In any role-playing game, the stars of every story are the player characters. But in order to provide those characters with engaging stories, we often need to use non-player characters run by storytellers, either as antagonists or as incidental characters who are there to fill needed roles. In most games, the majority of these characters wind up as fodder for the player characters and don’t appear for more than one game session. So, it’s all too easy to throw together a sheet as something for the characters to fight.
But when an NPC becomes a recurring role in the game, those character sheets are often as flat and uninteresting as the paper they’re written on. Instead of an active dialogue where the player character has to figure out the best way to approach the character, it becomes a droll exchange where the NPC shows up, fulfills its purpose, and then fades back into the background to wait until it’s needed again.
That’s not really a character. It’s just a contrived robot, there for the players to interface with in order to complete a function. If it had a name, it’s likely nobody remembers it. It’s so easily referred to with the generic article “it” rather than a “he” or a “she,” because it doesn’t matter. It’s entire raison d’être can be boiled down to that of a vending machine. As the sheet gets passed between storytellers, it’s not portrayed the same way each time, because there’s nothing on that sheet which conveys any real sense of identity.
Set Pieces and Living Settings
Of course, not all NPC’s deserve exception to this flat treatment. It’s probably not worth mapping out a complex history for an NPC who’s simply there to receive and reciprocate a severe beating: insert quarter to receive fist. These throwaway NPC’s don’t need depth or drama. They only need the stats on the page. They’re simply set pieces, just parts of the overall plot that can be moved around to suit a story like so much hostile furniture.
The minority of NPC’s, though, are ones that have a continued involvement with the plot. Characters can expect to interact with them multiple times, to the point that you’d want the players to remember their names and personalities. But, in order for there to be a personality to remember, it has to be created, maintained, and portrayed. These are the sort of characters that can create a living setting for your venue, which grows and changes along with the characters which inhabit it.
Before you sit down to figure out how to really flesh out an NPC, take a moment and really gauge how important they are to the overall game. If you’d expect them to appear on a script as “Security Guard A” then it’s probably not worth figuring out how this redshirt looks at life. On the other hand, any NPC who deserves a proper name also deserves a fair fleshing out.
What’s Your Motivation?
Writing up a three-dimensional NPC starts in very much the same way you’d approach writing up a player’s character. You can even use player tools such as the CDD in order to examine your NPC’s motivations for development opportunities. Writers may sometimes even do “character studies” in which they compose scenes with a character, not to put that character in any sort of conflict that would bear out a story, but just as a method of figuring out who that character really is.
The primary contributor to adding some life to that character is motivation. For antagonists, this should be rather easy, because their motivation is largely borne out by the plot they serve. But for them, it can also help fill the character out for them to have a good reason that they’re moving in that direction. An antagonist can quickly jump off of the page when you abandon the mustache-twirling villains of 1940’s pulp science thrillers, and you accomplish that by giving them a real and reasonable motivation. Remember that from the antagonist’s point of view, they should be the good guys.
Surprisingly, it can be even more difficult to come up with solid motivations for support characters, because they aren’t there to drive plot. Their primary purpose isn’t to create problems for the players to battle, it’s simply to help the story keep moving forward. They’re pawn shop owners, landlords for abandoned warehouses, police chiefs, and mafiosi. They can even be next-door neighbors in order to provide that real-world contrast to the hidden worlds popular to MES venues. For these, it’s easier to start with the question: why are they there?
Giving them a reason to be involved in a story — not necessarily a major story that’s prevalent to the game as a whole, but a small, simple story that helps define the character — hands them the same clarity of purpose that an antagonist holds within a major plot. It’s easier when you have that first “why” to set off the chain reaction of purpose in the character’s background. Even if the resulting background is actually quite simple, it can often be enough to elevate the character over the background noise of everyday setting.
Conflict is not necessarily something bad. It can be any situation where a choice has to be made. The most obvious conflict with any NPC is when they are in direct conflict with the player characters, but that doesn’t necessarily add any depth to the character just because they’re a good candidate for punching bag duty. Conflict can be much more than the nakedly aggressive type that fulfills a basic function of story. Giving an NPC their own personal conflicts can help build the idea that these characters have their own little stories going on.
The two very basic types of conflict are external and internal. The most common type we see with a flat NPC is external, as the NPC is serving the role of the antagonist. There are other opportunities for a character to have external conflicts; just about anything that can stand in the way of the character’s goals, or even the character’s very nature, can serve as a source of external conflict.
An arguably more potent conflict is internal, the character versus themselves. These frequently come about when the character has a specific moral or view of the world which is challenged, and the character has to figure out how to adjust themselves, possibly even reevaluating their own identity, in order to accept new ideas. The characters may even be unaware of this internal conflict as it plays out in their own subconscious. Sometimes they may be too stubborn to change, turning them into an anachronism which may eventually spurn a player character into challenging their perceptions.
Building conflicts for a character that go beyond the basic necessities of story gives them a personality of their own. It makes them a mirror of real life, as any member of humanity could only wish that they had only one problem to deal with. The nature of that conflict may never be openly exposed to the players, and that’s fine: its purpose is to generate believable complexity, not necessarily plot.
There’s another approach that can help bring more life to an NPC, but requires a little bit more effort. A dynamic character is one that experiences change during the course of a story. In literature, these sorts of characters are preferred as protagonists. But it takes time to establish the way an NPC is at one point in a story in order to demonstrate changes at a later point, so this technique is best saved for NPC’s which will be used frequently in the course of a longer story.
The crucial thing needed to create a dynamic NPC is to build a reason for the character to change. Most often, the character should experience positive change through the resolution of a motivation or conflict. Doing so can be plots in themselves as player characters interact and encourage this change to occur. But it’s also quite possible for an NPC to descend from a state of being a support character into being an antagonist.
The corruption of an NPC can be a powerful plot motivation in itself. Instead of an NPC who suddenly appears on the floor with a pretty set of conflicts for the players to attack, the plot is faced with an NPC who the characters relate to and quite possibly sympathize with. The result is a moral dilemma as the plot will force the player characters to either accept their decline, oppose somebody they care about, or attempt to redeem them. This itself can brew up a delicious stew of inter-character conflicts as the players may not agree on the best approach.
The quickest way to destroy the depth of a character is to portray them inconsistently. That’s because while we may logically identify other people by name — after all, it’s the most logistically simple way to do so — the people we care about are really identified by emotion and memory. So, the way an NPC is played to the characters must carry the same emotional truth in order to maintain the same identity to the player’s memory.
Assigning these characters to assign to a single storyteller can help ensure consistent portrayal. Nobody else should play them except for the most incidental and brief reasons: such as a seconds-long phone call that happens while the storyteller primarily responsible for that character isn’t available. But, sometimes plots and the characters within them change hands, and that’s when making notes regarding the character’s conflicts and motivations may prove to be beneficial, lest the new storyteller simply let the character disappear into the shadows rather than try to maintain a consistent portrayal.
That portrayal is all the player character really has to emotionally identify the NPC, and getting a player emotionally invested in even the most minor of plotlines is incredibly powerful for storytellers. Here is where all of the elements you’ve decided to employ to create a three-dimensional character must show through. These living NPC’s might be a minority among the NPC’s available in a venue, but they’re a valuable hook into getting players emotionally involved in a compelling, living story.