One of my favorite things about writing a D&D adventure is the opportunity to create a plethora of NPCs for my players to interact with. They are the primary conduit for helping the party learn about the world around them and communicate vital story elements. NPCs are also a fantastic tool for introducing players (young players especially) to a rich variety of races, perspectives, and identities…This not only allows the players to explore their own creativity, but it introduces them to different ways of looking at and thinking about the world around them, to find the beauty in diversity. By contrast, games with static NPCs end up feeling lifeless…Here are some things to consider, starting with the basics, that will help you create diverse NPCs!
Diversity goes beyond just race, but this is the simplest topic to tackle first. Think about the makeup of both your world and your players. It’s natural to assume that certain races may be more common in some areas than others, but be sure to have a reason for it. If you have more exotic races in your party (Dragonborn, Aasimar, Kenku, etc.), you’ll need to determine how uncommon they are and why. If they meet others of their race, will they be met with apathy or enthusiasm? How do your NPCs respond to them?
Now, when I say “respond”, that doesn’t mean default to racial tension (i.e. the Elves and Dwarves in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy). While it may be an element of certain regions, try other types of interactions instead, like curiosity or excitement. Be mindful of the message you are sending through your NPCs. Young players especially enjoy playing a wide variety of races, so help them come out of their role-playing shell by having the world reflect the diversity they wish to see!
When it comes to cultures, think about how many different perspectives and practices that exist across humanity in our own world. It is logical to assume that the different races in your campaign setting would have different practices depending on their region as well. Communities far to the north will likely have very different practices, celebrations, and beliefs compared to island cultures to the south. The typical D&D setting also has a plethora of different deities that may inspire your characters. How does their religion affect their behaviors? Elves, Dwarves, Humans, etc., will be influenced not only by the cultures and beliefs of their people but even more significantly by the local communities they are part of.
Another common pitfall is making NPCs of certain backgrounds or professions the same gender. For example, blacksmiths and guards are most often male, while healers and servers in the tavern tend to be female. Don’t be afraid to change up the gender representation and identities of your NPCs and challenge the conventional roles. Some of the most memorable NPCs are those who defy those stereotypes. Sure, the argument of what is or is not historically accurate is a common argument…but remember that you are using a world of your own creation (even in a pre-published adventure). There is nothing “historically accurate” about dragons and magic (at least in terms of what is recorded 😛 ). However, people of different gender identities (whether male, female, non-binary, heterosexual, homosexual, transgender and transsexual, and many more), did exist and have been recorded in various historical accounts. Don’t be afraid to explore that! If you’re stuck, you can experiment with different options during NPC creation to see how it helps the personality develop. Some D&D podcasts and streams are really effective at including NPCs of different gender identities– find some good examples for inspiration!
A population typically has a certain spread of age demographics. For example, the 2017 UK population statistics indicated that the majority of the population fell between the ages of 45 and 54, per the chart above. What is the average age of people within the town or city you’ve created? Are you representing it through your NPCs, or are most of the people your party meets in a vague sort of middle-age range? In medieval times, the average lifespan was pretty low, which means a lower percentage of older individuals– does your world operate in a similar manner? Think about the lifespans recommended in the Player’s Handbook for different races and try to maintain a good mix of ages and experiences for your party to interact with. Older NPCs are a fantastic way to reveal more of the history and lore of your world, while children will often provide simpler, more innocent perspectives.
Voices and Mannerisms
This is one of the first things that come to mind when you’re role-playing an NPC…but remember when I said that no acting skills are required! I still mean it! You don’t have to be a voice actor to create distinct NPCs. Think instead about the way they carry themselves, their speech patterns, and other interesting quirks. Do they speak quickly or slowly and deliberately? Do they have a lisp or a stutter? A slight rolling of the “r”s? What kind of “verbal fillers”, if any, do they usually use (“um”, “ok”, “right”. etc. )?
Do they speak with their hands or fidget with things during a conversation, or is their movement kept to a minimum? If they have long hair or a beard, do they mess with it when lost in thought? These are all things you can do to give your NPC a bit of character without needing to research accents…unless, of course, you are comfortable doing so! If that’s the case, then go for it! Don’t worry if your Irish Brogue isn’t quite right. You’re presenting a fictional world to your players…why judge yourself against a “real world” accent or dialect? Take your inspiration from a variety of different places and just have fun!
Personality and Motivations
I once played in a game where every NPC was either gruff and uncooperative, or completely, chaotically, mental. While those personalities certainly add flavor to your interactions, your players need variety! Crazy NPCs should be balanced with kind ones, and for every untrusting character, have someone who might be more eager to help. Think about how the elements listed above will impact the personalities. I’m not saying you need to develop complex backstories for each NPC, but considering each of these facets of their personalities will help you determine how they will represent the world you’ve created, and how they will interact with the players. You can create simple and handy reference notes for yourself by just jotting down a few bullet points (3-5) about the character.
When it comes to NPC motivations, consider the role they play in your story. What do they wish to accomplish and how does that impact their role in the adventure? Do they dream of adventure themselves, or do they prefer a quiet life at home? If their purpose is to convey a quest to the party, think about how their personality may impact the interaction.
An important note: Avoid stereotypes and caricatures. Yes, there are commonalities between members of the same race and community, but just as there is a vast range of personalities amongst people in the real world, so there should be in your fictional one. Not all Dwarves have to be ale-swigging, Scottish-accented, ruffians. Not all Orcs are aggressive or tribalistic. Think more about the environment in which they reside and how their experiences or motivations shape their attitudes, rather than falling into stereotypes. This same advice applies to real-world cultures that you may be using for inspiration and stereotypes you may unknowingly convey (if pulling from East Asian cultures, be wary of the Mr. Miyagi effect).
That was a longer post…so here are some final takeaways!
- You don’t have to be of a certain race, gender, or culture to represent diverse characters in a positive manner.
- When creating diverse NPCs, don’t simply perpetuate stereotypes and explore ways to present characters based on their motivations and personalities. Look beyond just their appearance!
- Adapt to the play style of your players. Did they choose a broad range of PCs for the game? Think about how your NPCs may interact with them.
- Always remember that your NPCs are living, breathing people within your world. They have their own stories and perspectives (for more about that, check out this post!)
Do you have some favourite NPCs that you’ve created or interacted with as a player? Share your stories below!