I’ve been designing an AP (adventure path, basically a collection of quests that describe a story that includes all the background cities, NPCs, support you need to run it in one document) for Eberron, incorporating what my group has been running through (our group has a rotating GM so everybody gets to play and everyone has to GM). One of the problems I’ve noticed is that outside of joke NPCs (memorable for their actions usually, such as dusty old Granny hauling out a crossbow to railgun a player in a street brawl) the NPCs we’ve encountered have been…well, forgettable. The only reason I remember anyone is because I’m scribbling down copious notes for the “Eberron, yes” bits I write (and Dane, but we’ve probably spent more time with Dane then questing >.>).
I’d like to see more memorable NPCs in our games, BUT it’s a little too easy to make a Mary Sue and completely outshine the party (and its even worse when that NPC has to accompany the party for “reasons” and turns into a GM NPC. Solitaire is not a spectator sport for a reason….). A NPC should compliment and advance the story. If I were to break a campaign into pieces, I’d say that a good campaign should be about 40% Action (dice rolling, combat, etc), 30% Plot (why the Action is happening), and 30% Setting (where the Plot is happening). NPCs should be split between the three of these categories and that’s part of the reason why Mary Sue NPCs are such a common problem (such a common issue that I have one of my own).
I was running a campaign and we were short a player (it was the first session and he missed the memo) but determined to play, so I just ran a character I had been toying with as a GM NPC; Gorman di Wulfe, Alchemist Extraordinaire! The concept behind the character was a freelace mercenary that strapped a bunch of explosives to an arrow and then shot you with it. Gorman worked great for that one session then the missing fourth returned. It was after that first session that Gorman began to become an issue. Instead of creating a handful of NPCs to point the players towards the plot (or towards that I had prepped for that session), I used Gorman. Fairly soon Gorman was just everywhere with no explanation or reason (beyond my own amusement). If you found a secret door, it was just as likely to have Gorman in it instead of a monster or treasure. It was bad and I’ve learned from the experience.
When I create an NPC now, I ask myself three questions.
1) Does this NPC advance the plot?
2) Does this NPC explain or provide clues to “behind the scenes”?
3) Does this NPC answer who, why, where?
Gorman (as the poor whipping boy for this story) was a largely pointless annoyance for the players. He was clearly having a wonderful adventure all on his own without the players, but he was enough of a jerk to wave this fact in the PCs faces for no reason but to taunt them. At one point, I put Gorman into a prison cell to break up the monotony of empty cells. The PCs tripped across him and offered to release him. Nope, Gorman was fine where he was. By this point the PCs were fairly sick of Gorman so they just moved along. If I had been clever about Gorman, he would’ve left the first session as part of an NPC trade caravan. When the PCs later discovered him in the evil cultist prison it would lend a clue as to what has been happening to trade convoys. Now Gorman explains things to the players about the setting without me having to vocally explain that cultists have been raiding caravans. Instead, Gorman shall forever be immortalized as “That annoying, useless walnut muncher”.