|Excerpt from the AD&D DMG tables for|
randomly generated NPC traits -- one of many!
Obviously not as much concern in well-stocked dungeons, in the cities, towns, and villages -- it is a concern, particularly if players do the old "I look around for someone interesting to talk to" or "I ask the nearest person walking by for information."
Now, assuming you've allowed some measure of plausibility (like making sure that the first few people they stop know nothing about what they're talking about unless it's pretty common knowledge, and eventually referring some expert), you know have to come up with one!
Determine the NPC type
The first thing to do is think about the purpose of this NPC. For more old school styles of play, I structure a mental table of NPC types based on plausibility and PC relevance. For example:
- Highly plausible, Highly relevant NPC
- Moderately plausible, Highly relevant NPC
- Implausible, Highly relevant NPC
- Highly plausible, irrelevant NPC
- Moderately plausible, irrelevant NPC
- Implausible, irrelevant NPC
A highly plausible character is usually a commoner or some type of professional that is quite numerous in the given setting. In a city, this could be a shopkeeper, a barmaid, a craftsman, and so on.
A moderately plausible character is a more specialized individual, including former adventurers, commoners with hidden pasts and interesting secrets, and transient NPCs that frequent this location -- other adventurers, travelers, traders.
An implausible character (which should be quite rare, obviously) is meant to add color to whatever setting you're adventuring in -- possibly showing PCs that while they may be of some importance, they're not the only game in town. High level adventurers, villainous lieutenants, monsters in disguise, incognito nobility, and gods walking the earth fall into this category.
When statting out these characters...
- highly plausible characters should have at most only one attribute giving a +1 bonus, and perhaps one attribute giving a penalty, with their primary attribute quite possibly being the one with the bonus OR one of the average ones;
- moderately plausible characters should have one attribute with a +2 bonus (probably the primary), and one attribute with a +1 bonus -- attributes with penalties are optional;
- implausible characters can have at least one attribute with a +3 bonus (definitely the primary), an appropriate class and level for their background, and some reasonable excuse as to why the PCs will be unable to use them as a source for XP (they are in a discussion with the law of the town, they are heavily armed and just recently fully healed, they are ridiculously powerful and show it, they have hastily prepared exits, etc.)
If all NPCs were relevant, plots would be more or less straightforward and quite boring. In the old school or simulationist schools, they tend to be relevant if you were strategic or logical in finding them. I mean, remember those early computer RPGs where you talked to EVERYONE? I mean, if you were on a secret quest, you'd be as popular as Norm in Cheers if you did that every time you went into a new location.
So, if the NPC is relevant you can further break that down to these options:
- relevant to the PC party's current purpose
- relevant to the PC party's long-term purpose
- relevant to the PC's current purpose (which can be different from the party's)
- relevant to the PC's long-term purpose (which can be different from the party's)
- relevant to the PC's subplot (if you do those things)
- relevant to another PC's subplot (warning: derail possibility here, but fun to roleplay in objective-driven groups)
- relevant to the PCs because they inadvertently drop partially or totally true information that forces them to rethink what they consider as true (your current patron died a long time ago, nobody goes to that dungeon because there are doppelgangers there, small outpost -- don't you mean the headquarters of the kobold army?) -- but his can be difficult to pull off well
- an information device / expositionary character about life in the current location
- an information device / expositionary character about future adventure hooks
- an information device / expositionary character with hints in their stories about future dangers
- an information device / expositionary character about life in other parts of the setting
- a potential ally (patron, someone with a common goal, a potential mentor) who eventually becomes interested in the PCs
- a potential enemy (rival, spy, criminal) who eventually must deal with the PCs
How do you prep for emergency NPCs in your games?