A Non Player Character is a character under the control of the GM. They are there to provide backstory to a campaign, and to advance the plot or to un-snag narrative hooks. The role of the NPC is essentially to provide and infuse life to the game, so the Players have an avenue to suspend their disbelief (and ignore the fact that they are just a horde of sweaty guys in a basement with a bunch of dice). A world full of NPCs who are played well can lend credence to the reality of the world.
Sadly, this doesn't always happen, and the noble NPC is abused by many a DM who either doesn't know any better, or is a raging prick.
Types of NPCs
These NPCs act as normal people would. Going about daily lives, maybe interacting with the characters, maybe not. They aren't spectacular in any way, but they're realistic. Like King of RPGs says, the GM doesn't just play the monsters, they play the millions of people in the game world that bear you no ill will whatsoever. This is a Good NPC, and, done right, can replace any other NPC on this list.
Idiot cousin to the Inhabitant, this NPC waits around all day with their problem. They always have a problem, big or small, and they always just happen to be waiting for some strapping young lads like your party to help them out. Done wrong, they have little personality, totally helpless, and entirely necessary to begin or continue the plot as the DM has it laid out. This is a Okay NPC; though considered "crap" in the sense that they don't add much to the world itself, with a little work and imagination a good DM can turn them into a Good NPC by giving them, say, good reasons not to be able to help you out, or enough personality to make them enjoyable to watch.
PROTIP: Your questgiver is probably the most important NPC in your game, besides the BBEG, as he's probably the character your players will be spending the most time actually talking with. Entire essays have been written on this subject.
A dumb NPC that's there simply to take directions from the PCs. No free will to speak of, and is often used as a meat shield when danger arises. This is a Crap NPC, though they can be made okay, and they make up your rank-and-file soldiers in the armies of the Player Characters and the villains when campaigns become campaigns, so their necessity tends to make them more acceptable than some of the other types below. In sci-fi games, robots owned by the players often have this role.
Hirelings are similar to lackeys, but a bit smarter. They get surly and won't interpose themselves between the PCs and danger willingly. This is a Good NPC.
A very necessary character, offering either items, services (such as buffs), or both. This is usually an Okay or Crap NPC, but as with the Lackey above, somebody has to fill the role.
Side note, and the reason for inclusion here: "Funny" DMs will sometimes imply that all the Merchants are the same NPC, or at least related, with the same "funny" voice. Only complain if the "funny" voice is really annoying, or if the DM tries to hang a plot hook on that idea, as while it's obvious and overdone, it's obvious and overdone for a reason (merchants can be some of the most boring NPCs to think up, the most likely to need to be thought up on the fly, and the Disembowel-Meself-Honourably Dibbler solution is at least a functional one).
Fucked up for no reason. Brilliant in conversation, stupid in action. Exist solely to add 'flavor' to a DM campaign. Once in a blue moon, this NPC is tolerable. As a regular, he shifts from Crap NPC to Bad NPC. The archetype is given a free pass if they are sufficiently interesting player characters, though.
The DM really wanted to play, and so made a character up. Only now, he's in control, so things tend to go the NPC's way. He will often be min-maxed, but arbitrarily so, as the abilities seem to change with the encounters as they require. This is a Bad NPC - unless he knows how to stay out of the way for most of the time, which usually doesn't happen. Gandalf is often accused of being the only Good DMPC; in reality, Tom Bombadil was more likely the DMPC, and Gandalf was just an overleveled Player Character from another campaign that the DM let play anyway.
Then again, if the DM knows humility and the dangers of Mary Sues, these can be a helpful tool in situations like the following:
- Inexperienced players
- The players did not discuss what sort of characters they'll be building beforehand, and so the party ends up, for example, without a healer. The key is to not treat them any differently than you would any other player character.
- Shadowrun - if a player plays the team's Fixer, then they'll be bored as shit during a run. If the DM plays the Fixer, they are in a good spot to come up with background details on the spot when the team asks for research, and when the Fixer is out of play there are 'plenty' of other things taking up their attention.
As above, but with features that resemble the DM or his girlfriend. This is what the DM wants to be in his fantasy. There usually is a wall-o'-text dialogue from the NPC explaining his backstory, even if you just asked him for directions to a brothel. This is a Horrendously Bad NPC, and players are advised to be as subtle as possible in the execution of him or her, so the DM will only see what you did there after it has been done. And trust us, you will ALL want to kill this NPC.
Help with running NPCs
GMs often have difficulty using NPCs appropriately in their campaigns. Depending on the particular brand of GM, they might spend a disproportionate amount of time statting them or writing elaborate back stories, only for them to get killed or utterly bypassed by the players. They might also have difficulty actually role-playing a NPC who might only have had a limited role in their storyline, but the players keep going back to them.
So here are a few useful tips to remember for running your own NPCs.
- If you really have to give them a long-winded, poncy, made-up name, make sure you give them a title that the players can use. No-one remembers the difference between "Sunatela Estavros", "Donitri Kaliean" or "Likorian Goldmantle" but they do remember "King", "Guard Captain" and "Court Wizard".
- You don't always need to create the characters using the same method as the players (adding classes, skills and talents in order to "level" them to an appropriate match for the encounter), especially if they are intended only to perform particular roles. It's easier to just use simple stat-blocks detailing hit points, any relevant saves, attacks and equipment.
- A GM-controlled NPC doesn't need Knowledge or Lore skills, but should have all necessary information relevant to his part of the plot. More can be added later if need be.
- When actually "role-playing" NPCs, sometimes it's easier to just play alignments rather than complex personalities, so you don't get stuck figuring out what a given character has to do when presented with odd situations the party inevitably generates. These are not exhaustive, but mostly it means you don't need to have a spreadsheet of motivations at hand when players press an issue.
- Good NPCs are generally helpful, Neutral NPCs usually aren't interested in assisting unless incentives are offered. Lawful NPCs typically have reservations against social faux pas and antisocial behaviour, while Evil NPCs simply want to take the player's stuff from them.
Player-controlled Companions, Cohorts, Followers, minions and robots often cause nightmares for even the most accommodating GMs. Mostly because any opportunity the players get to create more characters will inevitably be an opportunity to powergame or munchkin the crap out of them.
What's the point of having one balanced character who can help out in several situations and has an interesting back story, when you have a team of one-dimensional guys who are unrealistically maxed out in single skills and have only ever done one thing in their life ever? This is natural player behaviour, because even the most innocent person is not going to enjoy retreading the same ground with new characters, so they will build new supporting characters with their primary PC in mind. In the worst case, you get experience batteries or crafting monkeys who do nothing other than selflessly make the PCs gear. But even in the most harmless of situations, you get nameless dogsbodies who do nothing other than carry player gear around and act as extra inventory slots.
Some rulesets, like Saga Edition Star Wars or Only War, do companion characters unobtrusively and subtly so that they cannot be broken and they end up behaving as an extension of the character themselves, while other rulesets suffer from creating their companions exactly the same way as PCs.
One of the worst offenders is the 3rd Edition Leadership feat from D&D, which grants the player who takes it a major NPC cohort as well as a loyal group of low level followers. The main opinion among optimizers is that if the cohort and followers were separated into two feats (which D20 Modern did when it introduced them in D20 Past) they would both be the at the top of the list of most powerful feats in the game.
The original ruleset explicitly stipulated that followers had to be generated from the shitty NPC classes of Commoner, Warrior and Expert, and never gained experience, though the later 3.5 revision and Pathfinder left that part out. The Cohort that was summoned also comes in at several levels lower than the player, and gains experience at a reduced rate.
Many DMs simply ban Leadership or any feat that grants cohorts and followers out of hand, rather than deal with the hassle and extreme Cheese of a whole bunch of mini-PCs, or else because they see no point in the feat if players can simply hire minions or gain additional companions through roleplaying. Banning Leadership might not be absolutely necessary if the GM considers a few things or institutes a few conditions on what actually gets obtained from the feat:
- Make distinctions between PC cohorts/followers and NPC hirelings/allies. The players have sacrificed part of their progression to gain companions or followers, so they should be able to have greater control over their minions. The feat is robust enough to apply penalties for poor treatment of followers, so a player doesn't really need to consider the motivation of each faceless Lv1 commoner who works for him and shouldn't be betraying him out or leaving him for no reason. An army of warrior followers who repeatedly get massacred by higher level monsters or forced to walk through minefields will result in progressively lower leadership scores, and eventually lead to the player not being able to earn the loyalty of any more followers at all. Alternatively, NPC hirelings or allies introduced via roleplay come with their own motivations and often work best under the control of the GM, who can make them come and go as the plot requires it.
- Those followers have to come from somewhere, so it makes sense to reinstate the 3.0e condition that followers should be Commoners, Warriors or Experts who represent your "average" person in most locations. Immediately dropping Adepts means you don't have to do the paperwork for a hundred or so casting characters. Also if you walk into a city and start recruiting, you're simply not likely to be able to find fifty level 1 Wizards, Paladins or Druids unless you also have the allegiance of a major knight order or arcanist guild, which will require a roleplaying element anyway.
- On a similar note, also restrict racial choices for cohorts and followers to those relevant to the available setting, you are not likely to find 145 Drow or Tiefling Experts in a city of mostly humans and dwarves.
- Don't allow point buy or random dice rolls for followers' ability scores. Just use a simple non-heroic array so you don't have to track character sheets for each and every faceless and nameless minion.
- Rule against any cohort or follower from taking Leadership or any kind of follower/familiar/companion through class features. This is simple common sense, as it restricts the amount of paperwork you and your players need to do with getting essentially double the number of followers for free. (The Mastermind Prestige Class from the Rokugan campaign setting is an exception to this, because it's a class built for followers.)
- Realize that as players increase in level, low-level followers become less and less relevant. A 1st level [insert class here] will probably drop like a wet sack the moment you bring them into combat and take up more of the GM's time rather than actually be of any use. This pushes Followers into more narrative positions like running farms, providing base security, or crewing the ship. So giving them complete stat blocks becomes superfluous as any dice roll associated with them will have very little meaning.
- Put into context: Even if the player is wealthy enough to equip all of their lv1 warriors with +5 Full Plate, they still only have 10-13 hp and Ref saves of between 0-3 depending on race and starting stats. Taking them into an encounter appropriate to character with the leadership feat means they may have to face Fireballs doing 5d6 fire damage (Ref DC14 for half) minimum. They will die in droves.
- If you insist on bringing low level followers to war, then the only real use for them is to create armies for massed combat; this allows the player to stat up a single block of troops, rather than each soldier separately. Most 3.x based settings have their own rulesets for this. (Miniatures Handbook, Ultimate Campaign etc)
- Cohorts are, by nature, just low-leveled PCs, and can suffer similarly to followers in that they become irrelevant in encounters with high-level opponents. However, some players will get around this by relegating them to do nothing but buff and heal the party. This is not a terrible thing in itself, and some inoffensive alternative classes choices (such as the Healer) can be encouraged.
- A special note with regards to the Pathfinder wording: "A Cohort is generally an NPC with class levels, while Followers are typically lower level NPCs". The key point is non-player character, which by definition means "designed and controlled by the GM". The Ultimate Campaign book also states that while Cohorts are generally player-controlled companions, the GM can create the Cohort themselves and then hand it off to the player, and that the GM ultimately has the ability to reject inappropriate choices from that point onwards. For players who complain at the lack of creative control, remember that RAW the Pathfinder Leadership feat only lets the player/PC choose a race and class and places a restriction of alignments. It does not say they get to freely create a secondary PC.
Even if the these changes to leadership are made, however, it's still incredibly powerful and easily broken.
One situation leadership is actually balanced is in campaigns that are focused on politics, espionage and/or commanding. There minions work largely behind the scenes and can't be assembled on demand (they're busy supporting you) unless the situation actually calls for a hundred loyal men to be bothered. While in these campaigns the followers are gained through roleplaying and status, as mentioned above, those granted by leadership have the advantage of being explicitly "loyal".
When Things Go Wrong
Sometimes, NPCs do NOT work out like the GM planned. One of these stories is the one of Kren and Frep, two NPCs in the author's Rogue Trader (RPG) group. Kren and Frep were just basic fleet armsmen, armed with mighty (...not) shotguns and wooden fighting sticks. They were "introduced" when two random dudes standing in a fleet dock were admiring the ship of the players, who proceeded to instantly hire the two.
GM: well, fuck. (now i have to think of stats and stuff...)
Anyways, they ended up carrying a large medi-kit and a life-saving backpack for the party around, following them and doing not much else.
They were just following the PCs and discharging the odd shotgun shell. They even managed to kill some random cultists with their wooden sticks after some lucky rolls.
In one mission, the party was on a derelict ship, and they were constantly finding random stuff strewn across the floor, sometimes even weapons. One of the PCs found some guns he had no use for (he was a Kroot). And gave them to our valiant armsmen. A rare sort of boltgun and a best quality lasgun.
And then. All went to Shit.
Those two flaming assholes sure as hell DID roll multiple "righteous fury" when they hit the final boss of the mission, an Alpha Legion Chaos Lord, killing it with 64 wounds inflicted when he had 28 left. (Yes, the PCs DID manage to plonk off 2 hp before).
Originally, when creating the adventure, I intended to have the one who killed the Lord gain a special reward, and so thought of revoking the fact they killed him (like, they misfired or something), to give my group the chance of actually killing the bad guy themselves. But, after somewhat 15 minutes of everybody lying on the floor and almost pissing ourselves laughing when we had realized what had happened, everybody agreed we'll let it stand like that.
Still, Kren and Frep get a full Henderson for this.
As a meme
Recently in 2018, NPC has been turned into a meme by the likes of a /v/ anon. If a person is refered to as a NPC, they are considered people who do not think for themselves or are incapable of having an internal monologue, just like those typical RPG characters who can only respond to the player with what they were programmed to say. As such, the meme is usually invoked in response to what is seen as particularly uninformed "stock" opinions or statements. (See also: drones, zombies, sheeple, etc.)
Naturally, this has also become associated with the usual suspects, due to being used as a means of trolling the other usual suspects - and there's inevitably the usual subsets of "idiots calling other people idiots" (including /pol/, of course) that act predictably themselves and earnestly believe no one ever monologues to themselves besides people who think just like them. (See AGAIN: drones, zombies, sheeple, etc.)
The obvious irony of the situation is not lost on observers who aren't too busy being assblasted.