NPCs: Important Details for Interesting Plots

Who are NPCs, types of NPCs, and why they are necessary. Also learn how to design your very own NPC!

  1. Elena
    A Player Character or Playable Character ("PC" for short) is a fictional character in a role-playing game (RPG), controlled by one of the players, who imagines the way that character will act and, within the story setting. It is, actually, one of the main characters of a story.

    Non-Player Character: (Abbreviated NPC) is a character that does not serve a major role, appearing sporadically. They are either minor characters used recurrently in more than one thread as a sort of background character to contribute to moving the story on or characters created for a specific plot and who isn’t likely to appear again in another thread. This secondary character is played by the individual who started a thread, by the game staff or offered to volunteers. Non-player characters populate the fictional world of the game, and can fill any role not occupied by a player character, in order to get the image of a larger world: allies, relatives, friends, followers, hired hands, bystanders or competitors to the PCs, helping the PC development or the story plot development. In my case, given that I am playing on historical boards, NPCs are some sailors on each ship, barmaids, merchants, other ships' captains, PC’s family members, friends, acquaintances, or historical characters of power, such as admirals, the governors of the islands and their assistants, etc. Your story should revolve around the actions of the PCs, but the story’s world/ setting does not.

    There are four kinds of NPCs: reoccurring characters, guest stars, featured characters and extras. The time a writer devotes to getting each of them alive should depend on how much time the NPC will be featuring in the story.

    I. Reoccurring Characters: These are the NPCs who form an integral part of the PCs' social life, somebody to whom the PC turns regularly for help, advice or fight and for whom a PC would be willing to take an adventure. Reoccurring characters (relatives, friends, allies, enemies) show up in several story-lines, at least briefly. For them I recommend posting a short bio, not as detailed as a temporary character’s, but mentioning their main characteristics for the sake of the story’s consistency. (I used to do this with secondary characters in the stories written alone too.)

    II. Guest Stars: These are the adventure-specific NPCs whom you don't expect to show up again, but in that thread or succession of threads they are appearing often: victims appealing for help, key sources of information, villains. PCs will have fairly long interactions with them, but only in that specific story arc: at its end, the enemy gets killed, the friends are parting ways for a while, the damsel in distress cannot remain forever after with her saviour knight, etc.

    III. Featured Characters: Featured characters are NPCs who have smaller parts—a minor source of information, a follower or agent, the urchin boy who tries to pickpocket a PC, anyone with whom the PCs may exchange a few words.

    IV. Extras / Crunchies: Extras are the faceless people with whom the PCs must interact to get a job done—shopkeepers, port masters, government officials, nobles at a ball, etc. The PCs probably won't say much if anything to them.

    Most of the featured characters and extras and some of the guest stars are invented on the spot as needed—doing this well belongs to the writer’s skill. I recommend you to pick someone you are familiar with for a quick description: a character from a movie or a book, an acquaintance or relative, celebrities of all kind from now or from the past (leaders, killers, singers, writers, pioneers etc.).

    We use them as filler, conflicts to fill the introduction of a post or short story. After all, what really matters is the PC’s fencing skills, not the fact that he had duelled with a less known villain; the fact that he got elected, irrespectively how many of his followers or rivals had voted for him, or the reason why he is already boiling in anger and misinterpreted the other PC’s words.

    Some writers want to skip straight to the exciting part of the plots, giving up valuable opportunities for both character and plot development. But remember that a writer’s skill is reflected in the details making it real, building the momentum and providing clues to the main part of the story. Characters, both main and secondary ones, i.e. PCs and NPCs, are the blood and soul of a story.

    Even if the featured NPCs or extras and the scene where they appear is less important than what comes later, sweeping over the scene in three lines may result in giving up valuable opportunities to examine a PCs way of thinking, motives or simply showing the PC as a real person with a normal life before the plot drama occurs. Or to the readers missing the clue the NPC is giving, foreshadowing future events.

    If a scene matters enough to be included in your story, it deserves the attention needed in order to further develop your character and your plot. Rushing it is a sign of a less experienced writer, giving up building suspense for the reader, so pay attention to the details, this including the NPCs and especially the PCs impression/ reaction about them.

    Playing NPCs

    I chose to approach playing NPCs before dealing with creating them, because on my site anyone can use a non-playing character in a thread, less people creating a NPC and more of them using/ playing an already created recurrent NPC who has appeared previously in other threads.

    In some RPGs, NPCs are exclusively played by staff, in others they are exclusively played by the person who created them (or the one who wants to play them needs the creator’s special permission). In some games, NPCs become adoptable full-fledged or temporary characters.

    In other games, like mine, NPCs are played by anyone who needs them (e.g. a sailor might be needed by the captain, by all the officers or by a crewmate; a barmaid/ merchant by all who need their services), provided this NPC makes logic to be there. (e.g. a sailor on his ship or in the port where the ship is anchored, an admiral or a governor to convey an order in his area of competence, etc.). No special permission is needed, because in my opinion, this broadens the creativity, giving the possibility to more interaction and interesting plot supports, and, in addition, it eliminates the problem of busy players holding a thread/ plot. If somebody wants another character played exclusively by himself, he/ she has to make a temporary character, this is not a NPC.

    A player is recommendable to take a NPC for a thread when he/she:
    • is without a player character of his/ her own in that group/ location,
    • has a PC unable to act for some time for IC reasons (e.g. for being injured, in prison, etc.),
    • is very active and waiting for answers in other threads
    • has temporarily more free time for RPGs, while aware that it won’t be permanent
    • plays usually totally different characters and wants to branch out to another group
    Why it isn’t advised that all NPCs to be played by the staff (who may play as many as they want, equally like any other player):
    • a staff member has plenty of other duties to the board besides playing their own characters, while a player is able to focus completely on the NPC and bring it to life;
    • another player may give the story a completely different perspective of the NPC, while still keeping him IC, giving all those he/ she interacts with more ideas and material to work with;
    • the players can help with developing any details regarding the NPC's bio;
    • when the player is finished playing the NPC in that thread, (if we are speaking about a reoccurring one) the end product will be a more fleshed out character with greater personality, making it easier for the others to play the same NPC better in the upcoming plots/ stories;
    • NPCs are an important creativity tool for most types of writers. They might rise to the occasion with a brilliant performance: cautious writers might enjoy the freedom of using a "disposable" character, bored/ uninspired writers might enjoy playing a different character for a change, shy writers might roleplay better a character with an already existing personality.
    NPCs fill the introduction of a story plot, enrich the story line, spicing it up, furthering the plot, because they interact with the PCs and they are lot of fun to play. Consequently, for playing NPCs, we created a special account, NPC, which has a password that everybody knows.

    Besides the various creativity-related aspects, my reasons for not giving the NPCs for adoption are that:

    1) they won't have as much interaction as to justify their adoption and the work of filling in the application for a temporary character. People would better make a temporary character of their choice which will get enough interaction with the others, and let NPCs only for fillers. Because always a ship or a town has far more people than we might get characters, be them temporary. How often could a governor be involved? Attending a party, a dinner, an audience or a public execution, how many posts can mean and how often might he be used? If he has to make 4-6 posts every 2 months, let's say, it is obviously not enough to justify his adoption.

    2) As NPCs, they may be used by everyone, and this is also an advantage meant to save some plots, when somebody needs a back up, a message-deliverer or even an adversary.

    3) Supposing a NPC gets adopted and that player leaves after a while, the plot remains blocked and the character can’t be used anymore. Playing by anyone free and willing helps furthering the plot, because the reoccurring NPCs are less often appearing, but important for the setting. Also waiting several days to receive somebody’s approval to play a NPC lengthens a lot the posting time and kills the muse. As long as the NPC is played according to his/ her character traits expressed in the bio, anything else is a welcome addition (to the bio too.)

    In all RPG stories, each PC has their own personal development throughout the story. The story events, the actions they took (and didn’t take) and their interactions with others combine to change the PCs in a variety of ways. Reoccurring NPCs should follow similar arcs, especially if they interact frequently with the PCs, and sometimes a NPC could become a favorite because he was introduced at exactly the right moment for certain PCs, giving the sense that the characters are interacting with a vibrant world, not only with a limited number of PCs. Giving an NPC something that the PCs want, as an adventure goal or as a means to an end, intensifies both the story and the reaction of the PCs around.

    Conflict makes characters interesting, and creates roleplaying opportunities. Every reoccurring NPC, who isn’t just a face in the crowd, needs a conflict, be it internal (hatred, clashes of values, a forbidden love, temptation) or external (rivals, dictators, feuding families, war, etc.). If an NPC is going to be involved in more than one scene, that NPC’s background needs to include a conflict that could involve the PCs, opening up story opportunities for the players, and the way of resolving this conflict could be the next adventure in the overall story. If the NPC is recurrently appearing as an integral part of a story line, his background should include a conflict that explicitly involves one or more PCs. The way of solving that conflict affects the story development.

    For example, a spy who has certain characteristics is visited periodically by one of the PCs who buys information. One day, to his surprise, he finds the spy in totally different circumstances. Wounded, or in rags, or disguised totally differently. The spy is still alive and able to deliver the information wanted, but 1) the life of the city continued while the PC had been away at sea and 2) the one who plays the spy in that thread has the chance to play him a bit differently, to play out some fun and creative interaction with the PCs and to open up the possibility of the PCs getting involved in whatever had happened to the spy. Maybe the PC decides to undertake a side adventure as a part of the payment for the information received, in order to get revenge on whoever had harmed the spy. Or maybe their own goals intertwine with this side story, giving them an added spice.

    When you give a NPC their own agenda, goals, and secrets, clashing with the PCs’ or intermixing with their own, it helps with creating a richer story and gives the PCs more reasons to roleplay with them, to build tension and excitement.You should choose desires that create conflict for the PCs, opposing the PCs goals, making it harder for the PCs to achieve their goals, or leading the NPCs to aid to the PCs. When the PCs do not have established goals, the NPCs’ agendas should draw the PCs into conflict. The simplest way to ensure that an NPC has an effect is to ask, “What does this NPC want from the PCs and why?” If you make sure that you have a good answer for this and you play the NPC in a manner consistent with your answer, you will almost guarantee that the NPC will affect your PCs lives, making the NPC interesting, generating conflict and interactions with the PCs meant further the story,giving the PCs ways of revenge against a NPC who had harmed them, developing allies and enemies for the PCs and making the story move along.

    When the NPCs maintain their agenda, but must adjust their plans to account for the PCs’ actions, it means that the PCs are having an effect on the world around them, encouraging the writers to be more proactive and drawing them better into the story, irrespective if they decide to help the NPC or not, if the NPC chose them, or if the NPC is reacting to their efforts, highlighting the importance of the PCs and their characteristics.

    Designing NPCs

    There is a debate regarding how important fully designed NPCs are in any given RPG, but in general people agree that the more "real" a NPC feels, the more fun players will have interacting with him in character. Just as a player character has hopes, dreams, and goals, so does every NPC, and player characters getting in the way of them could lead to interesting encounters.

    You (and “you” are the general player here, not only the staff member, because, for a better involvement in the game, I am in favour of every writer getting involved in shaping their environment, i.a. through creating NPCs) should better create a number of interesting NPCs, using brief descriptions, instead of making a few, highly detailed NPCs. Most NPC's don't have to be three-dimensional, they just have to appear that way to the readers. The average NPC can be summed up in a few descriptive words. The trick is to use broad strokes to describe him, then give him a noticeable personality quirk or physical feature that you can hang your writing on. Have something they do that they're very good at, something they are known for, something they enjoy (a hobby or obsession), a goal or dream.

    The format of the NPC bio used on my site is presented below, and the one who created the NPC first must fill out a NPC bio with the basic information needed by any other player when using him/ her (while logged on NPC account, because any person who plays him/ her might edit later to add a detail for further information which resulted from roleplaying).

    NPC BIO (for recurrent NPCs)

    Name: This should be consistent with the name rules of the game you are playing, as if it were a regular character

    Age: Usually age influences behaviour, sometimes personality


    Occupation: Whenever possible, use professions that aren’t so common in most games, so that one may think about a plot based around his/ her profession. The PC might not know it or he might know it; but you, the writer, should know, so that the other people who will play him/ her understand him/ her better.

    Current Location: Important too. The ones who’ll play him/ her later need to know if their characters or their partners’ characters can find him/her where they are or not. I won’t play the Governor of Bahamas in Cuba, especially at wartime, or if I play him in Jamaica, then the visit is a memorable one. If you play that NPC outside his/ her usual location, him being in the same place with your character (or your partner’s) must have a reason…

    Character Play-by (PB): (Optional, but if you choose one, then please post also the image code of the photo, which should be no larger than an avatar’s dimensions – 150 x 200, because this will go at the beginning of each post for him/ her.) In order to avoid face claim availability problems, I use and strongly recommend the use, for NPCs, of either less-known/ less used/ non-Hollywood celebrities (actors and actresses from other countries or who starred in swashbuckling movies decades ago, foreign, once-famous actors, singers, models or second-league sports people), or period-related paintings (useful especially for noble class when needed a man wearing a wig and in that specific attire). The NPCs on my site have as face claims Romanian, Italian, English and French actors from period – related movies, once-famous actors and singers like Harry Belafonte, Gregory Peck, Gerard Barray, and even a famous bullfighter for a Spanish sailor.

    General Appearance: Give only the important details, not as elaborate as for a regular character. Skin color, hair color, eye color; old, young, or in-between; fat, thin, or average, gorgeous or hideous. Mention an NPC's particularly distinctive feature if it's the sort of thing that would immediately strike the PCs as unusual.

    List one or two distinctive pieces of clothing or jewelry or colors that the NPC almost always wears, so that any player catches something about his/ her personality, and one can make a big deal out of it if the NPC ever appears without that item: is the NPC's clothing clean or dirty? Neat or disheveled? Expensive or cheap? Carry a cane? Wear too much makeup?

    Personality: Give only the important details, not as elaborate as for a regular character. Personality should comprise one or two memorable characteristics, for good or bad: one major quirk, idiosyncrasy, weakness, power or behavior that makes him remembered. Cultural differences can make interacting with an NPC more interesting and challenging for the players. The NPCs are people, with their biases, prejudices, hidden agendas and rough edges, exactly like the PCs, influencing the story arc. And these can be also the seed of creative subplots or side-plots further, when a story needs something new/ different.

    Mannerisms and Speech Habits: If the PCs interact with the NPC at length or over different times, they may begin to notice the NPC's mannerisms (stroking a beard or moustache, playing with his/ her hair, gesturing nervously, fidgeting, biting his/her lip, etc.) and speech habits (stuttering or stammering, speaking loudly or softly, being verbose or being succinct, using accents, having favorite sayings, cliches, etc.).

    History: Give only the important details, not as elaborate as for a regular character. For the sake of story consistency, (only when it is the case) include names of the immediate family /friends/ lovers, and explicitly the relation to any PC.

    Giving an NPC a connection to one of the PCs is a good way to generate an active storyline. It can be a good connection (an ally, a contact, a sibling) or a bad one (an enemy from the past, a spurned lover, a half-brother who didn’t inherit anything) so that the players can know how their PC will act towards this NPC.

    Anything else: (Usually here enters the plot, if NPC created for a specific plot which involves several threads. If not, any other useful information.)

    Some people recommend using various online generators for creating NPCs. I am not in favour of them, but I recommend instead using Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs in the characterization of NPCs. According to the needs pyramid created by this psychologist, people act and behave according to their needs, some of them being universally more important than others and anybody must fulfill each step before proceeding to the next one:
    1. Physiological Needs: the strongest needs, because they are the survival ones - air, food, water, shelter.
    2. Safety Needs. To feel secure in one's surroundings, stability, and future safety.
    3. Love, Affection and Belongingness Needs. To be accepted by others, have friends, feel needed, and the ability to give and receive love.
    4. Esteem Needs. To be competent and receive respect from others. If these needs are not met, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless.
    5. Self-fulfillment Needs. A person's need to be and do that which the person was "born to do". "A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write".

    When creating your NPCs then, try to answer to questions related to Maslow's hierarchy: How do they see to it that they survive immediate threats? What provides them with long-term security and companionship? What are they good at? What provides them with intellectual and spiritual satisfaction?

    Given that on my site there is a generic NPC account for all NPCs, which has no avatar, I have implemented a simple NPC post template (to be used for each in character post for NPCs, while logged in with the NPC account), in order to easily identify both the NPC in question and the player (because in different threads, the same NPC might be played by different people). I give below the code, which might be adapted freely by anybody to the specifics of their site:

    As a conclusion, the NPCs in your RPG stories add flavour to the setting, may offer a rumour, help or a bit of advice, even if they do not drive the action, and they can be the inspiration for new plot-lines and conflicts. Please bear in mind that, while they are very important to creating a fun and interesting story, they can be dealt with in a simple, but skilled manner, using only an attitude, maybe an accent, and a couple of memorable details – even a detail which may be meaningless, but attention-driving, such as having two eyes of different colour or an addiction to chocolate.

    Convincing your idle RPG partners to play them might be also fun and creating a new dynamic in the story. Test your writing skills by challenging yourself to create a reoccurring NPC and to play one who is radically different than your usual characters, interacting with your RPG partners’ characters, for a memorable story.