A lot of what you read about D&D concerns players. How to build them, maximize your abilities and if you’re lucky tips on role playing. I’ll get around to all of those things, but I want these articles to focus on the biggest job in the game. As a DM, you hold everything together. Keep the narrative together. Provide interesting, challenging adversaries to fight. Design and create fun, immersive locations for adventuring. With all that to juggle, a DM needs all the tools he/she can get. One of the most helpful, and one I find is overlooked by a lot of DM’s is the NPC.
Now, any gamer knows the NPC. How many times have you hit the “talk” button on the same generic body in town multiple times, just to make sure you got all the info it was going to give you. Have to find the next quest right? No need to remember their name or anything. Or how long their shop has been open, how many kids they have and if they find you attractive (or scary). Well, you’re missing out.
NPC interaction is the core of any D&D session. Not only are they a storytelling tool, they allow the DM to get in much needed role playing. In a way, it can be more fun than playing. You can be anyone, anytime. Memorable NPCs, the ones that really resonate with the players become regulars in the game, giving the DM opportunities to give them what they want. Does the bard like to flirt? Well that sassy ginger barmaid’s constant rejections will drive him/her to epic showmanship. Does the Fighter need better armor? The brash Dwarven blacksmith just made a new best friend! Don’t get me started on the somehow-always-dirty British orphan boy who follows the brooding Drow everywhere he/she goes.
Plus, those fun interactions make a basic, run of the mill storyline seem fresh and unique. It’s the conversations and laughter in between disarming traps and murder hobo-ing that make sessions memorable. I admit, I DO tend to forget what name I give some of them, but every NPC I’ve ever created contains a tiny piece of myself. Each is an aspect of my personality, experiences or just an impression of a famous person/character. All it takes is an accent (my British always ends up Australian) or quirky trait (a limp, a lisp, paranoia or oh-so-obvious secret) to create an NPC that is important, memorable and just as big a part of your game as the players.
To illustrate my point, I think the tale of a little boy named Tiny Mitch needs to be told. The year was 2013. I was trying to put a new D&D group together. I got a few guys together, all of them were good role players so I knew I had to bring my A game to make the sessions memorable. I was running a module called Madness at Gardmore Abbey, a big sandbox module for 4th edition D&D. Now, 4th edition had some issues, mainly because it focused alot on combat and tactical maps. This module was really well written, and I knew with good role players we could make it work. As the team entered the town that served as their “home base” for the story, I realized they would need a guide, someone to show them the major spots in town. I hadn’t prepared anything, so on the fly I had the team cross paths with an adorable orphan boy. Randomly, he was British. He was very animated, mainly because I downed a huge Red Bull right before the session. Well, to say the players fell in love with him instantly is an understatement. He was supposed to be just a person they meet once, but in no time at all he became an honorary team member, got adopted by the team’s Barbarian (a giant insect named Click-Click) and was the first person they sought out every time they returned to town from their wacky adventures. Sadly, Tiny Mitch was killed by a demon in the final encounter, and his death full on enraged the group. His burial was what the kids call a “tear jerker”. None of us will ever forget him.
Tiny Mitch, just a spur of the moment creation meant to serve a basic purpose became the center point of the whole game. BTW, 3 years later our group still meets once a week and even spawned a second group. I credit Tiny Mitch for that, and I’ll be forever grateful.
So, as you prepare for your next (or first) session, maybe create your own Tiny Mitch and bring your game to life.