Planning for a game session takes a lot of time. The GM has to anticipate the actions of the players, and do their best to create a story that is challenging and enjoyable. There is a lot of pressure on the GM to create a lot of in-depth content, often with very little turn around time if the group plays multiple times a month. NPCs can be a particular challenge since there are usually a lot of them and players expect them to have personality and depth. So how can a GM create interesting NPCs without spending hours writing their backstories?
The fastest way to give an NPC depth is to skin them over a person or character with which you are already familiar. This trick is especially helpful when the party has gone somewhere unexpected and you have to create characters on the fly. It works with personalities that you know from real life, pop culture, literature, or anywhere else! It’s easy to give the fisherman’s wife personality if you model her after your crazy aunt, or to get the mayor to seem planned if you skin him over your favorite Disney villain. Have a list of NPC names ready, and it’s possible to fool the players into thinking that you planned it all ahead of time!
Connecting NPCs to characters you already have in the game is another way to add depth and backstory to them, without starting from scratch. By linking the NPCs to an existing character, a NPC or a PC, you give quick backstory and a frame of reference with which the players can judge them. The young girl they find in the forest ends up being the cousin of the farmer they rescued in the last session, or the town guard served in the military with one of the PCs. This is a great opportunity to bring the PC’s backstories into the game, even if it isn’t a major plot point. These causal connections help make your world feel more real and less episodic. As connections build between NPCs, and between PCs and NPCs, it creates a web that It can also throw some great curve balls at the party when they discover old acquaintances in unexpected places. It’s a great game moment when the party realizes that helping that NPC a few sessions back has unexpected benefits now, or the opposite if you are dealing with a band of murder-hobos!
When you do take the time to create deep backstories for characters, it’s always more fun for the players if you avoid classic stereotypes. Not every wizard has to be Gandalf or Merlin. Not every princess has to be a damsel in distress. Make the princess a trained warrior who helps the party instead of waiting to be rescued from the tower. Maybe the wizard was trying to create an immortality spell and is now permanently an obnoxious teenager. NPCs should have disadvantages and flaws, just like any interesting PC. They should also have odd quirks that, although they don’t influence the story, make them unique in the world you have created. Odd collections of items, distinct clothing choices, physical mannerisms, and catchphrases are all great things to build into an NPC. If you are going to spend the time to create an important NPC from scratch, make them worth remembering!
Complex supporting characters enrich the game world and present the group with opportunities for collaborative storytelling. GMs should see them as opportunities as exciting as any combat session. Challenge yourself to keep things fresh and your players guessing with the use of creative NPCs!