A Busy Year, Part 1: NPC Importance

Working as a part-time RPG freelancer is a proverbial rollercoaster ride. Sometimes it is thrilling, and other times the reward at the end of the ride is that you get to stop. If you asked me to stop typing for a moment and list all of the projects that I worked on this year, I probably wouldn’t be able to without significant investigation of my email. Every single project seems great and unforgettable as I write them, but then the next one is usually waiting in the wings, and memories fade.

I do keep notes on projects, however, so I can go back and look at what I have been doing, and possibly even capture some of the thoughts that were writhing around in my brain at those times. As the end of the year approaches, I like to think back about lessons I’ve learned and mistakes I’ve made in the previous months.

My NPC Struggles

The first topic I want to dwell upon is NPCs. When you are creating an RPG adventure, regardless of genre or rules set, you must manipulate several building blocks: from plot to rules to mechanics to formatting to countless other nuanced considerations. The block I have the most difficulty handling concerns NPCs. Creating NPCs is not terribly difficult, but creating interesting NPCs that fit into the adventure in such a way that they are both useful and not unwieldy is staggeringly difficult.

Much of my adventure writing over the last couple of years has been shorter adventures, where even the important NPCs may only be “on stage” for a efw minutes and then maybe never seen again. In those adventures, the NPCs are easier to make memorable without the complication of having to consider their long-term impact on a campaign. They can be relatively “flat” in the literary sense of the word: representative of a limited aspect without needing deeper examination. The comic relief, the man in peril, the villainess: players can easily identify and digest those NPCs during a game. And more importantly, a DM can handle them without using too much mental bandwidth.

When looking at a product like Out of the Abyss, the joint effort of Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin, the importance—and sometimes problematic natures—of NPCs in a longer campaign is highlighted. From the first moments the DM and players interact in this campaign, the DM is faced with no less than 14 NPCs that are essential to the short-term adventure and the overall story. Ten of these NPCs are fellow prisoners, all of whom could be very important in much later episodes of the campaign. Discounting other challenges for the DM, like the dreaded “NPC-to-NPC dialogue” problem, this is a lot to deal with.

Perhaps more importantly, part of the immediate problem the PCs must address is escaping, which cannot be achieved with a simple smash and fight tactic. The key to escaping is understanding some very subtle (in RPG terms) relationships between 4 of their drow captors. Understanding the importance of these relationships is challenge enough—having the skill as a DM to present it organically, and therefore giving the players the satisfaction of coming up with the escape plan themselves, requires careful planning and concentration at the table.

NPCs Done Right

While all these thoughts about the proper creation and use of NPCs was fresh on my mind, the team at Encoded Designs pushed forward with plans to create the Character Cache, a Patreon project that combines the excellent art of Matt Morrow with the storytelling ability of the other members of the Encoded team. I was not involved in the initial planning of the project, being involved with other writing at the time, but I watched with a great deal of interest as the project progressed.

What Encoded Designs has done with this project is a wonderful blueprint for all GMs who want to create those important NPCs in a campaign. First, the art does a fantastic job in giving those people who absorb information visually a solid understand of what the NPC looks like. If you’ve ever created your own campaigns and wished that you could have a professional artist provide visuals for your key NPCs, this project shows how important that aspect of a game can be.

In terms of fleshing out the NPC, the Character Cache takes each NPC and provides the important information for the GM: high-level concept, personality, origins, and motivation. More importantly, each NPC is given multiple purposes, prep questions, and hooks. This places in front of the GM a variety of ideas for using the NPC as a villain, an ally, or a wildcard in the campaign story. Whether the NPC is going to be used as a small part of a larger story or as the main focus, information and ideas are presented for different contingencies.

For the GM short on time, the Character Cache even provides 2 sets of stat blocks for each NPC, voted on by the Patreon backers. While a GM can certainly create her own stats based on different systems, these stat blocks allow for easy use in the chosen system, with an emphasis of the stats based on the backgrounds and uses described. Just reading through the currently released NPCs has prompted ideas that I am using in other projects I am writing in different rules systems–because really, good story and interesting characters are universally enticing in all RPGs.