The title says it all.
One thing that the roleplaying game expects is abundant NPCs, non-player characters that populate the GM’s setting with helping hands or dastardly plots. They’re either background dressing or they’re part of the story.
The background ones are no problem - you can simply say ‘the citizen points the way to the spaceport’ and that’s the end of that encounter. No serious hard work there.
It’s those NPC’s the player characters (PCs) will be spending a lot of their time with that’ll need the work. This sailing ship captain they’ve hired or that installation commander they’ve kidnapped. The key characters need dressing up.
CHOOSING A VISUAL REFERENCE
The NPC in question will need an appearance, of course, so that the players will be able to visualise his or her presence in the game. This can be done one of three ways:
1. If you’re talented artistically you can simply draw the character in question. Artwork of the NPC always works effectively as the design is almost always original, making the NPC unique.
2. A narrative description of main characters, denoting a simplistic facial or bodily appearance coupled with clothing style, always works. For example: ‘The short man is ugly with a small pig-nose and narrow eyes topped with thick eyebrows. His clothing is that of a blue flight suit, complete with tassels hanging down his back but it is filthy beyond comprehension - he looks as though he’s been dragged through an old oil conduit’.
3. Take an existing picture from a sourcebook or any other reference material and simply say ‘that’s what they look like’, adding the odd detail as far as changing the appearance goes.
The character must be firmly imprinted in the player’s minds as play progresses to avoid questions such as ‘which one was he again?’ or ‘what did he look like?’ These queries can slow a game and suspend belief if a player has to constantly remind themselves what the NPC looks like. If you have a picture of the character, place it on the table whilst the scene unfolds. If it’s a description you have read out, then make sure you’ve done a convincing job. Sometimes, the need to remind players is necessary the first time they encounter your new NPC but don’t be disheartened if they don’t take to them straight away. As in real life, getting to know a face and name takes a little time.
It’s usually the norm to base the way a character looks on their personality - if they dress dark and broody they’re usually bad guys, dressed dirty and scruffy they could be common thieves, dressed well and clean shaven they’re good people. This isn’t always the case. Dress a person in black, give them a big gun but an even bigger heart and you’ve got an interesting character. Dress another in a smart casual suit with a bright smile and blue eyes, give them a black heart and devious mind and you’ve got an interesting character. Simply basing a personality around an appearance will dilute you’re NPC’s to the point of boring the players. Changing them constantly will keep the players on their toes, or at least stop them from treating the characters as archetypes.
USING THE ‘MOP’
The acronym in the above title is what you will use to give the character depth. There are usually three things that make up an individual - Motivation, Objectives and Personality. MOP.
When designing a fresh NPC think of MOP and make a separate heading for each letter of the acronym. Make a brief list of what kind of impact the character will have on the game you’ve designed and then list their MOP statistics under each heading. Don’t put too many reasons under each one - after all, if an NPC is in the game because they want pretty much everything for every reason then you may as well create one stock character and use them for every game. Cue player boredom.
M - Motivation: What makes the character do what he does? If they’re brutish and mean, why? Has one of the player characters crossed them in the past? Does he have a secret he’s worried the players will discover? Does he have something on him he wants to keep hidden? The motivation for a person is a strong part of the psyche and must be treated with care. If the NPC is going to be with the campaign a while those motivations may change - hate into respect, keeping the secret into sharing the knowledge. Make sure the change of motivation suits not only the storyline but the character also. A broody, mean character will not suddenly become happy and friendly when something goes right or the players help them out. They may become a little more relaxed, but not a total reversal overnight.
Motivation powers the next step.
O - Objectives: The character you have created has motivation, but what exactly is he or she in the campaign for? Are they there to protect a secret, for money or for some personal reasons? Do they intend to aid or hinder the players? At the end of the day an individual does something to reach a goal. You make your dinner with the intention of eating it. You aid a person to resolve a favour. You do the job to make the money. Every action has a result; it’s just that with the NPC you’ve created the result is usually a lot more important than simply preparing food or helping out a friend. Let’s say the NPC wants to help the players capture a crime boss. Why would he help? Is there a substantial reward? Has the crime boss done something to the NPC that revenge is the goal? Give the NPC a target and then send them off - their personality will determine exactly how they go about achieving that goal.
P - Personality: Even though the NPC may have the motivation and the objective, these reasons will not be communicated to the players until it’s appropriate. It’s the way the NPC acts that the players will get to know first. Take the character’s appearance, motivation and objectives and try to create an interesting individual. Don’t always go for the obvious. You know that kindly old mage who helped the players secure that medicine for the thief of the team so that he could get over the fever? Well, it turns out she picked their pockets whilst they were asleep and skipped the town. That nasty old fellow in the corner with the dark eyes and the big rifle? It’s all for show - he’s actually never seen combat and is about as useful as a chocolate sun hat. A good mix of appearances and actions always serves to build a good character. You can still have your dirty mugger, your darkly-dressed bounty hunter and your clean shaven heroes but it pays to throw in a the odd contradiction every now and then.
So there you have it. Take an appearance and MOP it. At the end of the day what truly creates a memorable NPC is the GM; the way the character is portrayed is very important. Glare at the players if the NPC has a grudge, smile lots and keep batting your eyelids if the NPC is happy but nervous. Take these traits and blow them out of proportion. If they act in a certain way and talk in a certain manner it’s possible to just start playing the NPC without introducing them by name. If one of the players turns around and says ‘that’s so-and-so, that is’ then you know you’ve done your job.
SAMPLE CHARACTER - Grone Darkwin, Bounty Hunter.
Appearance - Grone is a short man with dark green and brown conflict clothes, usually worn under armour but, as far as can be told, worn here as part of his general attire. A rough flight coat with upturned lapels gives the otherwise rounded, boyish face a guarded look. Wide eyes topped by thin brows, a furrowed forehead and speeder goggles holding back long, matted hair. A heavy pistol hangs from a cord at his waist, his cracked black boots reaching his knees but obviously of two different sizes.
M - Fame. Grone wants to be feared and respected as a bounty hunter.
O - To track down Turgen, a local ganglord. The players are going after Turgen, so he’ll utilise their help for his own ends. If he gets Turgen, he’ll get the reputation he’s been looking for.
P - Very gruff and short-sentenced, but after a few minutes he’ll relax. He’s very forthcoming with stories of his achievements but keeps his mouth closed about his failures. As far as he’s concerned he’s already famous, and he doesn’t mind letting anyone around him know that.