Dungeon Master Basics – The Problem of Random and Unimportant NPC’s

The waitress in the inn common room. The owner of the General Store. The two guys on guard outside the merchant’s shop. Your world is peopled by thousands of unimportant NPC’s that your players will breeze right by. But every DM has faced that moment when, in the midst of dealing with the stableboy, one of your players turns to you and asks, ‘What’s his name?’ And you freeze. And stare, mouth open, and there goes the suspension of disbelief as the best you can do is, “…Bobby?” How can you avoid these moments? How can you avoid presenting two dimensional NPC’s, yet not drive yourself crazy trying to come up with detailed descriptions of every living person in your city?

The answer is simple, and can actually be quite fun. Before I get to the main method, however, let me give you another piece of advice first: cheat. Simply base your NPC on somebody you already know. This can be a movie star, a friend, a character from a book. The players want more information on the guard? Instead of blanking, just base him on Kevin Costner. Or Boromir from Lord of the Rings. Or anybody. A quick mental substitution can result in a wealth of information as you suddenly relax and begin to describe the guard with ease and precision.

But better yet is to be prepared. The way to do that is to always, always, always have a list of randomly generated names at hand, printed and ready for use. Just Google ‘Randomly Generated Fantasy Names’ and click on one of the links. I just did that, and generated the following: Nissenth, Nechtur, Rynnrtild, Targh, Sondn, and Quirr. Generate some 20 of these before hand and paste them into Notepad, and you’re set.

Names are an excellent start, but it’s so easy to make an NPC memorable that it’s a crime not to. Instead of saying, “Nissenth is a human guard with a halberd” you can take it a few easy steps further. You do this by creating a list of random physical quirks, ten being enough for a single session. These could be something like:
1) One eye
2) Bald
3) Incredible tall
4) Stinks like a sewer
5) Slouches
6) No teeth
7) Flower in his lapel
8) Massive holy symbol around neck
9) Hairy as an ape
10) No fingers on left hand.

Finally, create one last table and this time make it personality traits, such as
1) Furious
2) Perverted
3) Sly
4) Stupid
5) Incorrigible liar
6) Dreamer of peace
7) Lickspittle
8) Fallen noble
9) Hiding something
10) Flamboyant ex-actor.

So, you don’t have to roll for them, but when your players approach the guard and show more than a passing interest in him, you can simply look at your lists, see what catches your eye, and instead of saying, “Nissenth is a human guard with a halberd” you can now say:

Nissenth is a bald, stinky man who stares at your crotch with a stupid, vacuous expression on his face” or “Nissenth is a toothless man with no fingers on his left hand who gazes at you furiously, face red, right hand clutching at the massive holy symbol around his neck” or even “Nissenth is as hairy as an ape, has a flower on his lapel, and strikes a dramatic pose as you approach, gazing at you out of the corner of his eye to see if you admire his figure.”

Trust me, Nissenth will be all the more fun and memorable for it!