Believable NPCs: What Makes A Person?
What is about npcs that can make or break a game? How can we make these characters feel like they have life and purpose? Really, making good npcs comes down to how effectively we, as facilitators, can use the npcs to communicate a realism to the world. They are tools, like any other tool, allowing us to infuse a certain feeling and style to the world we've put the characters in.
On top of that very huge demand, we're also using them to impact our PCs and our players. Npcs have a huge responsibility that comes down to making the players care, just as much as making the characters care. Partly this means using the npcs to invoke a certain amount of bleed. Which inherently means making npcs people care about, and not just because those npcs are vulnerable in a very easy way. It's easy to say the npc is a child in danger. Most people fundamentally want to save a child.
But how do you make a seemingly bad person relatable and worth saving? How do you make a blood thirsty werewolf relatable and human? And what does it mean to be human in a world where humans aren't the only species? How do we make our characters as layered and nuanced as we do ourselves or our friends and loved ones?
The key, I've found, is in making them human in as many small ways as possible. Being human, as I'm sure we all know, is hard. What makes us integrally human though is different from person to person. Some people are compassionate. Some are angry. Some are stoic. Every person has a layering of culture and social construction and personal beliefs that make them uniquely themselves. They have fears and needs and drives and hungers. They are complex and compelling. They're human.
Now, personally, I don't readily believe that there are inherently good and bad people. I don't see evil as a single person, so much as I see insidious beliefs that lead to horrific behaviour. But I'm a white person from middle class Canada and that inherently carries a lot of privilege. As I sit here, writing this in Poland, I've spent days now learning about the oppressive history of this beautiful country and I can empathize with the idea of seeing people as evil.
So I'm not going to claim my view on the fundamentally grey nature of people is correct. This is my view and I have it on the premise of being a privileged white cis-woman. That being said, I run grey campaigns. My world view heavily influences how I run my games. Since I perceive the world to be shades of grey, I run games set in a world where every person is shades of grey. And not in a consent-problematic BDSM fiction kind of way.
My npcs are people who have had and continue to have things happen to them. Whether this is because they are facing system oppression or because they are dealing with fifty problems of their own, it doesn't matter so long as they come across as real people juggling real problems. Now, real problems may vary from other wolves encroaching on their territory to their child being sick and not having enough money to cover the costs.
When I meet new people in real life, I try to have a few good solid points on why people behave the way they do. Not about each person specifically but more so some guidelines on how to perceive people generously. These are also the guidelines I use to write and create npcs. Which in the end, I think, is why people find my npcs so compelling. They feel like people. And here's why I think that is.
Everyone is fighting a war you can't see. This is my policy on people. And it's proven itself to be true time and again. The world is full of people and each one of them is dealing with their own lives, their own dramas, and are locked in the struggle of being a person. When I'm making npcs, I try to ensure that they all have problems that feel real.
In an Urban Fantasy setting this may mean they're dealing with a werewolf friend going through a serious change. It could mean that someone is threatening them. Regardless, that problem is their main motivation and that will drive them forward. This problem is what they're focusing on, will ask for help with, and will also humanize them in a really compelling way. Most of us can't help but feel bad for someone dealing with insurmountable odds.
Ensuring that each npc is baked into your setting with real feeling, big war-like problems ensures automatic buy in from most people. This struggle against life makes them feel real, because most of us feel like we're struggling or can at least empathize with the struggle. No one always has it easy. These struggles should also paint their actions. If they're baddies, what they're doing that's bad should be driven by this war they're fighting. Which means, upon discovering their intent, the players should sympathies and suddenly feel like the world is a little less black and white.
No one is truly an asshole, just running out of luck. While it's fun to think that the world is full of assholes just waiting to do you in, most people don't care enough about your problems to really want to do you in. Most assholes are driven by need. This means your npcs shouldn't be arbitrary dicks. They should be generally good people who went sour because of circumstances. And these circumstances should be compelling.
Compelling reasons make their behaviour more understandable. It also means they're more likely to gain trust from the npcs if their cause for assholeism is reasonable. When I introduce a character, and they're not nice to the PCs, I have to ask myself why. Even if I don't know right then, it's bubbling in the back of my mind. I keep thinking about it until I find the answer, and then, well, I add it in and make sure that reason is tied to some of the story going on at the table. No one wants disconnected information.
No one is a one trick pony in real life, and not everyone is going to like you. One of the hardest lessons you learn as an health care provider is the lesson of humility. Not everyone is going to like you. And most people are pretty nuanced, if you give them time to breathe and be vulnerable. This translates into allowing your npcs to be vulnerable and to show nuance and layers. One npc may get along well with one person and really dislike another. Have reasons for this, but ensure that the reasons help pull the story along while also adding flavour to the world.
Npcs have multiple skills and talents. They are living breathing people with lives that exist outside the PCs. It's important to make those lives feel real. Make sure that they can sometimes surprise the PCs with their abilities, and make sure that they're having feelings about what they do. Maybe they used to do something but they don't anymore because of what one leader did to them. That leader is an ally of the PCs. Now the PCs know more about the leader, they know more about the npc, and they have reason to doubt the leader and reason to empathize with the npc. When they go back to ask the leader, the leader may have a good reason for what happened.
No one's evil in their own perspective. We all see the world through our own lens. We think we're doing right and good by ourselves and those we love. And while we think that perspective holds truth, it's entirely possible we're the villains in someone else's story. To the lover of the spy, you are the villain when you kill the spy trying to infiltrate your country. Your narrative is true to you, but may not be true to reality or how the world sees you.
Ensure that your npcs exist in a blind spot, or at least that some of them do. They should believe, as most of us do, that we're doing right by ourselves or for someone we love. Even if they're making really hard decisions, they should be aware that the decision is hard but that they're doing the best they can. Embrace the lens we all see through, and make sure your npcs believe that lens is true, just like we would. Just like our world tells us too.
Then use this lens to challenge the PCs. The PCs via their players will have specific lenses they're viewing the experience through. Let npcs challenge those views and call shenanigans when someone is being blind to how others perceive them. You can use this to ground the PCs in how they're acting, or use it to twist their actions into something dark. Did the vampire bite someone? Did they get consent? Were they making it sexual? Did it become predator and nonconsensual? Have a pic say so. Use this lens to your advantage.
Feelings matter. Your npcs will have a normal range of emotions. They will be afraid. They will be vulnerable. They will be angry or scared or loving. Let them be those things and let their responses be coloured with genuine emotions. If someone sees a werewolf rip someone apart, let them be afraid of that someone. Let them fall in love and do stupid things for that emotion. Like fear, our emotions drive us. Love can, but so can anger or pain or lust.
Ensure that a lot of these feelings are wrapped up in the PCs or people close to the PCs. Let them become part of the life blood of your world and your PCs worlds so that their feelings suddenly matter and not just because you're playing Monsterhearts. Make your PCs wonder what the npcs will think of them if they do certain actions. Show those emotions on screen, and let them be both a reward and a threat to the PCs.
And finally: Layer it. Make it grey. Take all of these things and make these people real. Real problems that tie into the PCs or npcs, with histories and emotions and lenses. Let them see themselves the heroes but be the villains for compelling and empathetic reasons. Let them have information they got at a high price, like experience or the life of a loved one, and be afraid to share it but willing if vulnerability and trust is shown.
These layers will create an intricate web of people whose problems make up the storyline of your location, so long as those storylines tie into what the PCs are investigating or experiencing or doing. Always always always tie it back to the PCs. Always created conflicting relationships between PCs and npcs and other PCs. Your job as a GM is to make it interesting. Real, people-like npcs will make their lives incredibly interesting and compelling.
Apocalypse World told us to name everyone. Why? Because people have names. People also have histories, reasons, emotions, vulnerabilities, abilities, and lenses that they see the world through. This can be boiled down into a drive and what they want. I always try to think of what those npcs are doing when the PCs aren't looking at them. This is how I know what will happen next in the story, relatively, if things stall out. It's how I know who will show up at the wrong moment. It's how I know what's about to blow up in front of the PCs.
To be fair, it can be a lot to track but I've found its worth it every time. I love digging into npcs and making them feel like real people who the players sympathize with and want to help but then get caught up in this web of relationships and problems, deeply connected to their own plots and storylines. It can be incredibly satisfying to what the PCs tear into that world, or hold off depending on those npcs around.
Npcs are a tool. They're what we use to drive the fiction and the narrative forward. They're not the only tool, but they are, for me, the best tool for creating a rich, dynamic, and complex world that makes the PCs give a shit while also driving them nuts with the connections and the vulnerabilities. Try it out, give it a shot and see if it's your jam.
Let your npcs do what I always recommend you do:
Be Vulnerable. Stay Fierce.