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Building Character:

Six Easy Steps to Creating

Better NPCs

ã 2002 by Brandon Cope

You're starting work on the next adventure for your campaign. Who does the party struggle against this week -- the mad necromancer, single-minded high priest or power-hungry noble? And who will help them -- the villain's kind-hearted daughter, the street-smart orphan or the failed hero seeking redemption? And who will they meet along the way -- an informative bartender, a persistent peddler or an arrogant guardsman?

Using such retread characters is fine if you like heavily cliched stories, but sometimes (hopefully most of the time!) you'll want more original non-player characters to appear in your campaigns. However, creating non-fodder characters can take time and it's easy to get sidetracked on character creation issues not relevant to the adventure.

Detailed below are six steps to quickly creating more interesting (and less stereotyped) characters. The guidelines (and their order) assume that you have no clear ideas for the NPC at the start, but can easily be adapted to other situations. For example, if you decide to base an NPC on a picture you saw in a magazine, then much of Step Four (Appearance) has been taken care of. Or, if you want a sherriff for an Old West mining town, you have a head start on Steps Two and Three (Motivation and Abilities).

Step 1. What is the character's purpose in the adventure?

If you're creating a character for a specific adventure, you probably already have an idea what he's there for. If, on the other hand, you've decided to use some spare time to write up an NPC to have ready at a later date, you probably won't have an idea for his role yet. There are three basic purposes an NPC serves:

Adversary: This is not synonymous with villain; an adversary is merely someone who is working towards some goal that is not to the PCs' benefit. The adversary's goal could be the opposite of the party's (eg., making sure an ancient book is never found when the PCs are trying to recover the book) or may, in fact, be the same goal and he is in competition with the PCs.

Ally: This is a character who either has the same goal as the party and is willing to cooperate, or has not taken interest in the current situation until the party talks him into taking action on their side. Note that a character can be cooperative without being an extra sword or gun for the party; he can provide important information about the goal, the setting or one of the adversaries. Also, depending on the actions of the player characters, an adversary can turn into an ally, or vice versa.

Other: This is a catch-all category for characters who do not figure to either help or hinder the party in any significant way. If such a character shows up in later adventures, or is treated poorly or very well by the party, he may eventually become an adversary or ally. There are two main subtypes: those present for color (eg. bartenders and merchants) and those present for effect (eg. hapless victims and civil servants). Color characters exist to add comic relief or simply present a memorable encounter. Effect characters serve to emphasize one or more elements of the setting. Color and effect characters tend to be more stereotyped than adversaries and allies (creating an NPC that deliberately runs counter to stereotype is, in itself, a form of stereotyping, since many counter-stereotypes have become stereotypes ).

You also must decide if the character is going to play a major or minor role in the adventure. This distinction is important as it determines how much detail should be worked up for the character. A major character needs nearly as much detail as a player character (more, perhaps, if he's going to be used as an NPC throughout the campaign), while a minor character requires much less. Whether or not the character is expected to survive the adventure is of slightly lesser importance. "Other" NPCs almost always have minor roles.

Step 2. Why is the character involved in the adventure?

Now that you know your reason the character is present, you need to work out his reasons for being there; where did the NPC come from and how did he come to cross paths with the PCs?

Every character (even non-player characters) comes from somewhere; what was his life like before the events in the adventure started? It is not necessary at this point (if at any point) to come up with a detailed life history. However, a rough sketch of the character's past may be useful and there should be enough background to justify his motivations. Some questions that should be answered before play begins are:

In general, a non-player character will show up for most of the same reasons as a player character -- duty, greed and curiosity are some of the more common ones. He could just be caught up by bigger events around him (a frequent occurrence in many genres, but especially horror). If you are working on later steps (or even have 'finished' the character) and additional ideas for background and motivation come to you, feel free to add them at any point (just make sure they don't contradict anything that has happened in the campaign so far and don't do too much work on a character who is unlikely to appear again in the campaign).

Step 3. What are, in general, the character's abilities?

Decide on the character's profession (note that this is not the same as a character class, if your game system uses them: a 'warrior' could be a soldier, bodyguard, gang enforcer or landed knight, for example, all of which have different abilities and outlooks on life). Select skills that are most appropriate to the chosen profession and the character's approximate ability in each (but don't assign specific skill levels or percentages yet; that's part of the final step). This is slightly easier if your system uses templates or character classes, but you still need to decide on the character's competence in the appropriate skills. One useful shortcut is to decide on an overall skill level for his profession, then note only skills that are significantly better or worse.

Next, pick some skills not related to his job that fit the character's background and the campaign setting. To save time, you may want to only include extra skills that you think may be used in the adventure.

Finally, select his natural attributes (strength, agility, reasoning, etc.; whatever appears in your game system). This should also include inborn and learned abilities that aren't covered in the next two steps. In GURPS®, this includes advantages like Animal Empathy, Combat Reflexes and Literacy.

(You may want to use the Envoy® system or FUDGE® for this and the next two steps or you can develop a specific model for your particular game system; for example, GURPS GMs can adapt the word descriptions for skill levels on p.B46)

Step 4. What does the character look like?

This is more than just the height, weight, age, sex and race of a character. Is he ugly or attractive? Dirty or clean? Does he dress better or worse than his social class would indicate? Does the character look imposing, mundane or just silly? This also includes any physical limitations (eg., blindness) and enhancements (eg., cyberware). Players are as likely to remember an NPC for an unusual appearance as an unusual mannerism.

Step 5. What unusual mannerism(s) does the character have?

Everyone has unusual behaviors or habits. Some are more unusual (and therefore more memorable) than others - one character might always be seen chewing gum while another whispers to his sword before battle. A mannerism need not be (and only rarely should be) severe or extreme in nature, unless the character is supposed to be of questionable sanity. The only thing that matters is that any mannerism you give an NPC should be likely to come into play. The more a character appears in a campaign, the easier it is to work in multiple mannerisms.

A character that will appear in only one adventure should have two, perhaps three, memorable mental traits; it would be difficult to get more than that in play, thus wasting effort on your part. In general, one-use characters should have one or two minor and usually just one major unusual trait (for example, a character may constantly talk like a Hollywood gangster and become uncontrollably violent if called stupid).

An NPC that is likely to be used several times should have three to four mannerisms. He should still have only one major unusual behavior (perhaps two if neither is very severe), the others being minor or moderate.

Step 6. Work out the game statistics of the character.

This step has been saved for last. Of all the things that go into making an NPC, this, ironically, is the least important. When creating a character, it's too easy to get caught up in the numbers and not devote enough effort to bringing the character alive with the steps above. In fact, you can probably get by with assigning levels only to the skills you know will be used, deciding on the levels of other skills as the need arises.

Next, give the character equipment appropriate to his skills, wealth level and setting. You can occasionally give an NPC an item seemingly inappropriate (eg., an accountant with an adjustable wrench in his briefcase). Such an item can be a plot point or just a red herring (you should still have an explanation for why the character has the item, even if you think the PCs will never find out).

Last of all, pick a name and go!