D&D NPCs, or non-player characters, are one of the most memorable and important parts of your gaming sessions. These characters bring life, energy, and realism to the table. They also often give players a reason to fight or defend. As the wielder of the universe, having the right tools at your disposal can make all the difference for presenting new, interesting characters on the fly without loads of prior prep work.
We’ve got tools, tips, and secrets to help you elevate your game sessions with this valuable commodity. Let’s check them out.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
D&D Tools to Create Super Engaging NPCs
We know how it goes: We introduce some nobody as a bit of environmental context or description, and even after all the sessions and hours of experience that should tell us otherwise, we neglect to flesh out a full name, backstory, set of closest relatives, problems, and mannerisms for this complete nobody. Oh, wait… what was that? You didn’t forget? You just thought you didn’t need it?
If my players over the years are any indication, it almost becomes a sort of minigame to see if the Dungeon Master has a name, connection and background concept for every person spawned into existence.
Let me save you from yourself and your players. I spawn new NPCs into a scene for flavor quite often, and I’m running a campaign now that has me keeping track of no fewer than 45 “really important” NPCs and many lesser ones as well. This ridiculous number seems to grow nearly every session. I have a set of tools and habits I’ve built to help with this.
Why NPCs Are So Important
My players LOVE their NPCs. They have elaborate spreadsheets tracking connections between the characters. They talk about them before and after the game, they text about them during the week, remembering different scenarios or imagining what might happen if they tried some wacky plan. They will do just about anything to save some of these NPCs from danger, too.
It has become an incredibly valuable resource, because not only do I get positive feedback indicating player engagement, but it also gives me an easy way to hook them into adventures that feels very immersive and interesting for them.
A Few Additional Resources
In this article, I’m going to go over a few tools and how to use them. If you’re interested in seeing how to deliver your NPCs with confidence, I have an article on that for you, too.
I also can help you out with winging it in general, if you’re into that.
Or, if you’d like to read about general set up a D&D session, check out this two part series using the links below.
The Tools I Use to Develop Better NPCs:
These tools have transformed our time at the table, and I highly recommend them.
My most treasured non-essential D&D accessory purchase of all time: the Deck of Stories Genesis Box. I use these cards nearly every session.
The cards feature great character pictures on the front of each card, with names and premade quest hooks on the back. The set also comes with quests featuring a fun mix and match system that you could use in an Adventurer’s Guild or as a general side quest, even tying into your primary campaign arc, if it so pleases you. The set also contains scenery description cards, giving me some flavor text if my brain decides to stop working for a moment. I like to pass the cards around the table so my players can see the character.
More NPC Card Options
After purchasing these, I became addicted, and had to sate my need for more and more NPC cards. The second set I purchased is from Monte Cook. It is a HUGE deck with a lot of variety, but the art style isn’t consistent and they seem cheaply made. We found three characters who were apparently from the same large image, chopped up into three separate cards. It works, but it’s a little weird. Ultimately, I can’t recommend them.
If you want a decent set of mixed up NPC cards with hand-drawn illustrations, check out the Deck of Many Friends & Foes instead.
If you become an NPC card aficionado and want even more, Wizards of the Coast sells official D&D NPC cards that I couldn’t find when I went shopping (but are available on Amazon as of this writing for about $20).
There are also multiple sets of 50 NPCs each by a company named Inkwell including:
Finally, if you want an official Pathfinder set, take a look here.
Why NPC Cards are Basically the Best Ever
NPC cards are great because we can pass them around the table and everyone can get a good look at the new character. Just hold them up to the camera if you’re playing online. The cards feature a name and usually some personality traits or a quest hook.
Story Dice for Improv NPC Moments
Rory’s Story Cubes are what’s up for needing instant descriptions or flavor.
If you’ve never seen them, they are a set of nine white D6s with random images on each side, inked in black. They are great at providing just the right amount of creative inspiration to help spawn descriptions, dialogue, or ideas for just about anything that comes up at the table. Check out my examples of how they’re used below.
Story Dice Example: Describe a Room
Walk into a cavern, and the players are curious what’s around? Whoops, you don’t know/don’t remember/really, really thought they’d go the other much more interesting way.
No problem. Toss the dice. I got a pyramid, a sheep, and an airplane.
“Sure, let me tell you what’s going on in here. You walk into this cavern room, and you notice immediately how stuffy and warm it is. Much warmer than the other areas of the cave. It’s brighter, too. The source of the heat and light is a pyramid of magical fire that is slowly rotating, floating through the air above you.”
Here’s what this does: It looks like we planned a kickass cavern puzzle room. Did we? Nope. We just rolled some fun dice. Now our players are super interested in this weird, magical item. Maybe you make it something important. Maybe it’s just a decoration. That’s your call.
Story Dice Example: Enliven an NPC
How about an example for an NPC, since that’s what we’re focusing on today?
This time I rolled just two dice and got a turtle and a speech bubble.
Easy. This… N…P…C…talksss…. reeeeeaaaaalllly….. infurrriatinggllyyy…. SLLLOOOOWWWLLYY.
Again, it gives the appearance of having planned for this NPC, but we didn’t. Use your tools and save yourself some time.
Plug-n-Play NPC Printout
I made a chart of some quick-reference plug-n-play people. You can download it HERE.
It’s just a list of NPC names and a few random things about them. I like printing something like this out because I can jot on it during the game, and it serves as a reminder of what happened with the NPC the last time we met.
One of these became a Luskan diplomat that after a very serious dance-off involving cowbells, and granted the PCs some knowledge that gives them a +2 to any Charisma roll when dealing with a Luskan (and thus, Jarlaxle–pivotal in our campaign in Waterdeep).
It’s easy, it’s quick, it’s free. Check it out.
Explore What’s Out There
Enlist the myriad of talented Dungeon Masters sharing their resources for free! People can be so incredibly talented and hardworking.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- Interesting Tavernkeepers D100
- NPC Generator
- 1000 NPC Traits
- NPC Names
- In our game, Jaq Le’quet is a glassblower and salesman in Waterdeep. I picked this name, and then my mouth said: “With Jaq Le’quet, you know what you get!” Which my PCs thought was hilarious (and demonstrates my inability to speak French). They have revisited him multiple times and know his goofy catchphrase… sometimes they even say it with him, which is adorable.
- Oh My Gamemaster!
In order to use these effectively during a game, I will preload a few tabs and have them ready to click on in case I need a quick, fresh NPC name and stats/details. This makes it look like I already had the person ready to go, which… I guess I SORT of did, but you know.
This prep and setup might seem redundant or excessive to some of us. For me, I use all of these resources pretty much every time we sit down at the table. I want to have awesome NPCs populating what appears to be an infinite, interesting city ready for my players to learn about and explore.
Now, hop over to part two if you want to read about how to ensure effective delivery.
If you have any other tools you swear by, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
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