It’s something every DM struggles with- how do you make your players care about your NPCs and have reactions, either positive or negative, to them?
Making your players care about the game world is fundamental to roleplaying, and NPCs- as the parts the players will most often be interacting with- are perhaps the most important focus of that. So how do you make your NPCs interesting and unique, so that the players won’t simply treat them the same way they do Goblin #486 that they slew yesterday? Here’s a few tricks.
Create Them With a Role
When you put an NPC into a game they are there to serve some sort of purpose in the story, not simply to fill a hole in the universe. Characters that serve no role in the story aren’t really even NPCs- they’re set dressing, backgrounds for the actual characters in the game. The thirty guards flanking the king as he explains to the party what he needs them to do? They’re not characters. The king is a character, but the guards are not, no more than the king’s throne is.
So ask yourself what role you want them to serve in the game. What is their purpose, and what do you want from them? Is the king imperious and commanding, a regal figure that shows the PCs the gap in their stations? Is he bufoonish and incompetent, to emphasize the foibles and failings of royalty? Is he distant and detached, focused on greater problems? Is he affable and trusting, a resource that the party can come back to at a later time if they find themselves in trouble? All of these are very different sorts of characters and will present different tones for how the players will expect to interact with them, even if their demands are otherwise identical. The characteristics you give your NPCs are central to shaping how any scenes including them play out.
Give Them Multiple Aspects
The second key to making your NPCs work is to ensure that they aren’t simply one-not personalities. This is particularly important for those which will be ongoing features of the campaign, showing up in multiple sessions, but even for single-use characters it can be extremely beneficial; more layers to a character makes them more believable.
To make use of the earlier example again, let us say that we have chosen the buffoonish king. If this is all there is to him, he will probably be a functional-but-uninteresting piece of the plot; but we can develop him beyond that with just a bit of extra work. Maybe there is something that the king is actually good at- he’s a brilliant tactician despite being a poor leader, for example, or a talented painter. Or, if the NPC’s character is more generally positive, introducing one of their flaws (like a refusal to admit they are wrong, or a fear of something) can be useful. A contrasting aspect like this can give an antagonist a more sympathetic portrayal, or show an ally in a more complex and realistic light- and in both cases, it makes the NPC into more than simply a game piece that helps or hinders the party. (Of course, you can also do the opposite if you want to double down on things- by giving the buffoonish king a negative aspect, such as being a bully, you can cast him in a particularly evil light.)
Make Them Distinctive
There is one caution with the above system, however: don’t simply go with the generic versions of the above that every player has seen before in film, television, and books. How many grizzled innkeeps has your party met? How many proud and greedy dragons? How many suspicious guards? While these archetypes can be useful for bit parts, overuse of them robs your campaign world of its variety and leaves the players feeling fairly flat.
So think instead about doing something different, and what that mean. Perhaps the innkeep is friendly and generous- the players might want to come back and make the place their base of operations. A lazy guard paired with a punctilious one can create a comic situation that is still potentially dangerous for the players, and is perhaps a good way to lighten the mood from time to time. It isn’t necessary to buck expectations every time, but try to avoid falling back on overused tropes- every NPC is a unique opportunity to roleplay, and there’s no sense in wasting that.
The actual roleplay itself can also be a big component of this- by adding mannerisms, speech patterns, or accents you can do a lot for a character, if you’re comfortable with that sort of thing. Even minor stuff can go a long ways here- you don’t necessarily need to do silly voices, but simply changing the way you talk for different characters can convey a lot to the players. Maybe the stodgy old wizard talks slowly and doesn’t use contractions, or maybe the gnomish apothecary uses strange malapropisms and incomprehensible analogies. The tone, pitch, and cadence of your voice have a huge effect on how players will perceive a character, so think back to the voices of some characters in movies, or especially in animation (where voices are absolutely critical) for good examples.
No matter how you choose to portray your NPCs, the most critical aspect of them is the care you put into that portrayal. The thing that will consistently shine through the most to your players is the effort you put into them at the table; if you are detailed and intentional about how you play an NPC and give them a consistent personality and quirks, your players will recognize this (even if only subconsciously) and respond to it. As a DM, your enthusiasm for the game will always show through, so make sure you’re putting the same effort into your play at the game table as you do behind the scenes when prepping material.
And as always, remember that you can get your roleplaying supplies at great discounts every day from the Frontline Gaming store, whether you’re looking to pick up a new sourcebook for your character or a great set of minis for your next encounter.