Sunday, November 27, 2011

Creating NPCs with depth

More and more I've come to the conclusion that the best possible plot generator for a campaign is fully fleshed out non-player characters. Knowing who the major players are and what their relationships are to each other informs the next stop of the process which is plot generation. 

The traditional method of developing characters is to fully flesh out everything before hand. This requires a great deal of work by the GM, and in my view it's boring. I like "discovering" relationships just as much as players do (probably more). In other words I'm more of a "connect the dots" kind of guy. To help out with this method of character generation I created a way of setting up relationships between NPCs by using a deck of poker cards and playing a hand of Texas Hold 'Em with yourself. 

In this example I'm using a character from an adventure I set up for the role playing game 7th Sea, which is all about swashbuckling adventures. The first adventure took place in the city of Paix. One of the NPCs involved in the adventure is named Lord Au. He's a fairly powerful noble in the city of Paix, but Paix is a small pond. He'd like to be come a large fish in a larger pond. During the course of this adventure (which had the PCs finding out what had happened to a bunch of children who were disappearing from the street and an orphange) the party had met three NPCs.

The first was the previously mentioned Lord Au. The second was the woman in charge of the orphanage. Her name is Joy Zengo. The third was Lord Au's majoromo and all around go-to guy. His name is Monsieur Zuma.

Now it's time to set up a bunch of other NPCs with built in backstories, relationships, and motivations. 

The value of the card represents the NPC's social status. A face card would represent high social status, a low number card would indicate a commoner. Aces are unique. In blackjack an Ace can either be a 1 or an 11. To reflect this an Ace can represent a person who seems to have no power, but perhaps really does. Maybe it's the secretary sleeping with the CEO and is blackmailing said CEO. Perhaps the prostitute on the corner is actually the Mayor's stepdaughter and the exposure of the relationship will damage the Mayor's further political aspirations. 

The card's suite will determine the primary motivation of the NPC

Hearts: Motivated by strong emotion (love, jealousy, hatred)
Diamonds: Motivated by wealth or valuable things
Spade: Motivated by adversity of some sort
Clubs: Motivated by creativity

To fill out the NPC's background, pick the card that's closest to the social status of the central character. Draw 6 more cards to make a Texas Hold 'Em hand.

Lord Au is a fairly powerful figure in Paix, but minor elsewhere. His power level is probably a 10 or a Jack. His primary goal is to move up the social ladder to increase his family's holdings, so his suit would be a Diamond. My first step then is to pull the Jack of Diamonds from the deck. 

I then draw six more cards to fill out the Texas Hold 'Em hand. 

The cards I draw are an Ace of Clubs, 3 of clubs, King of clubs, 7 of spades, 6 of spades, Jack of hearts. Looking at the cards I use them as inspiration to create a relationship with Lord Au. 

NPC 1 (Ace of Clubs): has a relationship with Lord Au that is motivated by creativity. Lord Au tends to hold his fortune over his family to bend them to his will. His oldest son would have no part of this and left to pursue his dream of being a painter. He changed his name, but Lord Au would be mortified if knowledge of his son's vocation were to be made public

NPC 2 (3 of Clubs): also has a creative relationship with Lord Au. This is Lord Au's cobbler. Au has met the man only once and has no recollection of his name.

NPC 3 (King of Clubs): is the most famous courtesan in the city of Paix. Lord Au is secretly one of her sponsors. (For a man with a disdain of the arts Au sure is involved in them)

NPC 4 (7 of Spades): is the matron of the Baker Street orphanage. She never has enough money to take care of the children. Her love and devotion to the children come because she was never able to have any of her own.

NPC 5 (6 of Spades): Lord Au's majordomo was an orphan. He grew up on the street, which is why he employs beggar children as his sources. He knows first hand the things they can find out. Living on the streets destroyed his health, and now it's flared up into major consumption. His whole life was spent beating the odds and surviving and he's sure he can beat this one too.

NPC 6 (Jack of hearts): Lord Au is madly in love with the daughter of one of the other royal families. Problem is the daughter is the third daughter, and the other two daughters have not been married off yet. It would be an insult to the family if the two oldest were not married and the youngest was. 

Additional Connections:

All the members of the same suit know each other in some way. In this case it would be NPC 1, 2, and 3 and NPC's 4 and 5. The closer together the value of the cards, the closer the relationship between these NPCs.

In the case of NPC 1 and 2, Lord Au's son could have a relationship with the daughter of Au's cobbler, tying them together. Neither the son nor his girlfriend know the courtesan other than by reputation, but she's connected to them via her older brother. 

NPC's 4 and 5 have a very close relationship, and we can see why. Maybe they were lovers earlier in life, or maybe it's simply the shared knowledge of what being an orphan is like. 

NPC 6 has a very familiar relationship with Lord Au. Her father is also his business rival, making the two men equals and rivals at the same time. 

Any cards with the same face value share common goals or have a good relationship with each other. Three, four, or five of a kind all know each other intimately. Also the closer the cards are to each other in value the better the relationship of the two characters. 

Time to Deal
Make the best poker hand possible, being sure to include the original card. In this case it's the ace, 3 and king of clubs along with the two Jacks. Look at the hand and determine which card is the lynchpin and build relationship with the other NPCs around it. In this case I'm determining that the King of spades is the lynchpin. She's the most visible and scandalous courtesan in Paix. She's receiving funds from Lord Au who doesn't want that information to come out to avoid embarrassment. Lord Au's love interest met the courtesan by accident one time and they now have a friendship that Au doesn't know about. The courtesan has seen Lord Au's son paint and thinks he's incredibly talented. She's been speaking the right words to people she knows and as a result he's been getting more and more attention. She intends to have him paint her portrait. Lord Au has no idea that the cobbler is actually the courtesan's older brother who raised her when both of their parents died.

Now that the connections have been established there are all sorts of possible plots that could come because of the relationships. The matron of the orphanage could call on the major domo for further favors. Perhaps Lord Au leaves something of value with the courtesan and needs to have it retrieved before his true love finds out and causes him to lose any chance of a marriage. Maybe the son was painting the portrait of someone at the park when he saw a powerful political leader consorting with the criminal element. Now his life is in danger because of what he saw.

You get the idea. There are all sorts of possible plots because there are now people connected to this major NPC who are tied to every walk of life. In my view the NPCs surrounding Lord Au now have more interesting connections because of the elements of chance involved.

What do you think?


  1. I like it - seems like a cool idea to try out.

    The only thing I'd add, would be to have a flip-side to the Ace concept - it could also represent a person that seems to have power, but in reality has none. Like the Prime Minister in a minority government that has to appease to the one or two Ministers that can cross the floor and take away his rule. Or the Chief of Police that has his hands tied by the bureaucrats, or the Mob.

  2. Very, very nice indeed. Just getting into tabletop RPG's myself, but I make some small computer RPG games occasionally, so anything that helps a DM can assist me in both capacities. I cannot wait to try this on my current game in the works, and this blog is officially bookmarked. Oh, and Phylos that is a very excellent idea. Possibly flip a coin if an ace shows up to determine which spectrum to use, or decide in your head... So many plots can be kicked off with this method. Off to the work bench. Thank you again for this enlightening post.

    --Digital Maniac

  3. I thought it was out there to be said - I guess that's why I like brainstorming when I come up with ideas, because there's always someone out there that will point out something that you completely overlooked, or that you assumed people would know (because you've looked at it so many times yourself) but needs to be said.

  4. Phylos--Exactly. It's one reason why I love collaborative creation so much. I might have one idea about something based on certain elements, but someone else can come in with the exact same elements and have a completely different interpretation. (My next blog post will highlight this).

    Digital--Thanks for the kind words. I started gaming in the mid 90s and there was nothing out there to help people, other than what you experienced with your own group. My first time GMing I had no advice available to me, just a bunch of plots that I'd stolen from Fritz Leiber. I love that the gaming community has just exploded online over the past 5 years or so.