Writing Up Your Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
First published 11/8/2000; last edited 12/20/2004
Whenever I sit down to write up an NPC (non-player character--i.e., all of the "bit" characters you play as the game master (GM) of a roleplaying game (RPG)), I don't just fill in dots or blanks on a sheet photocopied from a roleplaying book. I also put together a write-up of the NPC, and I always start from a certain outline so that I remember all of the important details. Put the following headings (or your preferred variation) in a text file, and save it as a template in whatever word processor you prefer. Then any time you need it, call it up, save it individually under the NPC's name, and fill it in. You can fill in each section with a single sentence or with entire paragraphs or pages of information, so the process can take five minutes or an afternoon. How complex you make your write-ups is entirely up to you!
Personally I find it useful to always have some NPCs with very full, interesting write-ups. I guess you could say I give them "the PC treatment." If you do this to all of your NPCs, however, you'll never get around to planning the game itself. Thus, this is the compromise I recommend:
Start out with several (two to five) complex, interesting NPCs with detailed plot hooks and histories. Make the rest of your NPCs fairly simple, with only a sentence or two for some of the following sections (leave some sections blank for now), and just one or two quick plot hooks or odd details to give you something to build on later. Whenever you're in need of a new plot or something to liven your game up, take one of your bare-bones NPCs and detail him out.
By filling in some of those details later on, you allow yourself to come up with plots that will fit whatever point in the game you're at. If you detail them all up front some of the plots may not suit your mood, the game's theme, or whatever the players have gotten themselves into by the time you get around to using them.
NPC Character Sheet
This is the obvious...
Just two or three words on race, occupation, tribe, guild, rank, whatever. If you're playing "Mage: the Ascension," you might put "Virtual Adept Acolyte" here, for example. This will help you to find the correct write-up when you're in a hurry.
A brief listing of those significant abilities that you may need to remember in a hurry during game-play.
This is the first thing most PCs should notice about a character, so it's a good idea to detail it early. This will help to avoid the common problem of the GM forgetting to describe NPCs. You might include a couple of sentences designed to be read directly to the players the first time they meet someone.
A brief write-up of how a character behaves, how she acts and reacts to people and situations. This will help you to play a character consistently.
What is the NPC's family like? How does she relate to them? Does she keep in touch with them? Are any of them resources that she can make use of?
How did the NPC get where she is today? What past events shaped her life? What motivates her?
Abilities and Interests
What is she interested in? What is she good at? What is she bad at? What does she want to learn in the future? Who taught her what she knows so far?
Any mundane details that you haven't covered yet should go here, like what the NPC does for a living and where she lives.
Where do you expect this NPC to go? What are her projects; what research is she doing? What goals does she seek? Which plots do you expect her to get involved in, and how? (You might choose to subdivide this into "future" and "projects," delineating the difference between things that will happen to her and things she's actively working toward.)
What are her blind spots? What are her flaws? How can she be blackmailed, beaten, and tricked (by the PCs or other NPCs)? Who knows about her blind spots?
Here you should briefly detail any major friends, enemies, and contacts she has.
If the system you use has anything like advantages, disadvantages, quirks, merits, flaws, and so on, briefly detail how they work here (so you don't have to pull out books to look for mechanics details during game, and so that you remember to apply these mechanics).
I hope this outline helps you to get a little more out of your NPCs, or even just helps to make NPC creation a little easier.