Developing interesting non-player characters (NPCs) is a perennial problem for gamemasters everywhere. You want to make them memorable, but developing them in great detail is wasted effort, since it is unlikely that most of that detail will come out in play. Dozens of forum threads and other articles have been written on the subject, and there is a lot of good advice available. This is an effort to present some of the best of it in a single usable framework. My technique is adapted, in a heavily modified form, from an idea that Orson Scott Card presents in his book of writing advice Characters and Viewpoint. There, he talks about drawing stories out of a simple character concept by asking questions about it. The answers to those questions lead to a starting situation worth using, and asking questions about what could happen in that situation and how the character could react creates a complete arc.
As-is, this is a great technique for groups that adopt the GM-as-storyteller style of roleplaying. For my preferred gamemastering style of presenting players with a situation and then improvising from their reaction, it needs some tweaking, though. Going from concept to situation to complete arc doesn’t provide what I need.
Over the course of six brief (non-consecutive) articles I will present a method of creating the information that you need to improvise consistent, engaging NPC actions in play without useless chrome. By asking the right questions, you will get at how the NPCs goals, desires and relationships are likely to affect your PCs’ lives. This will produce most of what you need to know during play.
Before getting into the questions you should use, I want to address a few broader points, though.
Not Every NPC Needs to be Interrogated
Most of the NPCs that appear in your games aren’t really characters, they are just colour, just like the number of moons, or the grime on the cobblestones. They add flavour to the setting, and may even offer a rumour or a bit of advice, but they do not drive the action. Even recurring characters can fall into this category. While they are very important to creating a fun game, they do not need to be interrogated. Instead, they can be dealt with superficially, using nothing more than an attitude, maybe an accent, and a couple of memorable details.
The dividing line between the NPCs that should be interrogated the ones that are just colour is whether an NPC’s actions can have a (meaningful) effect on any conflict that the PCs face. If so, you should interrogate the character. Their actions will be an important part of your games, and want to be able to figure them out on the fly as much as possible.
Since colour characters will not, as a rule, be caught up in weighty situations, there is little reason to consider anything more than superficial details. Of course they can become relevant to the real action over the course of a story or a campaign. They can be the inspiration for new plotlines and conflicts, or they can get dragged more deeply into events than you originally anticipated. When this happens, you should interrogate them like any other important player at the first opportunity.
The First (or even second) Answer Usually Isn’t the Best
One point that I will take directly from Card’s book is that the first thing that comes to mind when you try to answer to a question should usually be discarded, or at least held in reserve. The first answer you think of is usually rooted in stereotypes, clichés or just plain banality. These answers just scratch the surface of your creativity, and won’t be worthy of you or your players. No answer is completely original, but you’ll know which ones are fresh enough and which ones aren’t, especially if you have two or three ideas to choose from.
Of course clichés and (some) stereotypes aren’t always bad. Generally they should be reserved for colour characters, or given an interesting and original(-ish) twist, though. Even better, you can get a lot of mileage out of subverting or deconstructing them.
While the answer to a question sometimes get the job done, you will more often find yourself needing a little more detail or a little more information to really make the NPC come alive in your imagination. When an answer is not yet enough, just ask “why?” is that the answer, or, less frequently “to what effect?”
It is possible to go off on an infinite regress with this, though, taking each new answer and asking “why?” again. This may be amusing as a pastime or a parlour game, but you should not indulge in it with characters you actually intend to play. It will just produce useless frippery and deep psychology that you won’t use in play.
I will go into further detail about the use and abuse of “why?” in relation to each stage of interrogating an NPC, especially tips on when more is too much, as I go along.