While it’s a fantastic idea to have three-dimensional, complex NPCs with complete motivations and interesting histories, there are some types of NPCs that you just need in a hurry from time to time. You don’t feel like making up a bunch of police officers and inn keepers, since you probably won’t need them very often, but you need something to work with (particularly when combats come up!). So what do you do?
Make yourself a few templates!
Putting Together a Template
It works like this. Let’s say you sometimes need a law enforcement officer of one type or another to show up in your game. After all, pretty much every party of player characters (PCs) meets up with the law eventually! So:
- Write up a generic character sheet for a law enforcement officer in whatever game system you’re playing with. Just numbers here – no need for details. (Alternatively, use index cards for easy storage.)
- Pick stats that you see as “average” for a police officer.
- Paper clip a blank piece of paper to the character sheet. (Or use the back of the sheet or an extra index card.)
- On that blank sheet, write the numbers one through ten down the left-hand side.
- Next to each number, write a name. Pull it out of thin air, a phone book, a web site of baby names, or “The Writer’s Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook.”
- Next to each name write one or two odd or memorable quirks, physical traits, or whatever. They should be something reasonable for a police officer, and if you want them to change one or two statistics, then make a note to that effect.
- Put these papers in a special folder (or index card box) that you keep right with you whenever you GM.
When you need a law enforcement officer, pick a variation from the list on the template. Put a check-mark next to it so you know you used it. If all you need is the stats for a combat, then don’t even bother checking off one of the variations — just use the numbers. If a character seems interesting, you can always turn him into a full-fledged NPC later. If you run out of your pre-fabricated variations, make a new list. You can even vary the stats slightly from encounter to encounter just to keep things interesting.
A Few of Those Variations
All right, so now you have ten template sheets, and you need ten times ten little variations. Where do you start?
- Distinctive physical marks: birthmarks, scars, striking eye, skin or hair color, etc.
- Movement: limps, nervous tics, habitual or ritualistic motions, style of movement (graceful, clumsy, stiff, etc.).
- Clothing and jewelry: some article of clothing that suits the character or that you don’t expect on a character of that type. (A thug who wears his dead sister’s locket.)
- Verbal tics: memorable speech patterns, such as habitual phrases or a grandiose style.
- Relevant background: perhaps one of your government agents had a sister that looked just like one of the PCs, so he’s inclined to go soft on the party.
- Personality: belligerent, arrogant, submissive, helpful? Pick a one-word personality trait.
- Items: gadgets, weaponry, photos tucked into wallets, heirlooms, stolen items.
- Gender: depending on how you tend to run your game, just picking a non-standard gender for a template character could make it unusual.
- Religious preference: something as simple as a religious symbol can make a character more interesting.
That should give you a few places to start. Almost anything that can be summed up in a sentence (and which you have some way of working into the game at least a little) is fodder for the template-based NPC. The best variations are ones that can be slipped into the initial description of the character; since these aren’t meant to be full-fledged NPCs, your party is unlikely to delve deep into their backgrounds.
NPCs Every GM Should Have
The Law Enforcement Officer
Most parties I’ve been in or GMed for have run afoul of the law eventually, whether they’re helping the police or trying not to get caught by them. Eventually you’ll need a police officer, marshall, or who-knows-what-else. If things get rough you’ll particularly need those statistics! The last thing you want when getting into a combat is to have to come up with statistics on the fly.
The Military, Government Agents
Depending on the game world you’re playing with, it might be helpful to have a military officer, a soldier, or even a government agent on hand.
The Street Thug
Somehow gang members, drug dealers, or common pick-pockets turn up eventually. You’ll want to know how easy they are to beat up or intimidate, or whether the party can even catch them in the first place. All of this requires having at least a basic template sitting around.
The Sneak Thief
You never know when a good cat burglar, shop-lifter, or common breaking-and-entry man would come in handy. This is a variation on the street thug, with less emphasis on brawn and more on dexterity.
Innkeep or Bartender
Nightclubs, taverns, inns, bars… they seem to come up eventually! Maybe the barkeep is a shoulder to cry on, a source of information, or just the guy who pours the beer, but you never know when the party will decide to drag him into things (whether as an informant or a human shield, it usually happens eventually).
A Few Extra Suggestions
- Merchant or Shopkeeper
- Taxi, Stagecoach, or Other Driver
- Doctor, Scientist, Researcher
- Priest or Religious Figure
- Mechanic, Repair-Man, Handy-Man
You’ll want to tailor your list of template NPCs to suit your game, of course. A modern-days game might have police officers, government agents, taxi drivers, bartenders, and a few doctors or scientists. A fantasy game might go for mercenaries, innkeeps, merchants, and noblemen. Pay attention to your game for a while and see what you tend to need, then fill that need. It’ll save you some effort!