Levels of detail for NPC design

Status — Conjecture, mostly untested. I have a suspicion that “levels” aren’t the best way to go about most of this — perhaps a flat list (“do at least three of…”), or a set of conditional rules (“if they’re ostensibly an ally of a PC, then describe…”), would be better.


I’m writing this for my Beyond the Forest games. Key properties:

  • Minimal rules complexity, characters are mechanically simple
  • The story emerges from PCs pursuing their Burning Wheel -style beliefs — there is no “plot”

The Levels

Level 1 — People that exist

Give them:

  • Name
  • Build point value
  • One descriptive thing

Level 2 — People that persist

  • Basic stats (for BtF, that’s six numbers + magic type and level + any extreme supernormal powers)
  • One Belief about something the PCs want or need
    • This is their key motivation — make it good

 Level 3 — People that resist

  • Minor stat specials e.g. a magic arm that gives them this but downside is this
  • One more Belief about one of
    • Their past
    • A problem they have
    • A secret they have
  • An instinct for how they react when threatened (e.g. fight/flee/bribe/plead or some specialism thereof e.g. “collect their children and hide in the caves”)

Level 4 — People that insist

  • One ally
  • One enemy
  • A formative event in their past (perhaps the key juncture that set them on the path to the identity they present to the players now)

Major character supplements

I think there are some things that major antagonists and allies particularly benefit from

  1. Have them personify an abstract thing
    1. “Self-assertion — the will to do whatever the fuck he wants”
    2. “Imposition of an imagined order on a chaotic world”
  2. Have them shadow one of the PCs or a major NPCs
    1. The coward to the hero
    2. The person content in their low status to the one bitter that they’re only medium
  3. Have two or three default “moves” they’ll use.
    1. “Have all priests in the city give relevant sermons”
    2. “Have the birds twitter to them where they should stage an ambush”
    3. “Release the hounds.”
  4. Proxies — who acts for them when they’re not there?
    1. “Twelve children trained to rule”
    2. “Skull-faced dogs with human hands”
  5. For a villain — why are they likeable (ideally, likeable to the players
  6. For a hero or ally or mentor — how are they flawed?

Miscellaneous assists for above


The above is mostly based on this discussion about NPCs for rpgs:

…with a little bit from these on villains and antagonists for fiction:

I can’t vouch for the validity of any of those, of course. The latter set, particularly, prescribe a lot of rules without evidence or even much argument.

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