Eight Types of Recurring NPC
Not counting the kind of NPC that shows up for one fight or encounter, or recurs simply for color (like a shopkeeper), there are eight kinds of NPC:
- The Beloved Mentor vs. The Pointy-Haired Boss: Some NPCs are more powerful than the player characters and have an interest in telling them what to do. They may be a superior in whatever organization supports the PCs or just a powerful contact that gives them information and assignments. Some of these your players will constantly badger for advice; they’ll generally want to get the NPC to tell them what to do. Others, they’ll chafe under, hate, and wonder why they’re even bothering to work for this guy.
- The Free Agent vs The Unwanted GMPC: Some NPCs are effectively peers to the PCs; maybe slightly more or less powerful, but on basically the same level. They will generally help the PCs fill out capabilities they don’t otherwise have, or provide extra help in a pinch. Some of these will be beloved allies of the PCs, asked to come along all the time and included in downtime activities. Others you’ll feel like the players think you’re forcing on them and the players will conspire to remove the NPC from their team as soon as possible.
- The Lieutenant vs The Minion: Some NPCs are less powerful than the PCs, and intended to provide their support organization. They may be a natural consequence of backgrounds that suggest the character should have staff, or purchased through leadership traits. Some of them will have their names remembered by the players and willingly left in charge of vital tasks. Others, the players won’t even remember unless they happen to screw up.
- The Nemesis vs The Invulnerable Pain: Some NPCs are opponents that just keep cropping up. Maybe they’re actively hostile but manage to avoid or survive every encounter with the PCs, or maybe they’re somehow legally protected or veiled in secrecy so the players can’t manage to fight them directly for many encounters. Some of them will be vital forces which the players love to hate, and may even consider trying to redeem for their own sides. Others will be ongoing annoyances that your players try to kill whenever they get the chance and give you that annoyed look if it turns out they can’t.
Clearly, these are set up in a fashion of the Platonic ideal vs. the too-frequent reality. How do you move recurring NPCs from the right side of the versus (where players would mostly rather the NPC didn’t exist when they remember him at all) into the left side (where the players think of the NPC as a vital, enjoyable character that they want onscreen as much as possible)? Some of the following tricks have helped me over the years.
Use Funny Voices
How are your foreign accents? Can you have a whole conversation in a different cadence or pitch than your normal speaking voice? Can you do an impression of anyone famous?
If not, learn. It doesn’t matter if your funny voice is bad, as long as it’s distinct.
Doing a different voice when you portray an NPC does two things:
- It makes the NPC memorable.
- It makes the NPC seem less like a mouthpiece for the GM.
Both of these are really important when you want buy-in on an NPC. If your NPC has a distinctive voice, you can just start talking to them and they’ll remember the character. They’ll also be less likely to think of the character as just another one of your puppets; sounding different is one of the few things you can do to create that illusion at the table.
Don’t worry that the voice is too silly. Players tend to appreciate some humor, even in a serious game. If your accent is really painfully bad, save it for a less important NPC that you won’t mind becoming comic relief. Save the ones you can do well for the NPCs you want taken seriously. But also keep in mind that just because they’re not really taking the NPC seriously, that doesn’t mean the NPC isn’t becoming beloved.
Do make sure you can remember what voice you used with an NPC. An easy way to do that is keeping a note on the back of a visual aid.
Use Visual Aids
Get access to a color printer and some card stock and make some printed headshots of NPCs (four, six, or nine to a page that you then cut up). Leave some space at the bottom to write the NPC’s name once the players know it. Once you’ve put pictures with the NPCs you know you want, get a bunch of pictures in a similar style of a range of faces so you can create a card for a new NPC you’ve invented on the spot.
I prefer this method because it leaves you with a nice blank space on the back to write notes on voice and any short-form information you need. What are the NPC’s relevant social stats? What PCs owe this NPC something? That kind of thing. It also keeps your portraits in a consistent size that’s easy to manipulate and keep track of at the table.
If you don’t have a color printer, you can do something similar in a variety of ways. For fantasy games, Paizo has a nice line of preprinted cards with portraits on them. For modern games, cutting headshots out magazines is an option. If you bring a laptop or tablet to game, you can download images and display them on screen.
The important thing, no matter your solution, is that you hold it up while portraying the character so the players are able to put a face other than yours to the NPC. They have something to visualize when talking to that NPC; even the best-worded description is going to fall flat next to being able to just look down and see the NPC’s portrait. Between having a face and a voice to latch onto, your NPC starts to feel very distinct and real; the kind of character the players can treat with equal importance to the other PCs.
Put It on the Sheet
It sometimes seems like cheating, but you can get immediate buy-in to an NPC by having at least one player write the NPC’s name on his or her character sheet (obviously, in a “contacts” section or similar place). Going one better, add some system where the player has to track something next to the NPC: favors/money owed, friendship rating, tasks the NPC can perform, etc.
Putting details on the character sheet is a shortcut to letting the NPC absorb some of the love the player feels towards his or her own character. The NPC is written down in a place where the player writes down everything that’s important in the game (i.e., his or her stats), so the NPC must be important.
Let the Players Make the NPC
Do you do shared chargen like from Smallville or Fate? Do your players write you backstories with their character submissions? If so, you probably have a ready and awesome source of NPCs the players will already by inclined to care about, because they inserted them in their character backgrounds.
Feel free to cheat and make a character more significant than really intended. If a PC’s beloved aunt turns out to be the head of a secret society when she was originally just mentioned as an aging housewife, it’s only a problem if the player had some kind of other mental construct that needed her to not be important. Feel free to discuss it with the player, but it’s always easy to get NPC buy in when the player is certain that the character didn’t exist at all until that player inserted it directly into the GM’s brain. It doesn’t matter that if the player didn’t invent the NPC, you’d have had to make one similar; what matters is that the player did invent the NPC.
If you start with less background on your PCs this is harder, but you can still achieve it to a lesser extent. Instead of saying “these are the names of your subordinates” just be like “hey, what are the names of your subordinates?”
Let Them Come to You
The easiest way to make players hate an NPC is to make them deal with the NPC when they don’t want to. In particular, NPCs that join the team because other NPCs said so, or the situation was clearly designed so they had to come, can make the players angry. It’s a theft of their agency and role as protagonists. At the worst, it can feel like the players are just audience to the GM’s descriptions of how awesome his character is.
Instead, don’t create situations where NPCs are required, even if they’re really useful. Put the problem out there and see if the players suggest an NPC that might be able to help. And never punish them for failing to bring along that NPC; if the NPC wasn’t memorable or likeable enough that the players thought to bring him or her along, then punishing the players for not going to the NPC will only further ruin the association.
And if you think that you can pull it off without seeming like you’re just being coy, play the NPC as several steps removed (another NPC that suggests someone that could help) or uninterested (the PCs have to convince the NPC to help). But not being coy is the hard part here; if the players start sounding sarcastic (“oh, yes, great one, what will it take to convince you to come along”), that’s the first sign that now the players are extra annoyed because they feel like you’re forcing an NPC on them and making them work to get that help.
Know When to Charge
You can also succeed too much. If you make an NPC someone that the players really like, they may wind up going to that NPC for help more than you’re comfortable with. Make sure there’s always some way you could limit an NPC from just becoming another PC: someone that can be relied on to drop everything and help whenever the PCs need it.
This is easy for mercenaries: they want to get paid, but may lower their rates for really worthwhile endeavors. For NPCs that are clearly supposed to be loyal to the PCs, you need to make sure they have a life outside of the PCs: they’d love to help, but they just can’t right now (or can’t unless the players figure out how to free them up, which may involve an alternate form of “payment” to accomplish that goal).
The converse is also true: you can sometimes increase an NPC’s estimation in the eyes of the players by choosing when to drop everything and help out for free. Knowing that there are things that the NPC will jump to help with is a special kind of characterization. If you’ve really gotten investment in an NPC, you can sometimes have the NPC ride to save the day and it won’t feel like you’re deprotagonizing the PCs (just don’t try that too much).