GM Guide: Making Characters Memorable
Guest Writer Bryan Young on Bringing Your NPCs to Life
"They're my friends. I've got to help them."
Details bring characters and their stories to life. Characters without details are like skeletons. They may have some shape, but they're dead. They can't move. And you can't really tell one from the other. But once you flesh them out with details, they quickly become able to move you.
We recognize something fundamentally human in the young Tatooine farmboy who dreams of joining the Rebel Alliance to escape his planet's barren wastes and embark upon adventure amid the stars. We get a kick out of Han Solo not because he's a helpful smuggler and pilot, but because he projects a cocksure attitude and talks about how he completed the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs, even though his modified freighter looks like a hunk of junk. And we respond to Darth Vader's presence with immediate fear and respect because a wealth of details suggest his terrible powers—his imposing stature, confident stride, masked helmet, deep voice, measured speech, and even the strange, wheezy sound of his suit's life support.
Physical details are important, but even more so are behavior quirks and the relationships these characters have with others. And just as these details helped us connect to the characters and conflicts of a galaxy far, far away, so can they enrich our games of Age of Rebellion™, Edge of the Empire™, and Force and Destiny™.
No matter what your characters are doing, your Star Wars™ roleplaying sessions are bound to prove more entertaining when they're set amid a galaxy full of three-dimensional characters with lives, challenges, and desires of their own.
So how do you fill your games with these Non-Player Characters (NPCs)? That's the question that guest writer Bryan Young explores in today's look at our Star Wars roleplaying games.
Guest Writer Bryan Young on Fleshing Out Your NPCs
When you’re looking to Game Master one of the pre-written adventures for any of the Star Wars roleplaying games, you'll find the cast of characters you'll get to play has already been taken care of for you. But when you’re running a game of your own design, all of those characters will have to come directly from your own head. So how do you invent the details that will bring them to life?
When I’m running a game, I like to come up with a few random details for each of my Non-Player Characters (NPCs) so I know exactly how to play them. The details I try to keep are simple and progress naturally as I think about how they interact with the players and the story.
Who Are They?
In a game I’m running, there’s a mechanic the players could deal with. Naturally, to make the mechanic feel more Star Wars, I made this mechanic a Rodian and gave her her own story. I did this because I believe it helps make the world feel more real when the NPCs have their own lives moving in the background of the game.
Her name was Leota. Her specialty was making modifications that the Empire might consider… illegal. Fake transponders. Illicit weapons. Extra shields. Even cloaking devices. So long as the price was right.
That was all the info I needed for the first session in which she appeared, but I had the idea that Leota owed debts to a number of people and might have bounty hunters coming after her at odd times. This was an idea I kept tucked in my back pocket in case I needed an idea for future sessions. At any point, if the characters came back to see her, this backstory could lead them into an interesting mystery.
Perhaps, they'd find bounty hunters hassling Leota when they showed up. Or maybe the bounty hunters would have abducted her.
Then I started to think about what her connection to the players might be. Did she trust them? Or did she think they were going to burn her, exposing her to Imperial attention? I opted for a mix of the two.
These bits gave me enough information to be able to interact with the players. You’ll still have to do plenty of ad-libbing when you’re talking in your NPC’s characters voice, but at least you’ll know where they’re coming from as a starting point.
Where Are They Headed?
These few rough points are all you really need to consider for each major NPC—name, appearance, role, motive, relationship with the PCs. And once you get used to bringing NPCs to this level of detail, making up new NPCs on the fly will be no problem.
Say there is a bounty hunter at the mechanic’s hideout. What’s he like? Is he a Zabrak with a vendetta? Or is he an Imperial loyalist working for the sector Moff. Maybe there’s a piece of one player character’s backstory that hooks into having a bounty on his or her head, too, doubling the trouble for the characters.
All it takes is a few questions and you’re ready to go:
- What's the NPC's name?
- What does this NPC look like?
- How does this NPC typically operate?
- What does this NPC want?
- What does this NPC's presence in a scene mean for the PCs?
Given this list, I keep a list of names handy for whenever I have to come up with a new NPC. Nothing breaks the tension of the game more than when the Game Master has to stop and think up a name for the character the players are currently interacting with. I’ll write down ten or fifteen names and what species they’d belong to… just in case. This is one Game Master trick that always comes in handy.
Where Can Your NPCs Take You?
Hopefully, these tips about handling non-player characters will help you flesh out your game.
All it takes is asking questions and coming up with enough of a story for you, as the Game Master, to do some riffing. You just need to know enough about your NPCs to help your players visualize them and enjoy interactions that flow naturally.
Once you get that down, your games will be much more exciting and detailed, and your players will feel like you’ve dropped them in a Star Wars galaxy that is fully realized and in which every character they encounter has his or her own exciting story.
When he's not making life difficult for his friends' small band of Rebels, Bryan Young is a writer, podcaster, and gamer. He writes regularly for StarWars.com and Star Wars Insider, and hosts the Star Wars podcast Full of Sith. You can follow him on Twitter @Swankmotron.