His name is Bob.

I’ll admit it, the title of this post is a quote of me DMing a game earlier this year. I was trying to come up with a name for an NPC the group had decided to take interest in. It was not an NPC I had written into the story or had any clue the party would want to interact with. But that is what parties do right? They go where they want to go and talk to whomever they want. That is a huge part of what separates table top games from video games: the ability to truly interact with anything and anyone. The problem for me is that I do not do a great job of names and personalities on the fly. I also do not do a great job of remembering the NPCs I had to create on the fly, a fault that does not help the party stay in the illusion of the story when I have to rename NPCs.

I’m sure not everyone has this problem, though I am sure that I am not alone. As a DM when your party decides that an NPC has some value either to the story or to their current goals you have a few options.

A: You can dead end the party and flat out tell them that the NPC has nothing of value for them.

B: Role play a short exchange between the party and the NPC which ends with the party figuring out the NPC has nothing to offer them.

C: Quickly name the NPC Bob, make up a crappy back story for him and try to cram him into the story.

D: Draw out one of your preplanned optional NPCs and fit them almost seamlessly into the story.

These are all options I have used before, though I feel only one of them  enhances the game. Option A&B are both different ways of telling your players “No try again”. Most good intentioned but under prepared DMs try option C, my self included. This option really has the ability to hurt the story more than just outright saying “no try something else.” When a DM writes an NPC into a corner he/she often must engage in some extreme story acrobatics to make everything fit properly or just to get the story back on track.

Option D is the option I am going to spend the rest of this post discussing. I had the idea for this post when I found the NPC tracking cards over at NewbieDM. These things are simple and amazing! But before I get to the tracking cards I should start a bit closer to the beginning of this idea. When writing a campaign I often create a slush of encounters just in case the party wanders off somewhere or decides to cause trouble in an unforeseen way– just one or two standard level encounters for the party, nothing too in depth. Creating these encounters felt fruitless at times when the players surprised me by staying on the “track” of the story, but really saved my butt when I needed them. It took me a few months of using my slush encounters before the light came on and I figured out that this system could also be used for out-of-combat encounters. NPCs could be created outside of the story, stat blocks could be set up and ready to use at a moments notice. If you want to try it you can follow these simple instructions.

The process isn’t all that hard. Start by creating a number of level-appropriate stat blocks for multiple races and sexes. I recommend using the monster creator from DDi.  Don’t go so far as to write back story or give them any special abilities. Stat out your “blanks” with normal attack powers and racial abilities.

Next make a list of possible citizens or inhabitants of the area where the adventure takes place. If the players are in a castle, you might need some dignitaries, guards, servants, and visiting nationals. If you are in a town or city, you might need some shop keepers, guards, urchins, peasants, and perhaps some thugs. List out whatever you might think you need. Initiative or What did a really amazing three part post about the census of a D&D city; this is handy when trying to decide the personalities you need.

Once you have your list of what you need, pick one and write a short bio including a very small amount of information: Name, occupation, class (if applicable), and motivation. Here is an example.

Faldwin Glisternel, shop keeper, wizard, a greedy man driven by lust for all things magical and occult. He is loyal only to those who can afford it. Because of his line of work and interest in the occult he often has information others might not.

Do this a few times and soon you will have a pool of NPC personalities to layer over the blanks you created earlier. If you can sit down and do this enough you will soon have a stable of NPC blanks and personalities. Once you feel you have enough blanks you can move on to the next step.

The last thing you will need to do to fully utilize your slush of NPCs is tailor them to your current story. It isn’t all that hard and can actually add tons to your game. Write specific backgrounds which you can select and add as a third layer on your NPCs. Make sure the backgrounds fit the story– something to do with either the people you are helping or the people you are fighting against. Write a background for a spy who is working for the invading kingdom and is trying to get information from the PCs. Write a background for a citizen who had a family member abducted by the players’ enemies. Doing this gives minor side quests to the party as they go about their adventure. This campaign specific background will give you a good direction to take the NPCs. If you make a spy you can have them ask lots of questions and if the PCs give anything away you can use that later in the story. This layer makes role playing the NPCs a breeze because you already know how the personalities fit into the story. Some may play a much larger role than others and that is fine.

Once you have all this written up it is a simple task of opening up your NPC folder and selecting a blank or stat block for the race/sex you need. Adding to it the pre-made bio and adding the campaign tailored background and blamo! You have an NPC with depth and story ready to be used. Sadly it might mean no more Bob, or Jim, or Curtis, but I think those guys won’t mind the break.

Now back to the NPC tracking cards over at NewbieDM.com. Once you have used a personality and a background you don’t want to build the same NPC over and not remember it. These cards are very helpful to both you as the DM and the players. You can find the NPC tracking cards at NewbieDM’s download page.  The players can keep track of everyone they meet, and perhaps record various aspects of their story. You, as a DM, can keep track of all of the backgrounds you have already used. You don’t want everyone the players meet to be a spy or a priest of Ioun. The cards also help keep the party aware of side quests they may have picked up from the NPCs. Allowing them to further interact with the people and the world in your game. This interaction makes the world feel much larger and more alive than if the party only stuck to one mission or one quest. Using some kind of tracking system is vital to making this system work.

If you have a hard time writing backgrounds for your characters using the character backgrounds from the players hand books and other power books really makes it easy. Use them as a starting point and add a bit of flavor.

On a final note, if you are having trouble coming up with names Sarah Darkmagic posted a great article about how she finds inspiration for naming her characters and you can find that here. Wizards of the Coast also released a fun name generator over at their site as well. Go ahead and give it a try here.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.

Tags: , , ,

About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
Subscribe to Comments RSS Feed in this post

4 Responses

  1. Pingback: deadorcsNo Gravatar

  2. Pingback: thadeouscNo Gravatar

  3. Pingback: RobNo Gravatar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *