You board the lightning rail from Sharn bound for Karnaath. The silent hum of the wind breezing past the streamlined frame of the train cars relaxes you. You walk through the cars of the train trying to find ample room for seating your entire party. There appears to be enough room near the middle of the car. You see a young man sitting alone. He has short, brown hair, a black vest and a white-collared shirt. He appears to be thinking deeply on something. You can see his light-blue eyes darting back and forth in his reflection on the window. It appears he’s noticed you.
“Hello. Looking for something?” He asks with a smile.
“Is it alright if we sit down here?” Grommash asks.
“I don’t mind at all. I often travel alone, so I’d appreciate the company. I’m Dekker.”
You sit down next to Dekker and see that he has two items on him of significance. One is a small black notebook with strange symbols on it. The other is a deck of playing cards with an angel on the back side. The angel is faceless, and can be seen holding a jagged sword with scroll wrapped around the blade. Dekker opens the box of cards and begins to shuffle them up. He looks up at you all and asks,
“So, what’re your stories?”
This is an exchange from an early level adventure in my first Eberron campaign. Dekker was an NPC that I created originally to use solely as a mysterious figure to make characters suspicious. He was a professor at Morgrave University. That was what I originally created him to be. He became much, much more in the story.
This is the nature of crafting a good NPC. NPCs are just a small part of the work that goes into being a good Dungeon Master. Why? Because NPCs are multiple characters that make up one single character that the DM plays. NPCs are often cookie-cutter, cardboard cut-out, and vanilla lame. That’s because most DMs don’t have any idea what they’re doing when it comes to building a good NPC.
NPCs can make or break a good quest or campaign. Dekker was one of those NPCs. The PCs first met him at level 4. He remained an ambiguous friend or enemy for the next 22 levels when the party fought him to the death in an epic battle that shook the landscape of Eberron in the Church of the Silver Flame in Thrane. What made Dekker an unforgettable NPC? Story elements aside, here are some basic tips for making an NPC that your players can’t help but remember.
When you get a call from a friend, you can recognize who it is solely based on their voice…usually…except for that one friend who sounds like everyone else. Let’s be honest, unless you’re LARPing (something I will never do), your players will never be able to distinguish from looks what each and every NPC looks like. Therefore, it’s important to use unique voices, dialects, and phrases that make your character stand out from the crowd. Your NPCs shouldn’t sound the same unless they’re family members, from the same town, or twins. You won’t engage the imaginations of any of your players if you don’t make them believe that they are talking to different people. I practice my accents by talking to my one-year old son. He enjoys hearing his dad talk in funny voices, and my players enjoy the variety of characters they meet each week.
This is one that I’ve used a lot in my games. While I like to paint a picture in my player’s minds of what the character looks like, I do spend a lot of time looking for useful character art that really matches the design and personality of the character that I want to use. A good character portrait really helps the player see any specific nuances that may have been missed in my personal descriptions. Something fun you can try is telling the players that whatever the players can see in the portrait is exactly what the NPC has on them. This lets your players scour the portrait really committing the NPC to memory. Maybe they’ll find something on the NPC in the picture that even you didn’t notice. I find that exciting because it forces me to create a story plot or perhaps go into character depth as the NPC tries to quickly hide the item the PCs have detected.
Important footnote: Save some of your best art for characters that will truly be important to the story. This is mostly to save you time in crafting a solid story for these characters. Your art will look like crap if you spend all your time matching it to specific characters needlessly.
One of my most memorable NPCs was a woman named Fiora. What made her most memorable to my players was the simple fact that she singlehandedly defeated the party. It wasn’t exactly a straightforward loss. I wanted this character to stick around for story purposes, so I gave a special divine magic that shielded her from character attacks. The players didn’t how to solve this new problem. They ran into a machine they couldn’t stop by stabbing it, or one that refused simple dialogue and let them leave. When the traditional options were exhausted and Fiora was one-by-one defeating the party, they swore vengeance on her. To this day, the mentioning of Fiora’s name instills rage in my players. Even though she ended up being their friend and ally and dying for the sake of Eberron, they still wanted to bring her back and kill her because she beat them.
I’m going to be honest, some DMs come up with the most stupid and ridiculous “crap-I-didn’t-think-they’d-ask-me-this-NPCs-name” names. Ideally, DMs should not let this happen often. If you have trouble storing names in a memory bank, then write some pre-generated names to use in dire circumstances. Names reveal a lot about your NPCs. Miles Dekker was a simple name that denoted that Dekker was a simple character at first. What was Dekker’s name when the game was finished? Turns out Dekker was actually an archangel whose name was Just Ra’Xephon. My players knew that anytime there was a prefix before a last name (i.e. Ra’Xephon) they knew this character was either nobility or a divine being. Dekker was the latter. Dekker was a memorable character because his name made the players realize that he was different from most.
Mysterious characters can be memorable as well. The NPC that best exemplified this was a Tiefling named Leander the Nocturne. Leander was Dekker’s right hand man, and the messenger between Dekker and the party. The impression that the party had of Leander became the impression the party had of Dekker. Because the party could never tell whether Leander was on their side, they could never tell if Dekker was truly on their side. Leander’s evolving reputation with the party and the people he came in contact with made him a wild card in the story of the world, one that has not been solved to this day. Which brings me to my last point:
The players are not the only ones living and existing in the world. Your NPCs have lives, families, responsibilities, dreams, aspirations, and ideals. These pieces are constantly moving and coming into contact with each other. What will Kieran, the grocer, think when he sees a shady Tiefling across the street talking to a university professor in a dark alley? What does Arba, the Sharn Inquisitive editor, care about a dragon appearing in Xen’drik? These are things that must be remembered and considered every time your players make “real decisions” (i.e. decisions that change the world in some way) in the world. People from the Demon Wastes will interpret deceit as good character, whereas the Royal Eyes of Aundair will see you as a menace if you willfully deceive others.
There are several other characteristics that can be used to create an unforgettable NPC, but I believe these are the core essential builds. Without these elements, you can’t have that “Wow” moment with your players.
Thanks for reading, and remember, if they ain’t dying, you ain’t trying.
Your learning DM,