The Dungeon Master’s Handbook: How to Create Memorable NPCs

One of the most common questions that new dungeon masters ask is ‘How do I create memorable NPCs?’ It may seem that your players only get attached to characters you make up on the fly. There are some things that all great NPCs have in common and this article will show you what they are. With these tips, you’ll be making compelling NPCs in no time.

Make Them Unique

NPCs that stick in the players’ minds are those that are special and have something that sets them apart from others. Consider giving them a distinct voice, mannerism, or appearance that will help them stand out. This isn’t something you have to do with every NPC and to be honest it would get old quickly if you did. You can, however, highlight anything unusual about the character when you first describe them to the players. That way they have a detail that stands out that the characters can remember them by besides just their name. Sometimes it’s a funny hat, sometimes it’s a peg leg, and sometimes it’s a funny voice.

Memorable traits an NPC might have:

d6 Voice. whiney, raspy, nasal, squeaky, hoarse, falsetto

d6 Mannerisms. hand gestures, repeated words, pacing while speaking, exaggerated facial expressions, foot tapping, using bad puns

d6 Appearance. well-dressed, too many tattoos, unusually tall, limp, extravagant jewelry, an impressive beard

Give Them A Purpose

Give your NPCs a reason for existing in the game world beyond simply just being there for the players to interact with. Think about what role they play in the story, and how they can help or hinder the players in achieving their goals. This could range from a resource to a rival, a victim to a villain, or even a mentor, trickster, or flunky. NPCs that have goals and motivations of their own provide great opportunities for role-play. Besides being spoken of these goals and motivations can manifest through mannerisms, changing emotions, and abnormal behavior.

How an NPC might be useful to the PCs:

Resource. provides goods and services, possibly in exchange for gold, loot, or quest hooks

Rival. provides an adversary that is competing for the same objective but may not be the (main) antagonist

Victim. someone harassed or harmed by a villain

Villain. a main or side antagonist to the player characters or other NPCs

Mentor. advises and guides the PCs using their past experience

Trickster. uses secret knowledge to play tricks and bend the rules

Flunky. a menial hireling or subordinate who performs mundane tasks

Make Them Dynamic

NPCs should feel like real people with their own motivations, goals, and flaws. They should be reacting to the players’ actions in meaningful ways, and their attitudes and behaviors should change over time based on the events of the game. Resources, relationships, and reputation should change over time due to the decisions made by the characters. Changing how NPCs react to the player characters over time can show how the PCs have grown in strength, status, or circumstance. For instance, as the PCs gain a reputation for their great deeds the tavern they frequent might recognize them when they walk in, NPCs might implore them for help, or even be summoned by one or more leaders of the community. If the PCs grow in wealth they might gain access to places previously reserved for upper-class citizens, bespoke or custom equipment from master craftsmen, or even private accommodations in fancy inns or noble houses.

Also, you can use what’s called a reaction roll at the beginning of an encounter to determine how creatures react to the players. Use reaction rolls over the course of an encounter to see how the creatures’ reactions change over time. Here is a reaction roll chart that can be used to quickly add a level of unpredictability to encounters.

Roll 2d6 and add the appropriate modifiers based on the situation and the NPCs involved to determine the reaction of the NPC:

2-3: Hostile: openly aggressive and seeks to harm the players

4-5: Unfriendly: suspicious and uncooperative, with minimal assistance or generally unhelpful

6-8: Neutral: indifferent to the players and their situation with limited assistance but generally uninvolved

9-10: Friendly: helpful and cooperative. useful information and may even join the players in their quest

11-12: Very Friendly: eager to help the players and goes out of their way to provide assistance. may become a valuable ally to the players.


-1d6: The NPC is under stress or in a difficult situation.

+1d6: The NPC has a positive history with the players or shares common goals.

+2d6: The NPC has a strong positive relationship with the players or owes them a debt.

-2d6: The NPC has a strong negative relationship with the players or is hostile towards their cause.

+1d4: The players have a valuable item or information that the NPC desires.

-1d4: The players have committed a serious offense or insulted the NPC in some way.

Reveal Information

Using NPCs to deliver important plot points or back story to the players is a popular tool that works well. Consider using them to reveal clues, offer quests, or provide exposition in a way that feels organic to the story. Sometimes dumping a big load of information on the players is just what they need. Certain NPCs are going to be more inclined to offer quests or plot hooks than reveal secrets of the world. Conversely, some NPCs can provide history and lore that others couldn’t because they’re meant to be Macguffins or decoys. Keep in mind that your secrets and clues don’t have to be tied to a specific NPC or location. If (and when) the players go in an unplanned direction you can move your clues to avoid having a specific action needed to progress the story forward.

For example, an NPC might be overheard:

Gossiping. the PCs might overhear or be involved in some gossip going around town

Bragging. an NPC might brag about secrets and unknowingly give away crucial information

Accusing. false accusations are made that accidentally lead to the truth

Confiding. the players get told info intentionally because they are trustworthy

Joking. subtle hints and suggestive remarks reveal important information

Interact with the Players

NPCs should be active participants in the game world, not just passive observers. Encourage players to interact with them in meaningful ways, and be open to improvising and adapting to the players’ actions and decisions. This will help the players feel like they are truly part of a living, breathing world. NPCs should approach the PCs just as often as the PCs approach them, which should be about half the time. Depending on their reputation villagers or townsfolk might come to the PCs looking for help or ask to join secret organizations. Provide background NPCs that are directly connected to the PCs to encourage the players to role-play and affect the world.

Besides what the players are looking for, NPCs might contact the players for reasons like:

Quests. missions that advance the story or develop the world

Intel. provide info the players need to progress

Assistance. offer resources or connections to aid in the PCs journey

Threats. warn the players of incoming threats or impending attacks

Recruitment. implore the players to join an organization or faction

Request. ask for help in order to solve an urgent problem

Personal. NPCs from the players’ past come forward looking for help or providing support

Deception. plant false information in order to manipulate the PCs


NPCs should be introduced at a pace that is appropriate for the story and the player’s level of engagement. Too many NPCs can overwhelm players, while too few can make the world feel empty. A good average to hit is one new NPC per session. Now I know sometimes that can’t happen or perhaps there’s a certain situation that calls for it but try to give the PCs some time to interact and learn about a new NPC before introducing another one. Role-play is in the name of the game so make sure to provide creatures the characters can bargain, barter, and banter with rather than just fighting anything that poses a threat or a problem.

Here are some fun ways a new NPC might make an entrance:

Dramatic. the NPC bursts into the room breathless and wild-eyed screaming that they are being pursued

Chance. the players meet this NPC by happenstance like a broken merchant cart or a farmer with missing livestock

Mysterious. cryptic messages delivered by unseen messengers invite the players to a clandestine meeting

Acquaintance. a mutual friend vouches for the NPCs importance and trust

Common Enemy. the players and the NPC are on the same side of a morally gray conflict

Rescue. the PCs come to the aid of an NPC in danger

Similar Goal. the players and the NPCs are on the same mission but sent by different patrons

Curious Connection. the players and NPCs have a shared and mysterious past

Player Agency

NPCs should be used to enhance the players’ experience, not overshadow it. Encourage them to give the players agency in how they interact with NPCs and how they shape the story. The players will naturally interact with the NPCs that they enjoy the most. Take note of the NPCs that they ask about frequently and keep that in mind when session planning to include them. This helps to focus the adventure and story around who the characters interact with rather than who has the next quest hook. The players may find themselves as NPCs in someone else’s story if they decide to encourage, assist, or otherwise aid anyone in the game world. Donating to charities, funding other adventuring groups, or even backing a local politician can all be ways the players can directly affect the game through the various NPCs that they meet and befriend.

Some ways the PCs can aid the NPCs include:

Gathering Information. uncover secrets and/or motivations of other factions or allies

Obtaining Resources. access equipment, supplies or even transportation

Providing Protection. arrange assistance when understaffed or needing additional firepower

Complete Tasks. earn trust and gratitude by fetching an item or slaying a fearsome creature

Business Liaison. resolve conflicts and negotiate agreements on the NPCs behalf

Build Relationships. gain allies, resources, and storylines by earning the trust and favor of certain NPCs


Create a diverse cast of NPCs with different personalities, backgrounds, and goals. This can help keep the players engaged and interested in the world. Being inclusive not only paints a broad and bright picture of the inhabitants of your world but also allows the players to see a part of themselves in your world. It’s your world of course but by including a wide variety of backgrounds, lifestyles, and viewpoints you make it a much deeper and more immersive place. Not only is diverse representation important but you should also try to avoid harmful stereotypes and insensitive subjects. Respect for other cultures should be in mind when including different cultures and experiences. Some research may be necessary to avoid unintentionally offending or alienating your fellow players. When in doubt you can always ask the players for feedback and address any issues that are brought up.

To make your world more inclusive:

Consider Their Background. think about the NPC’s beliefs, values, and customs may differ from the norm

Avoid Stereotypes. avoid perpetuating harmful prejudices and biases

Use Diverse Names. use names from varying cultures and languages to foster an ethnic mosaic

Gender and Sexuality. use different gender identities and sexualities that reflect the real world

Diversity in the Plot. incorporate marginalized groups or provide quests that challenge discrimination

Collaborate. ask the players to help create NPCs and encourage them to create a diverse cast of characters

An Example

To show you how this all comes together to make a dynamic and engaging NPC I will create one as an example using these eight tools. Let’s say we have a hobgoblin noble that we want the PCs to meet next session. Some things that stand out might be the extravagant jewelry, the bad puns, or perhaps the nasal voice. This NPC might even be a villain working against the players and they are now showing their hand, getting caught, or somehow at the same place as the PCs. The villain might even be openly hostile or outright attack the players during the encounter. The players may find out about the villain’s nefarious deeds from a trustworthy source who quickly becomes compromised. If this hobgoblin is cunning enough they may even try to recruit the PCs to their side of the conflict. The compromised source might even set up a meeting between the players and the hobgoblin noble. The PCs could use this to gather information and secrets about the villain and their plans. The last thing to consider is using a non-cishet gender and sexual identity. Using all of this information let me describe to you the hobgoblin noble the players will be meeting next session.

Glaring at you from across the room with narrow eyes is a hobgoblin dressed in finery and adorned with rings, necklaces, and other jewelry. Despite their menacing appearance you can’t help but notice their colorful, sparkling stones decorating their face. Speaking with a nasally voice they punctuate their speech with terrible puns only they see to find hilarious. Your trusty contact has told you Zephyr the Devious comes from a powerful and wealthy family. Zephyr has presented as nonbinary since they were young and has never been one to be looking for a suitor. Known as the Cursed Crownbearer to some, they have turn to villainy in a bid for more wealth and power.

Whispers fly across the room as Zephyr glides effortlessly towards you and your friends. Pleasantries are had, names are exchanged, and you get the feeling it was all a game. After what turns out to be a veiled attempt to recruit you to their cause you realize this may be just what to need to discover the secrets of their evil organization and their nefarious plans.

Feel free to use Zephyr the Devious in your own game!

Creating NPCs can be a challenge, but by following these tips, you can make your characters stand out and become a memorable part of your game.

As always, good luck with your next session, I believe in you. See you in the future!

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