Game Mastering
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August 2, 2011, 4:41 pm

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The Ten-Second Story


Giving NPCs memories can go a long way to making a more realistic and enjoyable game world. 

This is not a submission about creating NPCs, this is about presenting them. Not everyone walks around with a different accent, strange tic, or catchphrase, our memories are what make us different.


Many gaming groups view an NPC as so much window dressing; how often have you heard a crucial plot character described as “That one guy…”? They tend to breeze through conversations with characters so it is important to make those few lines count. While that may imply making every line cater to the desires of your characters (“The temple is over there”, “I’ll reward you if you bring me…”) this results in every NPC feeling the same in an oversimplification of the world you worked so hard to build where everything revolves around the players and their needs. In the opposite direction giving NPCs too much dialogue results in the all too familiar glossy eyes of disinterested players who are not paying attention. The technique I use for dealing with this problem is the ten-second story. It consists of one or two lines of NPC dialogue of something we all take for granted: our memories.  

For example:

Fenris: “Joel's a smart boy. He'll probably be back at the cart when we get there. He wouldn't have gone too far off the trail. He's almost eight years old now, he should be able to wander off a bit and come back. Heh, I remember when Dhalia lost him at the festival two years back and thought he had been taken by the gypsies. Searched high and low and found him curled up under the feast table sharing an entire pie with the dogs.”

Rather than saying “Fenris is a concerned father .” You are able to show the characters a father who is struggling between trusting in his son and his own experience that the world is dangerous. More importantly they are not just looking for “My son”, they are looking for Joel, a mischievous child with a love of animals who has both a father and a mother that will miss him deeply.

Max: “She's like a mother to everyone, always looking after people in the town and making sure we're all happy. She keeps us in line too, like when Jessie put a mirror on his boot to look up skirts.”

The above lines give us not just a characterization of the person Max is talking about, but a snapshot of the entire town. It’s implied this is a very small and closely knit community led by one woman; so close that the widely known flaws of some of the townsfolk are laughed off. Max is very much attached to this woman he thinks so highly of, and the town as a whole. Should something tragic (like the PCs killing the town leader in self-defense) upset this boy’s life this line will help foreshadow a recurring villain. Plot hooks and clues can easily be embedded within these stories as well and make their own rewards for those who pay attention and explore.

(For context, Christian is looking at a jade bracelet engraved with the name of his daughter Emma)

Christian: “She was so jealous of Hester's bracelet; we inherited it from the great grandmother she was named after. They used to have tiffs where Emma would steal it and run off to admire it. I skipped meals for months... saving, just to see the look on her face when she turned –“ Christian seems to choke on the next word.

Christian would very much like to have Hester’s matching bracelet returned if the players can find it, and discovering the skeletons of the two sisters will help guide them into the larger plot of Clarksdale

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Comments ( 12 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Agar
August 1, 2011, 14:44

Great submission. A simple sweet way to give depth to characters, just the right amount of depth. Not too much, not too little, and all with just a simple blurb. I plan on incorperating this into many of my own works. Great job!

Voted Cheka Man
August 1, 2011, 17:18

A great way to make carecters come alive as if they were real. 5/5

Voted Scrasamax
August 2, 2011, 9:55

I was expecting there to be some sort of gimmick with the ten-second story title, the idea is solid but plays out to basically be 'give npcs a little backstory'.


How about 10 Word Story, a slightly longer version of the tradition of epic long names for bad guys (He Who must Not Be Named).

Fenris, his son is always running off to the Gypsies. 9 words, but any time Fenris interacts with the PCs they can ask where his son has run off to this time, or what mischief he caused with the Gypsies.

Mrs. Max, constantly mothers over the village kindly. 6 words, but it makes it known that this woman is constantly involved in village affairs, in a motherly fashion, which would include keeping scoundrels in line and watching children and such, but the addition of kindly makes it obvious she isn't a constantly harping harridan.

Max, always has an eye for women and what they are doing. 11 words, but the 10 word is a guide, not a goal or a limit. So Max will talk about what his wife is doing, what his daughter is doing, or what the ladies around the village are doing. he might very well know what the menfolk are doing, he just doesn't relate that. Maybe Max is the village match maker, maybe he doesn't talk about the menfolk because he is insecure, injured, or he might just be the village secret Casanova.

August 2, 2011, 14:52
That's interesting, but a different approach. I don't really see it as backstory since they don't really play out like a history, they're meant to read like memories and not simple characterizations. While you can tell players "Max always has an eye for the women and what they are doing" it doesn't have the same effect as showing them and letting them draw their own conclusions about the character.

No one in life stands over your shoulder saying "This is Scrasamax, he works hard to ensure the Citadel has good quality posts with his constructive comments." rather, someone might have a memory of "That one time I had a little too much vodka and put this really awful submission up. Scrasamax was totally unamused, but pulled an idea out of it and we made a totally sweet submission later." This ten-second story tells you both about you and about the person speaking but it's entirely implicit.

For the record, I don't like Vodka ; )
August 2, 2011, 23:30
This is Scrasamax, he is demented and likes to put up submissions after he has been drinking. He might be morbidly insane.
August 2, 2011, 16:41
Update: Edited the summary to avoid future confusion.
Voted Strolen
August 3, 2011, 13:02

Great idea that forces the DM to think about these NPCs to get that history. Then, when introduced or used, they will be invested in that NPC and be self-obligated to use the info. I like it!

Voted valadaar
August 7, 2011, 19:35

  Excellent idea!  I'd like to see people start putting their stories here to build up a library of these!

Voted Pieh
August 7, 2011, 22:18

Nifty little article that I will surely consider for my next batch of NPCs. I think a collection of these is a grand idea. Lead the way, Val.

Voted Cynditjuh
November 13, 2011, 4:11
Only voted
Voted axlerowes
February 28, 2012, 19:13

I thought this was good and it always nice to read an idea I am on board with, but I more on board with Scrasamax on this one in expecting some gimmick, trick it or meat to it.(as soon he finds out I am board he will be swimming to the next port).  Yet you make a good point and give us a few examples on how to implement that point.  

Voted Moonlake
July 3, 2013, 3:30
Only voted

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