How do you describe your NPCs? - Or more importantly, what do you not describe?

When I stated writing down the characters for the campaign I currently run, I followed a very strict formula:

Name | Race | Age | Body | Hair | Clothing
non-visual features and other notes

However that lead to a lot of them looking like this:

Harley Own | Human | 43 | somewhat small | short dark hair | not special
somewhat unprofessional; owns a nightclub

Someone being of median age, not wearing special clothing and having a inconspicuous hairstyle is not really interesting and dilutes anything exciting about that character.
So I startet leaving out most information about hairstyles, body type, clothing and age for the players to fill in and only mention it if it’s something especially interesting that defined that character.
I generally feel like that is working out fine and makes characters more memorable (because I always describe the same interesting detail about them), but I can also lead to situations where one player believes an NPC to be barley adult and another pictures them als ancient, because I never defined there age.

Do you have a fixed formula for describing NPCs? Do you tend to describe few or many details?

Mine are fairly similar, but I always want to emphasize having a role-playing prompt for an NPC. This is a short, sentence-style snippet that encapsulates enough for the GM to play the character in the context they’re expected to appear in. That’s the line beneath or beside the name, and I only make any other notes if they’re not clear from context.

So, a barkeep might get: The bar is owned and run by Corian (Talkative but exhausted from a long day).

A group of bandits might get: Five bandits with bows and clubs (Lots of swagger, but scared of a real fight).

For someone that’s not a minor character, I’d add more detail, but I think it’s generally best to keep it thin.

Age, hair color, build, similar details, I also leave off unless they’re important. So, the barkeep could have been: Corian (Talkative but exhausted from a long day; Seven foot tall elf with violet hair).

That’s all in-line. If it’s in a block, it’s more like:

Talkative but exhausted from a long day
Female elf; 7’ tall; Violet hair
< stats go here if needed >

My stat-blocks are still in flux and I think I change my mind every time. But I always want the RP line to come first after the name. That’s the priority, for me.

I agree. NPC appearance description seems to be superfluous while playing and also players (at least my players) tend to forget it very quickly regardless. At best (if you have a good generator) it might give you enough pause during the game to think about more important stuff.

On that note I been thinking of expanding the “reaction” roll, which informs how to roleplay an NPC (at least initially) and just going with that until they become more important to the story.

I seem to agree with most of you. Until recently I have written far too much about NPC to keep track of; I’m trying something new right now with a module I’m working on. The core of it, like for a lot of you, is a single sentence, which may contain their personality and/or their appearance.

Name (pronouns, age) (optional: relevant or important condition). Optional: Creature type/race. Description and/or personality. Job/role/relationship to others.

In a perfect world I’d leave off their age, but I often find it helps me situate everything in my brain and find a voice for them. Also, I use a shorthand for pronouns: she/her: s; he/him: h; they/them: t; xe/xir x; he/they: h/t, and so on.

This is the list of “relevant” NPCs (and a few random ones) that live in a town, separated by relevant household or business.

  • Church
    • Selia (s, 29). Gentle, soft-spoken, zealous. Deputy priest.
    • Father Gorma (h, 47) (missing). Bearded, cocky, friendly. Head priest.
    • Dublor (h/t, 15). Pimply and emotional, worried for his sister. Altar boy.
      • Bodonsk (s, 18) (missing). Tall, beautiful, likes to practice magic. Missing sister.
  • The Giant Pickle Inn & Tavern
    • Golifalia (s, 49). Large, green, loves meeting new people. Owner & bartender.
    • Saliba (s, 54). Short, stocky, pointy ears, sings while she cooks. Wife & chef.
    • Jeff (h, 22). Skinny, greasy, tusky smile, socially awkward. Nephew & host.
  • Blacksmith
    • Jalma Hotstone (t, 40). Muscular, blond, busty, sad eyes. Smith.
    • Urdak Hotstone (h, 38) (missing). Round, soft-spoken, musical. Husband & bookkeeper.
  • Town Docks
    • Laglarg (s, 46). Frogfolk. Friendly, slow, fishes and drinks to pass the time. Boat guide.
  • Guffrie’s General Store
    • Guffrie (t, 59). Gruff but respectful, frugal. Shopkeep.
    • Durl (s, 14). Bored, gossipy. Janitor & cashier in training.
  • Around town
    • Jean-Luc (h, 65). Raspy, prejudiced. Grandpa, retired farmer.
    • Pally (s, 35). Missing teeth, burly. Mother of three, pumpkin farmer.
    • Stique (t, 48). Quiet, matter-of-fact, chews straw. Chicken breeder.
    • Styvuk Bullgab (s, 54). Anxious, proper, sensitive, short. Mayor.
    • Algum & Lublob A pair of young lovers who disappeared into the woods.
      • Algum (h, 16) (missing). Congested, muscly, long flowing blond hair.
      • Lublob (t, 16) (missing). Cracking voice, flirty, afro.
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Literally not a problem.
The moment a piece of info becomes relevant, it can easily be made clear, and everyone’ll be on the same page after that.

For my NPCs I started using, with great effect in many different games, a method I originally found in Apocalypse World (barely mentioned in the rulebook and pretty rudimentary in the 1ed, fractionally more polished in the 2ed) and that eventually became standard for Fantasy World:

So basically name and body part.
Everything else is window dressing that can come, if and when needed, from these two core details.

If then a specific NPC, or a distinct group of them, becomes really important and relevant, then and only then it gets the “Agent” treatment, which pretty much adds more details to their goals, drives and behaviours.
But what makes them recognizable and unique will always be the body part and how it is translated by the GM into NPC behaviour.

This is a technique usable in pretty much any system, imho.

A practical example:
In an adventure the PCs encountered a bunch of giant sentient spiders.

  • One was very small, obviously young, with big curious eyes, and I played her like a curious child.
  • One had a raised streak of white fur, kind of like a mohawk, and I played him like a punk rebel.
  • One had particularly long and thin legs, and I played him like a politician.
  • etc

Although they arguably all looked alike to the PCs, and they never knew their names in spider-tongue, the Players had vivid impressions of each and every NPC.
I really vouch for this technique :slight_smile:

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