I Want NPCs in My Chili


I've always liked NPCs. Those who know me might even say that I'm obsessed by them. There are times, it seems, that I'm more interested in NPCs than PCs. I've been known to get bogged down in describing some "off-camera" scenes involving NPC action. I've also been known to over-extend a bantering session between a PC and a NPC - sometimes the play-acting and dialog are just too good to let go, though such things may ruin the pace of a game. But, I'd also like to think those are exceptions, not the rule. And I'd like to think that my obsession with NPCs help make my games cool.

I've always liked NPCs. Always. Those who know me might even say that I'm obsessed by them. There are times, it seems, that I'm more interested in NPCs than PCs. I'll be the first to confess that my obsession is sometimes detrimental to the overall quality of the game. I've been known to get bogged down in describing some "off-camera" scenes involving NPC action. I've also been known to over-extend a bantering session between a PC and a NPC - sometimes the play-acting and dialog are just too good to let go, though such things may ruin the pace of a game. But, I'd also like to think those are exceptions, not the rule. And I'd like to think that my obsession with NPC's help make my games cool.

A well tailored NPC is the spice that makes my chili taste good.

When you're watching Star Wars, you know that Luke, Han, and the gang are the Player Characters. They do most of the cool, hero stuff and get most of the screen time. Luke fights the Wampa and Vader. Han shoots Greedo and gives some Star Destroyers the laugh. Leia makes nice with the Ewoks. And so on. If Star Wars is chili, then Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader are the meat.

If Star Wars is chili, Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader are the meat.

But, then you see guys like Wedge, Boba Fett, Lobot, Paploo, and Admiral Motti floating around. They're not just some random stormtrooper or rebel soldier in the back-ground. They're more than just fodder and set decoration. They have names and, often enough, discernable personalities. They're the Star Wars equivalent of NPCs. They're the spice.

Now, explaining why spice is good isn't easy. It's like trying to describe why blue is your favorite color. Even so, allow me to try.

After watching Star Wars, we learn quite a bit about Luke, Han, and the rest, but we don't know much about these other guys. As NPCs, they don't get as much screen time or character development. Most of them exist to satisfy a certain function. In a RPG, a NPC may exist to act as the bar-tender, or the blacksmith, or the captain of the guard. In Star Wars, the NPCs perform similar functions as wingmen, officers, and lackeys.

On the surface, there's not much to these guys. Boba Fett, in fact, initially earned legions of fans just because he had a cool suit. What is it that makes these NPCs so interesting? Why do I call them the spice? Patience, dear reader... all will be revealed.

Over the course of three movies, we get to know Luke and Han pretty well. We know their personalities and get a feel for what seems "right" for their character. It feels right for a roguish Han Solo to soften a bit for Leia and, eventually, fall in love with her. It feels right for Luke to grow from a hot headed-youth into a diplomatic Jedi Knight. The progression of these PCs is sensible and works well for their character and for the story.

But there's no surprise with the progression. While it may have originally been shocking to learn that Darth Vader is Luke's father, it's not surprising that Luke returns to his father, confronts him, and prevails. It's good storytelling, it's good for the character of Luke and Vader, but it's also fated.

Granted, RPGs aren't as bound by fate as a movie or a book. But, Luke and Han follow a certain path, and so do most PCs in RPGs. To use a simple example, a PC chooses to be a paladin of Neheod and sets out to crusade against evil. His quests put him at odds with an evil devil, who seeks to steal the paladin's soul. Said devil later corrupts the soul of the paladin's mentor and stands in the position to corrupt the entire church of Neheod. The stakes have been raised and the paladin must find a way to overcome this evil and, if possible, redeem the soul of his mentor.

If this were a movie, it's a sure bet that the paladin will overcome the devil. Or, if the movie is made by an existentialist, then one can assume the paladin would die in some attempt to make a poignant observation about the meaning of life, or some such. Now, in an RPG, the outcome isn't set in stone, because there are dice involved. The paladin might get killed in a random encounter or might get burned to death by the devil. But, just as Luke is destined to overcome Vader, one can safely assume that this paladin PC will do what he can to fight this evil. This PC has a purpose and a path to follow... and, if the dice are kind, a destiny to fulfill.

When Luke finds out that Vader is his father, it wouldn't make sense for him to hang up his saber, open a bar, and spent his money on drugs. Such a course of action isn't good for the character of Luke or the story of Star Wars. It just doesn't resonate. Likewise, it wouldn't make sense for the paladin to follow a similar course once his mentor becomes corrupted. Luke and the paladin are PCs. They have a destiny to follow and they have a story to be told. Any attempt to deviate from their path will likely strike a bad chord. It doesn't work well for PCs, whether they're in a movie or an RPG, to abandon their path. There are exceptions, of course. But, by and large, the PC must keep to his path for the story / RPG to succeed.

NPCs are not as bound by destiny as PCs.

NPCs, however, are not as bound by destiny as PCs are. NPCs, oddly enough, have more freedoms and liberties than PCs. This is true in movies / books and it's also true in RPGs. Luke and the paladin may be bound by destiny, but what of the NPCs in their lives?

Those familiar with Star Wars will know that the character of Wedge appears in episodes IV through VI. He's a pilot and is involved in every major space-ship battle in the original trilogy. He's the only character to make an attack on both Death Stars and he's the first pilot to take out an AT-AT. Beyond that, there's not much you can say about the guy. But, practically everyone who is a fan of Star Wars will tell you that Wedge is cool. And, well, Wedge IS cool.

Wedge is also an NPC (no offense, Wedge). The story of Star Wars is not about Wedge. He doesn't get the screen time that Luke or Han get. In fact, Wedge doesn't even really have any plot revolving around him. His role is that of the ever-present, ever-loyal buddy. How, then, can this NPC with a handful of accolades become so popular and interesting? How can we say that Wedge is the spice that makes Star Wars good?

For one, the fact that we know so little about him is part of why he's interesting. We're given a sense of who Luke is, where he comes from, and why he does what he does. And in our RPG example, these are also things we'd know about the paladin. But, these are things we don't know about Wedge. We're not told why he joins the fight against the Empire or how he became such a great pilot. Was his home planet destroyed? Did he train at an academy or is his talent natural? Not knowing these things add an element of mystery to NPCs like Wedge. And mystery is almost always interesting.

Lack of background also gives NPCs room for exploration, room that a PC usually doesn't have. On the surface, Wedge and Luke are similar personalities. They fight the good fight. We know where Luke came from, but not Wedge. Well, if one were so inclined, one could contrive a back-story for Wedge that involved an addiction to gambling, a bad incident with a harlot, and an accidental murder of her other customer, an Imperial officer. Such circumstances could have forced Wedge to throw in with the Rebellion and, over time, he finds that it is a cause that he can believe in, one that will give him some sense of redemption. Or, one could just as easily say his planet was blown up and that he wants justice. Or, one could say that he's an Imperial spy.

The possibilities for tweaking the back-story and motivations of a NPC like Wedge are virtually infinite. None of the back-stories that I've proposed for Wedge would ruin the overall story or the development of Luke or Han.

In the RPG setting, we can suppose that the paladin has a buddy who is much like Wedge. On the surface, he's loyal, eager, and enthusiastic to help out the paladin. And the proposed back-stories that I offered for Wedge are just as valid for this paladin's NPC buddy. Maybe this NPC buddy is trying to atone for some past sins. Maybe his father was killed by the same devil that strives against the paladin. Or, maybe he's a secret ally of that devil. Such mystery makes this buddy interesting or, at the very least, worth a degree of scrutiny.

The paladin's path is somewhat predetermined. In order to be a good paladin... and in order to be played well as a PC... he must do what he can to overcome his devil. But, the guidelines for his NPC buddy are more blurred - the Game Master has more options, more opportunities for the NPC, whereas the PC is bound by the confines of the rules and, often, the story.

The taste of the chili depends on the spices.

It is this combination of mystery, opportunity, and creative freedom that draws me to NPCs. They're not the main ingredients of the story or the game, but they are the spice. Just as one needs meat to make chili, one needs PCs in order to have an RPG. But the taste of the chili depends on the spices. The flavor of an RPG, therefore, is largely dependent on the quality of the NPCs. And the taste of a good RPG often depends on the use of well-crafted NPCs.

If one wants to make a game about Byzantine plots and treachery, then one designs back-stabbing and conniving NPCs. If one wants to make a game about honor and hubris, then one makes NPCs who are hearty and unquestionably loyal. If one wants to make a game with cool magic, then one designs an interesting magician - or, better yet, one designs a fallen magician who yearns to reclaim his old glory.

Not only are NPCs the spice of the game, they can be the medium through which details of the game are made known. A novice GM might simply tell his players that the Lands of Lunarda are a place of magical mystery. A craftier GM would introduce the elven character of Ord, a native of Lunarda, whose method of speech and topics of conversation reveal plenty to the paladin on his quest, over the course of several games.

Furthermore, NPCs can bring tension to a story in ways that a PC cannot. Again, consider Wedge. While this is a NPC with essentially minimal development, one cannot deny that the story of Star Wars is that much more flavorful and intense because he exists. The fact that Wedge has a name and is present in each movie makes the final battle against the Death Star that much more interesting. Most folks wouldn't care if some nameless pilot gets blow up - I know I wouldn't. And while not everyone may give a hoot about Wedge's character, I doubt there was anyone who wasn't slightly curious if he would survive yet another attack against the Death Star. While one can safely assume that Luke and Han would survive Return of the Jedi, first-time viewers can't safely bet whether Wedge will make it out alive or not. Wedge is a NPC... he exists at a level between cannon fodder and hero material and, therefore, it's anyone's guess whether he'll get blown to bits or not. Such uncertainty breeds tension, which breeds excitement. And when Wedge makes it out, I'm sure there were lots of guys who turned to each other and said "wow, that cool guy made it!" Likewise, when Boba Fett falls into the Sarlacc Pit, there were guys who groaned "aw, man, what a sorry way for that cool guy to die!"

It's ironic. PCs are the reasons why stories are told and why RPG's are played. Yet, in an odd way, they are less powerful than the NPC. The NPC tends to have more creative leeway. The NPC is more likely to bring tension to the table than the PC. And the NPC is the more likely medium through which the details of a story-world are revealed. And, yet, they are not the focus of the story or the RPG. And it is this irony that solidifies my love for the NPC.

And is my love for the NPC that leads me to spend so much of my time designing and researching when I create NPCs for my games. While I've been known to overdo it, I've also found that a game tends to flow better when the NPCs are well designed. After all, they are a primary interface for the PCs into the game world. A well designed dungeon might be fun for the PCs to explore... but I've found that it's even more fun when they have a well-crafted NPC who is able to explain certain mysteries of the dungeon and has unanticipated reactions. And when this well known NPC dies in a trap, the PCs know that the stakes have been raised and that the game is on.

It is the well designed NPC that brings spice to the RPG environment because NPCs have the power to make a game cool. Are NPCs the only spice that can be added to RPGs? No, there are others. But NPCs are the spice I like best. They're the reason why my chili tastes good.

"Uncertainty breeds tension."

Well said! But do you never find that, with GM-favored NPCs, sometimes a character's fate is just as predictable as the heroes'? I myself am very guilty of this: it's hard for me to kill off my favorite NPCs, and my players know it. Sometimes they'll do wild things just to see if I have the guts to kill off a favorite.

An enjoyable article. I'd like to hear a few more of your thoughts on what distinguishes a memorable NPC from an unmemorable one, though.

as usual, an interesting read, RG.

however, I'm not so sure about all that irony stuff...remember that the fun you're having with an NPC is the same a player has when creating his character. it's simply that usually PCs are there for the long run and they become predictable the longer you know them. the same is true with recurring NPCs. They're only new and interesting while they're ,well, new. (and popping up for a few seconds in each film still makes Wedge "new" IMO). when you keep putting the sam spices in all your dishes, they're not that special anymore, right?

good thing you have the patience and willingness to keep creating and developing new and meaningful NPCs...i know i don't have the energy to do that for long.

- have mercy on the newbie -

"...Darth Vader is Luke's father..."

What? When did that happen? Oh, now you've gone and ruined it for me! Should've posted a spoiler alert at the top of your article!

HAHA! Just kidding.

Well written, as always Rogue.

Good point, Zipdrive, about the sameness and predictability with using the same NPCs over and over. I try to classify my NPCs into categories: the generic ones (bartender at the inn the PCs frequent at a particular town, guard captain at gatehouse of a certain city); minor ones (rogue that the PCs seek out for underground information, a bard which roams from town to town so he's not always in the same place, a mage's apprentice they might encounter while he's on his master's tasks); and major ones (the "core" NPCs who have their own goals and dreams).

The Major NPCs are my (as a DM) opportunity to "play" DND with the other players. These NPCs aren't necessarily the bad guys. In one instance, they were the brother and sister of a duke who died, and then their rulership was headed by a corrupt council. They NPC brother and sister had solicited the help of the PCs to help them stabilize the government until the boy came of age-- then, many years later, the PCs asked his help and the support of his troops for a war.

Anyway, I guess my point is that yes it is a good deal of work for the DM to make up NPCs that aren't cut and dried. For my experience, much like Rogue says, it adds spice to the campaign, and gives it more life.

And, yes, it is hard to let the PCs kill off major NPCs who are set against them. As a DM, you put in so much time/background/effort/encounters with this NPC, ultimately knowing that either the PCs or the NPC must die. However, when the PCs finally eliminate such a major player in the campaign, I find it gives them a much greater level of satisfaction!

While some NPCs can be content with being interchangable cogs in the GM's design, it makes for a dull campaign. They can easily blend into each other, and it becomes impossible for the players to tell bartender #14 apart from caravan driver #37. Essentially, it's the "C" that makes all the difference.
When you take time to craft a history for your NPCs and make them into true characters in the tale, then you're getting somewhere. When done well, the players start treating an NPC as an equal member of the party. This isn't going to happen for the average Tom, Dick, and Wuher, but the ones that are consistant throughout the campaign will get a little smirk from me whenever they show up. Yep, even the ones I hate.

As to the sameness - True, NPCs have a higher casualty rate... but nobody's gauranteed to live through the game. Any major shift in the life of a popular NPC (especially one that's known for being a GM favorite) sends a message to the players, and certainly advances the story in some way. NPCs can't just sit on the corner and sell pods forever, man, they've got to grow as characters just like the PCs.

10 years ago, I would have been more guilty of that than today.

I'm still somewhat guilty...but I've taken some baby steps towards getting away from it.

An exmaple is Romba, the beloved Giff warrior -- (giff are a race of hippo men from the spelljamming campaign for those who don't know). Romba was as dumb as the day was long, but loyal to a fault and everyone's best friend. He'd been around for, oh, nearly 4 years or so...off and on. He was a gentle soul...phat, dumb, and happy.

I had Moloch kill him off last summer and it kinda shocked the troops (as some of you know, Moloch is a arch-villain in my games). Romba was considered "untouchable" in that regard.

But, I hear what you're saying...and I still hit some of the old pitfalls.

Another thing I try and do is rotate NPC's so that none of them become "old hat." While the same 3 NPC's may be in every adventure, I try to rotate the focus from game to game -- kinda like how they do in episodes of Star Trek...where one week Rom is important and one week he's barely there.

Actually, it's not uncertainty that breeds tension. It's the slow, inexorable approach of certain doom that breeds tension.

Uncertainty breeds confusion.

"Uncertainty breeds confusion."

Wait... I'm not sure I get that...

Actually, it's not uncertainty that breeds tension.

Actually? As 'in reality'? As in, 'not in my delusional world but the objective, demonstrable reality of Vaxalon'?

It's the slow, inexorable approach of certain doom that breeds tension.

Certainty breeds tension? I'll be sure to pass that on to the writers I know.

Sarcasm aside, I interpreted "uncertainty breeds tension" to mean that drama is enhanced when the outcome of a situation is unclear. If you're uncertain about a character's fate in a scene/episode/story/event, then you tend to become more involved in the situation. Your own adrenaline and/or feelings may be aroused from empathy: most of us want a scene's protagonist to succeed. Will she escape the alien? Will he defeat his lifelong enemy? Will she reach the security doors before they trap her in the lab? That's drama.

From that standpoint, certainty is uninteresting by comparison. If the audience already knows what's going to happen, it takes a gifted storyteller - and probably one or more unusual storytelling devices - to keep their interest.

In summary: what in tarnation are you talking about? I may not agree with a lot of what you've posted on this site, but at least you've been coherent before.

I agree about the coherent remark -- I wasn't sure if I was being agreed with, argued with, or what. I know Cocytus and OldTimer are sharp guys...so if they were thrown by this...then it's good to know that I wasn't alone.

But as a wise man says...that's just my $.02 worth.

When I create an adventure, I first make all of the primary NPC's that may become factors within the story (hirelings, important contacts, and of course the villian(s)and I usually use a full or almost full character sheet for each of them. For secondary NPC's I don't make them quite as detailed, but still try to use a condense character sheet that I have just for that purpose. And for background NPC's (such as bartenders, shopkeepers, etc.) I have a random NPC generator that I created and a background character sheet that I use and then can create unique and distinctive NPC's rather quickly. Sometimes these background NPC's are so interesting and distinctive I "bump" them up to secondary NPC status and fill out a little more information about them. And rarely, very rarely I can come up with a background NPC that steals the show so to speak and eventually becomes an integral part of the storyline and becomes a Primary NPC

Just some thoughts about how I develop some of my NPC's

Thanks, RG... You just made my Christmas card list! ;)

My comment was really a play on the one prior to it. It was made in jest, but I guess I'm the only one who understood it as such?

However, in the spirit of the original comment, I agree that a certain level of uncertainty can breed tension, for being uncertain about something (because it is unpredictable), can make one tense as to the outcome.

As in all things posted, though, different people will read different things into snippets of an article. Perhaps there is no right/wrong interpretation here?


Well, I got that you were making a joke and that you probably understood what Vaxalon was trying to say, but assumed you were making a joke because you weren't buying into the logic of what was being said. Could be I assumed too much. But...that's probably more explanation than anybody wants to hear.

And, yea, verily, I agree that there's probably not really a right / wrong interpretation. There's a line from Star Trek II that I like to reference where Kirk is talking about the differences between him and Spock and then ends the conversation with saying "reality is probably somewhere in between." And I think that's true for most things and that anyone who spends too much time trying to prove otherwise probably needs hypertension medication.

Perhaps there is no right/wrong interpretation here?

I would say there isn't - storytelling mechanics are one thing, but their effectiveness is subjective. Different people respond to different things. But that's why I snarked at Vaxalon for saying "actually" - it's not as though RG was laying out a mathematical proof with a flawed axiom.

hahahaha! npc's... i might spend three days making a game, and then two weeks designing npcs. nothing pisses me off more than the pcs not talking to my favorite npcs! the best one ever (i know, a little far-fetched)is a gibberling (a gibberling who had his intelligence increased by a slightly off-his-rocker scorcerer, mind you, but he's still not the sharpest tool in the shed) who accidentally ended up ruling the nation of Riamne (my favorite setting)... this glory-fated little monkey thing goes by none other than lord ballsack the great! he dies in every campaign, and is somehow always back in the next, has been a hero, a villian, mostly comic relief, etc etc, just about anything an npc can do... i am now writitng his last campaign, for i am growing slightly tired of him, and i just wanna throw my players a curveball... mwhahaha!

OMG! You killed Kenny! XD

I hate South park...

Getting back on topic, though, I was wondering if you give a reason for him to have somehow survived each death, or is it just unexplainable indestructability?


I'm not a rare flower
Nor am I a shiny treasure box
I'm just your average gamer girl
Who has a bit of power

I GM for the boys
I write up a set of rules
To make sure they keep a reign
On all their spiffy toys

I agree with you on NPC's. I spend hours just considering a single NPC. I always think about where he comes from, what he thinks, does, feels, and all that good stuff. I construct civilizations and fill them with countless NPC's. It's crazy!! And the worst part is...I'm not even playing D&D right now. I don't have anyone to play with. So I'm doing this all just for the fun of it in case I can ever play again.