|Using NPCs|| NPCs|
Creating an Encounter
|Stock NPCs|| NPC Archetypes|
So just what is an NPC? Yes, yes, I'm sure by now you know that "NPC" stands for "Non-Player Character". But within the context of your game, just what does that mean? What do NPCs do for your game that can't be accomplished otherwise? And more importantly, how do you use them? While the theme of Man Against Nature has been a truly timeless one, retold from the earliest ur-stories through to modern disaster movies, in most games, NPCs are essential to flesh out the world. They give players the chance to really immerse themselves in the world and the GM the ability to interact with the players' characters in ways that are otherwise impossible.
NPCs Interact with PCsEdit
First and foremost, NPCs are there to challenge and assist the PCs in a wide variety of different ways. They're the ones the PCs go to to for information, or for a mission, or have to fight off when the battle starts. These are the most fundamental elements of how NPCs will help the PCs directly with their mission, a starting point for understanding how you can use different NPCs to accomplish different tasks.
A mechanic. A smithy. A fearless sea captain. A snot-nosed kid with uncanny skills in hacking. A colleague at the university specialized in ancient linguistics. When you need help that requires more than just information, help that requires actual skill and training and expertise, you need an artisan. Artisans are less common than informants (who can literally be anyone) as artisans are often exceptionally skilled enough in their trade to have drawn the attention of the PCs to help fill a service. Some aren't always great helps (such as the drunk stagecoach driver who just so happens to be the only coach going to California for the next three weeks), but they're often the best the PCs can get with their current resources to resolve a certain challenge which they themselves lack a key skill for.
Artisans can be located with some Streetwise checks, though less-than-friendly artisans might require payment or persuasion to be convinced to help the PCs out. Artisans are the most-frequently bypassed NPC archetype, as the skill system allows the PCs to hammer out their own fortes in non-combat areas too. When the PCs do go to them for help, artisans are usually only useful for their narrow range of skill, not being much good at combat.
In terms of their attitude, most artisans will be Indifferent, but they frequently fall within the range of Unfriendly to Helpful.
A gossip. A keen-eared barkeep. A shady dock-side information broker. A para-military intelligence network. A wise old mountain sage. An internet connection and a search engine. When you need information about a mission, an area, or a particular person, and you don't know it yourself, it's probably time to look for a good informant. In theory, just about anyone can become an informant, able to provide the players with exposition without breaking the flow of the game too much. Any local who knows the story about the Haunted House on Greenbriar Hill can become a good informant, but to find out just what the extremist Brotherhood of Oblivion terrorist organization is up to, you'll probably need to find a better informant. Some artisans who are less skilled in a given area than a PC often fall into the realm of the informant, able to just provide a convenient means of exposition for the GM when the sometimes-artisan's trade skills can provide.
Informants can usually be accessed through two mechanical channels. More generic and widely-known information, such as local rumors or general current events, can be accessed with successful Streetwise checks. These informants are probably very poorly defined and don't exist for the players as anything more than the rumor itself and no longer than it takes to deliver that piece of information. The other method of accessing an informant would be to seek out a specific NPC directly and attempt to persuade that NPC to divulge the relevant information. More helpful informants might give the information freely, but self-serving or antagonistic ones are likely to take some convincing. Informants can be bypassed as necessities when the PCs are suitably knowledgeable in a certain area (such as a PC passing a knowledge check to recall an actor's name before everyone has to go tramping around town asking around).
Like artisans, most informants will be Indifferent in attitude, but they frequently fall within the range of Unfriendly to Helpful.
A very important subset of informants are called "questgivers". These NPCs are the ones who bring to the PCs information that spurs on a new adventure or mission. They really are absolutely essential to most genres of gameplay. All but the most character-driven games need these NPCs to give the game direction by providing the PCs with the first hints of what the coming adventure will be. Questgivers, like informants, can be nearly anyone:
- The Commanding Officer: Especially suitable for military games where an NPC assigns the PCs to different missions or assignments.
- The Petitioner: An NPC who comes seeking out the PCs with a specific request for help, sometimes offering payment or other rewards.
- The Rumor Mill: Sometimes the questgiver is nothing more than an average informant who just so happens to know a rumor that can spur on an adventure. These questgivers are especially common in fantasy games where they often relay legends that just so happen to be true.
- The Signal in the Sky: Certain NPCs, especially in modern games, might have a very blatant and very obvious means of summoning or communicating with the PCs, sometimes literally with a signal in the sky or a trouble-alert system.
- "While You're Here...": There are also NPCs who do little more than to sit around and wait until PCs show up to ask for a hand with something. The PCs just happen upon them, and the NPCs ask them to complete side-quests for them.
Unlike the other NPCs, the role of the foe is exclusively to bring harm to the PCs. Foes often do this directly by engaging them in whatever arena the PCs are currently engaged in. For most games, this means foes will try to start combat with the PCs with the hope of killing, capturing, or at least defeating the PCs enough to hamper them. In more political or intrigue-focused games, the foe might spread rumors or engaging in social sparring-matches with the PCs. Sometimes, it will be the PCs who have to seek out a foe and take the fight to the enemy!
Finding a foe often comes in the form of Streetwise or Survival checks in an area where the foe is believed to be, but more often than not, the foe will either seek the PCs out, or the PCs will just stumble upon their new foe and a battle will be joined. Once that happens, combat skills are what take priority over everything else.
While foes will vary from region to region and game to game, a majority of foes who the PCs encounter are disposable enough that they're considered expendable after use in a single encounter. And since they're the ones who are supposed to be doing actual harm to the PCs, their attitudes usually starts at Hostile and can range from Nemesis at worst to Unfriendly at best.
A special sort of foe is the nemesis, an NPC who becomes a long-lasting foe for the party, often directing or manipulating lesser foes and even friendlier NPCs in a coordinated effort against the PCs. Unlike lesser foes, a nemesis will likely be as capable or more powerful than the PCs, and will be skilled enough to survive (and often escape from) numerous encounters with the PCs. A nemesis will also likely be more intelligent than the more garden-variety foes. While you can build an encounter or even an adventure around a foe, you can build an entire campaign around a nemesis. A foe might be the vampire commanding a squad of zombies and skeletons, but the nemesis would be the dread necromancer who seeks nothing less than total world domination.
A noble squire. A rifleman assigned to the squad at the last minute. A sidekick who follows his hero into battle. A swordsman willing to put his life on the line to repay his debt to the heroes. While PCs seek out Artisans for their technical skill and talent and informants for bits of information, they turn to the Stalwart when they need a hand in a fight. Stalwarts might not even be as powerful as the PCs, but they're willing to march off to battle with them and put their lives on the line to help the cause the PCs are fighting for. Stalwarts sometimes provide that little extra "oomph" for the heroes to tackle an especially challenging battle.
Stalwarts are usually Friendly or Helpful enough that they'll be willing to fight along side the PCs, risking life and limb. They're also usually skilled enough in combat to meet the caps for their power level. PCs rarely need to seek them out, though in a game where reputation rules are being used, stalwarts might seek out more famous or well-known PCs first.
NPCs Are the Supporting CastEdit
There is a fine line between NPCs being interesting and engaging, and NPCs being overshadowing and annoying. Always remember that NPCs are expected to be there for the PCs. It's the PCs' show: they're the protagonists of the story, and the game should focus on them. An NPC should be intriguing enough that the PCs are willing to invest their attention and imagination into fully realizing them, but not so overbearing that they cross over into the land of GMPC. NPCs set the scene and provide the supporting cast, but don't steal the show.
NPCs Populate the WorldEdit
Often at-odds with the above pieces of advice, you must remember that NPCs also serve to give the PCs perspective as to how the world around them works, and what their place is within that world. Thugs off the street are unlikely to be packing high-end military hardware (unless someone crooked is flooding the streets with this stuff for some reason), and there might be NPCs out there who are just plain stronger than the PCs. When the PCs meet a new NPC, in addition to getting some help or a new challenge, you also want to try to give them insight into the world that exists around the characters. These NPCs might act as examples for how characters behave or what characters are expected to do within the confines of the gameworld. For example, if every NPC the characters meet greets them with, "Good day, fine lords and ladies," you suggest a much different world than you would if most NPCs greeted the PCs with, "Yo, 'sup, dawg?"
When you introduce an NPC, no matter how minor, try to consider where that NPC came from, and why the PCs are encountering him. Is he a part of a new gang entering the ongoing turf war in their home town? Or maybe he's a professional hitman who's been hired to whack one of the more troublesome PCs? Perhaps he's just a kid out of his element who really needs a helping hand and a kind word instead of a punch in the gut.
This will also help you to decide just how strong to make a given type of NPC. If it's just a random gang of kids, their power levels will likely be relatively low. If, on the other hand, they're part of an elite special ops team sent by the Joint Chiefs, they might have quite high power levels!
Each time the PCs meet a new NPC, they should not just be moving the game forward, but furthering their understanding and perception of the gameworld.
What Makes a Good NPC?Edit
So with all of that in mind, just what does it take to make a good NPC? The rest of this chapter will go into depth on how to quickly create useful and interesting NPCs. Consider the below to be a primer.
First, try to consider what the NPCs' role will be within the world, and how they'll serve to interact with the PCs. Are they friends? Enemies? Frightening monsters? Ordinary people? Well-equipped? Are they there for bloodshed? For fun? For a challenge? To steal something? To ask for help? Knowing just who the PCs are meeting will help to guide the rest of the creation process.
When creating an encounter, you'll need to decide just how powerful a given NPC is. The more powerful and capable an NPC is, the more of a threat he'll be to the party, and the less likely it will be that the PCs will be able to defeat that NPC.
NPC Archetypes serve to provide a base from which an NPC can be built. It provides a simple skeleton, one that's immediately usable in play (especially for combat encounters) with the essential mechanical details already in place. The archetypes allow for you to use a myriad of different types of NPCs, who will be different sorts of threats and challenges to the PCs, without much issue.
NPC Templates, like the archetypes, serve to provide quick guidelines for customizing NPCs. Unlike archetypes, however, the templates serve more as the icing on the cake, or the flesh to stick onto those skeletal archetypes. They provide additional mechanical modifiers to help you further define your NPCs without taking a great deal of time on your part as the GM. If archetypes are NPC classes, then templates serve as NPC races.