Some time ago, I ran a campaign that introduced early trains to a Pathfinder world. Though they ran more or less on steam, the villain of the piece found a rare, magical material that worked even better than coal for his engines, and would stop at nothing to harvest and refine it, in order to take over the country’s economy thanks to his rail lines.
The villain’s name was Chauncy.
About thirty seconds after meeting this railway mogul – before the extent of his villainy was even revealed – one member of the party took to calling him “Choo-choo Chauncy.” It stuck. And, a couple years later, it’s one of the only villain’s my player’s remember the name of.
That got me to thinking: I like making non-player characters (allies, enemies, randoms, whoever) that my players remember. If nothing else, it makes using them again later in the campaign that much easier and more interesting. But how can you make sure your players remember NPCs?
I’m glad you asked.
10 Quick Ways to Make a Memorable NPC
- Give them an interesting name (or a name players can make interesting, a la Choo-choo Chauncy.)
- Make them an interesting species (I once had a sentient cat work as a wise ally.)
- Give them a distinct physical feature (hook hand, prosthetic nose, multiple chins, etc.)
- Give them a distinct personality (afraid of one member of the party, paranoid of being overheard by spies, fascinated by a player’s injuries, etc.)
- Give them a distinct quirk (stutter, pick their nose, sneeze constantly, etc.)
- Make them hard to pin down (give them powers or abilities that don’t quite line up with a class the players know, make it hard to figure out what race they are, make their age impossible to guess, etc.)
- Make them important (player’s relative, mentor, best friend, etc.)
- Make them extra likable (everyone loves a cute kid that tries to imitate the cool players.)
- Make them extra dislikable (players will remember the first villain who kicks a kitten in front of them forever.)
- Make them active (NPCs can talk, not just respond with straight answers when spoken to; they can have personalities, desires for – or from – the party, and needs of their own; they can exist for more than just the time it takes the players to talk to them.)
Those are 10 quick, simple ways to make NPCs a bit more memorable. Of course, there are some caveats to all of this, too…
Remember: A lot of these suggestions are meant to make the NPC more unique and, as such, memorable. So they don’t work if you do it for everyone the party meets. Similarly, you don’t need to do every one of these things for a single NPC; there is most definitely such a thing as too much. And, of course, you don’t want to do so much that you overshadow your player’s. The game is supposed to be starring them, after all.
Finally, remember that these things don’t help if they exist only in your head. If your NPC has a unique look, mention it. If they have a unique quirk, employ it. A unique flaw, expose it. At least once in a while, that is. Again, a little can go a long way.
So what do you think… Can you add to my list? See any problems with it? Have any examples of NPC/PC interactions or relationships that went really well for you (or really poorly)? Let us know in the comments.