Whether we are running published adventures or using a world of our own creation, I suspect most gamemasters want to feel that their players are invested in the game. There is nothing quite as nice as wrapping up a session and listening to players discussing how they can’t wait to get together next week. Ever have a player tell you that they were daydreaming about the game while stuck in a meeting or commuting to work? It’s the best.
I believe that populating your game with interesting and believable characters is key to hooking your players. That’s not to say that every character in your world needs to have a dossier complete with birthdate, star chart, and defined goals. Sometimes Wilbur the fish monger, is simply Wilbur the fish monger. Having said that, the more fleshed out your NPCs appear to be, the easier it will be for your players to escape into your imaginary world.
I believe that creating a “Who’s Who” for your campaign is a great tool for building rich NPCs that your players will want to engage with. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and the practice has served me well. The process is simple enough and until recently I just assumed that everyone did it.
While I’m doing my prep for each session, I just keep a notebook or Word document open. Whenever I come to an NPC who the players are likely to meet, I jot down their name and maybe a line or two. If you want to go crazy, you can do this for places as well.
If you’re someone who struggles with names, there are countless name generators floating around online. Just plug in what you’re looking for and you’ll have something in a pinch.
By adding no more than 10 minutes to my prep time, my players no longer meet the dockmaster, city guard, and innkeeper. Instead, armed with this information they encounter Buckeye Crabcracker the halfling wharf-keeper, Sgt. Atheld of the city watch, & Suleiman the Kosantian owner of the Blushing Siren Inn.
Coming up with names for NPCs is pretty basic but it’s only the first step in creating a Who’s Who for your campaign. The next part is up to the players. I visit this after every few sessions, at the end of an arc, or whenever it seems convenient.
Our game nights usually start with players arriving one by one. It can be a bit chaotic. Everyone is usually chit-chatting and I need to get them to switch gears and focus on the game. During this time I announce that we’re going to update the Who’s Who.
I go around the table and ask all of the players who their characters have met during the sessions since we last updated the list. At this point everyone chimes in with the names of NPCs that they remember, as well as what they remember about them. I document all of this as they do, including only what the players themselves remember. The whole process takes no more than 10 minutes but it serves to both center the players on the game, as well as offer an interactive recap of recent sessions.
I will usually reward the player who contributes the most with some small boon. For OSR games this might be an XP bonus, 5e players might get Inspiration, Savage Worlds players get a benny, and so on. I find that this really helps to get everyone to participate.
After every session, I send the revised document out to all players. However, I only share the version with the names of people and places that the group remembered. If the group as a whole missed any NPCs, those do not get passed along.
Over the course of time, I find that having access to this reference document really engages my players. When your cities feel like they are populated with living and breathing people, it increases the chances that your players will interact with them.
It’s satisfying to see the group break out with the Who’s Who as they are heading back to town following an adventure. Often each player will be flipping through the pages, deciding who they want to go see first. Maybe they know the perfect buyer for a piece of loot or perhaps they’ll seek out an old contact for important information.
On the flipside, the document acts as a tool for me during session prep. I can briefly scan through and pick different NPCs to drop into different scenes. Do I need someone to pass along a juicy tip? That sounds like the perfect job for young Jacob, who the party saved on their first adventure. Do I need a victim for the big bad evil guy? Hearing that Fletcher Orlem was slain while out hunting will ratchet up the tension more than some nameless villager.
Since we update entries for NPCs after every time the players mention them, they really start to take on a life of their own. Over the years, some of my most mundane NPCs (like Wilbur the fish monger) have ended up playing important roles in my games.
Finally, the Who’s Who gives me a nice souvenir from each campaign. Whether we run for years or a handful of sessions, having this document gives me something fun to look back on. Sometimes names and sub-plots get recycled and that’s all part of the fun.
That’s it for this week. Thank you for stopping by. If you do something akin to this or even something more elaborate, please drop a note below and let me know. Have a great week!