A really memorable NPC is one who does what he does with a trademark style. This is true whether he’s working for or against the party.
But giving your NPCs a chance to “do their thing” can be tough (say, you have some cool thing you want him to say, but the players mess it up by shooting first). And forcing the spotlight onto an NPC can get railroady fast.
On the other hand, if you don’t plan his scenes, he might not get to use his trademarks and be forgettable – a waste of a good NPC. So how can you make sure an NPC is memorable without railroading his scenes?
In this post I talked about immersing your imagination in your subject matter rather than following an outline. So today I’m experimenting with a new kind of NPC character sheet.
It’s more a list of “ways-this-character-affects-the-plot” than a list of “skills and abilities.” My theory is that if you write out an NPC’s trademarks, you’ll be able to bring him into the game in response to what the players are doing, but also as stylishly as if it were a planned encounter.
Just to try out this format, I used Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example-one of the best NPC-type characters of all time, IMO. (Oh, and note that some of his abilities would get very annoying if you used them more than once!)
NPC: Rene Belloq
- Always Brings Henchmen. Whether he recruits his own, or is just working with a superior force, Belloq almost always has the heroes outnumbered.
- “If Only You Spoke Hovitos.” Any time the heroes don’t know a language, Belloq knows it – and uses it to his advantage.
- “Nothing You Can Possess Which I Cannot Take Away.” whenever the heroes acquire an important item, Belloq seems to show up. And the more valuable it is, the more likely this will happen.
- “We are Not so Different, You And I.” Belloq is similar enough to one PC to make that character doubt whether he’s really the good guy.
- “Go Ahead, Blow It Up.” Similarly, Belloq knows at least one of the PCs weaknesses and sees through their bluffs. The in-game justification for this is that he’s an old enemy who knows them well. The meta-game explanation is of course that he’s the GM’s favorite NPC and thus has GM-like knowledge of the heroes. (You might say he has a radio for talking to God.)
- ... Of course this is a weakness too. Belloq thinks he has the PCs figured out, so reckless tactics always take him by surprise!
- Successful Kidnapper. If Belloq is involved in an attempt to kidnap a party member, the attempt will succeed. This makes the gameplay less about trying to fight off the kidnappers and more about trying to rescue the kidnapped party member – because Belloq shines in the second kind of gameplay, not the first.
- Charmer. It’s hard not to be impressed with Belloq. But his soft spot for the ladies counts as a weakness too. Not unrelated to the following.
- Low Alcohol Tolerance. Any plan that involves getting Belloq drunk will probably work, unless another NPC is there to intervene.
Notice many of Belloq’s “abilities” affect the encounter from the “outside,” so to speak, like a “When Belloq Is In Play...” card, rather than from the “inside” as is the case with skills.
This way, you get to dictate the feel of the scene, without planning what happens. When the players get into a situation where you feel like Belloq would be appropriate, drop him in, and the encounter will have all the flair of a planned scene. In addition to challenging the characters with whatever physical threats Belloq brings with him, you’ll be challenging the players by making raising the stakes of the story.