If you’ve ever sat down behind a GM screen, you’ve probably put some work into your stable of NPCs. All those bar tenders, pick pockets, courtesans, and queens don’t just fall out of the sky. You’ve got to breathe life into them. What are their personalities like? Do they have funny accents or verbal ticks? Interesting mannerisms? Important quests to hand out or murders to be questioned about? What were they doing before the players showed up? We try to answer all these questions for one simple reason: When the PCs do show up, we want them to think that the NPCs are interesting.

Consider The Silmarillion. Tolkien never meant to publish that massive mess of notes. The world’s most famous elvish phone directory was designed to add a sense of depth to Middle Earth. The legends weren’t the point; the existence of the legends was the point. There was more going on in The Lord of the Rings than the present story, and all those little details sprinkled throughout created that sense of a world larger than one adventure.

We’re not writing novels of course. We’re trying to run compelling games. That’s an opportunity though. It means that we can do the “Silmarillion trick” twice. We get to delve into the past and design the present.

Here’s what I’m getting at. If you want a world with a little added depth, a good strategy is to give NPCs their own lives beyond the PCs. They might get married or inherit a fortune. They might get drafted into the army, thrown into prison for tax evasion, or elected Lord Mayor. Sure you can have them convert to a paladin’s religion after hearing his sermon or file for bankruptcy after getting robbed by a rogue. That sort of thing is great for giving PCs a sense of importance within the world. If you’re going for verisimilitude though, Father Prudish’s drug habit can do the trick nicely. It takes a bit of work to pull it off, especially when it’s not “the main storyline.” Dynamic NPCs are unexpected though. They’re intriguing. And I think that makes them worth the extra effort.

So here’s the question of the day then. When have you invented an NPC with an agenda beyond their relationship to the PCs? What was it? Were they memorable, or did the PCs not even notice that so-and-so was off leading their own life? Let’s hear it in the comments!


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