Last Updated on February 14, 2023
With shows like Dimension 20 and Critical Role introducing a whole new generation of players and DMs to DnD, many people feel like they have to create Oscar-winning NPCs for their campaigns. This is entirely untrue, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create unique and memorable NPCs with our help.
This guide is full of tips and tricks to make every NPC in your DnD world feel special and important.
Creating Unique and Memorable NPCs
Creating NPCs that your players will love isn’t a difficult process at all, just a daunting one, and we’re here to remove any of that fear you might have. So, to make things as straightforward as possible, we’re breaking down the NPC creation into the following steps:
- Role and Importance – What sort of NPC are we creating?
- Motivation and Connection – Let’s connect our NPC to the world around them and give them a reason for what they do.
- Inspiration – What other characters can we use to drive our NPC’s personality?
- Appearance and Stats – What does our character look like? Do we need to give this NPC a stat block?
- Adaptation – Allow the NPC to grow as our players affect the world.
Step 1. Role and Importance
The first thing we need to do is determine whether our NPC is going to be important or not. Sure, sometimes the unassuming smith ends up stealing the show with their quick wit, but most of the time, we know as DMs whether or not an NPC is going to play some sort of larger role.
We’re not only deciding how important they’ll be, but we’re also deciding what they actually are. Are we creating a villain? A merchant? A potential ally? Maybe we just need a character who can give our characters a bit of the plot and never be heard from again.
This is really simple, but it gives us something to start with. We can help ourselves by asking a few quick questions:
- What is this character’s job?
- Why am I including this character in the world?
The answers to these questions might be complex, and they might lead to more questions. Or, you might say that this barkeep is here to serve ale and call it a day.
Often, it can be helpful to spread dialogue across multiple simple NPCs. Instead of a bar with one plot-essential character and four meaningless characters, just giving all five a bit of the plot information can help our characters feel like they’re gathering information from a fuller world.
Step 2. Motivation and Connection
If we’ve made it out of step one with a character who’s important enough to think about, we can consider what drives them to do what they do and what connections they have to the world around them.
A roaming ranger that left the corrupt government to protect neglected towns on the region’s outskirts isn’t just compelling; they feel real.
We want to know where a character comes from, how they feel about different factions, and who they have relationships with. This doesn’t just give us a character who feels real; it helps to flesh out our world. The more characters we build who have this level of depth, the more interwoven every piece of our world becomes.
This step is especially important with a character who delivers any variety of plot information. We need to know why they know this information, not just that they have it.
Step 3. Inspiration
This might seem similar to our last step, but instead of the NPC’s surface information, this gives us everything we need to know about the mind of our character. This step is all about building a personality that has reasons behind it.
It can be hard to just pick a personality out of the blue. Instead, we use the information we already have to determine our character’s driving force.
That roaming ranger we mentioned — why did they care that the government was corrupt? Well, maybe they watched a town massacred because the king failed to send enough forces to stop a known bandit attack. Maybe their family was murdered in an attack. Who knows? Maybe they’re the heir to the throne!
Each of these different driving factors gives our character a different personality. The same can be true for any character you build. With this, you’ll be able to respond to your player’s questions as this NPC, because you’ll have an idea of how the NPC feels.
This doesn’t mean fleshing out every single detail of the NPC’s life. You only need a few key details in order to create the basis of a personality. Everything else is improv reactions that are based on those core factors.
Step 4. Appearance and Stats
Likely, we’ll be describing this NPC before our players even start talking to them. With the information we already know about them, we can come up with their appearance. Part of making them memorable is using imagery that feels relevant to their story.
We don’t have to play into cliches, but we also don’t have to avoid them. Our ranger might be dark and gloomy, or they might be determined and stoic. It’s entirely up to our interpretation of the character we’ve built so far.
The important part here is that we add some sort of description that lets our NPC stand out. You don’t have to be a master storyteller to do this. You might relate them to an actor (I’m a big fan of using Dolph Lungridge to describe hardened characters), or you might give them some noticeable scar or deformity.
Whatever you do, make sure you write it down, and make sure your players are aware of it. That way, even if your players forget the name later on, you can redescribe the character, and they’ll remember who they’re talking to.
If writing it down isn’t your style, you can always create some actual art for the character. This is obviously something you’ll probably only do for really important NPCs, but there’s no telling just how helpful even some AI-generated NPC artwork can be for making a character memorable.
An optional part of this, if your NPC has the potential of being in combat, is giving them stats. You can use a normal stat block for an NPC that fits their general persona. Then, add in some sort of cool feature, which you can steal from any of the 5e classes or maybe even some special monsters if this NPC is really powerful.
Magic items are another great way to achieve uniqueness in both description and combat.
Step 5. Adaptation
Creating a world that feels real and full means creating a world that changes as our players interact with it. For that reason, it’s incredibly important that our NPCs change when the world around them does.
Whether we’re talking about a lowly barkeep or a general of an army, they’re going to have a reaction when our players slay a dragon. Or, maybe they don’t, but that is the reaction (showing the NPC doesn’t care what’s happening around them).
A barkeep might give players a discount on ale or rooming prices. A general might try to get them to enlist or ask them for advice in dealing with a new problem.
The main thing here is that our players’ actions have consequences. Whether they’re good or bad is up to you and the actions themselves.
Listen to Your Players
Using this process is definitely going to help your NPCs feel more real, and that alone is memorable. While funny accents and whacky descriptions might get a laugh, they’re not the sole factor in creating unique characters. The truly most important thing is that you listen to your players.
Often, your players may come up with a completely different opinion on a character’s importance. If they get excited by Zippy the goblin, then that means Zippy the goblin is going back through the process after this session is over. It’s time to answer some questions about Zippy’s story so that they can play the role your players want them to play.
Building a world is tough work, and filling it with characters who feel like they belong can be even harder. Breaking it down into simple steps and asking yourself questions along the way can turn this from a daunting project to an easy process.
Hopefully, these tips will help you as much as they’ve helped us, and you’ll be able to whip up some truly unique NPCs for your campaigns.
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As a kid, I was often told to get my head out of the clouds and to stop living in a fantasy world. That never really jived with me, so I decided to make a living out of games, stories, and all sorts of fantastical works. Now, as an adult, I aspire to remind people that sometimes a little bit of fantasy is all you need when life gets to be too much.