This article is inspired by work I did for Dangerous Destinations, a Nord Games Kickstarter that, as well as creating interesting and hazardous environments for characters to explore, provides Antagonist Profiles based on the 12 Jungian Archetypes. During the creation of these profiles, I stumbled across a few tools that helped me come up with detailed NPCs.
If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes struggle to come up with NPCs that feel like real people. I often find myself falling back on tired fantasy tropes when improvising, and even when I’m prepping an NPC ahead of time I sometimes need to break my habits. The following tools helped me think outside the box, but also describe NPCs in ways that informed my roleplaying.
An Emotion Wheel is a tool used to help people express how they’re feeling. For many folks, it’s second nature to be able to express exactly how you feel without relying on such a tool, but for others it’s not so easy. For a GM, these wheels can help you consider how an NPC might feel generally, and what they’re hiding beneath their surface emotions. Let’s take a struggling shopkeep for an example. They’re probably angry that their business is failing. Within the anger portion of the wheel, frustrated probably fits best to describe their emotion, and within that we can say they’re annoyed. Already we have a key emotion for the character that informs how they interact with the characters – they’re already annoyed that their business is struggling, imagine how they’ll react when the bard tries to barter! I also find it useful to consider a second emotion that lies beneath their surface feelings. In this instance, they might be feeling Sad > Vulnerable > Victimised. Maybe the business is failing because the locals refuse to buy from the same place that caters to adventurers, or because their daughter is a criminal.
I find that these wheels not only help build up my emotional literacy, but inspire me to create NPCs with depth that can be roleplayed in a pinch. Have a go yourself and see what you come up with!
Positive Psychology Character Strengths
For an NPC that might be of use to the characters, or who is likely to stick around for some time, I try to think not only of emotions, but of specific strengths and flaws that the NPC might have. Focussing first on strengths, I found that Positive Psychology’s 24 Character Strengths was a good place to start. These strengths are split into six general themes, not unlike the Emotion Wheel, which I find useful. Let’s think back to the shopkeep. Perhaps a fitting strength would be perseverance. Despite the struggling business, they’re keeping at it, trying to make it work. If we try another strength though, fairness for example, it makes a big difference to the character!
It’s pretty easy to find a wealth of websites that list character flaws for authors, and they can easily be used by GMs too! Here’s one of my favourites. If I’m struggling to come up with a particular flaw for an NPC, I can just scroll through this site, stop on a random flaw, and use that to flesh out the character. In this case, I got pride – makes a lot of sense for our shopkeeper who refuses to close up, despite his failing business. If we take another random one, spiteful, it again changes the NPC entirely – now it seems like maybe the shopkeep has brought this struggle upon themselves, refusing to serve those who demean them by trying to barter for example.
If all else fails, and you need an NPC in a pinch but are struggling for inspiration, you can always fall back on tropes. You can pick a character from your favourite book, film, or tv show and portray them in the role of the NPC you need. Otherwise, there are plenty of lists online. When using tropes, I try to ensure they’re not stereotyping a particular culture, race, or gender before putting them into my games. Wherever possible, I like to subvert a trope to make it more interesting too, and maybe catch the characters off guard!
When designing NPCs for our games, it’s easy to fall into the same old fantasy tropes that we see played out in a variety of media. If you’re struggling to break out of your usual patterns of creation, consider using some of the tools above; Emotion Wheels, Positive Psychology Character Strengths, and Character Flaws for Writers to create something outside of your usual purview. Remember that you can always fall back on a trope in a pinch, but try to ensure you’re not stereotyping.
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