength and Constitution. Since I picture him as a charismatic leader and a trusted advisor of Richard, I'll give him abnormally high scores in Wisdom and Charisma as well. A 6th-level fighter with 40 hit points seems just about right. Tarrin carries a broadsword and wears studded leather armor. Tarrin's missing left hand already provides a big chunk of his description. I've further decided that he's an older man with a pencil-thin mustache who always wears a perfectly immaculate uniform.
For his first memorable trait, I've decided that Tarrin inevitably lapses into war stories culled from the many campaigns in which he served. For a second, it might be fun if he interrupts all of his long speeches to bark orders to his men.
Tarrin's secret pertains to his severed hand and was discussed last issue.
Tarrin: AC 6 (Studded leather); F6; hp 40; NG; Str 15, Con 14, Wis 14, Cha 14.
Description: Missing left hand; older man with a pencil-thin mustache.
Memorable Personality Traits: Tells war stories, constantly barks orders to his men.
Secret: Missing hand is "alive" and seeking him out.
Jarrak, on the other hand, is a powerful wizard. Obviously he has a high Intelligence, and I think it's appropriate to give him high scores in Wisdom and Charisma as well. Jarrak is a 14th-level wizard. He wears bracers of defense AC 2 and carries a staff of the magi. He is particularly fond of the teleport spell and various illusions.
As for a description, Jarrak is a thin, bony man who wears a flowing black robe and a skullcap crafted from raven feathers. His eyes are completely black, with no irises. Jarrak speaks only when spoken to, and only when he can answer a direct question with a question of his own. This should give him a spooky, otherworldly feel. For a second trait, he tends to come and go at unexpected times without warning.
Jarrak's secret is the mysterious spell he crafted several years ago to save Ironoak.
Jarrak: CG; AC 2 (bracers); W 14; hp 38; Int 18, Wis 18, Cha 15.
Description: Extremely thin, ageless man in black robe and skullcap; black eyes.
Memorable Personality Trait: Speaks only when spoken to and only in questions; comes and goes unexpectedly in a mysterious fashion.
Secret: Powerful spell known only to him.
As you finish each of your NPCs, summarize all of the relevant information on an index card. Later, this will provide you with easy means for filing away and keeping track of the dozens of characters you'll create as your campaign grows.
Next month we'll start to map the wilderness the players are likely to explore throughout the first few months of the campaign.