There are two types of characters in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, the Players’ Characters (PCs), and the Non Player Characters (NPCs). When it comes to NPCs, there are, once again, two types, ones that are planned beforehand, and are pertinent to the story, and those that are made up on the spot to fill a need. Today we are talking about the preplanned NPCs, that have a purpose to the story.
Now, it is worth mentioning that you don’t necessarily need a lot decided when it comes to NPCs. If you have a murderhobo type D&D game, where players go from dungeon to dungeon, killing monsters and getting loot, then you don’t need to know much about the miner that gives you a map to the cave, the local King, or his villainous advisor. However, if you like to build stories, with characters that have their own beliefs and motivations, then it takes a bit of thought as to how they react to the players, and their actions.
Also, nowhere on this list are there voices, mannerisms, or unique features. While my NPCs tend to have different voices (that change session to session because I can’t remember what they sounded like), you don’t ever have to put on a voice in order for your players to see your NPC as a real person. As long as you play them honestly, with real actions and reactions, then your players will believe it with no voice, or with the most outrageous voice. Just play your NPCs honestly.
What is an NPC?
There are a lot of different kinds of NPCs in D&D. There are questgivers, that tell the party the problem at hand, as well as the possible reward for solving it. There are allies who wish to help the party, but can’t do it on their own. There are antagonists, who for whatever reason believe that the party is more trouble than their worth, and should stay out of it. There are outright villains who cause the problem to begin with. However, with all of these different types of story-based NPCs, there are some things you need to know about them, to play them and their reactions realistically. As you should know, you’ll never be able to predict your players, so focusing on how the world around them reacts will make you more prepared than anything.
Obviously, you need to describe your NPCs. However, knowing what race they are is not quite enough. You can do a lot of legwork on how the party reacts to the character, just on how they look, act, and sound. Are they tall, short, thick, thin, low voice, accent, speak quickly, or not at all? All of these things are crucial to how your players perceive the character. I find it easier to follow in the footsteps of other popular, characters, because your description won’t immediately make the players realize. For example, if you want an old, joyous man, you could describe him practically like Santa Claus, and as long as you change his clothes, the players will subconsciously understand the vibe you are going for. Want an evil wizard, just make him look, act, and sound like Jafar from Aladdin, and you will nail the evilness intended. Artists and character designers spend so much time making sure that the look of a character matches the attitude, that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Steal like an artist.
Once you get good at this, then you can begin to spin this idea on it’s head. If you want a character to seem one way, but then it turns out to be another, the right description will add to the surprise of the switch. A character that looks like Rick Moranis will get your players trust, and it will hurt so much more when he turns out to be evil.
Next, you want to know where they fit in with the web of connections in your story. In more complex, political, intrigue storylines it’s going to take a bit more work on who they like, dislike, owe favors to, etc. However, in a simple campaign, just knowing how socially powerful they are, and what they think of adventurers, is an extremely helpful tool. If they want someone else to do something, how likely are they going to succeed? If the party asks them to do something, how likely are the party to succeed?
What They Know
Getting information is a very important aspect to D&D, whether it’s regarding secrets and politics, or just where the dragon and it’s hoard is. Knowing who knows what is crucial for DMs. Also, there is the idea that NPCs don’t know everything. Just because they are voiced by the DM, players assume that everything an NPC says is an accurate statement. It’s really fun to have certain NPCs specifically be wrong, and confident, because searching for the truth within the rumors is a ton of fun. Once the players realize what is actually happening, it’s like a detective finding the killer. It’s a huge sense of accomplishment. So figure out what (pertinent info) does the NPC know?
What They Want
Also known as “motivation.” If there is only one thing you ever figure out for each NPC, make this be the thing. Knowing what the NPC wants will get you most of the way there to a realistic response system. A farmer wants to feed his family and make money on excess crops. A King wants to rule and protect his people, or he maybe wants to gather power by any means necessary. A cultist wants to bring their preferred powerful entity to the Material Plane, so that they can be rewarded by said entity and have a shot at power themselves. If you know what the NPC wants, you know whether or not they can be bargained with, whether or not they will betray their leaders, and what they’re willing to die for.
What They Have
This is great because everyone has something, and realizing what they have goes beyond what the Rogue can pickpocket off them. If we look above, we figured out what it is that they want, and they can use what they have to get that. If a cultist wants to bring Orcus to life, and you try to stop them, they will use their weapons, magic, and allies to stop you. If a King wants to rescue his daughter Princess, he has lots of money that he could be willing to pay you, but he also has knights that will do the job for free, so the party has to make an offer that makes more sense to the King, based on what he wants and what he has to get it.
This is also helpful when it comes to combat. Personally, I have a bad habit of saving more powerful spells or actions for later in combat, because I see them as a last resort, but why? If the party is in the way, and the villain has a high level spell, why wouldn’t they open up with that? Besides, if they hold onto it for a more “dramatic” time (guilty), then the players might roll a couple of Nat20s, and your NPCs die, then no one got to see their super cool ability. Let NPCs use what they have to get what they want quickly, as the rule, not the exception.
What They Say
Lastly, there are times where what they Know, Want, and Have are in conflict with each other. They might want something, and have the money to pay you, but they don’t want you to know how important it is. They might act like they have something they know you want, to get you to do their bidding. Basically, they might keep a secret about something they know, something they want, or something they have, because it could be more beneficial not to mention it. So knowing what the NPC doesn’t say is just as important as knowing what they do say, because it brings drama to your game.
Lastly, it helps to whip up some quick stats for your NPC, whether for Insight checks to see if your players are lying, or for a fight that might happen. When this happens, you don’t need to create an entire character sheet for every NPC, that’s tedious. If you are pretty sure they are going to get into a fight, you can always use the back of the Monster Manual, where there are stat blocks for things like bandits, cultists, guards, and more.
However, Matt Colville’s book Strongholds and Followers has a mechanic called “Retainers,” where the NPC has a Primary Ability (+4), a Signature Attack, and three Special Actions. These stat blocks are incredibly streamlined and simple, and easy to modify quickly. The best part is, instead of Hit Points to track, there are health levels, how many times can this person be hit before they fall? No need for keeping track of how much each hit was worth, just “did it hit?” Way faster and easier.