Literature Review of NPC Techniques

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NPCs are the lifeblood of tabletop role-playing games. I’ve gotten in the habit of, for every encounter I plan, asking myself “where’s the NPC?”

Friendly NPCs are there to set the players on an adventure, give them help when they need it, or get imperiled to raise the stakes. Enemy NPCs make fights meaningful, giving players someone to thwart or win over, rather than just bags of hit points they need to defeat.

Ideally, NPCs:

  • Are easy to come up with on-the-fly. Just because the players veer away from prepped content doesn’t mean they shouldn’t meet anyone. In fact, having active tools in the GM’s hands can be even more important for nudging things along in improvised scenarios.
  • Feel like real people with personalities and motivations, who behave consistently and interestingly.

Almost every game and every person who gives out GM advice online has some suggestions or formulas for creating and portraying NPCs. Here’s my review of what’s out there, along with my own commentary.

Generic Advice


3 Line NPCs

7-3-1 Technique

7-3-1 Technique by Jason Cordova.

  • 7-3-1 is part of a general practice to “prep to improvise” by brainstorming 7 setting elements, including NPCs but also encounters, locations, and events.

  • Each NPC (or anything) is given a motivation that can either be about what the person wants (e.g. to get help killing rats in the cellar) or about why they’re included in the story (e.g. to show the players how they’re feared in this location).

  • Elements also need three “sensory details” that are specifically not just what they look like. This can be used to describe them at the table.

  • The “1” is for “one way [the element] can be

NPC Types

The 7 NPCs You Will Only Ever Need by Guy Schlanders


How to Create the Ultimate Big Bad Evil Guy by Guy Sclanders

Useful breakdown of the tiers of villains and the relative amount of prep and depth in each:

  • Nemesis
  • Villain
  • Henchmen
  • Goons

For the nemesis, there are three types of evil:

  • Power Psycho — “No goal other than chaos”
  • Greater Good — “For the greater good”
  • Lost to Evil — “Forgot reasons to be good”

And only the 3rd type can be redeemed, and then only by the actions of the PCs.



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