As a GM, it’s a matter of course that I end up playing multiple NPCs in a single session. And while I’ve been running games for a long time already, I have to confess that adequately playing an NPC is one of my personal weaknesses. I have difficulty switching from character to character unless I’ve put a lot of thought and time into just how a given character thinks and acts.
That said, perhaps it will benefit me, and my readers if I outline just how I run NPCs in my games. For the sake of consistency, we’ll use examples in the context of a supers game.
These characters are pretty much extras, scene fillers and mooks. They exist in a single scene to serve as window dressing, or a minor combat opportunity. When working with this kind of NPC, my checklist is terribly simple, just a few notes on how they look like, and perhaps sound like, as well as any sort of outstanding gear.
Example: VIPER Agent
- Green military uniform with VIPER insignia, and wearing a helmet with polarized glass that conceals the whole face.
- Wielding any of 2-3 possible gear configurations (Lazer Rifle and Concussion Grenades / Rocket Launcher and Pistol)
- Resorts to a mix of military commands, obscure go-codes and trash talking the heroes.
- Will flee if numbers have been reduced significantly (by injury or capture), or if heroes display sufficient amounts of harmful intent or superiority.
- Condensed stat block, nothing fancy, and as much as possible taken straight off the book.
When Recurring NPCs are involved, we’re talking about the supporting cast in a movie. While they’re not the ones that stories should revolve around, they occasionally make for some very good scenes when players pick up on these characters and interact meaningfully. I separate villains from the Recurring NPC category since Villains are more often in contact with the characters only in combat, except for some notable exceptions.
Example 2: the Sidekick
- A more “radical” variant of the hero’s costume, sharing color motif, but perhaps with exposed hair, and goggles as opposed to the hero’s visor. No cape.
- Enthusiastic, and creative. Thrillseeker, and more prone to acting before thinking than the hero. Hard on him / herself when the hero disapproves of actions. Determined to prove worth.
- Has skills / abilities that the hero doesn’t have, may occasionally be better than the hero at certain limited aspects.
- Teen life rife with issues and conflict. Goes to hero for advice / or alternately may choose to avoid bringing up issues until it’s too late. Issues resulting from teen life may end up falling on the heros hands to resolve.
- Perfect platform to launch storylines involving delicate issues that players may not like to be slapped on to their characters such as Unwanted Pregnancy, Drug Use and (when handled in a mature and sensitive manner) Rape.
- Personal motivations include yearning for recognition, breaking free from the shadow of the mentor, or even teenage rebellion.
- Full Character Sheet, built as a PC, and treated as such.
Villains are a unique NPC in the sense that they don’t get a lot of chances to interact as meaningfully with the heroes most of the time since most RPG games default to bashing the villain even before he finishes his Villain Monologue. That being said, it is not an excuse to actually disregard putting ample work on the villain’s motivations, methods and madness.
Example 3: Super-Mercenary
- “Punisher” styled outfit, doesn’t care to hide his face, but prefers to dress for functionality. Extra Ammo, knives, holsters. Dark colors to reflect status as a “villian” not necessary, but would be handy. Presence of scars and grey hairs as well as a five o’clock shadow to denote the grizzled veteran image.
- Cold and calculating, methodical. Uses any and all available means of gathering information before making a hit. Prepares at least 2 other backup plans in case of failure.
- Distance is a priority. Sniping or remote controlled guns & bombs are preferred methods. Closing in to the target or the hero is a last resort.
- Fleeing is always a viable option when outnumbered, or potentially outgunned. Use hostages, or plant a bomb elsewhere before the mission starts to make sure that you always have a means to get the heroes out of the way while you make your escape.
- Psychological blind spots, like arrogance could be used against him, making him stay where his intellect would otherwise tell him that it would be best to leave.
- Short, clipped sentences and replies in dialog, no wasted sentences, no monologues.
- Being even marginally successful and escaping the heroes is an excellent way to make a first impression. Players know to hate a villain that manages to pull one over him.