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Bringing NPC's to life.


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#1 Virulent

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 08:01 AM

In my new campaign, after session 3, I gave a quick informal survey to my players asking what they liked and didn't like about it. Everyone loves the world and seem to be enthralled with the story so far, but everyone of them, including myself, deemed my NPC's a bit trite.

I have some notes about how they are supposed to behave, but aside from fully scripting them, making them memorable or unique has been a challenge for me. The players do love the characterization of the PC I have to run, so I know I can do it, but how do I bring an NPC who might just be around for one fight or conversation to life better?

What are your thoughts?
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#2 Nicholas

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 08:50 AM

Well, without knowing the specifics I can only give general advice. There's a few things to have in mind when playing an NPC:

1) What is his stake in events? Why does he care what is happening?

2) What makes him unique to the players? The players are all looking at you, the same you no matter who you are channeling up. A special voice, verbal tic or mannerism can make it instantly clear to them who is talking.

3) What else is going on in his life? Is he having problems at home, going bankrupt, risking his job by cooperating, dealing with a dying father? This probably won't be obvious to the players or their characters, but it will alter the NPC's manner.

4) Finally, why is this character in the plot? It could be for anything from plot critical background to comic relief but there should never be a pointless character in a story.

You don't need to have all these answers written down, but it is a good thing to think about in advance. I hope that helps some.
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#3 Virulent

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 10:16 AM

I'm doing a Mass Effect homebrew based off of 4E. Being a sci-fi theme, with a lot of intellegent "monsters", the NPC/characters can be anywhere from a guard at a club, to the wicked batarian slave trader the squad is trying to track down for the first major part of the adventure. Some are very minor characters who are there for one fight, and have to die simply because they are protecting the BBG's base, others are "quest givers" or others who dispense information, to the BBG of the current hook.

The questions provided are good starts, it's also a manner of portraying those mannerisms where I fall short. It could just be a matter of practice, but trying to find a way to make the process more organic for when I need something impromptu.
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#4 Telemergion

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 11:27 AM

In theatre classes we are told that no matter how small a role you have that it is important to remember that if the story were about him he would be the main character. Thus, every bit character should have a backstory as full as the lead role. Now in practice I know very few people who put that much effort into it - I certainly don't - but when preparing for a role or getting my NPCs lined up it's always there in my mind.

Practice definitely helps. The questions Nicholas provided are also very good starts. If you don't want to spend ages writing out backstories, though, or need an NPC on the fly, the best tip I can give is to NOT shy away from charicatures and stereotypes.

This is, of course, somewhat dependant on what kind of a game you're running. The super serious roleplay-heavy game might not tolerate characters like Darren, Hal's flamboyantly gay dwarven armoursmith, but if you're trying for the tone of the Mass Effect games there's definitely room for a bit of silliness and, most importantly, gross generalizations that you can easily use to convey more information.

For instance, take your two examples. Now, aside from doing funny voices and/or mimicking the racially specific speech patterns from the games you should always consider what your character is. If he's a Krogan guarding the bar then he's immediately different from a Taurian. While the Taurian is going to want to enforce order, taking it as an affront if anyone should start something on his watch, the Krogan would likely wait for the fight to get started, potentially even encouraging it, before wading in to do battle. The Taurian would probably use whatever force was necessary to stop the fight but go no further, while the Krogan would never pull his punches. Simply by reacting differently in a situation we've begun to explore what makes these different characters.

After the big general stuff you should try to figure out one or two things that make him unique from the others of his archetype. Take the Krogan guard. Now, in the games you meet a handful of Krogans who are willing to talk to you and they really reveal almost no variation in character behaviour or goals. They're big, they're strong, and they want to fight you. How then do you tell one from the other? A quick description of their appearance is a good start. Wrex had earth-tone skin and a badass scar over one eye whereas a later Krogan was virtually neon green. Wrex, despite his brutish nature, turned out to be surprisingly smart and almost philosophical, but other Krogans might be anywhere on the intelligence scale. Finally, while it might be something that other Krogans would have no problem doing, what is he doing right now that places him actually in the scene? If he's guarding a bar is he leaning against a wall scowling at the crowd, drumming heavy fingers on the bar with a bored expression, or throwing some guy down an elevator shaft?

Krogans are mostly simple; other races you might have wider ranges of things to do with them. The key is to figure out what makes them easy to play and easy for the players to recognize what archetypal role they're filling compared to the individual bits information that make them different. It's probably going to take practice and you'll need to find your own way, but these are some of the steps I use.
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#5 Virulent

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 03:25 PM

I have to say thank you. In my planning for this week, I made some notes about every major npc I expected the party to deal with, and am glad I did, since they ran into almost all of them in one session. I made a conscious effort to differentiate their voices in the notes and in practice (to the point of making my throat raw for one of them), and keep their desires in mind in the conversations. The group was a mixed reception... they loved the characterizations, but didn't much like the fact they couldn't wrangle much information from them, due to both story and dice constraints. With practice, this should come a lot more natural, but until then, the profile is a real help.
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#6 Telemergion

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 11:37 PM

I'm glad it worked out for you! The most important information, and honestly I can't be bothered to read my own wall of text to see if I said it or not, is to find what works and is fun for you and your group. Always try things and tweak them until you're happy, then try something new.

Good luck with your future sessions and feel free to ask if you have any more questions.
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