Okay, so you’re a game master (GM). We all know what this means: you probably spend lots of time just trying to keep up with your game. Maybe you’re one of those rare and valuable GMs who can come up with a new non-player character (NPC) at a moment’s notice–an NPC who stands out from the others, seems interesting, and even fits into your games. Or maybe you aren’t. This article is for the GMs who always find themselves an NPC short.
#1. History Books
There are some great history books out there that focus on the people rather than the simple events. After all, events are people-driven, and the really good history authors know this. Do a web search for a famous person. Get a book on historical figures. Read a description, and think to yourself, “what would this person be doing if he’d been born into the present day of my game world?” These people don’t have to be doing earth-shattering things; maybe if they’d been born in a different time and place nobody would have heard of them. Use some of the physical details and personality traits, and speculate outward from there.
Turn on your television to a random channel and start watching any old show, from a soap opera to a nature show. Who’s the first person you see? What is she like? How could you adapt her into an interesting character for your game? If you find yourself watching a drama about doctors, make your next NPC a doctor or nurse. If you’re watching a nature channel, then perhaps it’s time for an activist trying to stop animal smugglers.
Keep a list of your favorite characters from the movies you watch. Movies (particularly genre movies) lend themselves well to intense, memorable characters. Save them up for when you have a high-epic plot, or go for quirky side-characters instead. Any time you need such a character, consult your list. Change a few details, pull a name out of a phone book so your players won’t recognize them, and you’re good to go.
#4. Tarot Cards
Using your favorite deck of tarot cards (preferably one slanted toward character traits), do a quick three-card spread. Pull together the details suggested by the cards to come up with your new person. If you’re really in a hurry, just use a single card. You can use just about any other method of “divination” instead, such as runestones, astrology, and so on.
Pick a couple of CDs off of your shelf and read some of the lyrics. Find a song that suggests a person to you. Songs are great–they’ll often tell you what situation the person is in, what that person is like, why his life is messed up right now, and so on.
#6. $5 Adventure Modules
Even if you prefer to write your own adventures, those little $5 adventure modules can still be useful for characters. Flip through a couple in your game store until you find one with a whole bunch of NPCs in it and take it home. Take those NPCs, adapt them to fit your game, and bring them on in. Even better, every now and then a game line has the bright idea to put out a book full of interesting characters. (It doesn’t happen often, probably because they don’t sell very well.) If you have trouble coming up with NPCs, then grab any of these you can find and keep them nearby while you play.
#7. Bio Pages and Booklets
You can find little one-paragraph bios of people all over the place. On the web, in those “Who’s Who in…” books, in your church bulletin, and so on. What would these people be like if you found them in your game world? This method is mostly useful for when you need “mundane” characters in a modern world — the postman, the hotel bellhop, the taxi driver, an executive for a company, and so on.
#8. Personality Tests
While the psychological validity of personality tests may be dubious, they’re useful for coming up with NPCs. Skip to the part of the book (or web site) that interprets results, and use one of the descriptions there to come up with an NPC. If you must fill out the test to get a result, then pick answers at random or semi-random and see what you get.
This one requires a little more time than some of the others, probably a good hour that you can spend in a public place. Go ride the subway, sit in a popular park, or drink coffee in a coffee house. Watch and listen to the people around you. Either sit back and look like you’re deeply thoughtful, or bring a book and pretend to read. People can be very weird and interesting folks, so it probably won’t take too long for you to latch onto something as the inspiration for an NPC. For that matter, if you do a lot of walking or subway-riding, keep a small notebook with you and take note of interesting phrases, clothing, or quirks that inspire NPC ideas.
#10. Read the Newspaper
The newspaper is a great way to find everyday heroes and villains – normal people in extraordinary situations. It’s also a great way to find out about people involved in politics — what they’re like, how they talk to the press, and so on. If you have a local newspaper that likes to spotlight interesting area people, then you have a goldmine: regular information about quirky, unusual, yet “normal” people.
If I had any warnings to give, it would probably be these:
Adapt the character to your game. Make sure you change anything you have to in order to make the NPC fit your genre and mood. Otherwise the NPC will be distracting rather than useful.
Change at least a few details. When you’re playing with characters from TV and movies this is useful if just to keep your players from recognizing the characters. Also, if one of your players decides to put a description of the campaign up on their web page without telling you, you really don’t want to find yourself unintentionally in violation of someone else’s copyright or trademark! When you’re playing with real people this is just practical. You don’t want two of your players talking a bout the game in a restaurant, only to be overheard by someone who was the inspiration for one of your NPCs, and who thinks they’re talking about him!
So: change names. Change physical details. Mix-and-match things. It doesn’t take a lot of work; you don’t have to change a character much in order to make him into a new man. Use people for strong inspiration rather than lifting them wholesale.