I have a problem where I can spend a long time developing a one-off NPC, fleshing out their backgrounds and how they’re connected to the world. This takes away precious “actual game-making” time and in all honesty, no one but me actually remembers (or even finds out) the backstory I create.
Recently I’ve changed my direction on making NPCs. Now, instead of wasting time with backgrounds, I do this thing i call “1 accent” and it seems to work perfectly.
What I’ll do is create 1 nuance that the NPC has that’s memorable. That might be the way they talk, something they wear, how they rest, or whatever. During the meet up with the NPC, I’ll repeat it a few times so sort of cement in their minds that one key concept of the NPC and it seems to make it stand out more than a 5 minute description ever could.
Here are some examples of “accents”:
- An NPC owns a camel farm. Whenever he talks he sizes people up and rests his thumbs inside his oversized belt, letting his long fingers hang in front of him. When he talked, I’d stand and assume that position the entire time
- An NPC, a scholar, talked very slowly and deliberately. Rather than answer questions easily he’d ramble for a bit and eventually get back to the point
- A female barkeep replied with a deep, husky, gravelly voice
- A male solider replied with the opposite
- A strange traveller named Mu’Frellan talked loudly and had a booming laugh that ended nearly each of his sentences
- A dwarven miner with a missing arm
- Large birthmarks
- Skin pigments
- Hair colours
- Actual speaking accents
- Methods of speaking where they won’t look at the person they’re talking to (I’ll speak while looking over the player’s head IRL)
- Speaking mannerisms (stuttering, pointed comments, flirting, cageyness)
The key thing to do in these cases is the same thing that people you meet every day do: don’t act like it’s a big deal. Your PCs might be surprised when the barkeep’s voice is deeper than their own or get creeped out by the way someone stands or acts. But the thing is that the NPC wouldn’t - they’ve been doing it their whole lives.
Give it a try! Breathe some life into your NPCs by focusing on just one characteristic that the PCs can focus on - it works!