Storytelling Sunday–On-the-Fly NPCs

TL;DR: Fate is great to create NPCs but if you favor collaborative storytelling you sometimes have to make determinations on-the-fly; I developed a process for that and if you don’t care how, you can jump right to it.

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In my experience, Fate NPC-creation advice is better than most TTRPGs. However, that does not mean much coming from me. I played GURPS and Savage Worlds before Fate, and I’ve been using software for character creation since the 1990s. So, finding a ruleset that enables pen-and-paper creation in only a fraction of the time needed to make one with GURPS Character Assistant or Hero Lab was quite the upgrade, but your experience might differ.

Oftentimes, a quick NPC needs just an Aspect and an ad hoc skill—which really is an Aspect in disguise—and I have no problem with Aspects (there too, my experience may differ from other Fate players and GM). Other times, more details are needed. I dislike stopping the game for making them up or throwing arbitrary numbers. So I came up with a process to improvise NPCs. The first section below tells the story of “how.” You can jump to the second if you’re only interested in the “what.”

Fleshing Out An NPC

It’s storytelling Sunday, so I’ll start with the story that prompted all this. At the start of a session of my current Queer Clockpunk Fantasy campaign, the PCs arrived in a port town in the northern part of the game world—Winterhaven—where I had cool things ready to happen. Still, we had never established why they’d travel there in the first place, so I asked:

Why did you choose to join a caravan to Winterhaven
rather than to somewhere else?

One of the players (call them C.) told me that their character—Kayden (she/her), an Up-Close and Personal Passionate Fighter—had chosen the destination because she wanted to visit an old flame of hers. We had established that Kayden had never traveled to the North. We also had agreed that she’d done jobs as a bodyguard. So it made sense that her old flame would be a Winterhaven diplomat who’d have employed her. Table consensus was that it could be a significant advantage, so we settled on a Create an Advantage (with Rapport). Kayden aced it, creating the “I know a shot caller here” Aspect with two free invokes.

Now, at that point, I had a “notional” NPC, Kayden’s Shot Caller. C. chose to burn an invoke to get away with some trouble at a toll gate, but we did not even need to know her name for that. It was not until later in the game that she got one—Hedda Omdhal, straight from the Norwegian names from Fantasy Name Generator. By then, I had a named NPC with the following:

  • High Concept: A Shot Caller in Winterhaven
  • Relation: An Old Flame of Kayden.

Still, I knew that Kayden would want to pay a visit to her shot caller to advance some of Winterhaven’s storylines. I hadn’t given much thought to Hedda’s skills, but she was a diplomat, and the setting is somewhat Renaissance. Being French, combining those two always triggers an association with Cardinal Richelieu and the saying “An iron hand in a velvet glove.” It resisted making it an Aspect or saving it for a Stunt because it’s a bit cliché, but it’s also an incredibly cool cliché. So I use the next trick in my bag and made it into ad hoc skills. Something like:

  • Physical interaction skill: Iron Hand
  • Social/Mental interaction skill: Velvet Glove

At that point, I had a clear idea of what “Velvet Glove” would be—some hybrid of Rapport and Provoke, fitting the diplomat skillset—but not so much “Iron Hand.” I let associations drive the fiction, something like: “ok, maybe she comes from a family of warriors and has trained a shieldmaiden for some reason.” And just like that, Iron Hand became “Iron Grip.” 

I was still a few steps shy of a character sheet, though, missing a Trouble, Stress, Stunts, and perhaps skills. Part of the “Queer” theme of the campaign is to explore how LGBTQ+ characters would deal with the usual patriarchy of fantasy settings. I gave Hedda’s backstory a second pass in this particular light and reflected that, maybe, she’d been raised a diplomat in a family of male warriors. I gave her The Shadow of Men Past for Trouble but did not dig deeper, to let my players room to flesh out Hedda’s backstory.

I drew blanks for Stunts, but I wanted Hedda to have an edge (pun incoming) and enlisted another diplomacy trope, namely that the pen is mightier than the sword. I rephrased it as Swords Cut Deep, Words Cut Deeper (here’s the pun). Since it echoed both Iron Grip and Velvet Glove, I could invoke it to the same effect as +2 Stunts. Good enough for me.

With still no Physique or Will, I could set Hedda’s Stress and consequences arbitrarily. But if I always prefer to have a reason to do things and came up with a solution: I’d rate Hedda’s High Concept, and use that rating to set Heedda’s Stress track. Also, to cover anything Hedda was proficient at not already covered by Iron Grip and Velvet Glove.

Hedda being A Shot Caller, a Great (+4) rating made sense for her High Concept, and likewise for Velvet Glove. I gave Hedda a Good (+3) Iron Grip on a par with Kayden’s Good (+3) Fight—any higher, and Hedda might not have needed a bodyguard in the first place. I added a picture I knew would freak C. out, and that was it (see Fig. 1; for secret aspects, see next section).

Fig. 1: A Shot Called in Vinterenshavn/Winterheaven

And then, it occurred to me that I had a process that I could generalize. I tested it during game prep for a few characters and in-game for a few others, and it worked like a charm. So I decided to make a post out of it.

On-the-Fly NPCs

Creating Hedda doubled as a test for a beta feature of Fari—custom Index card collections—and I thought it’d be cool to have a custom card I could pop up in-game for on-the-fly NPCs. So I made one—and also, a character sheet template for users of the stable version. I like to include instructions for use in the template when I do that, but I initially added too much text. So I decided to make it shorter and have the instructions here instead. I’ll illustrate with the index card, though, because it’s easy to replicate if you are not a beta tester. Also, you may want to keep the NPC in the Private tab until their aspects are revealed, which at the moment is still a beta feature. 

Fig. 2. Quick NPC Index Card (made with Fari)

Aspects: Give the NPCs a profession and make it an Aspect and a Skill. Don’t worry too much about wording or double-edginess. It will come in due time. Or not. You probably won’t need it anyway, but it’s always cool for flavor. The [High Concept: n] generates a clickable field at the bottom of the card to roll 4dF+n.

Secret Aspects: I usually keep NPCs Trouble and free Aspect a secret, so I put them in a separate text block. That way, I can duplicate the index card, erase the text block and share the NPC with my players without worry.

Skills: In practice, you could use the High Concept rating for everything the NPC is proficient at and set everything else at Mediocre. But sometimes, you need more granularity. Primary physical and mental/social interaction skills are enough if the NPC rating is Great (+4) or less. I usually adjust one at -1 relative to the HC rating. If I want my NPC to be less competent but not outright mediocre outside of their field, I add a secondary at -2/-3. I also come up with cool names, but if you don’t, just keep them as-is: that’s all you need for the NPC to be functional.

Stress: By default, I usually give NPCS one Stress track, and since I use Fate Condensed Stress, I set Stress = 3 or HC rating (whichever is higher) and use a clock dial. If the NPC is significant, I may use two Stress tracks (Physical and Mental). If you’re using Core or FAE, this yields highly resilient NPCs, so you may want to come up with your own scheme.

Consequence: I seldom give NPCs consequence slots, but if I do, I base it on the HC rating: a Mild consequence if HC is Fair (+2) or above, a Moderate if Great (+4) or above, and a Severe if it is Fantastic (+6) or above.

There’s a tad more to my NPC creation than that, but the rest has to do with my creative process and may not be as generalizable as the above. If you have skipped the first section and are curious about it, you can read it as a worked example.

Wrapping up

Cooperative storytelling is excellent on paper but trickier in practice if you are not comfortable with improvising. I am not always so, and without being a stickler for rules or “balance,” I like my games to be fair. I don’t want to throw a few numbers on an index card at random or (worse) based on some “scaling” scheme to adapt to my players.

So I came up with a process to create on-the-fly NPCs that my players know, understand, and agree with. It has sufficient details to get the dice rolling and enough moving parts to flesh the NPCs out together. I’ll give examples of that in future posts.

But that’s all for today, folk.

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