Characterising NPCs: D&D Tips with James Gifford

d&d Mar 08, 2019

James Gifford, author and illustrator of Dungeon Diaries, returns to improve your Dungeons and Dragons encounters…

Perhaps more than any other part of the game, Non-Playable Clones (NPC)s are especially challenging to bring to life: Testing your skills in improvisation, voices, characterization and acting. Often, it’s difficult to create memorable ones and they seem to all bleed into one generic paladin into the other.

Here’s some tips on how to manage NPCs.

Improvised NPCs.

For most NPCs, you can get away with one-note improvised characters. Merchants, commoners, town guards…These you can elaborate on if they become more significant, so start with their names first.

I have a list of random names sorted into different races and genders. I organise these roughly according to how fancy they sound. Obnoxious, high society names like “Lord Brampton Stempleburgiss IV” being near the top and “Pam” and “Maud” being near the bottom. This makes it easier to pick out names according to the person’s social standing.

If you struggle to improvise the characters themselves, consider having a list of short descriptions: “A half-orc with grass stains on her apron and a basket of fresh herbs.” as well as random character traits: “Angry, easily-impressed, Bored, Boring, Chatty” – make these things you can impersonate with ease.

Planned NPCs

As for NPCs that are more central to the plot, begin with a concept of who the NPC is. What is their role in the story? Where have they come from, and where are they going? What rank in society do they have? The best NPC’s I’ve found are non-adventuring types. An Overly-cheerful and chatty Mortician might know just as much about the local town gossip as a boring old thief. Not everyone will be an adventurer!

A good name can say a lot about a person’s character. What person do you imagine when you hear: Gradilan Harrowmont, Fiona “Fingertwitch”, Spud Puddleweed, or Betty Hubble? Names containing nouns or adjectives tell a lot about the person. Monosyllabic, or Alliteration names are often quirky and easier to remember. Test the phonetic sounds different names make from different cultures. Vowel heavy words “ess”,”ao” and “aia” are often softer and more fluid. Consonant heavy words with “Kh”, “t” and “d” are harder. Think on how a name like “Krandall” feels harsher than “Loreli” or “Diana”.

Avoid names that are too long, hard to pronounce or might be confused with other characters. No one wants to be friends with Gluptkzhol-Kzoth’Vanar of house Greydeath. Good luck finding him on Facebook.

Needless to say, appearance can tell a lot too. Think on the details: a holy symbol around the neck, a tattoo, a well-groomed beard. Think of fictional characters you love, and pick apart what you like about their appearance. Exaggerate and paint a picture that is strange and dramatic, if there’s nothing that inspires curiosity in your players, you’ve gone wrong.

First Meeting

So, you have your NPC figured out. Now to put them into action. A good entrance can make a huge difference, even if you screw up the character later, everyone will remember how you first met! Prepare a short paragraph to read out. Describe what they’re doing. Actions speak louder than words and it’s much easier to narrate than impersonate!

“A wicked-looking elven woman, with a severed nose sneers at you and mutters something to her drunk friends, who roar with laughter (perception check to hear what it was!)”

“The Barron is large, round, his purple attire matching his purple face which is swelling with rage. Holding a large ornate crossbow, he fires bolt after bolt into the portrait on the wall. THUD!…THUD!…THUD!…”

Dialogue: Exposition, Confirmation and Banter.

There are three main reasons to talk to NPCs: Exposition, Confirmation and Banter.


Some NPCs may go into detail about events that have, are or will happen in the game. They’ll give information about locations, monsters, themselves or other NPCs…etc. It’s good to be aware of what the NPC does and doesn’t know, and how willing they will be to impart certain information. Make notes on big secrets: “She knows her husband is the murderer! Will reveal if guaranteed safety.” This will help Shape their behaviour and conversation.

Bear in mind, lengthy dialogue has a weird way of slowing down the fun in the game when it is out of the blue. If you have a big moment such as a battle-rousing speech or a villainous monologue planned, it’s best to write it out when prepping notes.


Getting a second opinion on your campaign plan and theory is important and requires an NPC whom the players trust. Though Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gandalf is there to guide him and council him on his decisions. Without a trustworthy NPC, you risk the players being too doubtful to commit to their plans.


‘“Tell me more about your homeland.” The veteran smiles as he hands you a tankard of warm mead.’ These moments of idle conversation, though they may do little to address the story, are valuable. Building a bond between NPC and player is done through these every day interactions. These downtime moments where the player has a chance to not only ask the NPC about their personal life, but also talk about themselves. Banter offers nuggets of Roleplay goodness, in an otherwise strategic and calculated campaign.

Banter demands nothing of the players and allows a respite from the world of serious questing. In my last campaign, this role was filled by the plump rump of Granny Honeybuns. A partly-senile, glass-eyed, wooden-legged, hook-handed dwarven baker with a ravenous taste for younger men. “Here pet,” she would croon, offering a tray of stale gingerbread men to the Half-orc Barbarian, “Put some meat on those bones!”. Brushing his arm gently with her stainless-steel hook, she’d wink with her one good eye. “…Maybe afterwards you can put your meat in my bones?”

Honeybuns was certainly unforgettable. Her incorrigible flirting and awful pastries created a talking point that was outside the usual quest talk. Everyone reacted differently to her and it allows each player to be unique in their relationship with her.

It’s characters like Honeybuns that lighten the mood, proving comic relief after a grueling dungeon.

A little Monty Python after a session of Lord of the Rings.


James Gifford – delve into James’ Dungeon Diaries



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