WFRP: A Cast of 1d1000s

Cubicle 7 writer Ben Scerri is back with a new blog post today! Make sure you catch up on his last post and let us know what you think over on Facebook and Twitter!

Hello, WFRP fans. A few weeks ago I ran through some methods to create Creatures for your campaigns, so today I thought I’d run through some tips for making Non-Player Characters (NPCs)! What’s the difference between a Creature and an NPC, you ask? Well, that’s a murky subject, and certainly something we’ll talk about. But the big difference is that an NPC has character — a mind of their own, motivations, quirks, you name it. NPCs are also likely to be recurring — popping up again and again in the same adventure, or even showing up across a whole campaign.

Without trying to overstate it, your cast of NPCs is the next most important thing to an engaging campaign after the Player Characters themselves. This cast will act as the mouthpieces of the GM and the setting in general, interacting with the Characters, and (depending on your style of campaign) taking up the majority of the GM’s time in roleplay.

They’re a pretty big deal, huh? But what goes into making them? What needs to be considered to create engaging NPCs? As always, we’re going to take a two-pronged approach: mechanics on one hand, and fiction on the other…

Degrees of NPCs

To make things easier, I’m going to introduce a new concept to the discussion: Major and Minor NPCs.

Major NPCs are those who will show up often, or will be the centre of attention for a good deal of time. Primary antagonists and villains, patrons of the Characters, friends and allies, and other Characters who make a significant impact to your campaign all fit under this umbrella.

Minor NPCs are the opposite — closer to, but still distinct from, Creatures. They likely only show up once or twice. They will either add details to a scene, or play a relatively inconsequential role. Shopkeepers, bartenders, guards, travellers on the road, and similar incidental Characters. However, just because they’re less important, that they still require character! Even the lowliest NPC needs a name and some flavour to make them credible, engaging, and fun.

Whilst both Major and Minor NPCs should be characterful, the two types serve very different purposes. They are separated by how much time and effort the GM should spend creating them, based on how much value they will add to your games. It is also worthwhile mentioning that NPCs might start out as Minor, and then warrant upgrading to Major NPCs in time. But we’ll cover that in a moment...

The Mechanics of an NPC

There are three methods that work well when making an NPC:

  • Character Templates: using one of the templates on page 311 of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay).
  • Modular Career Method: using a basic template (see above) with additional Careers.
  • Full Characters: making a full-fledged character, and giving them a lump of XP.

Method #1: Character Templates

The first method is really simple: take one of the templates on page 311, make some choices with the Traits given, and maybe pick an Optional Trait or two. When doing this, remember all Characters have access to the Generic Creature Traits on page 310. For NPCs that really need to stand out, choose some more exotic Traits.

The big difference is in the purpose of the NPC. These Character Templates work well for throw-away NPCs; especially those which are more Combat focused, because there is no time spent on Skills or Talents. They’re raw numbers and Traits.

For the most part, you want to use the Character Templates for Minor NPCs — brigands, cultists, that sort of thing. However, you can also use these templates to make compelling major villains, such as Cult Maguses or Elite Assassins.

Example: The Chaos Cultist known as Father Bilegullet is represented with the standard Human template, with the following Traits: Prejudice (Sigmarites), Disease (Neiglish Rot), Spellcaster (Chaos, Daemonology), Champion, Clever, Cunning, Fear (2), Infestation, and Leader.

Method #2: Modular Careers

The second method is my favourite, as it’s both quick and extremely versatile. The idea is to take the basic template above, and instead of piling on Traits, you pile on Careers and an appropriate Trait or two. Choose which Career the NPC is in, and then do the following steps per Career Level:

  1. +5 in that Career’s Characteristic Advances
  2. +5 to 8 of their available Skill choices
  3. 1 Talent from their available Talent choices
  4. All the Trappings.

If you want the Character to be a more varied, mix and match different Careers, add appropriate Traits, and add extra Skill Advances to show unique training or expertise! Maybe they’re a Wizard now, but in the past they were a Witch, a Beggar, and then a Wizard’s Apprentice. Combine them all together and you get something special.

This method works very well for both Minor and Major NPCs, because it gives a solid spread of Characteristics, Skills, Talents, Traits, and Trappings. You can throw together a simple peasant NPC by taking the template and applying the Peasant Career. Alternately, you can make a powerful patron for the Characters, who will appear time and time again, by loading on all the Careers!

The best thing about this method? It takes very little time. Within moments, you have varied and interesting NPCs.

Method #3: Full Characters

The final method is by far the longest, but the most customisable: making an NPC in the exact same way as you’d make a Character. Go through the Character Creation steps, but just pick everything you need. Or if you want to have a few surprises as you create the Character, feel free to randomly roll.

Once you have the new Character, decide on how much XP they have, and start picking advances. For a reasonably competent NPC, 1000 XP should be enough. For more powerful NPCs, 4000 XP or more makes for a strong starting point… and you can always add more if you feel the need. For example: The Countess of Nuln has many thousands of XP!

This method results in mechanically surprising Characters that work perfectly for very important NPCs, but the method is a little overkill for Minor NPCs, and not really advised. Furthermore, it’s worth stating that your Players won’t know how much work you put into your NPCs, so really, any of these methods work fine. If you enjoy making NPCs, go right ahead and use this method! If not, Method #2 should cover you perfectly.

However, there is one key benefit to using this method: the NPCs can advance alongside the Characters. If the NPC is a companion of the Characters but not a Henchman (see WFRP, page 309), this benefit is obvious, and means they remain relevant throughout. But the real kicker comes when you consider the villains are technically undergoing their own adventures at the same time as the Characters. Every time the Characters fail, the villains gain more XP, and vice versa!

Converting One to the Other

You may find yourself, at some point, wishing to convert a Minor NPC to a Major NPC… For example: the Characters meet a solitary guard on duty at the city gates, strike up a conversation, and then ten sessions later they’re trying to get the guard married to one of their friends, and the guard is pivotal to the ongoing world-ending plotline. (Yes, this is a real example that happened to me.)

When you need to convert them across, it’s best to start from scratch, and build the NPC into the new role. Once again, your Players will never know what the NPCs stats were to begin with, so they will not notice the change on your side of the screen!

Creatures Becoming NPCs

Another interesting prospect is converting Creatures into NPCs, which comes with a lot of exciting possibilities! To do this, follow the Random Creatures and Custom PC Species rules from WFRP, page 314, and generate the Creature NPCs using either Method #2 or #3 above.

Also remember that the Careers are abstract! A Skaven Greyseer could be made by applying the Wizard Career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually a Wizard, or that they somehow got admitted to the Colleges of Magic. Just use what feels closest, and make some changes to the Career if it doesn’t fit perfectly.

This works wonders if you have recurring Creatures as villains, or you wish the Characters to form relationships with Creatures (whether friendly or adversarial). Consider a Skaven Assassin who ends up hiring the Characters to work as its agents in Ubersreik; this would make a perfect Creature NPC!

Breathing Life Into NPCs

Now that we’ve got all the dusty numbers out of the way, let’s talk about the most important aspect of a NPC… the character part! Compelling roleplaying is vastly more about who the character is and how they act, rather than what statistics govern their rules.

To my mind, there are three things every NPC needs (Major more so than Minor, but even our supporting cast needs some TLC): a name, a motivation and a unique characteristic.

Give Them A Name

Every NPC needs a name. Simple as that. Even if your Players never ask, giving an NPC a name changes them from being a face in the crowd to being someone… And I can guarantee your Players will ask for names, regardless!

Having a handy list of names at the ready works wonders. I cannot stress enough how useful this is as a resource (for Players and GMs alike). Whether it is using the lists of names found in the Character Creation chapter, researching appropriate names, or using one of the thousands of random name generators, it never hurts to have a list that you can pull from at the table.

My advice is to have a printed list so that you can tick off names and make notes next to them when they come up. Also, remember that this is the Old World, and that names are shared a lot between different people, so feel free to use the same first and last names over and over again in new combinations. Maybe all those Schoenbachers are actually related? And who doesn’t love a bit of farce when three Heinrichs turn up to the same noble party, see Rough Nights And Hard Days for such an event!)

Motivations and Ambitions

Next, just like the Player Characters, every NPC needs a Motivation and some Ambitions. What do they want to achieve (in the adventure, or beyond it), and why? It also helps to work out how far are they willing to go to achieve it!

By giving NPCs these three things, it makes your life as a GM so much easier: you know what they are trying to get out of the Characters in any scene, why they want to get it, and what they’re willing to do to get it.

For most Minor NPCs, this can be handled with short answers:

Example: A shopkeeper, Gustav, wants: Money to fulfill his lifestyle, and he works hard to get it.

Simple, but we understand what Gustav cares about: he isn’t interested in being friendly unless it makes him money. He’ll be very helpful, if he thinks the Characters are going to buy something, but will likely be brisk and rude if they’re wasting his time. Further, if we change even one fact about the above, we get a completely different NPC, who could function in a completely different way for the adventure!

Example: As above, but now his Ambition is: To afford medicine for his sick child.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Gustav is likely a lot more eagre to make the sale, and will potentially even mention his child during the transaction, playing the pity game. Alternately, he might present as a prouder yet sadder individual, sticking to his morals with the weight of his reality on his shoulders… Either way, a compelling NPC!

However, when it comes to Major NPCs, you’ll want to spend more time on this step. Indeed, the majority of your adventure preparation may focus on this! When you write compelling Motivations, Ambitions, and methods which conflict with each other, you create perfect opportunities for conflict and thrilling adventure.

Make Them Stand Out

The last step is to give the NPC something the makes them stand out: a quirk, a piece of clothing, a mannerism, a particular turn of phrase, a distinctive physical trait. Whatever it is, it should serve as a touchstone for the NPC whenever the Characters interact with them. Every time you describe the NPC, it should be one of the first things you mention.

This kind of reinforcement builds a strong mental image for your Players, and creates truly memorable NPCs. Even if Players don’t remember an NPC’s name, they’ll always remember the way he twirls his mustache as he talks to himself!

Just as with coming up with names, it can help to write out a list of random quirks to use at the table… or feel free to draw from your own life. Think of all the interesting people you’ve met down the years, and cherry pick the first thing you remember about them. You could have a lot of fun with this and it’s always useful to have this list for future adventures.

Tying Recurring NPCs Into Published Adventures

The last topic I want to cover is tying your recurring NPCs into published adventures. Whilst every adventure Cubicle 7 publish comes with a cast of ready NPCs, sometimes it makes more sense (and would be more thematically powerful) if a role was taken instead by someone your Characters already know.

With that in mind, you should feel free to substitute NPCs the Characters know and love for any NPCs throughout any published adventure; after all, it’s your Campaign, and no one has to know!

Furthermore, the opposite might be true. Make sure to take note of any NPCs the Players really enjoy at the table, and look for ways to weave them into your later stories. Perhaps the Players really loved Rudi Klumpenklug from WFRP The Starter Set or Madam Vadoma from If Looks Could Kill Well, next time the Characters need a Watchman or a Mystic, you know just who to call upon!

Characters Make the Old World Go ’Round

By creating compelling NPCs, you’ll make game sessions that your Players will remember for years to come. My group still talks about Captain Kubeh Tyurin who tucks his overlong mustache into his belt to keep it from dragging on his ship deck…

Until next time, folks, make sure to flood our social media channels with your favourite NPCs, and share ideas for everyone’s Campaigns!