Many and Few NPCs

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Today I want to share an observation with you about memorable NPCs and how there are less of them in roleplay campaigns with a lot of travel. I’ll also explain my approach to this, showing what you can do as a game master to create memorable NPCs even when your players are devoted explorers.

Over time, I have picked up on an interesting pattern in the number and kind of NPCs in the campaigns:

A traveling adventure will feature more NPCs overall, but fewer of those NPCs will be memorable to the players.

That is, it is my observation that when a roleplaying campaign’s focus lies on a single area, whether it is a small town, a large city, or a single noble’s court, there well be many memorable NPCs. Yet, there’s always more NPCs in total when the party travels around.

Both parts of this observation make sense, and are perfectly explainable.

Traveling campaign

After all, if the campaign is going to take place in a single area, this gives the game master the option to determine beforehand what NPCs are present. They can work out what each NPCs history is, what they want to achieve, the means at their disposal, and their relations with other NPCs in the area. On the other hand, if the adventurers are traveling all the time, they are very likely to meet a lot of people, and often interact with innkeepers, city guards, and other folk.

Single area

And while the innkeepers and city guards of the world will have names, they will not have detailed backgrounds, aspirations, and relations. Nor will the players care to remember such details about them — the next town will feature more of them and their travels will take the adventurers away from that town as well.

Both as a game master and as a player I love exploration. The discovery of a new world’s geography, cultures, and rules that govern the universe is one of the things that keeps me endlessly interested in roleplaying. But as a game master I also want my players to encounter memorable NPCs that, in some way, have a lasting impact on them.

Unfortunately, this puts me in an awkward place where I want to make travel available to the PCs, yet at the same time I also want to create a lot of memorable NPCs — the way I solve this in my games is by creating “hubs”.

Single area

Each hub is a smaller area from where the adventurers operate from for a period before venturing forth. For example, I might have a frontier town with several memorable NPCs: a healer banished to the frontier for disagreeing with his religious leaders, a snake oil salesman who incidentally is happy to buy whatever valuable loot the heroes find, and a hard-knocks mayor who used to be an adventurer like the PCs.

As the PCs will be returning to the hub a few times, I now have the option of detailing some of the NPC in the hub, allowing them to have more memorable goals, backgrounds and relations that the PCs can explore as they investigate the local area.

And once the players leave the hub area for good, that need not end the usefulness of those NPCs. That snake oil salesman might be ran out of town after the failure of his wonder cure is discovered, and find himself in whatever ungodly locale the PCs travel to next. Perhaps the innkeeper of the new hub used to adventure with the hard-knocks mayor — until they had a falling out over the distribution of the loot. And that healer might not be the only one who disagrees with their church’ religious leaders, prompting an entirely new storyline.

These kinds of connections are possible exactly because the NPCs were memorable. Thanks to the hub, your adventurers can explore and travel, while also encountering NPCs of the more memorable kind!

As always, you will find this week’s changelog in the community forum.