Today we begin the two-part process of discussing NPC creation, as we noted in our last post in the Campaign Creation series. So far in the series we've talked about how to craft the overarching story, choosing a genre, and building the mission content for your players. In this post, we start getting into the fine details of the campaign, and that begins with the non-player characters (or NPCs) for the campaign.
This is the first in a three-part series on NPCs, with today's post talking through the kinds of Allied NPCs that you will want for your campaign. The next post will discuss the Villains and opposing NPCs that you will need to flesh out, and the final post will discuss what I like to call "Speedbump NPCs," and their purpose and design in the campaign. But more on those in a future post.
Allied NPCs: Main Background Characters
Every campaign needs someone who is not a player character who is on your team. This is true in all stories - every Harry has a Dumbledore, every Aragorn has an Elrond, and every chapter of the Adeptus Astartes has a chapter master. So when you tell your players, "Here's an NPC, and he's on your side," everyone gets this implicitly.
What makes a good allied NPC distinct from a poor allied NPC is the utility and usefulness of the NPC. Why does this person exist? What is their function? Is this the kind of person we want to work with, and is there a reason we remain allied with this person? We recommend 5 traits for your allied NPCs.
First, the NPC should be indispensable. Does the party want to get paid? This is the woman who pays the party for their work. Need a castle to defend for your castle siege campaign? This guy owns the castle. Is the party in a foreign land without understanding the cultural norms or language (a fun way to play a campaign)? The little girl who befriends them and teaches them the ways of the streets is critical to their success.
An indispensable allied NPC makes the campaign smoother: the NPC can give direction for their next steps, giving structure to the whole campaign. Elrond of Rivendell is a side character (Allied NPC) in all of Tolkien's works, and yet he is indispensable: no one would have completed their quests had Elrond not aided them. At the same time though, like a good trebuchet, there's a counterweight to this.
Allied NPCs should not dominate the scene. Remember that the players are the main characters: the campaign should rise or fall based on their actions. This means that if you force the action in such a way as to highlight your NPC, you are doing it wrong. The NPC should have a purpose, but they are not a main character.
If an NPC is truly indispensable to the campaign, you won't need to force them into the light, nor will you need to convince the party to interact with them. If we push the NPC into the limelight, however, the party wonders, "Who is the main character of this story? Is it me, or someone of the game master's design?" And this will sap the energy of your campaign as it progresses (a topic for one of our future posts in this series).
King Eventine in The Shannara Chronicles (pictured here) plays an indispensable role: he commissions the party on their quest, and rules the elf kingdom of Arborlon. But he doesn't dominate the action - he retains his role as a side character, not a main character.
Third, NPCs should be purposeful. Just as each party member serves a role in the party, so also the NPCs we create as allies should have a purpose and function (perhaps even more so). This will vary based on the NPC (the farmer at the mill doesn't need to be as developed as the king who pays the party for their work), but if you are going to have an allied NPC present, they should be there for a reason.
This may mean that you have to spend more time thinking about an NPC (is the guard at the gate married? What does he like/not like? What would tip him off to danger, or make him wary enough to leave his post to investigate? All of these things could come up, so knowing how he will react to various interactions is helpful), but this also reinforces why the allied NPCs should be indispensable: if the party has a good reason to interact with him in this scene (even if only to show that the town takes security seriously), then you need to spend the time to fully flesh out the purpose of the NPC.
Fourth, there should be consequences tied to positive and negative interactions with the NPC. This can be simple (aggravating the guard at the gates could result in coming before the ruler in chains as opposed to entering freely) or complex based on your needs, but there should be a reason for the party members to get along with their allies.
These don't always need to be dire (players don't need to feel like every affront or perceived affront will land them in chains), but knowing that there are consequences to not being their ally both helps to give a reason to work with the NPC, and also reassures them as to why having the ally is helpful to have as an ally. If the ally has no teeth, why are they working with/for this person?
And finally, the NPC should be memorable. In the tragedy campaign I'm designing, I have five elven villages, all having at least 5 named characters in addition to unnamed NPCs in the background. Making them memorable is hard, so I integrate common motifs into my NPCs, as this helps your players connect with them, even after a few sessions without seeing them.
Common motifs include the star-crossed lovers (two elves love each other, but because of the coming war their love is complicated or prevented), the hidden ruler (a royal dresses like a commoner, fooling everyone as to his/her identity), the wary guard (not only does he guard the gatehouse of the stronghold, but he takes his job very seriously in dangerous times like these), the battle prophet (a seer who uses his gift in combat? How convenient when facing an archer with a powerful bow), the country beauty (in our neck of the woods, there is no as fair as her), the champion of the town (I fight so you don't have to), the avenging warrior (a girl who lost her family in a raid, and has devoted herself to defend the town so no one else will feel her pain), and the list goes on. Motifs help people to remember the character, and this makes sense because the motif serves as the high concept for the NPC, just as we build a high concept into the character we are creating.
In the vast majority of campaigns, you don't need a lot of allied NPCs. Typical campaigns will include someone to pay the party, maybe a person or two in a given town that knows the lay of the land and can give information on the local region, and maybe a love interest or other companion that can be picked up as the campaign progresses. But the allies we require are integral to a successful campaign, and thus while we generally spend less time on allies than we do on villains (our next post!), this is an important step to building a smooth campaign.
In our next post, we will delve into the hierarchy of hostile NPCs required for a campaign, ranging from the "grunts" of the enemy force all the way to the archvillain and nemesis of the campaign. But more on that in a future post.