This is the fourth and final article in a four-part series about designing friendly NPCs that the heroes in your game will care about.  Part one discusses the importance of NPCs who listen.  Part two addresses how adding character flaws to your NPCs makes them stronger, more likable characters.  Part three looks at the value of giving your NPCs a few quirks.  In this part, we will talk about how goals can shape the character.

A person who works towards his or her goals is a person with a future worth looking forward to – the same is true for the characters we create in our games.

A post with several signs positing in different directions, giving distances to other locations.

Characters can have goals that compete with each other. Some of the best characters in fiction have this inner conflict.

If you have been following this series from the beginning, you might now have a mental stable full of well-crafted, diverse, memorable NPCs to ally with the heroes in you home campaign.  You are ready to impress your players with these characters, but you need to seal the deal on player investment in these NPCs.  This is where developing goals for your characters comes into play.

A person with a plan can be a powerful thing.  We all know that a certain level of ambition is a good thing, and we frequently are drawn to others in our lives who have a plan for the future.  Exploit this trait with your players.

The local baron wishes to end the constant border squabbles that prevent the nobles from rallying to a greater cause.  The broad-shouldered ship captain wants to be known as the best captain ever to sail the eastern sea.  The famed mercenary commander tries to negotiate contracts that let him pit his army against the monsters that roam the land.  Each of these characters has at least one goal he or she is working towards.

Assigning goals to your friendly NPCs is not enough, however.  For the goals to be useful in defining the character, you need to keep in mind the following:

  • The heroes must know about the goal – secret goals, for all intents and purposes, do not exist.
  • The goal must align with the goals of he heroes. They have no reason to bond with someone with whom they expect to eventually be at odds.
  • The heroes must actively help the character in his or her quest to achieve the goal. Bonding occurs when the characters work together.

A side benefit of establishing goals for your helpful NPCs is that it is probably the single biggest action to can take t flesh out your NPC’s personality.  As old goals are met, new ones will naturally rise to take their place.  This makes writing and role-playing the character a breeze.  Has the character met all of his or her goals, and there is no clear direction for more?  It may be time to retire this NPC, since he or she is no longer growing in a believable way.

What goals do the heroes’ allies have in your game?  How have the heroes helped them to work towards these goals?  Are there any goals you regret assigning to your NPCs?

Establishing character goals is a great tool for increasing PC buy-in on your character.  Next week, we will dissect one NPC in detail and look at how well, or poorly, he  meets all of the design ideas we have covered so far.  With that character, we will also cover a few more tips for establishing the bond between the heroes and the NPCs you control.

Combat encounters help to communicate the narrative structures of our games.

For your viewing pleasure, I give you Inigo Montoya vs. the Six-Fingered Man, as if it were a 4e encounter.

Note: This video relies on YouTube’s annotation feature, meaning it may not be nearly as cool if you are viewing this on a smart phone or similar device.

I enjoy dissecting combat scenes in movies and figuring out what makes them tick.  The gritty, realistic combat in Game of Thrones creates a far different impression than that of the wire fu at the end of The Musketeer.  Star Wars’ epic battles and unhittable heroes stand in contrast to the slug-throwing, quick-acting crew in Firefly.  It doesn’t take long to see that combat can be a reflection of the world as a narrative whole.

In my home campaign, I often grapple with meshing my narrative and the combat encounters that support it.  If I want to run a low-magic game, what challenges do I provide for higher level characters?  What cool terrain effects can I justify within my world?  Is the need for “wow” more important than the need for narrative consistency?  These are questions I still struggle with.  From a purely bad-ass standpoint, I would love to run epic free fall combat and similar style encounters on a regular basis.  That said, I feel the need to balance such awesomeness with the fact that my game is supposed to feel vaguely “realistic” (for whatever that means in a fantasy game).  I do make fun encounters, but I cannot rely on epic gimmicks, because they generally do not mesh with the world I have created.

Does combat reflect the narrative of your campaign?  What do you do to make combat encounters a coherent part of your universe, and not just a tactical insert in between bouts of role-playing?  Have you changed any rules to make combat have a certain “feel”?

This article is part three of a four-part series on crafting NPCs who the heroes care about.  Part one establishes the importance of NPCs who listen.  Part two explains how the right character flaws make characters more likable, not less.  This week, we will look at quirks.

We all have our own little quirks, and our NPCs should as well.

Jack Sparrow, from the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies.

Jack Sparrow is a great example of a charater with many, many quirks.

When casually strolling, I almost always put my arms behind my back.  My wife does not like taking risks, but she LOVES roller-coasters.  I have one friend who always has an inappropriate joke and is happy to share it.  All of us have traits and behaviors that make us unique.  By adding similar peculiarities to our NPCs, we can flesh them out and make them more “real”.

Quirks vs. Flaws

Quirks and flaws fill different roles when designing friendly NPCs.  A flaw makes the character more accessible to the players by making the character more realistic and relatable.  For our purposes, a quirk is some peculiarity that helps the character to stand out and be remembered.  Generally speaking, quirks are things that are unusual, but not so strange as to be  flaw.  Precise examples of quirks and flaws will vary depending on the nature of the players in your game.  For instance, some people cannot stand a joke-teller, but others will find him or her hilarious.  Pay attention to your players as you try to create this part of the world for them to interact with.

Many traditional, literary character flaws are really quirks in a fantasy RPG.  For example, having only one eye is frequently portrayed as badass, rather than a painful, debilitating war wound.  The guard with a limp might still get his or her full movement points each round.  In these cases, real-world problems are reduced to a quirk for describing a fictional character.

Using Quirks

Assigning a single quirk to otherwise nameless NPCs helps you to develop a cast of thousands for your campaign.  Take, for example:

  • the human bard with a fascination for elven history
  • the mercenary captain who never answers questions about his family
  • the necromancer with an outrageous Cockney accent
  • the farmer’s wife who stands a good head taller than anyone else in the room
  • the prelate who always touches the tips of her fingers together when talking
  • the baronet who must constantly wipe sweat from his brow
  • the wench with startlingly blue eyes

Each of the descriptions above paints a mental picture of a person in less than one sentence.  Giving a single quirk to an NPC turns him or her from a faceless, meaning less lump into a real person.  It takes very little effort to humanize a throw-away character.

More important NPCs should have a few quirks.  That goal is not to make a character who is over-the-top weird, but instead just to give a fuller picture of the person you are trying to portray.  Quirks can fill in the gaps left open by our sometimes-weak role-playing.  Just remember to give those quirks a chance to shine.  A character who always licks his thumb before turning the page of a book has no quirks at all unless the PCs frequently see him reading.  Find excuses to routinely highlight the quirks of your main friendly NPCs.

Provided below is a list of 100 NPC quirks.  If you need inspiration, pick or roll quirks off the list below to give life to your NPCs.

For readability, the list is below the cut. Continue reading »

Combat in 4e goes much faster and smoother when the Dungeon Master has a clear, efficient way of tracking initiative and status conditions.

A woman wearing a translucent screen over her eyes.  The screen has unreadable text on it.

An augmented reality heads-up display would be a great solution, provided you are filthy rich.

The consensus on many different gaming blogs and Twitter seems to be that combat in 4e runs the best when  the group uses some clear method of tracking initiative and status effects.  My experience DMing at PAX East tells me that many groups are still struggling to find a way to run combat effectively.  This is the method I use at my table.  You are welcome to steal, use, and modify it as you wish.

The Hangers

After rolling initiative for the encounter, I arrange the hangers in order of initiative, from right to left on my DM screen.  While combat will be progressing “backwards” down the list for you, it will be in a normal, reading order for the players.  Players preparing their actions is typically a big time sink in combat, so posting the list in the open lets them prepare their turns ahead of time.

Fill out the hangers with the monster and character names on both sides, and fill in the defenses on only one side.  If you keep your monsters’ defenses a secret, keep that side turned towards you for easy reference during combat.  If you let your players know monster defenses, then turn that side towards them.  They can read it and just let you know if they hit or miss.

If a player wants to hold his or her action, hand over his or her initiative hanger.  The player can return it to you when he or she wishes to act.  This prevents the player from forgetting to act and missing an entire round of action.

Variant Use: Only set up the players’ hangers at the start of combat.  Add monster hangers into the order when they act.  This keeps a small bit of the element of surprise for the monsters.

a view of the initiative tracker and status markers from behind the DM screen

This is the view from behind the DM screen. Rhuobhe Manslayer is first in the order, and play proceeds to the left.

a view of the initiative tracker and status markers from the player perspective.

From the player prospective, play proceeds from the left to the right. Several hand-drawn tokens are used for specific conditions beyond the basic status effects.


Status Markers

These status markers are designed such that you should be able to stack them so every status effect is always visible.  This makes it easy for both you and your players to track who is suffering from what status effects.  If you need to track special status effects, like the “+2 to hit” granted to an ally by Lance of Faith, you can use the blank status hangers included.

Please, try these out and let me know what you think.  They have worked at my table for the past couple years, but I am always looking for feedback and improvements.

Note: The PDF files should print without issue.  You are welcome to use the PowerPoint files to edit these before you print, but I made no real effort to clean them up in terms of grouping, etc.  Use the PowerPoint files at risk of your own confusion.


This article is part two of a four-part series on crafting friendly NPCs who the heroes view as more than quest dispensers.  Part one was published last week.  This week, we will look at flaws.

A penguin with a fist, and boy does he look mad.

Angry Penguin has no character flaws, and if you believe differently, he will beat you until you agree.

Flaws make characters more believable.

Have you ever known someone who was just so dang perfect that you wanted to throw up a little?  Maybe it is that kid in class who always gets the answers right.  Maybe it is your cousin, the one where your aunt keeps gloating about his medical degree.  Maybe it is your buddy with the long-term significant other, a nice car, and a clean house.  It’s doesn’t matter who it is – perfect people suck.

Perfect people suck, mainly, because they do not actually exist.  Everyone has flaws – that is one of the reasons we sometimes find the so-called “perfect” people in our lives so frustrating.  Without visible flaws, others can make us feel like they have achieved a greatness that we cannot possibly hope to reach.  How depressing is that?

It turns out that perfect NPCs are pretty lousy, too.  No hero likes Johnny McWonderkid, the NPC who can do everything and never so much as blinks at an inappropriate moment.  Real, believable people have flaws.  Let’s give some to friendly NPCs we want our players to love.

There are two very important cues to remember when designing a flawed character that you want to be liked.  First and foremost, keep the flaws minor.  No one wants to love a horrible, disrespectful weasel.  Secondly, make sure your chosen flaws do not violate our first premise: the NPC should be a good listener.  It’s really hard to like someone who ignores you in a role-playing game, even if that is the character’s “flaw”.  Even if your NPC is a bad listener, he suddenly becomes a good one when the PCs are talking.  Why?  It doesn’t matter – justify it however you want.  Treating someone like you are a jerk makes you a jerk in their eyes, so don’t let your friendly NPCs do it.

Trying to give you something useful, I have crafted a (fairly arbitrary) list of one hundred possible flaws for a friendly NPC.  Remember that one man’s strength can be another man’s flaw, and these are all meant to be played as bad enough to be a flaw, but not so strongly that they make the character unlikable.  When in doubt, pick or roll from the list!  If you don’t like your result, then roll again!

The list is behind the cut for your reading convenience. Continue reading »

Both parties in my home campaign have begun keeping timelines of their activities, and it has notably improved the game.

The poster for the 2003 movie, Timeline

This Timeline did not improve anything.

In some ways, I know that my home campaign diverges from a “traditional” D&D game.  Adventures can be months, even years apart in my campaign world – they are often the culmination of much research, political intrigue, and travel on the part of the heroes.  I like this play style – it makes the actual dungeon delves, wars,  and physical conflicts feel more special, like they are part of a larger picture.  My biggest obstacle, however, has been keeping track of the flow of time within the game world.

The bad guys do not sit on their haunches, waiting for the heroes to kick down their door.  Just as the heroes try to complete their tasks, the villains are scheming and acting behind the scenes.  Sometimes, dumb luck puts the heroes in the right place at the right time to save the day, and other times they are far away when danger strikes their homes.  At first, this was easy to keep track of, but it got increasingly difficult as the campaign went on.  Now that we are four game years into the narrative, I find that I need the PCs to keep a timeline of their actions for me keep everything straight.  I should have done it sooner.

For our campaign timeline, I chose to use a large sheet of one inch grid paper – the same easel pad paper I use for drawing custom battle maps and dungeons.  Gaming Paper or engineering paper would also work perfectly well if you have those around.  All we did was to label the columns with the seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter – across the paper, and the players fill in their actions and accomplishments during the appropriate season.  As an added bit of fun, the players choose their character’s birth season, and as the years roll by their ages slowly tick up.

Keeping clear but rough track of time has really spiced up the game.  The scared twelve-year-old daughter of the party spellsword is now a confidant, if sometimes sullen, sixteen year old rogue.  Her first kill was at fourteen, when orogs sieged the fort where the party was staying.  For the party wizard’s fiftieth birthday, the barbarian commissioned a sliver quarterstaff.  Letters sent from across the continent can take six months to arrive as heroes wait anxiously to hear news from their families back home.  Summer is the season of high court, and heroes looking to make a name for themselves politically find excuses to linger and make a good impression.

Keeping a timeline has also raised some very interesting questions for the future of our game.  How old is too old for adventuring?  What happens when a character retires due to old age?  What responsibilities do the current heroes have for training the next generation?  How will it feel for the party elf as her friends all age while she stays the same?  We could, of course, gloss over these topics if we wanted to.  The point is that we do not want to gloss them over.  The passage of time has proven to be an incredibly strong narrative device, and time and aging have become underlying themes within the campaign.

How do you track time in your games?  Do you just define the seasons by the needs of the adventure, or do you keep a detailed calendar?  Does time matter at all within your game?  Why do you run it this way?

Not every NPC is an enemy, yet monsters and adversaries are almost exclusively what our various game master manuals help us to design.  What about the good guys?  It’s easy to hate a brute who dishes out tons of damage or a lurker who can’t be hit, but what makes the PC’s employer a likable fellow?  Why would the heroes want to help the poor farmer who cannot pay them?  Crafting friendly NPCs is, in some ways, much more difficult than crafting hated enemies, but it is also absolutely necessary if we want to immerse our players in the worlds we have chosen to create.

I find that my players get the most invested in friendly NPCs who:

  • pay attention to the heroes
  • are slightly flawed
  • have a few quirks
  • work towards meaningful goals

As a four-part series, I will examine each of these personality traits and show easy ways to add them to friendly NPCs in most any game.

Paying Attention to the Heroes

Just about everyone, including our players, want to feel valued.  One of the best ways we can show others that we care for them is to listen and show that they are listening.  Friendly NPCs can really glow in the eyes of the party if they listen when the party speaks, trust what the party has to say, and show that they value the heroes’ time.  In some ways, this is the hardest part of building a believable ally, since it requires the most long-term investment.  With repeated use, however, it is also the most rewarding.

One way for the NPC to show he or she values the party is to have the party explain the results of their last adventure.  Like in real life, be an active part of the conversation as the NPC.  Ask a question or two when the party is vague.  Interrupt with an exclamation when the unbelievable happens.  Laugh at the funny parts.  If you can time this interaction correctly, this is also a great way to recap the last game session.

When possible, your NPC should get one-on-one interaction with each party member.  This almost never needs to be more than a sentence or two, and you can often work it in while the rest of the party is discussing something else.  Individual interaction makes the NPC much more real, because it allows each character to develop his or her own relationship with the NPC.

The NPC should praise the heroes when he or she is pleased with them. Just about everyone like’s being told they have done a good job.  Heartfelt thanks, a firm pat on the back, or just a simple smile and nod of approval can go a long ways towards endearing an NPC to the heroes.  Much like in real life, overdone praise feels forced and disingenuous.  Keep it simple, earnest, and based on the real actions of the PCs.

Remember that the only way the players will believe that your NPC is listening is if you really listen.  Taking the time to do this step well is probably the single biggest thing you can do to turn your friendly NPCs into characters that the heroes, and players, really care about.

How do you show that your NPCs are listening?  Do you find real value in role-playing to this extent, or does it not fit well with your home game?  Can this process be abbreviated for con games, or should it be dropped completely in favor of a more rapid approach?  I want to know what you think.

Dead means dead, and there is no coming back from dead.

At the start of my current 4e campaign, I made this very simple decision about the game world.  The ramifications of this action have been fairly profound, and they have changed the play style at my table for the better.

Every Encounter Means Business

This was the most obvious set of changes to be made.  I need to really think about the encounters I design now, since a failed Death Save in an early battle can spell total disaster later in the adventure.  Encounters where the party can neither run away nor surrender mean there is a potential for TPK, which is even worse than normal.

The Players Take Threats Seriously

Discretion is the better part of valor.  When confronted by the enemy, the PCs in my game now make a point of carefully sizing up their opponents.  They are aware that a heroic last stand is just that – a last stand.  When in real danger, a fighting retreat to better terrain has become a common tactic.

“Face” NPCs are More Important Now

NPC allies have become a huge portion of my campaign.  Companion Characters frequently join the heroes in combat, allies lend financial support, and the crowd that generally surrounds the party grows as the heroes become friendly with more and more people.  I encourage this, because every friendly NPC has the strong potential to become a PC in the future.  I try to provide an eclectic cast of NPCs for the players to draw from in the event that a hero dies.  Losing a character is less traumatic, both to the player and to the story, if there is another character he or she is already emotionally invested in.  If the party barbarian dies, then it is easy for the wererat orphan she has been raising to step up to PC status.

I have found that my, “dead means dead,” rule has really enhanced my game in ways I did not at first expect.  Have you tried something similar?  How did it work out in your campaign?

© 2013 Blood, Sweat, and Dice Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha

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