May 4, 2010

NPCs and the Normal

We’ve all seen various good advice on how to make our NPCs unique. However, I say there are times we do not want them unique. Sometimes, nay often, keeping an NPC “normal” is the better way to go.

If all of our NPCs have something unique about them then their uniqueness becomes blunted. Usually the reason we add a quirk to an NPC is to make them more memorable, but there should be a reason for the players to remember them. We need to ask ourselves, “Why should the players remember this NPC?”

Sometimes the NPC will play an important part later in the adventure. Perhaps he is the next adventure lead. Perhaps he has some information to impart. Perhaps he is working for the villain. These are all good reasons to give the NPC a quirk. Having an NPC reoccur is an excellent way to reinforce the world setting and bring relevance. If NPCs are nothing but a slideshow, coming in for a scene never to reappear, their impact is lessened, but if an NPC appears early in a story (and is memorable enough for the players to bring him into their sphere of perception) the setting feels more full.

If you have too many NPCs with something special about them it lessens the message of the one NPC who has something important to impart. By only having one or two NPCs be unique it will focus the player’s attention upon those NPCs. This will help your adventure stay focused and the players going in a direction you prefer them to go.

Another reason to make an NPC memorable is not to highlight the NPC himself, but rather to highlight the location. If you can make the NPC representative of the location it can enhance the location itself.

Here are three examples of adding quirks to some NPCs…

The Gilded Peacock Inn is home to several NPCs. We have the Innkeeper who talks with a heavy Scottish brogue. His wife talks with a lisp. The eldest daughter has a peg leg. The youngest daughter is five and wears a bowler hat.
All these NPCs are unique, but bear to no relevance to the story. They may be memorable but there is no reason for the players to remember them. Their quirks take away from the adventure. In this case simply having them be generic NPC would have served the adventure better.

The Gilded Peacock Inn is home to several NPCs. We have the Innkeeper who likes to tell mildly dirty jokes. The wife cooks everything with garlic and smells the same (but the food is oh so tasty). The eldest daughter remembers a customers order by making up a quick song about the order. The youngest daughter is five and constantly chases a kitten around the room, but is cutely apologetic when she bumps into a player.
In this case the quirks tie into the inn itself. The inn takes on the qualities of a friendly and homey place.

The Gilded Peacock Inn is home to several NPCs. The Innkeeper smokes pungent cigars, but lets the ashes fall everywhere including into the drinks he serves. The wife has a hacking cough and you could swear she coughed into the food she is cooking. The eldest daughter seems to like the color purple as she has overly-heavy purple make-up around her eyes and a purple streak through her hair. The youngest daughter is five and mostly bald (except for some scraggly bits) and you quickly learn the family sold her hair to a local wigmaker.
This time the quirks show how sleazy and unhomey this inn is. The players will leave with a clear perception of how you wanted to portray the inn.

So, when designing NPCs and deciding what special mannerisms you want to add to the NPC, ask yourself why this NPC needs a mannerism in the first place and then tailor it to the situation.
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