Roll First Characters

Being a bit of theory musing on the invention of characters.


Most players have to worry about one, at most a couple of characters. The so-called player character and their pets and sidekicks (henchmen, if the PCs are villains or old school).

Some players have to worry about many characters. Endless characters, if some roleplaying gospels are to be believed. Many of these same foundational texts of roleplaying call these countless characters “non-player characters” (NPCs).

Let’s leave aside my arguments that a referee is also a player, indeed a vital player, and that it is thus disingenuous, if not downright silly, to call all the villains, monsters, bystanders and extras played by the referee NPCs. Those arguments are, of course, completely correct and indisputable, but there is no space for them here.

That was a joke.

In this post I want to think through the design and implementations of the NPC.

Prep First Characters

As mentioned, the referee has to handle many characters. A common conceit is that they should prepare every character the heroes (or at least protagonists) of the game will encounter in the course of a session. And possibly more than that, to avoid the mythical quantum ogre (if one cares about such things).

Let’s call this the prep first or preparation first approach.

Ideally, these NPCs should be complete and replete with game attributes: ability scores, levels, hit points, special abilities, equipment, experience values, classes; and with play attributes: personalities, quirks, relationships, contacts, likes, dislikes, hates, goals, motivations. Oh, and names! Don’t forget the names*.

All this becomes worse the more involved the game system. In a game where the NPCs have only hit dice and a name, the prep may be simple, but get a game with skills, feats, variable ability scores, equipment, and more, and suddenly preparing NPCs becomes a daunting form-filling exercise for each character.

Anyone who has run a traditional roleplaying game will appreciate how much effort it takes to prepare all the NPCs. I would wager that most referees find preparing the NPCs more work than fun, and quite a few of those find it an outright burden.

I definitely fall in the burden category. My time isn’t infinite, and filling out attributes for every butcher, baker, and candlestick maker I plan to throw into lethal haggling against the PCs is far from my idea of fun. Names and quirks, sure, but … stats?

I confess, I hate writing out stats**.

Random Table Hack

The classic OSR fix is to have a compendium of random tables to hand for generating NPCs and their attributes. Most well-beloved modules also come with lists of random NPCs for the referee to use in a pinch. Roll a character, throw it in the fray, and see what happens.

A good bestiary is, in many respects, an evolved random table hack.

“Good Ref, do you require an opponent, a monstrosity, of the 6th circle to throw against your infernal fellow players? Why, Io, behold, utilize your eight-sided randomizer and pick one of the following suitable 6th circle opponents, then use a few randomizers – yes, that thirteen-sided nodule will do fine – to create a unique and ne’er ‘foreseen monstrosity.”

The diligent ref uses these random tables during prep to create the NPCs the PCs might encounter. The less-diligent ref, such as myself, uses them in the heat of the moment, pausing play to figure out how many heads the dragon has and what it wants.

This is a tried-and-tested approach. It cuts down on prep-stress and game-trep.

But could there be another way?***

Roll First Characters

A few years ago I wrote about something I called “quantum characters” — skipping PC generation, diving right into play, and generating attributes as required. The first time a PC comes across a climbing challenge, their player says roughly how strong they are, randomly generates the attribute, then rolls the test.

Roll first characters are not that, but they rhyme. Or entangle, if we want to belabor the quantum metaphor.

What if, instead of preparing NPCs in advance, the ref developed NPCs based off how they roll and what happens to them?

Let’s say all one prepares for an NPC is a name and a level.

Johnny, Level 5

And let’s say the ref has a line, something like the following, for 5th level NPCs in their notebook or on the back of their GM screen or a post-it note hanging desperately to their monitor:

Level 5 20 hp Armor 12 Ward 12 +5 axe 1d8

Not perfect and not applicable to every game, of course, but for the purpose of this post and many a table? It’ll do, it’ll do. The ref should recall, these are not Johnny’s stats. These are the stats of a generic 5th level NPC. Which is what Johnny is for the moment.

Now, let’s say the PCs try to trick Johnny. The ref decides to use the generic character’s ward score of 12 as the target number. A PC rolls and fails miserably. Let’s say a 1 or a 2.

This failure is a signal to the ref:

Johnny is hard to trick! Canny, smart, insightful. Whatever.

So, the ref can update Johnny the NPC:

Johnny, Level 5

  • hard to trick

Next time the PCs try to pull a fast one over Johnny, the ref might still use the default ward score of 12 as the target, but also apply a penalty to the PCs’ roll. After all, Johnny has proven themself canny.

Imagine that later, the PCs come to blows with Johnny. The ref uses the armor score of 12 and a PC rolls a critical success. Let’s say that’s a 20.

Johnny wilts before the attack and sues for peace. This is another signal for the ref:

Johnny is easy to hit and doesn’t put up much of a fight!

So, they can update Johnny the NPC further:

Johnny, Level 5

  • hard to trick
  • poor defense, afraid of getting hurt

The more action an NPC sees (without getting killed, hopefully), the more attributes they will gain.

Later, Johnny tries to fix a golem motorcycle. They succeed! Now, the ref might add another trait to Johnny the NPC:

Johnny, Level 5

  • hard to trick
  • poor defense, afraid of getting hurt
  • golemmechanic

Once an NPC sees enough action, the ref might—if they feel magnanimous—even grace them with custom attributes. So, eventually, Johnny might become:

Johnny, Level 5, Armor 10, Ward 15

  • hard to trick
  • afraid of getting hurt
  • golemmechanic
  • Has a spell up his sleeve (Cloud of Scamper)

I find the roll first character an organic way to build up NPCs. The more action they see, the more attributes they gain. The more a character gets played, the more unique and defined they become.

This isn’t just a method for the ref – it’s also useful for the other players as they acquire pets, sidekicks, and other affiliated characters.

What do Roll First Characters Require?

How would I go about using roll first NPCs? It’s not a no-prep approach, but it is very low-prep.

Preparation before the campaign:

  • A table of key attributes for generic NPCs divided by level or whatever categories make sense (maybe biome or caste or animal kingdom?) stuck on a physical or digital referee screen for reference during play. This provides the attributes for all NPCs who have not distinguished themselves.
  • A way of taking notes on NPCs during play. Maybe a notebook?

Preparation before the Session

  • A list or table of NPC types and levels (or whatever) that can be encountered. This could be something basic like:

Town of Twexample

d6LevelTypeName
1–31humanBors, Mors, Hors, Wilberfors
4–52helfAsik, Pelik, Kelik, Menelik
64beastFigures, Brangobras, Ipnimaion, Eep
Random NPC in the town of Twexample. Roll d6 twice or thrice.
  • Double check: is the notebook ready? Pen?

During A Session

  • I’d interpret rolls and use them to change relevant NPCs. In combat, it only matters for NPCs that survive to fight another day. I’ll recognise those because the PCs interact with and remember them.
  • I’d also watch the players. If they keep missing a type of enemy, I might decide that the Porks of this Pungeon have better defenses against their non-magical lances. I’d use bad rolls as a signal to make repeating the same tactic harder (don’t keep doing things that don’t work) and encourage PCs to try something else (giving a bonus for something that sounded sensible). Failure or success on the second tactic would be another signal: strong or weak against this approach.

In this way, using roll first characters for NPCs, I’d end up with varied casts of NPCs, as well as diversified ecosystems of monsters and other opponents. Crucially – I would be discovering how this world works with this group of players live, together with them.

Which, I think, would be a lot of fun.


Merry Xmas and a happy new year!

—L.


*And one shouldn’t fall for the traditional example of taking the names of people one knows, jumbling them up and adding random X, Y, and Z letters to the mix. Just because one might hate a certain politician is no reason to call the red-shirt [REDACTED] the Mushroom Dwarf.

**If you like this, good for you. I don’t.

***Yes, of course, it’s the title of the post. What a begging question.


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10 replies on “Roll First Characters”

Never thought of doing this for hostiles before, and it’s a much more organised way of doing ally/neutral NPCs which I guess I would summarise now as “rolling with whatever the PCs (or I) enjoy” which typically is film references or a silly accent, admittedly.

I’ll be honest: a good silly accent goes a long way.

I’ll also be honest: way too many of my silly accents (and walks) are liberally borrowed from Monty Python.

I like this. I’m currently waffling on whether or not to start a play-by-post Gamma World game in the new year. I’ve got the basic campaign area sorted, except for all those pesky NPCs in the various settlements. Like you, I’m not fond of statting up NPCs. But with Gamma World, it might be sorta important to know who’s got two heads or who can shoot lasers from his toe nails before the PCs encounter them…or maybe not! This system might work well for that. Thanks for the idea!

Guh, yeah, for number of heads and weirdnesses, a table might help to generate when they come up. I like a relatively short table, like d6 – then if lots of NPCs in an area have the same feature, I just decide that’s “typical for those NPCs thar”

The quantum characters post is one of my favorites, and the concept has worked quite well in games I’ve run. Definitely going to try this out as well. Thank you.

One question – the example of Johnny includes a very low and very high result as the first two prompts. What do we do with more average results? It seems like it could be harder to find distinguishing characteristics when the dice don’t send a strong signal.

With sort of middling results, I’d just leave it as is. Kinda average, not good, not bad … not worth mentioning really.

It’s a good point though – in terms of fleshing out, you’d ideally want “three lists” of descriptors: what Johnny is good at, what Johnny is bad at, and all the stuff Johnny is kind of “meh” at.

If we had a modern-day suburban Johnny, the meh list might include a whole bunch of skills like: driving, golf, mixology, astrology, occultism … I think this list of “mediocrities” would become useful for a character if the game runs longer, so the player keeps track and the character doesn’t change too fast or randomly.

Nice! Reading this I think it actually rings true for me and probably many others that this is the way NPCs are created. The GM has a vague idea of who the character is (e.g. Johnny the stablehand who can be paid the join the adventurers to tend to their horses. Level 1, no armour or weapons). As the game is played, this little character will develop into a more rounded personality.

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