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.
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.