Bright Spots of Detail and NPC-Building Questions
First published 11/9/2000; last edited 12/20/2004
Coming up with interesting character details for NPCs has several effects. One, when you know more about your NPCs, it's much easier for the PCs to interact with them. Two, it can help you to come up with all sorts of plots! There is such a thing as taking this too far, of course. As I said in a previous article, if you detail every NPC to death, you'll be too busy writing up NPCs to detail anything about the plots themselves, or even to run the game.
This leaves you two choices. The first is to detail your NPCs thoroughly, which you'll want to do with a few NPCs but not all of them. The second is something I call the "bright spots method." This is an NPC which you detail minimally for the most part. But you slip in a few bright spots of detail that you can pull on later for plots, or which lend individuality and uniqueness to a character that would otherwise be skeletal. After all, it often isn't whether the NPC is well-detailed that matters--it's whether he comes across that way to your players. If he has a few interesting details to him he'll probably seem complete even if he isn't. If you need to complete him later, those bright spots of personality will make the job easier.
Sometimes asking yourself a weird question like "what books does this NPC read?" can give you a push in the direction of a new plot. Or it can provide a way to make this NPC seem just a little different from all of the others you have to play. Thus, I've put together a whole bunch of questions you can ask. Since I first wrote this article I put together a more thorough character questionnaire for player characters, and you can use the questions from that. Instead of using a handful, however, answer just one or two.
Thinking about answers to some of the questions can help you create fully fleshed-out NPCs, capable of being thrown into any situation. You'll find you have fewer silent minutes during game, your NPCs stand out from each other more, and you'll know what to do when your party strikes out in weird directions next time. Well okay, you'll know more of what to do than you used to, and that helps! Until next time, enjoy...