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GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
$15.00 $9.99
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 07/09/2012 00:03:35

"What is my motivation?"

What may be a cliche in acting is a cornerstone in roleplaying an NPC. Generating the stats is the easy part -- How did he become the way he is? Why does he interact with the PCs? What gets him out of bed each morning???

The first book in RPGObject's GMMastery series is "NPC Essentials", by Johnn Four, of Dragon magazine and the Roleplaying Tips Weekly website ( NPC Essentials is a 83-page PDF document, with about 50 pages of design text, 10 pages of mini-adventure, and 20 pages of charts and worksheets, for $8.95. Essentially, it's a planning manual for GMs to design their NPCs. Story writers may find it useful as will players creating backgrounds for the PCs. Except for stat blocks of the mini-adventure, the document may be used for any roleplaying system. Even new GMs (and lazy ones) can just focus one or two ideas at a time and improve their techniques.

Besides the introduction, the text itself is divided into four chapters:

  • NPC Design
  • NPC Role Playing
  • Campaign Management
  • NPC Archetypes
  • Mini-Adventure
  • Charts, Tables, And Sheets NPC Design

This chapter recognizes that GMs only have so much time to plan and design characters. It begins by dividing up various NPC elements into the Four Planning Groups: Core NPC, Core Roleplaying, Detailed Roleplaying, and Combat. You'll use one or more of them depending on the NPC's Story Role. Each NPC Story Role (from Villains and Rivals to Remote NPCs and even Items!) has a description, list of Planning Groups to use in its design, Estimated Planning Time, and Design Methods. Through an organized series of instructions, questions, and examples, this chapter guides the GM in creating a character. Personally, I found the amount of preparation work quite dauting (take a deep cleansing breath), although a GM could step back and quite easily only prepare one or two NPCs.

NPC Role Playing

This chapter opens with a philosophy of scenes with NPCs: Portray the scene as if "The PCs have entered the NPC's life, not vice-versa". The chapter then suggestions on how to make the NPC most effective in advancing the storyline. The rest is devoted towards techniques for GMs to use during roleplaying: Acting, Voice, Parley strategies, NPC-to-NPC discussion, Escape routes for NPCs, and Roleplaying during combat. Again, quite a bit of advice is given, and a GM can just focus on one or two techniques in his next session.

Campaign Management

While NPC Design focuses on the individual NPC, NPCs do not stand alone in a campaign, and a GM certainly has to keep track of more than one NPC! This chapter ties the NPC to the campaign and suggests how to keep track of a cast of non-player characters:

  • Organizing NPCs: Good organization prevents missing information and mistakes in play. This section includes suggestions for physically storing NPC information (from binders to business cards), and what NPC information to update between sessions.

  • Introducing NPCs: The most lasting impression on a party is the introduction. This section gives examples of how to best introduce an NPC, through foreshadowing techniques, what makes the NPC unique, and surprises to spring on the characters.

  • When PC and NPC power levels differ: Tired of pitting your 20th level wizard against invisible magic-proof ninjas? Want to throw more than goblins and kobolds at low-level characters? This section provides roleplaying tactics for challenging PCs with lower-level NPCs, and vice-versa (including tips for GMs with players who assume they can fight everyone they encounter!).

  • Tying NPCs to your campaign: This section explains how to reflect your world -- not to mention plot hooks and critical story information -- through NPCs. Is the NPC a trendsetter, or a trendfollower? (Did you, as a GM, even think of distinguishing your NPC this way?) I found the suggestions on how to avoid the "critical NPC the PCs must meet but fail to" trap to be particularly useful.

  • Creating dynamic NPCs: NPCs and even regions die and change. This section, which uses an event chart in the back of the book, tells you how to change NPCs without it becoming too much work. The event chart might be fun for PCs to use, as well.

  • Character cast creation in six steps: This section is a step-by-step guide in creating, prioritizing, and developing your NPCs. Nice to see that one step is devoted towards budgeting your time!

NPC Archetypes

NPC Design covered standard NPC story roles, NPC Archetypes cover the standard NPC professions (mostly city) in an adventure: Craftsmen, Upper Nobility, Soldier, Beggars, and so on. Besides plot hooks, each archetype is given a short background discussion to help flesh him out. For example, a craftsman might be an employee or an owner. Assigning him a role in the business results in a completely different personality, and thus a different roleplaying interaction with the party. Few artists and entertainers can make a living at their craft. What will the surprise of finding out the entertainer's full-time job affect the players? With this chapter alone, the GM can turn some routine stereotypes into opportunities for enjoyable roleplaying.


The next chapter is a 10-page investigation / social-driven mini-adventure. For characters of 3rd-5th level, this adventure is meant to tie in what the GM has learned from the previous chapters. Personally, I wished this chapter discussed more of how the techniques of the book created the adventure, rather than the final adventure itself. (The adventure does contain a chart of what certain people in the village know about important NPCs; use this as an example in your own adventures). The adventure centers around some village council shenanegans, a definite change of pace from the generic helpless towns seen in most publications. It's one thing if the PCs save the helpless town from the bad guys. It may be an interesting other situation if the town is a little more political than helpless...!

Charts, Tables, And Sheets

This section contains 20 pages of charts and record sheets to help the GM efficiently plan his NPCs; brainstorm names, background, appearances, traits, quirks, and secrets; create events for NPCs (see Campaign Management); and record this information. (There are 100 Secrets, 100 Events, 200 Quirks, 300 Traits, and even more entries for Names!) PCs will definitely find these charts and worksheets useful in thinking up a background for their own characters. You'll probably want to print out the record sheets and fill some out as you read the book. Unfortunately, these sheets cannot be used electronically (ie. you can't type the information in for electronic storage).

PDF or hardcopy?

Personally, I wish this book were hardcopy, with web support of record sheet downloads. But it's still written as a book rather than, say, a series of reference sheets. After trying to read it onscreen, I gave up and printed out all 80 pages. The only pages that really benefit from the electronic format are the record sheets (since you can print any number of them crisply from your printer instead of copying them at Kinko's). Otherwise, the layout is done very well, with minimal, but effective use of color (art, maps, and chapter headings). The PDF document uses bookmarks and you can use copy and paste. The book does not have an index.

Other comments

To some extent, the document assumes you're designing your own overall adventure and you will do this work before play. It would have been nice to add suggestions how to analyze NPCs in published adventures so you're not caught flat-footed (to steal a term) when the players throw a roleplaying wrench which the adventure didn't prepare for. The advice doesn't directly address (lazy) GMs who prefer to develop their characters between sessions as they play the game ("the characters write themselves" sorta thing). What with most short adventures (such as those in Dungeon magazine) being of the "save the helpless villagers" variety, I personally would like to have seen suggestions on developing NPCs to tie together for similar but unrelated adventures (eg. the head honcho villain who's responsible for these different groups of bad guys threatening different helpless towns).

If nine dollars for some of the most thorough NPC planning advice I've seen in twenty-some years is too much, at least subscribe to Johnn Four's free weekly newsletter. Started two years ago, this newsletter is over 145 issues strong, with contributions by Johnn and numerous readers. Perhaps the only drawback is that archived articles are only sorted by date or title, as opposed to subject.


A good number of GMs create their own adventures, which means a good number of them should own this book. Even if your games are still nothing but dungeons and hackfests, you can certainly add some color to the helpless town elder, not to mention the evil boss villian (before the players chop him up). GMs who start with published adventures will still find this book useful for fleshing out NPCs. This book will also assist PCs who desire character backgrounds (all too often at the behest of their GM).

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GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
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