How to Create a Memorable NPC in a Campaign
Non-player characters (NPCs) are an essential part of any TTRPG (Table Top RolePlaying Game) campaign. They can be allies, enemies, or just random people that the players encounter along the way. But how do you make an NPC that is memorable and engaging for players? This has been a challenge for Game Masters (GMs) since forever since most of us are not voice actors. That doesn't mean that there aren't things we can do to MAKE people remember them.
Here are some tips from fiction authors on how to create memorable deuteragonists (Since I didn't know this literary term, I feel like I should explain. A Protagonist is the main character (or characters in a TTRPG), while a Deuteragonist is the sidekick (think Short Round to Indiana Jones, the crew from Mass Effect, Watson to Sherlock in the films (not the books, Watson is the author there)) and tertiary characters (any NPCs that the characters encounter which aren't the villains), which can be applied to NPCs:
Give them a strong personality.
What are their likes and dislikes? What are they passionate about? What makes them tick?
One of the key aspects of creating a memorable NPC is developing a unique personality and a compelling motivation. Much like how fiction authors breathe life into their characters, DMs can make NPCs stand out by giving them distinct quirks, passions, and flaws. Consider their backstory, desires, and the consequences of their actions within the game world. By understanding what drives an NPC, you can create engaging interactions that resonate with the players, making them feel like they are encountering a fully realized individual.
Give them a backstory.
Where did they come from? What have they been through? What are their goals and motivations? A backstory will give an NPC depth and complexity, making them feel more real to players.
This doesn't have to be anything super deep, as that would take you forever to craft, but a brief thought of "do they have any family, and if so, who?", "have they got any scars, and how did they occur?", and "what are their ambitions?" and you'll have a pretty good idea of who this person is, and why they might be interesting for the players to engage with.
Make them relevant to the players' goals.
What can the players gain from interacting with this NPC? What can they learn from them? How can they help the players achieve their goals? An NPC that is relevant to the players' goals will be more engaging and memorable.
This obviously applies more to the NPCs that the heroes are likely to engage with for longer than just a single shopping trip. But for those that are more relevant than that, it could be important. For example, if the heroes are on a quest to find a lost treasure, you could create an NPC who is also looking for the treasure. This NPC could be a small rival, a friend, or even a guide.
Another way to make an NPC relevant to the heroes' goals is to give them a shared backstory. For example, if one of the heroes is a former soldier, you could create an NPC who was also a soldier — whether that is the same army or company, or just a "fellow professional". This NPC would have a shared experience with the hero, and this would give them a reason to connect.
Visuals and Audio Cues.
Now this sounds like voice acting, doesn't it? And it could be. But instead of thinking of funky accents and range, think about HOW do they speak? What kind of vocabulary do they use? Do they have any quirks or mannerisms? The same goes for visuals. Fiction authors often use vivid imagery to bring their characters to life. Similarly, DMs can use visual cues to make NPCs more memorable. Consider their appearance, clothing, and unique physical attributes. These visual details not only help the players envision the NPC but also contribute to their overall identity and impact. For example, if an NPC wears a paper crown, but is clearly not insane, then they're likely to be remembered.
Music can be used in this manner too, especially subtly. Start playing a particular piece of music whenever a particular NPC is involved, either in front of the heroes or behind the scenes. Soon they'll learn to associate the music with that character, and you can use it as foreshadowing (Darth Vader and the Imperial March is a good example of this).
In storytelling, authors often create memorable moments for their deuteragonists and tertiary characters. These moments can be pivotal events, surprising actions, or even emotional revelations. Similarly, DMs can design encounters or quests that allow NPCs to shine, providing opportunities for the characters to reveal their true nature or demonstrate their capabilities.
Don't be afraid to kill them off either. If an NPC is truly memorable, their death will have a real impact on the players/heroes. It will show that the world is a dangerous place and that the heroes' actions have consequences.
Use your imagination. Don't be afraid to think outside the box when creating NPCs. The possibilities are endless! But TRY TO BE CONSISTENT. Once you've created an NPC, make sure to stay consistent with their personality, backstory, and voice. This will help players get to know them and care about them.
Crafting memorable NPCs in a campaign involves drawing inspiration from the techniques used by fiction authors. By imbuing NPCs with unique personalities, visual and audio cues, engaging dialogue, and incorporating memorable moments, you can create NPCs that captivate players and enrich their gaming experience. Just as memorable deuteragonists and tertiary characters leave a lasting impact in fiction, well-crafted NPCs have the power to transform a TTRPG campaign into an unforgettable adventure. So, embrace your creativity, infuse your NPCs with depth, and watch them become cherished and talked-about figures in your players' journey.