Sunday, July 7, 2013

NPC Creation Technique: Random Rolls for Inspiration

Some Storytellers are gifted with the ability to magically invent a cast of fully developed and well-realised characters from the depths of their subconscious, slowly adding layers with every comment made and action taken.  I am not one of those Storytellers.  I’ve read a number of How To Create Character books filled with writer’s advice and I don’t do too badly in my novels, but I do have difficulty when running a game to create fully realised characters (or at least, the illusion that they might be well-developed).

In my Dystopic game, I had to create a Tyrant, five ministers, and four subordinates before a session.  I wanted to ensure that the characters all seemed quite different to each other and I had to make sure I could evoke that sense of difference in a very short period of time as I knew the PCs wouldn't be spending much time with them but needed to be able to differentiate between them.  So how did I do that?

Well, I could have brainstormed ideas or visualised walking into a court and meeting these people to see what I could come up with but I wasn’t in a brainstorming or visualising mood.  Instead I went for a more contrived option.

Random rolls of the dice.

I rolled a D10 to determine House.  Firstly I listed all the Houses and Factions in alphabetical order and assigned the last number to be a re-roll.  I then rolled a d8 for the House and a d6 for faction which led to a number of combinations that were surprisingly apt.  I rolled a d4 where odds meant female and evens meant male.  I then took one of those character trait charts you find on the internet that looked nice and long and had numbers by the traits.  I rolled a percentile dice (1D100) three times to get myself some key words which I then strung into a personality.  The random nature of the traits meant that they could be quite unique.

Through this system, I got a:

Eagles Minister.  Devil.  Faustian.  Poised, Charismatic, and Resilient.
Dust Minister’s Secretary.  Malefactor.  Easily embarrassed.  Artistic.  Prude.

So as you can see random dice rolls can still play to type surprisingly easily but you also get some unusual and interesting combinations.

Of course, these few lines aren’t enough to give you a character so I dug a little deeper and created a few lines for each of them.  How do these traits manifest?  How might you notice them?  I also figured out their book interests as the game is currently a mixture of Deus Ex-style infiltration / assassination, Bookhounds of London (a Trail of Cthulhu game type) and Demon: the Fallen.

You can find the more developed examples below:

Minister Khosravi
• Male Faustian Devil
• He is popular both within the court and without due to his positive attitude and classic poise and should the court’s tyrant fall, the majority will hope that he will take her place. Unfortunately he lacks the post-arrival Eminence to do so.
• Rumor has it he may have the highest pre-arrival Eminence in the court although perhaps he does not recall it.
• He is one of the youngest Fallen within Miami but his popularity catapulted his success.
• He will not fall apart under pressure.
• He has no time to read for pleasure.

Secretary Dorinda
• Female Faustian Malefactor.
• Easily shamed by any errors she’s made.
• She can be short with folk.
• She is prudish and easily embarrassed by crude or rude comments.
• Intuitive and capable of leaps of logic.
• She is an artist in her spare time – combining painting with sculpture using human methods.
• Other Malefactors do not understand her art as it favours form over function.
• Her interests lie in paranormal thrillers and science fiction.

So yes, what about you guys?  How do you generate those pesky NPCs who are either going to be political figures, frequently met characters, or close allies / friends / family who therefore need complex personality and motivations?  Let me know in the Comments Section below.


  1. It's a tall order to create 10 different NPCs for a session. I do the same kind of thing that you did create them. Get a few tags, this would include maybe a physical trait also. Then what I do sometimes is image their voice or traits and connect it with a movie character and write it down so I have an instant reference point. As an example, the PCs were on a slaver boat and the main guy was polite, sadistic and charming. My actor reference for this one was John Cleese.

    I think that is the only thing I could add to what you are already doing, but I don't think even if I did all those things I could portray ten distinct NPCs.

    1. There's only so many people the players can recall in a single session, anyhow, unless they spend the whole session talking only to those NPCs. We can only try to do the best we can with the resources we have available.

      I like the movie star tie-in. That's a good idea.