View Full Version : DM Help What level of detail to start with to give (potentially) important NPCs?

2016-02-02, 02:25 AM
Especially ones that are intended to either come to the fore as the players interact with them or fade to a background role if the players really aren't interested in them.

Because it seems like forcing an NPC into a foreground role when the players don't want them there and they weren't occupying a role like BBEG or something, then that leads to some level of needless conflict, like when certain groups chafe against having a DMPC or even an NPC ally that seems more central than the party itself.

What I'm trying to come up with right now is, essentially, a group of ship's crew and some other traveling companions that the PCs will be stuck with to a certain extent, at least until they can swap out/replace crew later on in a voyage, and that I'd ideally have feature in some of the ship-based adventures and possibly involved in a few of the events that see them all set sail (in the hopeful event that the PCs don't decide they want to just say bugger that and scarper before the ship sails on that adventure).

I don't want to come up with super detailed backgrounds, especially if they get discarded, but I don't want to really give the impression that I underprepared and they're not actually important by default, either, when my goal is to hopefully have enough of a mix that they can all easily adapt to being foils to some extent for the PCs, or at least, individuals to roleplay off of and help encourage more roleplay, since that's something we tend to do in fits, partially because in our groups we've only rarely had recurring NPCs that showed up more than once every dozen sessions or so.

Since this adventure is based around a ship and its crew and what they find/do, I get the feeling that I'd have to up the number of combats, skill challenges, and dungeon-delving to make up for it if the NPCs don't hold any interest, but if I do get some decent PC-NPC interaction and potentially even draw out a bit of intraparty interaction in response to those interactions, then I can create something a bit more memorable and have it be a bit more invested when things like morale issues crop up as something to be overcome or that precipitate investigating them and finding out about some meddling creature causing them problems.

If all of that makes any sense?

Like, having them be close enough to fleshed out that they feel real enough to start with over the first couple interactions or when they're introduced, and can be fleshed out in play rather than potentially getting caught up in the backstory I made for them to the detriment of thinking on my toes.

2016-02-02, 03:06 AM
I'd emphasize personality and physical description much more than background. Come up with a 1-2 sentence description for each NPC, and a couple of random personality traits. I usually also write down one sentence that they would be likely to say, just so I can have an idea of their speech pattern.

Don't worry about this stuff never being used, because you can always make sure that it is. If some of the NPCs never interact with the PCs enough to be memorable, just change the NPC's name and one or two details of appearance, and put them back in the pile for future use as somebody else.

2016-02-02, 05:39 AM
Generally, NPCs need to have a level of detail sufficient for you to portray them in an interesting manner, where they clearly have their own identity and personality. You create backstory or detail or whatever for your own sake, not the players'.

With all description, not just NPCs but also objects and places, the thing in question has to stand out clearly in your own head. If you can't differentiate the NPC from background noise, how could your players?

So for a ship's crew, I'd make sure to have at least the major roles being colorful in my own mind, with possible one or two extra sailors that are more "special". The rest would have to be improvised on the spot if the players start talking to all the random crew-members on the ship.

If your goal is to make the crew noteworthy enough to inspire your players to interact with them, go against some of the common first assumptions and stereotypes with a few of the crew mates, while keeping enough of them to make it feel "real" (which completely depends on your group).

I could devise a few example crews for you, given more information of the setting involved.

Darth Ultron
2016-02-03, 01:09 AM
In general, you just make the NPC's that are important. For a ship that would be: the captain, first mate and master at arms. Everyone else is nobody.

Sure you could add others, but you don't need too.

And most ''normal'' NPC's have boring lives.. Cook Bob grew up in Waterdeep, did nothing, and now he is a ship's cook. End of his story.

You don't want to get all soap opera with the NPCs.

2016-02-03, 01:42 AM
You might consider making up personalities for 5 NPCs that you can use for whomever the PCs interact with. If one of them gets used, make a note of it and then create another one before the next game so you always have 5 that are ready to go.

2016-02-03, 02:32 AM
It depends, how you want/expect them to interact. The more interaction, the more info you need.

For starters you don't need much. Usually an idea (e.g. Bob the Cook from Waterdeep) is enough - if they just get food from him.

If you want the NPCs to be just the background, with some possible hooks, it's easy - give each one a distinctive trait or two (e.g. captain has lots of scars and hates insubordination), prepare one or two sentences/phrases they usually say ("all hands to the bow!" and "you landlubbers wouldn't know a ship if it dropped an anchor on you"), relationship (friend with the cook, dislikes the first mate since he has grown a bit insubordinate and thinks he plans a coup) and a quest hook (wants to get rid of the first mate, but the crew likes him so he needs an outsider).

Now if you want them to be practically the focus of the PCs (e.g. next 5-6 adventures will be on the ship, focused on getting the crew together), you work in more details. Start with more traits. Give each of them a physical trait - "fat cook"; voice - "always speaks quietly"; mental trait - "avarice"; smell - "smells of spoiled food"; combat tactic - "coward, but will fight like mad if pushed"; relationship with each PC - "likes the wizard, secretly dislikes the rogue, openly disrespects the fighter"; you can also give him a mood, one or two likes/dislikes if the group wants to befriend/unfriend him... as you see, this is quite a lot to take in, but based on this you can build an improvised backstory.

As for backstory - I like to flesh it out when the PCs show interest - and I can work on the traits. Why is he avaricious and disrespects the fighter? Well, his father was a fighter and he never had any money. Just keep the info consistent enough.

When I need to replace one of these NPCs, I take a trait list out. I keep a long list of random traits (ranging from such as "one eye", "large hands", "booming voice", "speaks in proverbs", "bruiser", "coward", "bad teeth", to "smells of vinegar") to give to an NPC, which I have not prepared. I usually select one or two of these and go with it. The list is about 3 pages long now, written in hand, and I randomly add traits as I think of them.