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February 3, 2014, 2:15 pm

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Organic NPCs (and PCs)


There are plenty of resources available to help detail characters. I wanted a way to organize and present those details in play naturally.

Recently, a player in my Delta Factor game requested a love interest subplot for her character. I enjoy complications like that, so I created a character and subplot to introduce the character, but needed a bit of help fleshing out the details. I found a number of resources which helped make the character, no problem.

Then I started thinking about the character and all these little details, neatly listed on the sheet; details which never present in real life in such an organized manner. It takes a while to really get to know someone, for all these details to come out. In fact, most often there's a pretty specific order in which we learn/observe certain kinds of information. What I wanted was something to help me organize and present the information in a reasonable and consistent order.

Thinking about it, making notes, I worked out a system of layers, an order in which you discover another person. You begin with First Impressions, and work through layers over time until you learn What's In The Closet. Of course, you won't always get that far with every person, but this system also details the sort of information that's important at each layer. Each layer takes you further into the "real" person, providing more, more detailed, and more personal information.

There are five layers. At each layer, I'll present an example in the form of Zuri Agwang, an NPC I made for my game Delta Factor. (My original example was the love interest mentioned above. However, there's still a few secrets about that character and at least one of my players is peeking onto the site occasionally.)

First Impression
I was going to begin with see/hear/smell, but a short chat with my psych-major daughter dropped that to the next layer. Instead, "First Impression" is exactly that. The impression the person makes on you. The two components of this are Gender and Vibe. Gender, according to my daughter is the first thing most people notice about another person, before you even begin to form any other impression. "Vibe" is the best word my daughter and I could come up with to describe that gut feeling we often get when seeing another person. There are also several "gender" words which impart some 'vibe" of their own. Consider "gentleman" vs. "dude," for example. Don't limit yourself here.

These two components combine to form a brief descriptor for the character:

  • A Creepy Guy
  • A Bored Girl
  • A Tired Woman
  • An Angry Man
  • An Attractive Man
  • etc.

You can get more specific and more insulting/complimentary if you like: "A Walmart Mom," "A Spoiled Brat," or "Used-Car Salesman."

Zuri Agwang
Needing information to solve their current dilemma, the heroes arrive at the dormitory of a local university. After a nice little misdirect, the young woman steps aside and says "Zuri, some people are hear to see you." She steps aside and...

"You see an an African Woman."

(It's odd, because here in New York, if you saw a black woman in college sweats, your first impression should be "black" or "African American." But this one was somehow, indefinably "African" even without talking to her.)

Now, walking down the street, you will see and forget countless First Impressions every day. You don't even need more than this for the vast majority of people in the crowd. But sometimes... sometimes something makes you stop and take notice. It can be something they do, something about their appearance, or some subconscious queue which grabs your attention. No matter how or why, this will lead you to...

This happens if you have any reason to take a second look at someone. Perhaps a few moments of interaction (too brief to get to know them, but long enough to size them up), or perhaps you deliberately stop and take a better look at the person. This layer gives you all the sensory information. What does the person look like, sound like, smell like, along with things like mode of dress, expression, stance, voice quality, and some nonverbal cues which feed into the Vibe from the descriptor. Certain settings might require information from enhanced, mystical, extrasensory or other supernatural senses.

I personally like a nice picture for this step, but it's not mandatory. Sometimes we pick actors to "play" our characters, and if it's a known actor, that tells everyone what they look like but also gives other clues as to possible personality cues. For example, If I say an NPC is being played by Clint Eastwood a'la Dirty Harry, you expect a hard glare, a facial tick, a low voice, and a predilection for shooting you with his .44 Magnum.

My daughter suggested more than one double-take, based on what different people might be most prone to notice. Realistic? Sure. Too much work? That's up to you. But it's true different people will notice and look for different things when sizing someone up. A good compromise for this step is to include all the basic see/hear/smell, information, and then a piece of information each PC might notice or look for. Perhaps one PC is a seasoned soldier, always evaluating threat potential. Maybe one has excellent hearing and can hear the subject's heartbeat. Tailor this step to the audience.

Once the roommate steps aside and the PCs get a good look, they see...

"A young woman, her skin the color of ebony, rises to greet you. She is very lean, a fact exaggerated by the height of her six-foot-one frame. She wears sweatpants tied at the waist and a hooded pullover sweatshirt with the name of the college on it. Her hood is down, showing tightly curled hair cut very short, and her deep brown eyes regard you with calm, appraising you even as you appraise her. She speaks, her English accented but clear, her voice deep for a woman, as she introduces herself. Her name, she says, is Zuri.

I produce a picture of a young Grace Jones. Because I'm tailoring to my audience, I add... "Katrina, she's very pretty, with well-formed features and unblemished skin. Mallory, something in her gaze makes you want to cry "Wolf!" Aeris, there's power and grace in her movements. Daniel, she keeps her side of the room much neater than your daughter ever did."

As with the First Impression, once you've had a chance to assess a person, you can just move on. You finish your brief business and go about your day. These two steps probably comprise 95% or more of our every day encounters. Maybe 99%.

But what if you have a reason to interact with the person? What if you need to go further, learn more?

Everything past this point is fodder for role-playing, not just a description to be read off. But you still need some idea where it's going. At least I usually do for significant NPCs (which is how I got here in the first place).

Getting to Know You
At this stage, observation turns into significant interaction as you begin to learn more about the person. You could probably learn most of this through closer observation without interaction, too (but c'mon, you're not a creepy stalker, so cut that out). This is the stage where you progress past just the information your five (or six, or seven) senses can give you. You begin to discover the person.

However, this layer is still close to the surface. Lacking a better term, I've taken to calling this "first date" material. Everyone is still on their best behavior, guard still up, and what you learn is more of what the other person wants you to see. Perhaps you also get a few hints about what may rest deeper down. Borrowing a concept from White Wolf, this is closer to a person's "Demeanor;" the image the other person projects to the world.

There can be multiple Demeanors, often depending on the circumstance. A common example is encountering a person at work vs. during time off. If you meet someone while they're working, you might meet the professional they want the world to see. But after work they might unbutton that top button, loosen the tie, muss the hair.

As they talk, and as Zuri shares her story, the PCs observe a lack of emotion. Even as Zuri describes the terrible fate of her village, she speaks about it in a distant, detached way, like you might relate a scene you saw in a not-particularly-interesting movie.
Later, when a young woman interrupts, she asks Zuri to help change a flat. Outside, they see Zuri loosen the nuts on the car with her fingers before lifting the car with one hand to remove the tire and place the new tire. This demonstrates to them not only her strength, but her lack of concern that other know she is Delta. In a world where Deltas are often subject to discrimination, this woman clearly has no such concerns.
A short while later when gunmen fire on the group from a moving car, Zuri grabs the closest PC, shielding Kat's body with her own.
Later still, when it's time to fight, she dives right in. She seems to possess no fear, and no 'flight' response. She also uses lethal attacks without a second thought, killing any opponent she gets her hands on without hesitation or remorse, caring only about removing the threat at efficiently as possible. After the fight, she takes note of several wounds in a detached way.
Zuri professes to be a Wolf, which doesn't surprise Mallory at all. She doesn't mean literally, but she claims to be more instinct than thought. Zuri's last name, Agwang, means wolf. Zuri chose it when coming to the Unites States when a customs man insisted the refugee needed a last name for his forms.

Realistically, most relationships stop growing here. You only get to know most people just so far. Friends, co-workers, etc. However, there are relationships which grow beyond this level. You will begin to learn more and more about someone as your relationship grows.

Getting to Know All About You
When you become better acquainted with someone (or when you tap their phone and bug their kitchen, but c'mon, I said knock it off, guys), you become more relaxed and so do they. The pretense begins to fall away, and you begin learn who the person really is. Often, thing you learn here tell you why some of the previously observed behavior is the way it is. You also learn all the little things about a person.

To further borrow from White Wolf. most of this would be a person's "Nature." Much of the above is who they want you to think they are. This is who they truly are.

After the adventure, Mallory (the one who first realized Zuri is a wolf), begins a relationship with Zuri. The two grow closer over coming months, and Mallory begins to learn more about her girlfriend.
Zuri's detachment is not feigned. It's a defense mechanism. Mallory realizes Zuri has some great pain in her past. The detachment, the distance from people and events, protects Zuri.
Zuri has never tried ice cream! In fact, Zuri only eats for nourishment, never for pleasure.
Zuri dresses in thrift store clothing, and owns just enough to get through a week before she needs to go to the laundromat. But Zuri also has five thousand dollars in cash in an envelope taped under the drawer of her desk.
Nothing bothers Zuri. Nothing excites her. She looks forward to nothing, regrets nothing. This is evidence of something very important being broken inside her, but she says it's just her Wolf.

What's In The Closet?
Eventually, if you continue to develop a relationship with someone, you're going to learn their deepest, darkest secrets. That's what we keep in the closet. At this level, there's little left to discover about who someone is. Instead, here, we learn more about why someone is. These are the secrets no-one else knows, the things they might not even admit to themselves. These are a persons darkest fears and fondest secret wishes.

As an example of how these three levels might work together...

Getting to Know You: Your friend always seems to have some source of light on him. Often more than one. A lighter, one of those little flashlights, a little LED on his keychain. No big, people always have stuff like that on them, right?

Getting to know All About You: Last week there was a blackout. You saw your friend scramble to find one of those light sources. You saw the sigh of relief when the power came back, the sweat on his brow. Your friend is afraid of the dark.

What's in the Closet? He is. When he was young, his older brother often locked him in the closet for hours at a time. To this day, the darkness brings him back to those times.

Zuri and Mallory continue to grow closer. It's an odd sort of affair, where Zuri clearly enjoys Mallory's company, but only slowly comes to permit even brief touching. One day, while failing to cuddle, Mallory asks Zuri why they've never moved beyond this. And Zuri opens up, telling Mallory of a hidden truth. Zuri previously told all the PCs about the fate of her village. But she left a detail out...
When militia came to Zuri's village in Africa, they did not destroy the village as the PCs were led to believe. They made to take the girls away for sport. Thirteen year old Zuri was one such. In fear and desperation, Zuri expressed, becoming strong, fast, powerful. She tore the militiamen apart with bare hands, and exalted in the act. She stood before her village, filled with the glory of her power, and with the knowledge she had saved the other girls...
But the village reviled her. They feared her, called her demon, monster. Her own father called her Agwang. Wolf. They feared also what the local warlord would do. In their fear, her own people attacked Zuri.
And Zuri, still surging from her initial expression, reacted in pure instinct to save herself.
No-one survived.
After that, Zuri's emotions began to shut down. Then all her feelings. Even pain existed only to provide her with information. She'd call it instinct, but it was guilt, and fear. It's a secret she's kept for years.

Putting It All Together
When creating an NPC consider how much contact you plan for your PCs to have with that NPC. This will tell you how many layers you should plot in advance. If an NPC is worth calling attention to, I recommend you be ready with at least the first two layers, and probably some idea of the third.

  1. First Impression - The gender and the vibe given to a casual observer. Remember, Gender words can ALSO carry vibes of their own.
  2. Double-Take - What do the five (or more) senses tell someone who takes the time to look? Remember to tailor a few cues to your players' characters.
  3. Getting To Know You - Who does this person want the world to see? "First Date" material.
  4. Getting to Know All About You - Who is this person once you get past his guard?
  5. What's In the Closet - What secrets does the person keep? How might those have informed the layers above?

And remember, nothing is fixed until you present it in play. If a detail needs to change, change it. The intent is to present your characters, to offer room for growth, not to box you into a concept. If it needs changing, change it. Since using this concept, I've found it easier to present major characters to my group. I've also found it easier to design more minor characters, by limiting the information to what's needed for the specific encounter. The PCs don't need to know and will never learn WHY the woman in the city planner's office is officious and pedantic! They just need to get the building plans and go stop the bad guy!

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Comments ( 24 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Chaosmark
February 1, 2014, 2:05
This is a solid post, with good ideas. Bonus points for the structured layout, which makes for easy implementation.
February 1, 2014, 9:48
The only thing missing is a summary where you pull all the points together in a neat numbered or bullet pointed list.

I'd recommend doing this because that is the only thing keeping this from being a 5
February 1, 2014, 11:48
I meant the example to sort of stand for that, but then decided to put the example in each step. Would you suggest pulling it all together at the end like the original draft, or a completely separate summary?
February 1, 2014, 11:54
Make it a list or something where I can see the entire process without having to scroll, list the steps without embellishment, without examples. You've got the examples and dissection already done above, and if you're read the sub you've got the meat and potatoes of it.
March 19, 2014, 19:21
Bullet points and score leveraging *snicker*....oh Scars...you should be ashamed of yourself. lol
April 4, 2014, 11:32
In fairness, I asked people to tell me how it could be better. I care less about the score (though I love my score!) than I care about knowing I did the best I could do. The bullet point summary was a great idea for improving the readability and utility of the sub.
February 1, 2014, 12:47
Update: Made a few changes, corrections, clarifications, and added a new final section to summarize the process as suggested.
Voted Scrasamax
February 1, 2014, 16:34
Thank you and good work.
February 1, 2014, 18:17
Thank you for the feedback. I always want to improve.
Voted valadaar
February 2, 2014, 8:57
Excellent post. You may be establishing a new standard for NPC presentation here :)
February 2, 2014, 10:48
Flattery will get you everywhere. :)
Seriously, thank you.
Voted Strolen
February 3, 2014, 2:55
This is a fantastic NPC template. I put it on par with the 5 Room Dungeon in usefulness on getting out a fully fleshed submission.

Will have to see about a Organic NPC quest....


Awesome sub!
February 3, 2014, 11:26
Thank you. I'm glad others are finding this useful, and that I wasn't just obsessing needlessly over my NPCs. Obsessing, yes. But not *needlessly*.
February 3, 2014, 14:15
Update: A couple of typos fixed and a slight clarification in the "First Date" section.
Voted rickster
February 3, 2014, 19:20
This is an excellent method for building great NPCs. I like the way you've made it 'scalable' depending on the depth of interaction foreseen.
February 3, 2014, 19:50
Thank you. The scalable was actually... sort of accidental. I was working on this way to present the major NPCs, and realized... "Hey... I could just stop at step three."
Voted Murometz
February 9, 2014, 11:50
Terrific! An NPC capsule revolution! I second Strolen's organic npc quest idea.
Voted Stork
February 22, 2014, 7:43
Thank you!

GM's and players everywhere should thank you also. My wife not include, because now I will be thinking about NPC's all day and not working on that list
February 22, 2014, 10:01
A well deserved HoH
Voted JaidalynNailo
March 6, 2014, 13:22
This is really well done!
March 6, 2014, 18:01
We really should get a Longspeak inspired "Organic NPC" Quest going!!
Voted Anteaus
March 6, 2014, 22:32
Love both the idea and the presentation! I am going to use this to help with my PC and my NPCs! I way too often worry about the why or "What's in the Closet" and forget that the PCs don't really need to know and/or don't care about it either. Thanks for the post!
Voted Dozus
March 12, 2014, 21:04
Wow, don't know how I missed this one before. A really great analysis of character development.
Voted axlerowes
March 19, 2014, 19:16
Nice idea and a neat writing challenge. Might a character written from this perspective in this style tell you as much about the observer as it does the observed? Give that question to your adviser.
April 4, 2014, 12:03
It certainly could for some parts. The real question is, should it?

There are many hard, objective "facts" about each character which won't be revealed in a description, but in RP. In particular, the deeper layers of a character aren't found in a box of text you read to the players. Instead, these details come out naturally in RP. When that happens, the PCs' (and players') will provide their own context and interpretations. Instead of *telling* them different, the players and PCs will perceive differently, filtered by their own experiences. Let them do the heavy lifting here. It's more natural and less work for you.

Now the first two layers ARE just descriptions to read out, and could easily provide vastly different observations to different characters. There's a lot of room for subjectivity, here. But weigh this authenticity against playability and your own valuable prep time. Sure, you COULD write up six different descriptions to give to six different PCs. And if you have the time and your players don't mind, go for it. But I bet not many of us have that kind of time. :) My suggestion of providing one detail tailored to each PC in your group was intended to provide some subjectivity without bogging down play or requiring too much prep time.
Voted Kassy
May 2, 2014, 7:48

An excellent character template for NPC building.

This should be added to the "Creating" section I think.

Also Golden +1 from me.

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       By: Magus

A long time ago. Final fantasy III came out with a new approach to learing magic. The characters would be equipped with espers(magical beings) and as they fought more battles, they would learn spells from the espers. What if a similar approach to learning magic was applied to a P&P rpg?

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