1. Limit the Number of NPCs
The more NPCs you have, the harder they are to manage. Reduce that number, and you’ll have an easier time. This sounds obvious, but keeping your NPC count low is harder than you might think. Many systems encourage or require players to create many NPC connections: Legend of the Five Rings and Chronicles of Darkness allow players to buy NPC allies, while Delta Green expects you to name every member of each agent’s immediate family.
These rules are designed to make PCs feel more like real people, and real people have numerous relationships. But in a roleplaying game, large numbers of NPCs quickly blur together. Since there isn’t time to develop them all, none of them feel like they matter.
In most cases, each PC only needs one NPC to represent their personal connection. Instead of creating an entire family, you can use a single spouse, parent, or sibling as a stand-in. This NPC shows that the PC isn’t an island without overwhelming everyone.
Whenever possible, condense multiple roles down into one NPC. If one player needs a personal and professional connection, then a single NPC could be both coworker and sibling. This is especially useful in systems where players can spend points to acquire new NPCs. If a player spends points on an ally, suggest that the ally might be someone the PC knows from military service. That way the PC has both an ally and a link to their history in a single NPC.
2. Give Each NPC a Unique Schtick
Even after you’ve trimmed down the total number of NPCs, it can be a struggle to make your players remember them. It’s not a great feeling when you announce the appearance of Thesar the Green, only for your players to stare in confusion.
A simple way to avoid that is for each of your important NPCs to have an easily identifiable aspect, something no one else in the campaign has. It could be a manner of dress or an approach to problem-solving. Perhaps an NPC always walks with a long cane clacking on the ground or always insists that research is the best way to solve a problem.
An NPC can also be distinguished by what they do, so long as they’re the only one doing it. If your game focuses mostly on law-abiding characters, an NPC with criminal tendencies will really stand out. If you end up with two NPCs using the same distinguishing element, play up how they differ from each other. Two NPCs who rely heavily on academic trappings might be differentiated by one of them insisting on print sources for everything, whereas the other is fanatic about digital research.
You can even use your performance to make an NPC stand out, if you’re up for some theatrics. An NPC with a French accent will absolutely stand out; though you should be careful with accents, because it’s easy to drift into disrespectful territory. Another NPC might use an excessive amount of long words, or speak only in short, clipped sentences.
An NPC’s unique element doesn’t have to be all-defining. If that NPC is important to the story, you’ll have plenty of time to develop them further. But before you can do that, you’ll need to establish the NPC in players’ minds, and that means including something easy to remember.
3. Create Memorable Names
Another easy option for helping players remember your NPCs is to give them distinct names. The first step is to make sure none of your NPCs have the same name, or even similar sounding names if you can help it. It’s easy for players to mistake one NPC for another when their names aren’t distinct. The players might even take it as foreshadowing that one NPC is pretending to be someone else. In my last campaign, a player heard that a new NPC was named Madame Bell and assumed she was actually a villain named Isobel in disguise.
Once you’ve made sure none of your important NPCs have name overlap, you can increase memorability by using unconventional nomenclature. One option is to simply take a normal name, and then alter its spelling and pronunciation slightly. You might recognize this strategy from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
Alternatively, you can trawl name-list websites for less common or older names. You might never have met a Hermione before reading Sorcerer’s Stone, but Rowling didn’t make that name up. If an NPC’s name is a little out of the ordinary, it’ll stick in players’ minds better than a name they hear all the time.
Of course, it’s possible to go overboard, especially when creating names from scratch. In most cases, names longer than three or four syllables will be irritating instead of memorable and worse if they’re hard to pronounce. There will always be exceptions, especially for non-English names, but in general if you have trouble saying it, it’s not a good name for your NPC.
4. Give Each NPC a Clear Motivation
In the real-time medium of roleplaying games, your players will often challenge you with unexpected actions. You might plan a scene about a PC who is learning fencing, but then the player decides their character would rather learn poetry instead. How should your NPCs react? If you can’t figure out an answer quickly, the game will grind to a halt.
In order to know how an NPC will react to unexpected circumstances, you must know what that NPC wants. A clear motivation is absolutely crucial, so never craft an NPC without one. Their motivation should be something they can act on, something that’s relevant to the story you want to tell. For example, your NPC might be motivated to defeat and humiliate PC Maya. When the NPC hears that Maya is studying poetry instead of swordsmanship, they take up the pen as well. A lyrical beatdown will work just as well as a physical one.
Whenever possible, craft NPCs with their motivation already established. That way you don’t have to pause the game while you struggle to think of what they’ll do next. You can always change their motivation later if it doesn’t fit the story. If you have to create an NPC on the spot, give them a motivation as soon as possible.
If an NPC is particularly important to the plot, you might give them two competing motivations. Not only does that give a guide to their behavior, but also it gives the PCs something to play on. They can tempt King Stubborn to give up his beloved throne once they know about his secret craving for a pet dragon. Of course, a real person will have far more than two motivations, but the purpose of NPCs is to help you tell a story about the PCs, so you’ll want to focus on what’s most relevant to the plot.
5. Connect NPCs to More Than One PC
No matter how memorable and distinctive an NPC is, they won’t have much of an impact on the game if they only ever interact with one player. Imagine the final session where one PC brings their favorite ally to the group, someone this PC has been close to the entire campaign, and no one else knows who the NPC is.
It’s hard for players to care about NPCs they’ve only just met. To combat this problem, see how many ways you can connect each NPC to different PCs. If your NPC is a classmate to one PC, they could be a tutor to another PC and perhaps a confidant to a third. You might even build connections with the entire party, especially if the NPC is a mentor or guardian.
NPCs with multiple connections have two big advantages. First, it ensures more players know the NPC in advance. Second, that NPC can hold the PCs together. Group cohesion is a problem in many games as the players realize their characters don’t have much in common; a shared relationship with an NPC can be very helpful keeping them on course.
As a side benefit, connecting an NPC with multiple PCs also reduces the total number of NPCs you need. If one PC needs a rival, another needs a romance interest, and a third needs a teacher, you can create a single NPC that fulfills all roles. It’ll save you a lot of time thinking up names.
6. Put Mentors in Conflict With PCs
Mentors are without a doubt the most difficult type of NPC to manage. By definition, they are more capable than the PCs in at least one skill, and if they’re prominent in the story, it’s probably an important skill. Mentors are also on the PCs’ side by default. Taken together, those factors make it difficult to explain why the PCs have to solve a problem when their badass mentors are around.
Sometimes you can give mentors a limitation that makes it impossible for them to fight their pupil’s battle. If the story is largely focused on martial arts, the mentor might be too old to effectively fight. They can still teach, but their tournament days are over. However, this method can’t be counted on, especially in sci-fi and fantasy games, where so many abilities don’t operate by real-world rules.
A more reliable method is to give the mentor goals that conflict with their students’. The mentor can have an ulterior motive from the beginning or they can split from their student later, but either way, they should end up at odds with the PCs. For example, a mentor might train up the PCs to save a town from evil spirits, then reveal that their plan requires killing the people that the spirits are possessing. This should put the students at odds with their master.
Once the PCs are set against their NPC mentor, you don’t need an explanation for why the mentor can’t fix their problem. In fact, the mentor now adds to the problem, likely turning into a secondary antagonist.
You can also use this method to put a cap on how much knowledge a mentor imparts. If your story is mystery, and the mentor has all the answers, you can turn them into an enemy just before they reveal a big secret. That way your players won’t discover what’s going on until it’s dramatically appropriate.
7. Restrain Your Favorite NPC
It’s very common for GMs to develop a favorite NPC over the course of a campaign, someone they enjoy playing and the players enjoy interacting with. This character might even become the GM’s avatar in the story. This isn’t inherently wrong, but it’s risky. Once you personally invest in an NPC, it’s likely that your players will feel overshadowed. It’s tempting to focus the story on yourself, and that will not do.
The moment your favorite NPC takes the spotlight, your players’ enjoyment is out the door. At that point, you become a horror story: the GM who took over the game and made it all about them. Players really hate it when GMs do that. It’s impossible to compete with a character who has the backing of an omnipotent being.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, plan ahead for reasons why your favorite NPC can’t save the day. Perhaps they’re inherently cowardly, or they’ll be captured by the big bad, or maybe they are the big bad in disguise. Be sure to plan this well in advance, and lay some foreshadowing for it if you can. That way you’ll be committed and won’t arrive at the last session thinking “well, maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal if my NPC took down the boss.”
8. Go Light on Stats
For many GMs, the most time consuming part of managing NPCs is statting them out. Creating just one monster or character can take hours, and you’ve got to make a whole flock of them. Fortunately, you don’t actually have to do all that work.
In most systems, your NPCs don’t need stats the same way a PC does. All you need is a rough idea of how capable they are, so you know how many dice to roll when they do something. I like to divide NPCs into three categories: weaker than the PCs, equal to the PCs, and stronger than the PCs. A weaker NPC will roll with fewer bonuses than an equivalent PC; an equal PC will have the same number of bonuses, etc.
This method allows NPCs to roll appropriately for their position in the story, and that’s really what matters. Players won’t notice if your NPC’s dice pool changes a little from session to session as long as it feels right. They expect a champion duelist to be really good at fighting, but they’ll call foul if a random bar brawler starts fighting like Jackie Chan.*
For greater detail, you can slot the NPC into different categories depending on what skill they’re using. Archmage Spellbreath is stronger than the PCs in magic but probably weaker in fisticuffs. This gives you more flexibility in your rolls but also requires more mental energy. I recommend it for systems you’re already familiar with, where you can conjure the correct numbers without thinking too much.
If you’re playing a system that depends on detailed stats, like Anima Prime or Dungeons and Dragons’ fourth edition, you’ll need to do a little more work. Those games have too many variables for most GMs to keep track of in their heads, so you’ll need to write out full stat blocks. However, you can still save time by reusing stats from similar enemies. A fire-breathing dragon can easily be re-skinned into a steam-belching robot, and your players need never be the wiser.
As challenging as they can be, NPCs are vital for a healthy game. They are the face of your world, and your players’ first point of access to the story. The less time you have to spend managing each NPC, the more time you have to make them better.
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