Part 4 of 4: Writing NPCs
Non-player characters are the characters Game Masters play that will interact with player characters. They can be as mundane as a shopkeeper, or the long-lost sibling of one of the characters that has been looking for their family members. This is the case where NPCs will add a great deal of lore to the player character backstories. This is typically controlled by the Game Master (GM) and would add some twists and turns that would spice up a typically linear plot. Tolkien had one flaw in his magnificent world, there were less plot twists, but it was a literally beginning/middle/end style of a rudimentary fantasy, which was common in the thirties. The idea was to use fascinating imagery and camaraderie to fill in for plot twists and variables that are typically tropes avoided in most modern fantasies.
NPCs hold a great deal of the information that PCs need to ascertain their primary objectives. This means that if they aren’t coerced into interacting with these GM-controlled characters, then they are apt to miss a great deal of the story, which is fine...but it may harm them if they don’t later on get a vital piece of information a few hours back in the campaign.
A good piece of advice for GMs is to write out a few character names, ages, and races, so in-case the Player Characters ask the backgrounds and information on random characters they meet in a town, or city. Although rare, you may have a player that is far more into lore, and it’s good to have several characters already made ready on the fly in-case it’s required, and you may even develop an important quest character that ties up greater into the plot. Really, the choices are infinite, and can have as much impact as a lost king fighting for his crown, or just some lady that owns a small wagon selling porcelain dolls, just because she can. It all comes down to intuition, and dice. So both experience and luck will be the guide. For mostly even the GM doesn’t have a clue what may happen, and all best-sought out plans are typically flung by the wayside if the party goes off the trajectory.
Let’s talk about character development: most characters are supposed to be living, breathing fleshed-out charters that happened to be always present in the world, and that means they weren't born yesterday, some may even be familiar with Player Characters already in the party. Play-acting is essential to learning how to get information, and there is a great deal of manipulation, researching, and memorization, which will require a great deal of knowledge on just how the PCs will interact with the NPCs, which of course are always trying to benefit the GM’s interest into the story.
Though the lingo comes off a bit compulsive to those in-the-know of tabletop gaming, it is more close to writing out the parts of a screenplay that are not the action, but rather the setup. Improvisation is just as crucial to a good story as the plot and order of progression toward the endgame. A good game has no true end, it only carries on off towards a great overall story arc. Characters live, die, join, leave, and the world goes on...at the core, the setting is the main character and the progression never stops, as it always turns, and outlives any travesty, any victory, any failure. The NPCs are benefited by this as red herons, plot twists, or just filler. Nothing hurts a foil character, if all they are is a will-o-the-wisp, completely and utterly useless, but keeps the game moving, rather than sitting stagnant until phones come out, and something takes away the interest from the session.
This is where the world’s interest comes in place. When you don’t have anything going on, always take to the setting, always look at something of interest, or make something up on the fly to get the characters going forward again. There isn’t much else one can do, but throwing random NPC out there with a quest to travel out of the safety of the town might get the ball rolling on the story once again.
Writing NPCs is all about circumstance, and what is the circumstance for the GM to make the plot unfold? Get the audience in-tact! Get them moving, and get them to the objective. Sometimes you lead them, sometimes they lead you, but as a GM your goal is not to dictate, but to come in like an enforcer, and get the party back on track. NPCs can do this, and giving them personality, and making them fun to interact with will help drive the party in directions other than till, which is always more play time for the GM, and allows the characters to d what they want, and what they the GM needs to make encounters, awards, and plot. Sometimes a NPC needs to be a bit extra to get what you need out of your party, and that allows for the game you’ve planned for weeks, if-not months, to reach its apex...and be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all present.
Overall, tabletop gaming isn’t some black magic ritual, it’s a fun experience for a few friends to have, it's hanging out with extra steps, and it’s something that unites talents, and grows intrigue among like-minded individuals. It supersedes all tropes, all racial barriers, sexes, and backgrounds, making the artistic and the active to create a cohesive world. R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series, which is one of the most popular Forgotten Realms campaigns played outside of the typical campaign manuals, showcases so much development, rare encounters, and companionship throughout the entirety of thirty plus books, and it all started with a tabletop game session...or so the theory goes. Drizzt is just one of many examples where tabletop gaming as helped writers develop stories, and bring to life so many unbelievable characters, stories, and franchises. If you have not tried a table top session, find people that make you comfortable in both an acting, and reading setting, and try one that fits your tastes. There are plenty of pop-up stores around, which will be helpful to you and your group. I highly recommend writer groups, and book clubs to give it a whirl, as the game itself will only benefit in those circles.
For more information, check out a local game shop, for they typically have the best information for a personalized game, but if-not, there are an excess of websites, pages, and online shops to help get you started. So my best recommendation is to get out there and find a game that fits your lay-style, budget, schedule, and the realistic group that will come in and play weekly, or even monthly on a regular basis. The greatest benefactor to a tabletop game is to have a consistent group to play with, or at least a game to be played consistently with any number of players. Research is key, and experience is best earned with continuous play, writing, and especially reading how professionals create campaigns sold exclusively for specific gaming modules. For the very first session, say session zero, I highly recommend downloading a free one-shot ( a campaign that should by definition last one-to-two sessions, otherwise known as a min-campaign) online, or pick-up one at a local bookstore, on Amazon, or even eBay.
Good luck out there, and here’s to the dice always rolling in your favor!