Non-player characters (NPCs) are the lifeblood of any D&D campaign, but I often find descriptions in published adventures aren't particularly accessible. Often, important details are hidden in dense paragraphs.
As I work on my own adventure campaign, Black Griffin, I started to develop a format for NPCs based on the monster stat block. The stat block is a fantastic piece of design, displaying quite dense information elegantly. Here is my versions of it for NPCs:
The NPC block starts with the name of the NPC, followed by a short, physical description of the NPC you can read out to your players. The following sections are based on three most important pieces of information you need (IMHO) when running NPCs:
- Characteristics. Obvious things
- Secrets. Non-obvious things
- Escalations. Things they could do
The NPC block uses the background characteristics (ideals, bonds, flaws, etc.) from the Player's Handbook. These are great for detailing the "obvious" stuff about NPCs. They are displayed first, making it easy for DMs to start playing the character.
All good NPCs have something to hide, and the
Secrets section details these. Each secret should have a tell, something observant PCs might notice about the NPC to figure out their secret. A tell is accompanied by one ore more passive checks, normally Perception, but could also be some other lore-based skill, like Religion or History.
I make these passive checks in secret, and pass notes to the players when they succeed. My players love getting secret insights they can roleplay.
The hardest part about running NPCs is figuring how to use them to drive the action. Escalations attempt to fix this by presenting some examples of things the NPC could do next. Maybe they'll arrest the characters? Or throw a feast in the party's honour?
When the action is flagging a bit, check off an escalation and run it.
The above NPC block is for a non-combat NPC, but it would be trivial to mix the NPC block and monster statblocks for combat-based NPCs.
I also think some of the terminology could be refined. For example, not all mysterious elements of an NPC might be
Escalations is a terrible word. Maybe
Deeds would be better?