In any campaign, sandbox or not, the world has to be filled with people coming and going to give it life. Otherwise our PCs are just wandering around talking to themselves or a bunch of monsters. And yes, monsters can be fun (I love a good dungeon crawl), but the roleplaying aspect of our hobby comes from more than combat.
So are NPCs a dime a dozen? It wouldn’t seem so. When I was GMing regularly I had a list of names that I could grab something from when my players decided they needed to visit with someone. But a name isn’t usually enough. After all, who is “Bob” really? He works at the blacksmith down on the corner, but what does he do? What’s his personality like? How does he dress? And that’s when I always got a bit drowned in details. We could go into detail on each and every character in the “world” the characters inhabit, but what does that mean?
Details it turns out are sometimes unnecessary. I find I really like the “One Sentence NPC” approach that Johnn Four pioneered at the Roleplaying Tips site (you can see the issue with the article here), but I want to streamline it a little.
All I really need is a name, a personality trait, and a motivation. The rest sort of handles itself in the process of roleplaying the NPC.
Let’s start with the names. I prefer to have a list prepared that I can just randomly select from, cross off so I don’t use it again, and move on. So let’s generate a list. There are a number of terrific random generators I use regularly:
- Behind the Name offers all sorts of categories to help guide your name generation. You could specify the “Breton” and “Hillbilly” categories, select “Masculine” as the gender, click “Generate a Name” and instantly have one pop up. I got Corentin, Yanick, and Gwilherm, which are all fun.
- The Fantasy Name Generator from Samuel Stoddard at Rinkworks is one I use the most. It has two options – Simple and Advanced. I usually just go with Simple and click “Generate Names” to create a block I can pull from. The Advanced side requires a bit of ramp-up to learn how to use, but you have a ton of customizable options available. We’ll grab three “simple” names here – Denad, Alet, and Tai’sul.
- Seventh Sanctum has a huge number of available options for names (and many many other things). In this case, I like the “Fantasy Name Extreme Generator”, which definitely offers some over-the-top names for your list. After generating 25 names, I’ll grab Blizzard, Flora, and Zeal.
- And last but not least there’s the Fantasy Name generator at Chaotic Shiny. Like Seventh Sanctum, Chaotic Shiny has a ton of fun generators to play with, but the name tool works great. Tell it how many you want and what gender and it chugs away giving me Kad, Traska, and Kailin.
Editor’s Note: And don’t forget Brian’s own License Plates as Name Generators article here for great name ideas.
So here’s the name list we’ve put together. It works well for a random d12 roll at first or just the random stab with a finger:
Once we have our names, we need to find some traits. Again, there are quite a few online references to choose from or existing supplements to pick up.
Luckily Johnn Four’s 3 Line PCs book offers just such a list. There’s 1000 traits in the list to choose from. Randomly roll a d1000 or use the phonebook method of scrolling to a page and putting your finger down. Everything from Able & Brutish to Young & Zany. Just pick one.
Or if you are looking for a list on the web, here are a few I found:
- Fiction Writers’ Mentor has a good list of almost 450 broad terms to use.
- The Character Trait Descriptive Adjectives and Other Words list has a bunch of generic terms that could easily be used.
- The Hypertext d20 SRD has a solid random trait table (d100, each described with a bit of text) that can easily be adapted to other systems.
- The Pathfinder SRD site has a list broken down into numerous categories such as Combat, Faith, Magic, Social, etc. Some of them are quite entertaining and most if not all could be adapted.
And lastly we need some form of motivation. Why drives these characters to do whatever it is they do or behave the way they do? Here again are a few resources on the web with lists of motivations…
- If you haven’t explored it, the TVTropes.org site is a treasure trove of plots and other story tidbits. They have a great list of common tropes used to motivate characters that should offer some interesting story ideas.
- And Alric @ The RPG Athenaeum has a great article written back in 2009 that offers 24 different motivations to figure out what the character thinks is important.
So with these three broad, random lists in hand why don’t we create a few NPCs? Next time we’ll do just that. 🙂
Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick is a Software Engineer who manages (or is that mangles) Game Knight Reviews and tinkers with writing game materials via his Moebius Adventures imprint. When he’s not writing about gaming, he’s actually gaming or at least thinking about gaming in some capacity. During the non-writing, non-gaming time he’s likely trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters or wrangling code for a living!