Game Master Tips: NPC Description
Happy friday from us at the Zurn team! In this short post, we're launching the first of our tips for new game masters, which we hope to continue bringing you every few posts. To start our series, we're talking about how to describe non-player characters (or NPCs) to your players when they meet them for the first time (and in subsequent adventures).
One of the typical ways to introduce an NPC is to elaborate on what they see: the clothes that the character is wearing, any visible scar or other feature that would clearly delineate them from other people in the area, their race and relative size, etc. And while these are all good (and necessary) descriptions so that the players can visualize this person in their mind, they generally make for very flat characters because they are just like every other NPC that we create.
But what if we want to make this NPC stand out? What can we do to make a particular character memorable in the minds of our players? A few tips for you:
1. Evocative imagery: We don't just want to describe what a person looks like - we want to capture their attention with our description. So if we are going to describe them, paint a vivid picture with unique descriptions. If an NPC is a doorman (perhaps for the NPC who is giving the party missions), make the muscle tone on one side of his body greater than the other (the side he uses to open the door), much like the character from Shyamalan's Lady in the Water.
If there is a large brute in the tavern who will start a fight, describe him by mentioning what he is doing - he's hunched over, pouring over his large pint, looking over his shoulder at you so that you can only see his eyes, which are not looking inviting. By obscuring part of the face, people want to look at the face of the character, since they've only seen part of it. Suddenly they're fascinated by the character.
Make the character stand out not because they are outlandish or do over-the-top things: make them stand out because they are, in fact, inordinary, and thus merit attention.
2. Inflection: This is key. How you say something matters, and having a changing tempo and energy in describing the scene and the characters will change what people emphasize. If I have little inflection as I describe the pasture but become much more animated when I start describing the lake (and the person who appears to be walking across it looking for something), suddenly they want to take a closer look at the lake - even though the stone that they have been searching for is in the pasture, and they will revisit that pasture three missions later.
Increasing your energy and excitement, raising your pitch, and other means of showing specific interest in something will cause your players to gain interest in it as well. You know that you have adequately described a scene when they are captured with an element of it that has piqued their interest.
3. Action: Action is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, action attracts someone's attention, as something is moving in the scene (and people are naturally drawn to motion). On the other hand, it can also be viewed by players as being a "tacky" way of grabbing people's attention, as if to say, "I don't trust you to get interested in this on your own, so I'm going to let it barfight in front of you to make sure you see it."
While there is definitely a place for barfighting as a means of getting attention (as it can help to paint a scene, culture, or place - Tortuga is a great example of this), more subtle actions tend to work better at building the scene so that adventurers will want to interact with it. A solitary soul scanning the room makes people ask questions about who he's looking for, what he came to see, who he is, and whether he is friendly or hostile. A small group of hooded figures talking and gesturing with their hands begs the question of what they are discussing, whether they are friends, associates, recent acquaintances, or enemies. And a simple glance from a pretty face raises all kinds of questions.
Subtlety is hard to convey, but when done well, it is very effective, as it raises questions that they want answered. And then we can have a barfight. And then we can have the over-the-top person come out from behind the hood. And then we can have the deadly assassin throw his dagger across the room, coming dangerously close to the adventurer's head. But first we reel them into the scene, making them want to interact with it, allowing us to make a memorable scene that will grip their imagination long after the session closes, because they wanted to be there.
Next week we'll be presenting some additional thoughts for players on setting and scene, so keep watching this space!