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A fun game for NPC creation

A while back, my partner and I were on holiday in Paris, and she introduced me to a game that she used to play as a kid. Basically, as you're walking around, you pick out any house or apartment and describe either what your own life would be like if you lived there, or describe the life of the person who you imagine lives there at the moment.

This was a fun pastime, particularly in such an interesting setting - and we'd muse about rich American divorcees living in sprawling penthouse apartments who were spending 6 months in Paris learning to paint, or the penniless waitress living above the café in Montmartre where she worked, or the 30-something screenwriter, living in his banker parents' apartment and struggling to make a name for himself while contending with his mother's ever-present disappointment.

Whilst this was a fun game for its own sake, it dawned on me that it is basically what you're doing when you create NPCs. Ok, it's not exactly the same - you aren't deciding on classes or building stat blocks etc. But really the stat blocks of your NPCs or the weapons they carry isn't what's important - what makes them memorable is their stories and personalities. Even if only summed up in a couple of sentences and expressed with a couple of memorable catchphrases.

Occasionally now when I'm walking around town I'll play this game myself - I'll either find a building and think up people who either live or work there, or I'll just look at strangers as they pass by and try to imagine what their lives are like (just, please don't stare too much when you do this!). Usually whatever I come up with is only short. Something along the lines of:

That is Sally. She is 53 and works as an accountant, but in her spare time she directs amateur theatre productions. She is estranged from her son and at least once a week will find herself dialling his number, only to hang up before the call can connect.


That is Anthony. His co-workers call him Tony, and he hates it. He is 34 and works offshore on oil rigs. The constant time away put too much strain on his marriage and he got divorced 3 years ago. Now when he's on-shore he has nobody to see, so in an effort to make friends, he's just signed up for an evening pottery course. He has a crush on the instructor but is too shy to say anything.

These little descriptions can be as bizarre or as humdrum as you like. When I do it, I tend to think about their job, their relationships, and what they do outside of work. That's about enough to get a flavour of a person - and if you were doing this in game and developing this character into a rounded NPC (which, after all is the whole point of this exercise - to get used to creating characters on the fly) then those few points are enough to start with, and you'll be able to elaborate their characters if necessary as the story develops.

So the next time you're just strolling through town or have a bit of time to kill, give it a go. Spend ten minutes coming up with backstories for various people that you pass by. If you want to take it further, think about how you might portray them in-game. What is their voice like? Do they use any specific turns of phrase or have particular mannerisms?

With a bit of practice, this experience is something that should make it loads easier to quickly come up with a bit of a backstory for the random person in the tavern that your party decide to go and chat to. And even if they don't then ask them to divulge all the details that you've come up with, being able to put yourself in the NPCs frame of mind should also make roleplaying them a whole lot easier. Give it a go!


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