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.