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. Since I enjoy complications like that, I created a character and subplot to introduce the new character. I needed a bit of help fleshing out the details, but some searching 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. Zuri is an NPC in my game Delta Factor. (My original example was Gretchen, the love interest mentioned above. However, there's still a few secrets about her, and at least one of my players is peeking onto the site occasionally.)

First Impression
Originally, this layer contained the basic see/hear/smell information. After a short chat with my psych-major daughter I 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.

According to my daughter, Gender is the first thing most people notice about another person, before you even begin to form any other impression. Here, Gender refers to the apparent gender of the person. However, you are not limited to simply using the words Male or Female. There are several words which impart both gender and lend themselves to some impression building as well. Consider 'gentleman' vs. 'dude,' for example. Or 'woman' vs. 'girl.' Don't limit yourself here.

Vibe is the best word my daughter and I could come up with to describe the feeling you get about another person as your subconscious processes a bunch of data your conscious mind hasn't really noticed yet. Your subconscious boils this all down to form the First Impression before your conscious mind can catch up.

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 occasionally (and really, frequently in RPGs) you stop and take more notice of a person. It can be something they do, something about their appearance, or some subconscious queue which demands attention. No matter how or why, this will lead you to...

The Double-Take occurs when you slow down to take a closer look at a person. How this happens isn't as important here as the information provided. Perhaps the impression reminded you of someone? Perhaps the other person did a double take of her own and stopped you? Regardless, a brief interaction (too brief to get to know them, but long enough to size them up) or a better look at the person provides your basic 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 may have fueled the Vibe above. Depending on the setting of your game, other senses might be involved here as well: mystical senses, enhanced senses, extrasensory or other supernatural senses.

I like a nice picture for this step. It's not mandatory, but sometimes a good picture can do more to give an impression than a written description. Sometimes my players and I pick actors to 'play' our characters; 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 asking you if you feel lucky.

My daughter suggested more than one double-take. Different people are prone to noting and looking for different details. This seems more realistic, but also like more work than a lot of GMs would want to provide. A good compromise for this step is to include all the basic see/hear/smell, information, and then provide each PC with one piece of information tailored to the sort of thing that 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, ebony woman rises to greet you. She is very lean, a fact exaggerated by her impressive six-foot-one frame. She wears sweatpants tied at the waist and a hoodie with her college's name on it. Her hood down, you see tightly curled hair cut very short. 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 more than 99% or our daily encounters in real life. But what if you have a reason to further 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. This provides you the opportunity 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, a young woman interrupts, asking Zuri to help change a flat. Outside, PCs watch Zuri loosen the nuts holding the wheel to the car with her fingers before lifting the car with one hand to remove the tire and place the new tire. This demonstrates Zuri's strength, as well as her lack of concern that other know she is Delta. (In a world where Deltas are often subject to discrimination, demonstrating this lack of concern is a significant cue.)
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, Zuri dives right in. She seems to possess no fear, and no 'flight' response. She 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. Zuri doesn't literally believe she is an animal, but she claims to have inherited the instincts of a Wolf in her Expression. 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, and our games often focus on those. 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, things 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 that just don't come up all the time.

To further borrow from White Wolf. most of this would be a person's 'Nature.' Much of the first three steps discusses 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. Mallory realizes Zuri has developed this attitude as a defense mechanism. There is great pain in Zuri's past, from which the detachment, the distance from people and events, helps protects Zuri.
Zuri has never tried ice cream! Mallory notices 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, and a small messenger bag packed with two extra changes of clothing and a few essentials.
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 in Africa. It was attacked by militia and destroyed. But Zuri left a detail out... It was not the militia who destroyed her village, but Zuri.
When militia raided the village and found too little food, they tried to make sport of the village girls. 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, covered in the blood of her enemies and 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. Today, even pain exists only to provide her with information. She calls it instinct, but it was guilt, and fear. It's a secret she's kept for years.

Putting It All Together
When creating a character, consider how much contact you plan for others to have. This will tell you how many layers you should plot in advance. It should always be at least two layers, since why would the GM rattle off a series of First Impressions to the PCs? It's probably a good idea to have at least some idea of the third layer as well. Even if you don't intend further interaction, other characters may try to initiate more contact.

  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?

No detail is fixed until you present it in play. If a detail needs to change before then, change it. The intent is to present your characters, to offer room for growth, not to box you into a concept. Using these ideas, 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, I waste less time creating more detail than necessary. 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!

? Hall of Honour (3 voters / 4 votes)

Hall of Honour

Dozus Strolen Scrasamax

? Responses (24)

Goto Author

This is a solid post, with good ideas. Bonus points for the structured layout, which makes for easy implementation.

Goto Author

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

Goto Author

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?

Goto Author

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.

Goto Author

Bullet points and score leveraging *snicker*....oh should be ashamed of yourself. lol

Goto Author

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.

Goto Author

Update: Made a few changes, corrections, clarifications, and added a new final section to summarize the process as suggested.

Goto Author

Thank you and good work.

Goto Author

Thank you for the feedback. I always want to improve.

Goto Author

Excellent post. You may be establishing a new standard for NPC presentation here :)

Goto Author

Flattery will get you everywhere. :)

Seriously, thank you.

Goto Author

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!

Goto Author

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*.

Goto Author

Update: A couple of typos fixed and a slight clarification in the 'First Date' section.

Goto Author

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.

Goto Author

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.'

Goto Author

Terrific! An NPC capsule revolution! I second Strolen's organic npc quest idea.

Goto Author

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

Goto Author

A well deserved HoH

Goto Author

This is really well done!

Goto Author

We really should get a Longspeak inspired 'Organic NPC' Quest going!!

Goto Author

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!

Goto Author

Wow, don't know how I missed this one before. A really great analysis of character development.

Goto Author

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.

Goto Author

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.

Goto Author


An excellent character template for NPC building.

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

Also Golden +1 from me.

Goto Author

Update: A few tweaks here and there, because I can never leave well enough alone.