New weekly blog series – Tips for DMs

I’ve been really remiss about posting to this blog.

That’s because I’ve been way too busy writing other stuff! I finished a super-secret project a week or so ago, and just put the finishing touches on my latest Guild offerings. (You can get my Castle Spulzeer conversion and the latest Aristobulus’s Artificers catalog, if you’re interested.) I’ve also been super busy with work.

Well, that changes now. I’m going to start posting a regular series of advice and tips for Dungeon Masters. Short little snippets. Every Wednesday you’ll get a new bit.

The first bit comes now, though, because I have time.

Make better NPCs.

Index cards are great for this. Keep notes on NPCs – who they are, their names, what’s important to them, their relationship to the party, that sort of thing – so you’ll have their information at hand when you need it.

This isn’t about stat blocks. You don’t need to have combat information on neutral or friendly NPCs. If you need to know the village sage’s combat stats, you have a murderhobo problem, and that’s a different essay.

What you do need is information that will impact how the PCs will interact with the NPC. Jot down a basic idea of the NPC’s morality, for example. If the PCs are on the run from the local authorities, will the sage sell them out to the fuzz? With which other NPCs is the NPC allied? Does the sage share tea with the local priest? You don’t have to do this with every NPC; start with the ones the PCs will be dealing with most often.

Of course, remember your players will send everything sideways given half a chance. You think you don’t need full background on the butcher, and you do need it for the local bishop. Now watch as your players decide that the bishop is a twerp and the butcher should be their best friend and patron. Be ready to improvise. The good news is you can often just swap names on the index cards. The butcher can’t give them potions of healing or raise them from the dead, but he can give them the same wise counsel as the bishop would have, and point them to new quests.

It’s also wise to note roleplaying cues. What accent does she have? Does she have a high-pitched voice? Does she have a facial tic or some other unique mannerism? Is she well-disposed to the party or have they angered her? If you have all of that on an index card, when they encounter her again six real-time months after their last interaction with her, you won’t have that concussed-duckling moment when you realize you have no idea how to role-play her.

If you’re into minute detail, give the NPC a quirk or two. The sage, to continue the example, has an irrational fear of owlbears. So when the PCs bring him an owlbear figurine of wondrous power, he freaks out just looking at the chess-piece-sized piece of stone.

Take notes on the NPC’s attitude toward the party, and how what happens during the game can influence that. Is the sage well-disposed to the party? If so, why? Have they alienated him by their actions? Make a note of it. When they come back to town after looting an abandoned monastery, he might be angry that they ignored the monastery’s library full of rare tomes and instead brought him a terrifying miniature owlbear.

If you take away one thing from this, here it is: Make your NPCs memorable. Making your NPCs memorable will help to limit your players’ tendency to set fire to every hamlet and town they pass through. You don’t even need to do all that much creative work. You can get any number of pregenerated NPCs from DMs Guild. Just search for them.

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