Sunday, October 4, 2015

Filler NPCs that feel real

So often, our game worlds feel like stage productions where there are a couple of people with lines, but everybody else sort of fades into this scenery - or is only assumed to exist. Think about it. When the player characters walk into that tavern to coincidentally run into the guy with a mission, does anyone know who else is in the bar? Beyond the mission giver, the bartender (typically the owner), and maybe a waitress, do you know who’s there? That’s just one example. If things are happening in an established town or even city in your world, how much do you know?

But you’re a game master. You have a job or classes that fill tons of your time and don’t have a lot of time to think up folks who just don’t matter, right? So you can buy pre-planned products, we sell several. [Royalty is probably one of the best as it lays out the entire court of a decent sized kingdom or barony. More characters than you should need.] But sometimes, you need to make them up yourself to have them actually fit in your world. Here is what I think is one of the easiest ways to do that: fill out the family.

Here’s how you do it: Let’s assume that a couple of missions ago you laid out that bar where all the hiring of adventurers happens. As we suggested, you know the owner and the waitress and the owner’s wife who works as the cook. So what’s next? Who else do they need at the tavern? Is it an inn (do they rent rooms)? If so do they need some manner of maid? Do they need a handyman? If the owner is the bartender he can’t do everything. Maybe you add a couple of bartenders who work every other night. This didn’t take too much brain power did it? Good, let’s move on. Let’s fill out the maid a little. Let’s make her the owner’s sister-in-law. That adds drama right there! Give her a touch of backstory. Does she work here because she’s a widow and her sister and brother in law are being charitable? Does she feel she works too hard and isn’t treated like a member of the family? Let’s move on.

How old is the owner? Did he inherit the inn? Assuming he did, does he have any siblings and how pissed are they that he got the inn? Maybe his younger brother owns the stable across the street - his inheritance. That sort of makes sense, right? Any other siblings? Let’s add a sister who married a farmer and lives outside of town. How do we hook her in? Well, her husband makes some of the ale they serve at the tavern. Lower quality, but he’s family so they do what they can to support him. What happened to the owner’s parents? Are they dead or retired?

OK, so far we’ve added extra characters to your town hopefully without taxing your imagination. You don’t need fully fleshed out characters, but you are building depth simply by keeping track of the familial relations. Let’s skip the rest of that extended family and try something else. Assuming that this is a heavily agricultural region, then one of the most important folks in the town is going to be the miller. Probably one of the wealthiest too. We’ll assume he inherited the mill from his parents. How many siblings does he have? How upset are they that he has the mill? Maybe he was the only son and has two sisters. His folks got those two married off to farmers with reasonably large farms (through large dowries), so the sisters aren’t angry, but they do have sons of their own. Does that mean our miller has nephews working for him? Are they good workers or lazy? Let’s assume they are good workers for now. What about the brothers in law? Are they still trying to get more out of their wife’s family? Maybe one is a good guy and happy that his sons are finding solid work at the mill. The other is a schemer and is trying to figure out how he can inherit the mill that his brother in law owns. By just thinking about one guy (the miller) and his family, we have now gotten a couple of notes on two farmers, two farm wives, several mill workers, etc. And all of these folks would likely be gathering at the tavern on a cool autumn night when adventurers are being hired.

Does it matter? Well, yeah sort of. If the barroom brawl breaks out, those three mill workers may have seemed boring and unassuming, but they’re cousins and will protect each other no matter what else happens. That one table may have two women and a man arguing, but they are the miller and his two sisters. They may look like the common folk (which they are) but they are the wealthiest common folk in the town. Not only do you now have these little surprises waiting behind the scenes for your players, but the further you get into this, the more mission oriented things are going to pop out. Think of it like some of the online/console games you play. Ever pick up a major mission only to find out that there are a couple of side quests that you can get done with relatively little extra effort? Well if the mission is to kill the local bandits, then maybe one of the major farm wives wants you to recover a piece of jewelry that was stolen from her by the bandits. Maybe her son wants to come along and help (because they robbed his mother). Maybe insulting the ale in the tavern is an insult to owner’s family pride, no matter how bad they know it is.

The point is NOT to waste time coming up with all this stuff! The point is (or at least is intended to be) that with 15-30 minutes of brainstorming, you can generate a couple dozen characters with interconnectivity and a touch of history. That makes your whole world seem so much richer! But be careful. Not every family is the Bushes. Yes, in the US there is a family where dad and son were both president and the other son might be president soon. These types of families (where everyone is important) are excessively rare. Remember to make up some boring people too! Not everyone is successful. Most families have a couple of losers. Many losers are quite content to be losers. You don’t want your campaign world focused on these losers, but knowing who they are shows everyone how great a GM you really are!

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