Finding Inspiration for NPC Concepts

I don’t know of any particular term for the RPG game master’s equivalent of writer’s block. What do we call it when, as a GM, we need to develop interesting NPCs and all we come up with is bartenders who used to be adventurers (class: Fighter of course), helpful blacksmiths with strong Scottish accents, and villains who twirl their mustaches?

A little inspiration can sometimes be difficult to find. When times are desperate, some hints for places to find inspiration might be helpful to develop memorable character concepts with some depth. Rolling20s offered a decent overview of ideas for what to do for inspiration. Considering the difficulties that can arise when a GM needs some NPCs for the next session and doesn’t have any ideas, though, I thought a slightly more detailed approach to non-player characters in particular wouldn’t go amiss. I offer ten sources for NPC inspiration:

  • Books/Movies: There are some excellent, iconic character concepts in novels and film. Even comic books have something to offer. You don’t want to be caught in the trap of very obviously just presenting retreads of other people’s great ideas, though, so don’t stop when you find a great character idea. Instead, think about why it’s a great idea. Try to distill it down to a few essential characteristics. In fact, if you can pick out just one thing that works, that’s best — and if there are others that work just as well, you can use them later for other NPC concepts. Once you have an idea or two, build on it to create something that feels fresh and original. This approach works great for epic villains, heroes, and anti-heroes.
  • Co-Workers: Where books and movies can give you some of the most dynamic, dramatic NPC concepts, thinking about the people with whom you work every day (or people you know from school, or the prison yard, or wherever you spend your days around other people) can provide excellent grist for producing characters who serve more as “color” for the campaign. As with concepts sourced from books and movies, you should try to pick out a single characteristic around which you can build a character so that you don’t end up just throwing Bob your neighbor into the game. An exception to this, of course, would be a one-time gag when you know your players might appreciate the humor of an NPC who is reminiscent of someone you all know, but tread very very lightly if you decide to go this route, and if you do it too often it loses its potency.
  • Images: One approach that I use and abuse quite regularly is browsing images on the Web. Especially when I need character ideas for a swords and sorcery fantasy game (usually Pathfinder RPG these days), I find that a really good picture can kick the creative center of my brain into motion and very quickly present me with a compelling idea or two for an NPC (or even a PC).
  • Legends: Characters of myth and legend (even mythologized historical figures) make excellent epic NPC concepts, but they definitely don’t tend to work very well for “extras” on the set of a campaign. Achilles, Hamlet, Oedipus, and other leading men are great examples. Female counterparts like Atalanta, Rosalind (from As You Like It), and Elektra can fill these roles just as easily. More secondary characters such as Eurystheus or Ophelia can serve evocative NPC roles handily as well.
  • Stat Blocks: NPCs created by others, as in the case of supporting cast in published adventure modules, can provide a useful jumping-off point for creating your own NPCs. So too can stat blocks in monster books and similar sources. Many game books offer “generic” character stat blocks as well, such as the example stats for the NPC classes in the back of the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook. Rolling up a set of stats for a character can provide a less derivative approach to the same means of inspiring character creation. Stat blocks are often somewhat dry when trying to find inspiration, but they can occasionally produce that spark of imagination you need — especially if one stat is particularly high or low.
  • PCs: How well the idea of using your PCs as inspiration for NPCs will work for you depends on you, your players, and the campaign. I have GMed campaigns that were heavily populated with NPCs that were direct copies of my own PCs from other campaigns. They generally appeared only as cameos and departed again. It is very easy to fall into the trap of making a PC into a “pet” NPC that takes over the game to some extent, or otherwise spoils some of the fun of the game for the players, though — so be extremely careful with this approach and don’t get too attached to an NPC just because it’s based on a PC of yours. Remember to think of them as different people from your PCs, and let them get killed if need be. It is probably a bad idea to use other people’s PCs as templates for NPC creation, though, because it is too easy to offend someone by mishandling the character concept.
  • Randomness: There are plenty of resources for random character creation that you can use to get an NPC concept started. Roleplaying game character generators are the obvious choice, and a number of them can be found by searching for them in your favorite search engine. Some RPG books offer basic random character generation tools as well, and foremost among them are a pair of books published by AEG — the Toolbox and the Ultimate Toolbox, both of which are essentially nothing but random d20 charts for hundreds of pages. When using something like that, just start by rolling up some interesting things on a few charts until your imagination takes over, then fill out the rest of the details as they occur to you, and never be afraid to reject the result of a roll if you don’t like it.
  • Repeats: Some concepts lend themselves to reuse. File off the serial numbers, change the names to protect the guilty, and dress everything up a bit differently to present something you know from past experience is interesting and works well. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll get a reputation for being unimaginative when people start figuring out what you have been doing.
  • Wikipedia: The “Random Article” link at Wikipedia can be a great source of inspiration if you don’t have any specific ideas at all, but going directly to a particular article about a topic related to what you need can be even better. My own “significant other” uses it quite heavily when she feels a need for inspiration when planning out a roleplaying session, not just for creating NPCs but for all kinds of things — plotlines and subplots, names for things (like a Druidic circle called the Racomitrium), and so on. Follow whatever links you find interesting, and eventually you may well discover you have an excellent idea brewing in the back of your head.
  • Yourself: This idea is more fraught with danger than any other, but if all else fails you can always try to represent some variation on yourself in an NPC. Pick one characteristic, good or bad, and blow it completely out of proportion; imagine yourself as an epic character and fill in the details; or just fill in the background details of some otherwise uninteresting character with information from your own past, your own preferences, and your own habits. Alter some details to direct attention away from this sleight of hand trick, and avoid giving such a character a central role to protect yourself from falling into the trap of making You into a “pet” NPC.

Ultimately, inspiration comes to us wherever it decides to arrive. Making a list of the sources of inspiration that work well for you in particular can provide a quick and easy way to kick start your imagination when times are desperate, however. If none of these ideas work for you some day, as Rolling20s pointed out, you could always just sit down and start writing and see what comes up. I’ve never tried it for game session planning, myself, but it has worked well for writing from time to time.

[tags]rpg, role playing games, non-player characters, npcs, inspiration[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Finding Inspiration for NPC Concepts

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  1. This is an article that gets written time and time again, yet I think this was probably the best of its type I’ve ever read. Very to the point and helpful in that it explains the pros and cons of different types of character inspirations. Thanks a bunch!


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