Non-player characters pose a real challenge for me, as a game master. Much as I pride myself on improvisation as a general skill, I am not at all satisfied with my ability to conjure up interesting NPCs on the spot. Over the years I've found that I default to a handful of naming conventions (Um...it'll start with a P..."Hello traveller! My name is...Pyort!" *Players all crack up*) and that all my voices, personalities, etcetera start to sound suspiciously similar over time. An entire world full of Pyorts is not a good idea, let me tell you.
To try to remedy this failing of mine, I've tried coming up with a number of tools. I once spent a good six months working on a PHP script which would randomly generate a bunch of "seed" information for an NPC. The idea was that you could hit a button, and be given a race, class, personality type, mood, name, etc. All of which were suited to my campaign setting. The whole project had the added bonus of helping me hone my sloppy PHP skills. Unfortunately I had to move just as the project was gaining momentum, so it's been on the back burner for going on three years now.
The project may have been overly ambitious in the first place anyway. These days I'm convinced that there must be a simpler, more elegant way to make NPCs distinct from one another. One which doesn't require that I have a laptop behind the GM screen. There are, after all, a number of identifiable things which modify a person's attitude and behavior. Cultural traits, for example. There have been some interesting studies about how culture modifies a person's behavior, even within the united states. For example, as a statistical average, people in the south are more likely to be polite, but they're also more likely to become violent if they feel they've been insulted or marginalized. Whereas my experience in the pacific northwest for 24 years has led me to expect that people are largely passive aggressive about their feelings. That's a pretty big difference, and it's the same species within the same country. Imagine a world like Pathfinder's where there are literally different races. (In fact I did look at that question just recently.)
Over the last few days, however, I've been thinking much more about what makes people act the way they do in my own life. If I go outside and talk to my neighbors, or to my girlfriend, or to my coworkers, or to my friends, what will affect the way they act towards me? We're all the same species, and we all live in the same area, so ostensibly we would have the same basic rules about social interaction. Yet even day to day a given person can change the way they act. So what's going on, and how can it help me make a better NPC? The way people act around one another is heavily influenced by their mood, their reaction to your mood and appearance, and a myriad of other tiny details which could be placed on a simple random chart for quick NPC generation.
- Just received good/bad news/experience This can be small news, like receiving a discount on an item at the shop, or stubbing one's toe. Or it can be bigger things, such as when a merchant arranges a deal which will ensure long-term profits for them, or when a farmer learns that his neighbors farm has been ravaged by locusts and fears he may be next. People are more likely to be helpful and friendly when they've received good fortune, and more likely to be unhelpful and dour when they've received bad. And, of course, the level to which their mood affects them is proportional to how good or how bad the news is.
- Looking forward to something with anxiety/excitement Anxiety and Excitement can manifest themselves very similarly to having just received good or bad news, but in either case a person is likely to be preoccupied with something which is going to happen soon, and may not have as much time for strangers.
- First impression of you is good/bad People have many standards by which they judge a person. The aristocracy, or other contributing members of society, might find you dirty and unpleasant due to your adventuring lifestyle. However, they might also look on you as a curiosity. Someone with interesting tales to tell. Likewise a farmer might see an adventurer as a compatriot. Many adventurers are low-born folk, and they live roughly as low-born folk do. Unlike knights, adventurers are just trying to get by rather than serving a lord. But adventurers also have a nasty reputation for wooing farmer's daughters (or sons).
- Likes/doesn't like members of your gender/race/class/etc The fantasy worlds that many of us play in are based on a medieval world which, in reality, was insanely prejudiced. Now, I am strongly of the opinion that in most fantasy adventure games, history should be ignored on this point. I won't go into that here, because I could write an entire post on that topic. However, it's perfectly legitimate for individual people (or towns or cultures) to hold a particular prejudice which makes them difficult for specific player to deal with. Wizards or Sorcerers could be viewed as untrustworthy, or as offensive to reality. Perhaps men are viewed by a particular culture to be brutish and rude. And elves, don't get me started on those slack-jawed daffodils...
- Generally outgoing/introverted This one seems pretty simple, really. Some people are friendly and eager to interact with new people. They're most likely to be helpful on minor issues, though it doesn't necessarily mean they'll go out of their way for strangers. More introverted folks may be no less friendly, but they're not going to be as comfortable dealing with people they're not already familiar with.