If your campaign group loves going off the rails, and the NPC accents you come up with are like mine (really bad), then you have the same problem I do! Here are 5 ways you can add more realism to the quickly created NPCs in your campaign.
Hatred and Suspicion
“I can do a quick portrait for you – done before sundown – for just a silver piece each! One silver, and you can walk away with a portrait of you, just like the Queens and Kings of our realm…except the dwarf. For the dwarf, it will cost gold.”
Give your NPC a hatred for a certain race or class. Maybe a druid stole their childhood dog. Maybe a dwarf popped out of a hole in the ground and scared them during their youth. Maybe they just don’t like the look of an elf’s pointy ears. Whatever a reason, singling out one or two PCs with suspicion or outright hatred can lead to more engaging and fun gameplay.
The baker blinked, continuing, “I can get you some hardtack for tomorrow morning, probably a few day’s worth.” The baker blinked again. “I’d charge two coppers a piece. Deal?” The baker blinked furiously, waiting for a response.
Small repeatable quirks or ticks give the PCs something relatable and memorable in a world full of fantasy names. An NPC tugs an earlobe throughout the conversation. An NPC sucks air quickly through their teeth – not quite whistling, but constantly making blowing noises. An NPC frequently, while standing, goes up on their toes. These small quirks, ticks, and habits can reinforce the reality in a non-player character within your fantasy world.
Use People (Or Characters) You Know
“Mom – mom! Can we get some meatloaf? Mom! The meatloaf! Mom!”
Coming up with complex personalities, beliefs, and motivations of NPCs at the drop of the hat is challenging and exhausting. Instead, rely on the characters and real life people you know! Sherlock Holmes, your grandmother, an ex-partner – each of these people have a personality you don’t have to make up! This allows you to be consistent with new NPCs, saves you time and energy, and can even inject some humor into your sessions.
“…and running along the left jawline, are the grotesque stretchmarks of a wide scar not fully healed. Deep, uneven, almost frankenstein-like, it runs from her chin, across her jawline, and up to where the lower half of her ear should have been.”
When in doubt, give a memorable physical appearance to your NPCs letting them stand out in a crowd. Then repeat it. Maybe the smith is tall – almost impossibly so. Maybe the soldier is missing a front tooth. Maybe the stable girl is missing three fingers on her left hand. Whatever the appearance, whether it be positive, negative, or somewhere in between, making it different than “normal” can be the small detail that engages your players even further.
“Oh my. Is that a Dalsonian Spear? Might I see it closer…why yes, yes it is. You can tell – see, the point is made from Determite Steel, a bit stronger than regular steel. Also, look here – the shaft is hewn from Lumbar Oak. The grain gives it away – see how it runs in a circular pattern? That would survive a charging horse, or maybe more. My, this is a fine weapon, yes it is.”
In many RPGs, the characters are central to the story. Expand on this! Give your NPCs a reason to “ooh” and “aah” over their gear! Maybe the soldier is an expert on arms – let her fawn over the fighter’s sword. Maybe the baker is an expert on footwear – he can’t help but offer a mighty sum for the rogue’s leather shoes. Maybe the artist loves animals, and just wants to cuddle with the wizard’s owl familiar. Whatever the item, give an NPC a very eccentric interest in it – and another way to put your players at the center of the story.
I wanted to add a quick note – the image featured at the top of the article (by Larry Day) is from an old Dungeons and Dragons Module – The Shady Dragon Inn (AC1). It’s a module that’s filled with NPCs, stats, motivations, and back stories. I love it and will often pull it out just to re-read.