World Building 101: Populating your Campaign World

One of the more interesting parts of being a DM is that you have an opportunity to play not just a single character, but every member of the supporting cast that the player characters encounter, from the lowliest shopkeeper to the most powerful of archvillains. This is a great responsibility, and can be a lot of work, but if it’s done correctly it can be a great deal of fun. While there is a lot of improvisation involved in any game, by keeping notes and documenting the NPCs you use, you can help ensure that your world feels fully populated and alive.

The old saying goes that all men were created equal, but this definitely does not hold true for NPCs. Sometimes all you need is a name and a capsule description, with no stat block required. This is generally the case for incidental characters met along the road. At the other extreme you’ll want to have a fully fleshed out background, stat block, and supporting cast of their own to make a given NPC work. It’s generally a good idea to keep notes even on the incidental NPCs, though, since you never know when your players will decide to go back for a visit, and chances are they’ll remember every detail you improvised when they first encountered the character.

When designing NPCs, it’s worth starting by deciding how you want them to be used. This helps determine how much detail you’ll need to put into fleshing them out. There are several roles that your NPCs may need to fill in your campaign setting:

Flavor NPCs exist to add flavor to the setting. Other travellers on the road or guests in an inn would usually fall into this category. Typically they provide no purpose beyond acting as supporting cast; extras in the crowd scene or bit parts with one or two lines of dialogue. It may be worth noting some details of an NPC of this variety for later use, especially if your players seem interested in learning more about them—today’s bit part may be tomorrow’s plot hook, after all. Recurring flavor characters can add depth to the world, as well. For example, a travelling musician encountered on the road one day may be seen at an inn later on, or performing at a courtly dinner a few sessions later. These characters don’t need to have major roles in your campaign to have a sense that they are living their own stories.

Function NPCs exist to fulfill a certain function or role in the setting. An innkeeper or shop owner fills this role. Barring crossover into some other use, stock characters are generally fine for this type of NPC—you don’t need to have a full character biography for every store clerk your players encounter while shopping for weapons. At the same time, fleshing them out a little can add extra dimension to make them less flat. If you’re setting your campaign in a small geographical area, giving these NPCs more than just names, quirks, and physical descriptions can be an excellent way to make the world feel more alive, but if you’re on the road regularly it’s not always worth the effort to do so.

Plot NPCs exist solely to move forward the plot. A poor villager asking the party to rescue their kidnapped daughter, or a scholar who provides exposition on the ancient lore that provides the hint they need to vanquish their foe, are examples of characters who fit this role. For the most part, these NPCs can be fairly lightly detailed, though often more than a function NPC would be. In order to drive the plot, you will wish to provide these characters with more depth and motivation, and depending on the manner in which they’re providing forward motion, you may want to create a suitable stat block for them as well. Unless you’re planning on making them recurring characters, though, you shouldn’t need more than a few paragraphs of notes for any given plot NPC.

Major NPCs are, as the name implies, major characters in your campaign. From primary antagonists to the player characters’ most powerful allies, these are the characters upon which you will want to devote the most time and energy documenting and fleshing out. They will have more time in the spotlight than most other NPCs, and deserve more details accordingly. Typically it is best to approach these sorts of NPCs with the same level of focus as if you were creating them as PCs. Decide on motivation, history, background details, supporting characters, goals, and all the same kinds of considerations that are given to a new player character. Mechanically, you will want a full statblock for these characters as well, to provide them with the maximum flexibility.

Once you’ve determined what role is appropriate and how much detail is required, you can begin the process of fleshing out your NPC. There are many techniques that can be borrowed from writing fiction for doing so, and sources for tips on characterization are plentiful. One caveat of note, however: in D&D especially it’s very easy to fall into stereotypes. The drunken dwarf, the surly goliath, the trickster gnome—these characters are almost instantly recognizable to most players, but unless you want your NPCs to be flat and forgettable, avoid using them as much as possible. Your players will not need to spend much time around a character who comes off as stereotypical before they decide that they know all there is to know about the character, and that makes any work you’ve put into the NPC’s background go to waste.

Of course, all of this can go out the window in a hurry if your players decide to go in a direction you didn’t plan for. If you find yourself forced to improvise, here are some tips:

  • To avoid blanking out while deciding on an NPC’s name, prepare in advance a list of names that you can draw on for NPCs. You can put as much or as little time into this as you like, but a list of common names for each race and gender can be a valuable resource for your players when creating their characters as well as for naming NPCs on the fly.
  • Keep a couple of index cards around with some pre-created NPCs that you can drop into any given situation. Names, quirks, descriptions—even potential motivations or goals if you like. When you need an NPC in a hurry, grab one out of your file.
  • Keep some blank index cards handy as well to jot notes on for any improvised NPC. This will help you remember what you’ve done so that you can flesh the NPC out in a consistent manner later on.
  • Don’t be afraid to borrow characters from other sources. You’ll want to avoid copying outright, especially if your players will recognize the character, but when pressed for time it’s fine to lift a character from a movie or book as inspiration—nobody’s going to hit you for copyright infringement. Don’t make it too obvious, and you’ll be fine.

No matter what, your NPCs are among the most important elements of your campaign. Even the greatest of stories can be dull if the characters aren’t interesting, and even the most bland plots can be saved by excellent characters. Keeping the characters interesting and focused will help make your campaign one that your players will remember and talk about for years to come.