How to make NPCs feel believable
Posted by Annabelle Collins on
Making NPCs feel believable and unique is a great way to get your players interested in roleplay. When each new person the party speaks to has the same personality (or lack thereof!) it can quickly get boring for players. Of course, as a DM it is very easy to go too far the other way and to spend hours designing this beautiful nuanced character for the shop-keeper who the party may literally never visit. The middle ground you want to strike is having a distinct personality with minimal effort!
When bringing NPCs to life, I have six bullet points I like to fill in for all of them, and a seventh for if they are a reoccurring NPC.
Six steps to making an NPC feel real
- Personality Type
- Adjectives / Appearance
- Motive / Goal
- One-line Backstory
Bonus extra step for reoccurring NPCs
7. Actions when not there
Ok, we don’t need to spend a huge amount of time on this but it is important that your NPCs have names! If you know your NPC is likely to come up in a game then have their name written down somewhere easy to see in case your mind goes blank in the moment. There’s no quicker way to break immersion than to have someone ask for their name only for the NPC to reply “Oh yeah! Errrrrr …. Janet?”.
There are a lot of good name generators out there but this one is my favourite. I love the fact that you can generate names based on species, ethnicity or language root. It allows you to get some real consistency in your world and there’s no greater joy than hearing a player say “Killian McLeod? Do you come from one of the Northern Clans then?”.
There are a couple of ways you can hit this.
One of the easiest ways for me is to think of someone I already know. Maybe that guard has the same personality as my high school bully, or perhaps this shop-keeper is based off that really kind colleague who always helped others.
The fact that I have met and interacted with these people in real life makes it much easier for me to imagine “what would Jim do if …” and quickly arrive at an answer. If you’re doing this though, make sure you aren’t playing with people who know your inspiration or it could quickly turn awkward!
Another “safer” way is to just pick two personality traits that you want to showcase. For example, “I leave my belongings around” and “I am interested in other people”.
It’s always better to have a few personality traits that shine through really well than a dozen muddled ideas. In short interactions you’re unlikely to be able to display a huge amount of the character anyway and it doesn’t take much to make each person feel distinct.
If your players latch onto an NPC and keep coming back then sure, feel free to add more traits and develop their personality! Until that happens though, keep things simple for yourself and it will be easier to pull off!
Adjectives / Appearance
If you’re feeling organised then a one-line description of an NPC is great, but I often like to just jot down a couple of adjectives. A rule that works nicely for me is to have two for appearance, two for personality. For example, “burly”, “scruffy”, “considerate”, “enthusiastic”.
With just four words this person is beginning to take shape in our heads and it gives us a helpful platform to spring off of when narrating the NPC and their reactions.
Motive / Goal
Giving your NPC a simple motive or goal is another way to add colour and three dimensionality to them, even if it is never explicitly mentioned in game. A shop keeper who has the goal “I am saving money to pay for my Granny’s to see a Cleric” may be less likely to give discounts. If players press the point your NPC might negotiate a lower price if there is a mage willing to cast “Lesser Restoration” in the party.
Again, a simple one-line goal or motivation makes your NPC feel so alive to your players and draws them in.
Giving your NPC a single sentence background is often all you need and it adds another layer to their character. We might choose “I grew up far away from here but travelled South because I prefer the weather.” or “I lost my brother to King Michael’s border war”. Really all we’re looking for here is flavour, perhaps something to inspire opinions they may have or descriptions of their belongings.
Of course, if your players latch onto this NPC you can always develop their backstory further, perhaps even tying it into a plot hook. The key is to have a simple foundation.
Now I know that not everyone is comfortable doing voices so if this isn’t for you then that is totally fine! Plenty of awesome games don’t use voices and they can still be great fun. It took me quite a while to feel brave enough to try voices for my NPCs and some of them were truly terrible at the start!
However, if you want to give it a go, having different voices for different NPCs can be such a great tool for bringing their characters to life! This doesn’t even have to go as far as accents (although if you’re keen to give it a go there are a LOT of youtube accent tutorials out there!). Something as simple as having an NPC with a high pitched voice and one with a low pitch can make all the difference for your players in a scene, helping them recognise who is talking to them without having to ask. This is especially true in a scene with multiple NPCs.
It can help with the flow of the game, as well as bringing out a personality.
Personally I am still developing my voices but try to have a deep voice, medium deep, normal pitch, medium high, very high pitch.
Then I’ll mix those with the options of talking at the front of my mouth, “normally” (for me!), back of my mouth and nasally.
Mixing and matching between those gives me plenty of options for distinct voices without having to worry about accents yet. Just make sure you note if there’s ever a chance your players will be returning!
i.e. “deep voice, back of the mouth”
With these six bullet points we have a really well rounded, three dimensional character for your players to interact with.
burly - scruffy - considerate - enthusiastic
Leaves his belongings lying around. - Shows interest in people.
Is saving money to pay for his Granny’s to see a Cleric.
Lost his brother to King Michael’s border war eight years ago.
Speaks with a deep voice from the back of the mouth.
For a conversation or two this is really all you need to make your NPC feel real. But, if your players return and this becomes a reoccurring NPC I have one more key addition that can make all the difference.
Note bullet points of what they do when the PCs aren’t there!
For my games I have a calendar which has bullet points of what their view of the party is and anything interesting my NPCs do on days when my players are out of town.
For example, if my players are kind to Killian, he might chat with his friend the blacksmith who might then in turn give them a reduced rate. If the player characters are rude to Killian or try to steal from him, he’ll be sure to warn any fellow shop keeps in town! If the party was asking about a particular item he might order it in, or keep an ear out for any rumours of its existence.
For a more central NPC, such as one who has travelled with the party for some time, they may consider using their downtime to practice skills they learned from a player character, or to gather information that they think could be useful for them. They may even strike a friendship with another key NPC and be able to offer an introduction to the party at a later date.
This is all about keeping the world alive and moving, even when the party isn’t there to actively observe it.
You don’t have to do this for every NPC (you’ll go mad trying to track each and every person in this world!) but I highly recommend it for the most important ones.
What you want to avoid is the feeling that NPCs are “placed on pause” when the party is away or that how the group treats them will have no consequences.
Personally I love having believable NPCs in my campaigns. It makes the world feel real and the stakes are higher if you know your actions will have a actual effect on the people in it.
My last piece of advice is to consider having a few cue cards prepared in advance for if your players decide to just go up to someone random and start talking to them. I’ve prepared a couple below that you are more than welcome to use for your own games.