This whole blog is pretty much about procedures rather than content. It's about teaching myself to fish more efficiently at a moment's notice rather than wading out into the stream—SO TO SPEAK—and bringing back some trout every once in a while.
So, if you're in the mood for trout, I'm sorry. It's going to be a bit dry.
So procedures. This time for NPCs, or, in fact, for PCs. But most characters are NPCs; so it's a matter of triage I suppose.
What is the absolute minimum I need in order, personally, to feel comfortable running an NPC? (By comfortable I mean feeling like I'm not laming everyone out with something boring, confusing, or inappropriately forgettable.)
I don't want to have to roll dice for this. I want to make my brain an NPC generator.
As I see it, NPC generation should be done in passes. On the first pass, you get the minimum to make an impression. On subsequent passes (i.e., when the character comes up again), we add a bit of detail, as if it were there all along.
FIRST PASS: 3 THINGS
Feature, Bearing, Dissatisfaction.
These in order. After, of course, a name.
Only use if this person is going to be at least a little important: a shopkeeper, the one out of a group doing the talking.
It must something distinct and memorable and exaggerated: long hair to the knees, golden ringlets, arms covered in multicolor bangles, a chin for miles, no nose, eyes of different colors, huge bushy unibrow, 80% legs 10% knees, beard with a bird in it, purple all over from tattooes, a cane so small he has to stoop to use it.
The point is for players to say, "that one over there, the one with the ________."
Only need if actual interaction is occurring.
As a shortcut, you can just use a person you know or an actor or character from fiction.
Otherwise, think of something exaggerated, implicitly a VERY or INCREDIBLY before it: haughty, shy, oblivious, sleepy, anxious, mystical, optimistic, dumb, arrogant, jock, prissy, posh, privileged, overcompensating, sensitive, insecure, despicable, disgusting, rude, loud, demanding.
Only if you'll talk to them again, if you're stuck with them a while, or the players take an interest in the character.
This is the thing that defines the character's life right now. What is their unhappiness, sorrow, unease, or despair?
It shouldn't be momentary or trivial or easy to remedy, or else they would have done something about it by now.
It lets you sympathize, can make them more human, presents opportunities for PCs to seize: use it against them, help them relieve it.
Examples: religious doubt, unhappy marriage, unsuccessful career, unlucky in love, no courage to do what they want, poor and can't see a way out, damned, disowned, ashamed, guilty, can't let go, lonely, angry, abused, dead man walking.
SOME TROUT AFTER ALL
You walk into the shop and shopkeeper doesn't acknowledge you: belly the size of a Galapagos turtle resting on the counter, busily scribbling on some parchment.
We say hello.
He waves you off.
We get our stuff and come to check out.
He does it and barely looks up.
I ask him what he's doing.
LET ME TELL YOU, he says, and for te next five minutes he's going on about the mathematical proofs he's developing that will REVOLUTIONIZE ALL OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE.
But no one in the academy gives him any respect.
NEXT PASS: ONE MORE THING
On the next pass, add something that invites
Or any other strong emotion.
Add another feature or bearing of it feels right.
Repeat until you don't think you need to anymore.
Keep the info on a card for future reference.
OPTIONAL PASS: TWIST
Also, consider, after a while, making the NPC a source of risk and/or reward.
This is how you do a twist.
At first, our shopkeeper is just a guy who sells mundane stuff and maybe is amusing, annoying, or endearing.
But then what if he grabs you and pulls you into the back where there's loads of illicit narcotics and says, I NEED YOU TO HELP ME HIDE THESE NOW YOU CAN TAKE A WHOLE CRATE FOR YOUR TROUBLE YES OR NO?!?!??
Or, OOPS LOOKS LIKE YOU JUST CAUGHT ME REMOING MY EVIL HIGH PRIEST ROBES AWKWARD.