Create Memorable NPCs

by Blackrook

NPCs - the 2nd most important part of your world. Make them memorable...

If you haven't already, read about making a family tree for your NPCs before reading this article. You should definitely make the family tree before you start making the NPCs, even though not all NPCs will be on the family tree.

NPC Roles in your Campaign

There are different types of NPCs: Allies, Neutrals, and Villains. NPCs can also be ranked in importance: Major, Minor, and Extra.

Major Allies are quest givers, mentors, or powerful NPCs who's interests are permanently or temporarily aligned with the PCs, such as kings, archmages, high priests, guildmasters, etc. Major allies can provide structure to the campaign, by giving the PCs quests to complete, rewarding them with magic items, or providing them with valuable information to complete a quest.

PCs can develop a certain amount of attachment or loyalty to major allies, seeing it as a critical part of their lives to protect and serve such a person. A major ally will have a defined personality and possibly a detailed backstory, but may not have stats, since it is not his/her role to be in a combat with the PCs.

Minor allies are henchmen, or NPCs that might temporarily join a party to serve a purpose, like extra muscle for the group, or as a "MacGuffin" character that needs to be protected or escorted from one place to another. A minor ally might be that gruff dwarf you met in the tavern, or a princess that needs to be taken to another land to be married off. A minor ally should be defined by stats, and may have defining characteristics like a certain voice or accent, but will not necessarily have a fully fleshed personality or background story.

AlliesQuest givers, mentors, kings, etc.Henchmen, temporary party members, MacGuffins---
NeutralsUncertain loyalties, possible quest giversProvides goods, services and info - at a priceOne job, no name, rarely talks
VillainsMain antagonistsMooks, cannon fodder---
Major Neutrals are characters who the PCs are unsure of where their loyalties are. They may give quests to a character, but the PCs do not fully trust their motives. The guildmaster of a Thieves' Guild, or a Spymaster, might be this kind of NPC. A character like this will often be very mysterious, and the NPCs might not know much about him/her. Also, you probably won't need stats, unless it seems that the PCs will attack him/her.

Minor Neutrals are characters who provide goods, services, and information, but at a price. For example, the tavern keeper who knows where the best swords are made, or the town guard who knows who has a bounty on their head, or the healing woman who has a lead on a good local quest. Minor neutrals are only barely above extras, and don't usually need a detailed background or stats, though you might want to take notes on personality traits like "grouchy" or "has a high squeaky voice." Keep track of your minor neutrals, and if the PCs keep meeting them, it makes your world seem more "real."

Major Villains are the characters who are the main antagonists of the plot, it is their actions that oppose the PCs and defeating them may be the main goal of your campaign. Put some work in making your major villains, with detailed backstory, personality, and probably at some point you will need stats when the PCs confront them. A memorable major villain will make your campaign something the PCs will want to return to.

Minor Villains are the "mooks" of your campaign, and they may be a set of stats and nothing else, perhaps a henchman to the major villain, or an assassin he sends to attack the PCs, or a tribe of orcs they meet along the way to something more important going on. A minor villain with a distinctive personality or background story is on his way to becoming a major villain.

Extras are the characters the PCs will probably never think about: the bar wench who takes their order at the tavern, the courier they hire to take a message to the king, the coach driver they hire to take them to the next town. They don't talk, they don't usually have names, and if they have stats, they are not very good at anything except what they do for a living. Extras can be elevated to minor status if they get a name or if they start talking to the PCs and becoming more important to the campaign.

Campaigns without Memorable NPCs

It is possible to run a campaign without creating detailed, memorable NPCs, the king is just "the king", the tavern owner is just the "tavern owner" and so on, but the PCs may wish you had put more work into it.

Example from my Gordovia Campaign

My most memorable NPC is probably Nyrond the Negotiator, a gnome merchant/banker/deal maker who made a big impression on my players. The PCs found out they needed to see Nyrond to get "passes" to enter the elf forest. They went to his palace, where they were told there was a 3-day waiting time to see him. This made a big impression on the PCs because usually they can breeze into see royalty on a moment's notice. Then, they noticed the extraordinary security, they were searched for weapons and magic items, and all of them were removed. Then they were shown in, and saw that Nyrond was thoroughly protected by magical spells and barriers. Now they knew, whoever this person was, was more important than any king or queen. And it turned out that was the case, because Nyrond can grant almost any favor, but the price is, you owe him a favor in return. And they learned that owing Nyrond the Negotiator a favor is a very big deal.

Effort Involved

How much time it takes to implement this idea: It does not take an extraordinary amount of time to make a memorable NPC, usually you can flesh him/her out with a few notes on Scabard (keep the good parts in the secret section), and you will only need stats if there is a confrontation. If that happens, use a stat block from the Monster Manual or Volo's (if you are playing D&D) and make whatever changes you need to make.

You should implement this idea while you are preparing your adventure. But it's never too late to start making memorable NPCs.


If the players have entered a part of your world that hasn't been detailed, like a tavern, you will have to make up NPCs on the fly. Just keep good notes of what's happening, like names, funny voices you use when talking for the NPC, and NPC motivations. Put all that in Scabard when you are done with the session.

When done right, even brief NPC Encounters will add flavor to your campaign.

Importance of Idea

Rated 1 to 10 (10 being most important): 10. It is critically important to make memorable NPCs. NPCs are the second most important part of your campaign, with only the PCs being more important.