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Creating NPCs in D&D

NPCs are super important in any Dungeons and Dragons campaign. They are basically what bring your world to life. Sure, you can have planned out a whole load of world lore, a pantheon of gods and a compelling story - but if that story doesn't involve engaging with interesting and memorable characters, then forget it - your players just aren't gonna care. Now, if you're a beginner DM, the task of creating this whole world of NPCs may be a little daunting. But don't worry: by following a few easy steps, it should be a piece of cake.

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Are they a major NPC?

The first question you want to ask yourself is: are they going to be a major, recurring character within your adventure? If not, then much of the NPC creation can be done on the fly. Usually with a list of random NPC names you'll have handy behind your DM screen, and perhaps with the use of cheat sheets giving physical descriptions and character traits that you can mix and match from.

If they are likely to be a major, recurring NPC though, and are intended to reveal major plot points, to drive the story on, or perhaps to serve as a major antagonist in the campaign, then you will need to spend a bit of time prepping this character to make them memorable. This prep can really be split into four sections (don't panic: only one of these actually takes much work! Two of them are easy, and one of them can be ignored entirely if you choose!)

Step 1: Backstory

The key to a good NPC is a good backstory. This will not only make the character more interesting and lend more depth to your world, it will also make any roleplay you do as the character easier. Knowing somebody's place within the world makes it much easier to improv what they might say, think or do in any given situation.

The good news is that this backstory doesn't have to be huge, and you don't have to spend a great deal of time figuring it all out. Just ask yourself a few questions to get a flavour of the person. Here's a few to get you started:

  • what is their job? (this might help you in figuring out where your party may run into them)

  • What are their relationships like with friends/ family? (do they seek to protect those close to them or exploit them? Are they looking for justice? For vengeance?)

  • What do they wish they were doing instead of their job? (are they looking for advancement in the world around them? are they desperate and seeking any opportunity?)

  • What changes would they like to see in the world? (either on a personal, or societal level)

  • What political organisations are they aware of/ involved with? (and what are their opinions of these organisations?)

  • What motivates them? (power, profit, justice, revenge?)

You don't have to answer all of these questions. Just pick a couple and they can serve as starting points for you to start to flesh out a little backstory for a character. A paragraph, or even a sentence or two can be enough to get an idea of their motivations and place in the world.

And with that short backstory, your players are more likely to see your NPC as a fully-formed, independent character within this world. As such, they're more likely to have an emotional response to them (either good or bad). And this emotional response really is the foundation of making both memorable characters, and memorable campaigns.

Step 2: appearance

Great news! You've already done by far the most important step in bringing your NPC to life. Awesome job! The rest is basically just window dressing. Since we want to be great DMs, though - let's put in the (very minimal) effort to work through the other steps, in order to really bring our NPCs to life. This second step, then, is to create a brief description of the NPC that you can reveal to your players when they first bump into them.

Note, I did say brief description. You don't need to go into tonnes of detail about every item of clothing they're wearing or each scar on their body. Your players will just switch off if you do that anyway. Keep it short. Something like:

You see a young girl of about 8 or 9 playing in the courtyard across the way. She has an unruly crop of red hair and her clothes are covered in patches where they've clearly been mended several times. As she catches your eye, a mischevious grin spreads across her face.

That's enough to make an impression, right? And then if your players ask if her clothes reveal anything about her social class or the family she comes from or anything else - great: roll perception. That way if they want more info, they feel like they are participating in the game and deducing things, and if they don't - well... then you're not boring them with too much detail!

Step 3: stats

This really is the easiest step of NPC creation, as you can basically just steal (or make up) whatever you need. If your NPC is just a normal civilian around town, you can grab the stats for a commoner from the Monster Manual(*) (p. 345). If this particular NPC's background though points to them being particularly strong, or wise, or dextrous - then feel free to tweak those stats as you see fit. Likewise if you're taking the base stats for a knight (p. 347), a bandit (p. 343) or a noble (p. 348) - you can always alter their stats to make them stronger, weaker, wiser etc as fits your story.

And if you don't have the monster manual to hand? Well, just make it up! You're in charge of this world - so that means you get to decide how charasmatic or stealthy or whatever your NPCs are. Just come up with figures that seem plauisble and go with that. The D&D police aren't gonna come knocking if the stats you give them don't correspond to what Wizards of the Coast suggest. And if they do... well, just don't give them my address.

Step 4: voice

Now, this step really is an optional extra - the icing on the cake of your window dressing, if we're going to mix metaphors. You definitely don't need to go all out and create a novel voice for your NPC, but it can be really fun if you do! Depending on your dedication and your flair for voices, this can either be a really big or a really small step. It can be something as simple as speaking in a whisper, or as difficult as spending your free time practicing a specific voice to impersonate a love-struck harpy (an NPC that all of my current party love, except for the one she's in love with...).

Giving the member of the Town Guard a gruff, aggressive voice, or giving the small child the party bump into a sweet, melodic voice can really bring these NPCs to life. It also means that your party are more likely to seek those characters out again in the future - giving your world greater consistency, and making your players more invested in it.

So that's it: a few simple steps to create some great NPCs. Give them a go - and have fun creating some wonderful characters to add spice to your world and bring joy to your party.


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