Time and time again, I hear the same critique about tv shows, novels, you name it:
“The main character was boring, but I kept watching for the side characters. They were so much more interesting.”
Not that this is something we aim for, as creatives, but it does serve as a helpful reminder: that side characters are just as important as the protagonists. Like most aspects of writing, this same logic applies to D&D. After all, how interesting can our characters really be if we can’t watch them interact in the world we have created? Having a D&D campaign without interesting side characters or NPCs (non-playable characters) is like having ice cream without whipped cream or a cherry on top: it’s the fix-ins that turn an ordinary dessert into a full-blown ice cream sundae.
While you might not want to take the time to develop an NPC as much as you would a playable character (completely understandable!) there are a few key components I prioritize to really help the players care about the NPCs.
- You ever meet someone and just immediately feel attracted to them? Not in a sensual way (though that is sometimes also the case). Just in the way they are so gosh-darned likeable. What are the qualities that draw you to someone? Is it a fun-loving attitude? A generosity? A kindness? Thinking about NPCs as real people, just like the characters you so-lovingly created, can help when developing them. Likeability is a big factor in how much we, well, like someone. Or, on the other hand, you can also make a character that is inherently un-likeable. And of course, a mixture of the two, of traits and flaws, is a fast-track for a balanced and intriguing character. Even if you don’t make it that far in the development process for your NPCs, give us something to feel about them, good or bad. Are they incredibly helpful but hopelessly clumsy? Do they try always to foil your heroic plans, but fail horribly when they carry them out? It’s these little bits of colorful detail, time and time again, that can make an NPC stand out and shine.
- In my last campaign, the Dungeon Master (DM) had this NPC who we quickly grew to love. His name was Iggy, and we found him in a small, pleasant village that we stopped in for supplies. Through short conversations with him sprinkled throughout the evening, we learned that he wanted to be a knight in the worst way, and longed to see some excitement that the world had to offer. A few sessions later, we ran into him again, and he asked to join our ranks. The answer was an overwhelming, “YES!”
He didn’t have much impact on the nature of the plot, of course, but occasionally the DM would roll for him and see if he succeeded in the same challenges we did (i.e. making it across a rickety bridge). I’m pretty sure at one point, he was the fan favorite, among any of our “actual” characters. Having an interesting NPC who has hopes and dreams just like the rest of us, made him fun to converse with during down times.
- If you read my post on character creation, you’ll know that a big aspect in developing a character can be what kind of story you want to tell. Is your plot brooding and morose? Liven it up with a joker or comedic character! Does your plot feel a little lackluster, or like the stakes aren’t high enough? Bring in an NPC who has some terrible news to share. The environment your characters play in is highly affected by those who inhabit it–make it count! This is also a great way to take your campaign in a new direction, or add an interesting side quest between big plot points.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be a lot. NPCs don’t have to be nearly as developed as your playing characters (though if you want to, by all means, have fun!). It’s the little details that will encourage your players to roleplay and get invested in the story along the way. If you need some inspiration, D&D Beyond has a great stockpile of pre-made backstories for easy characterizing. Even little idea generators like this one can be helpful in creating an NPC on the fly.
Until next time, players. Let the good dice roll! ⚀⚁⚂