Sunday, June 30, 2013

NPCs and Three Things

One of the things I like in the Trail of Cthulhu books is an NPC approach they use called "three things" - give the referee three different colorful elements about the NPC to help characterization at the table.  I'm reading through the draft Eternal Lies (sidebar:  the Eternal Lies campaign is excellent) and I'm glad to see the authors used the "three things" approach for the NPCs.  Too often, game books present NPC's through material that isn't immediately gameable, or ever gameable, like background, or history.  ZZzzzzz - nothing puts me to sleep faster than, "Let me tell you about my character."

Here's a three-things-style example - the old coot's "three things" include: a bulbous nose (red and veined from alcoholism); he squints and picks at the gap where he's missing a few side teeth; he usually starts his sentences with "The way I reckon it..."

The coot description could still have the same background and motivation you'd see in a typical NPC write-up if it's necessary to give him history notes; "three things" is emphasis on observable things that actually matter during roleplaying.

But you have to put your energy into what's actually important for your game.  In a dungeon crawling game, NPC's aren't that important and are just another flavor of monster (with the same amount of screen time - they're around long enough for a good death scene).  But if you're going to spend time writing about the history and mental state of the NPC (lord help me) you might as well spend some time on a few observable descriptions and mannerisms.  Those are the kinds of things that are actually going to make the NPC memorable.


  1. Or, you know, you could use an extensive list of random three things... ;)

  2. The Adventures Dark and Deep Game Masters Toolkit does the very same thing. There's a lengthy list of mental and physical traits to roll on (100 of each), and you either pick or roll 1d3 traits to give NPCs a hook or two to make them memorable.

  3. I haven't seen too many great tables out there that list lots of character traits and mannerisms. I think the ones I use at home, I had to cobble together myself from a couple of non-D&D sources (and supplement them with some things that would make sense for a Vikings game).

    @Joseph: that's fantastic you included them!

    1. I just found myself really needing it for my own game, so it made sense to include it in the book. That's one of the things I'm really bad at winging, but the tables really help. I'd include it on a DM screen.

  4. Joseph's table are very good. The whole book is very good. Usually when I do NPCs I do one or two things to try and flesh them out. Now I see I have room for a third thing. Why not.

  5. I love this blog.

    Savage Worlds has a d20 table for NPC temperment. It's short and sweet; you can get a lot of mileage out of it if you match the type of character to the situation and NPC's at hand. It also works well for groups; the "artistic" descriptor can be interpreted as "decorated" either with medals and other tokens of recognition, trophies, or wild adornment.

    3 things would also be a good way to characterize 1st level PC's. "shaved head, cracks neck a lot, lean and vascular" vs. "Shaggy black hair, antsy, muscular" can describe the same level 1 fighting man.