I was a groomsman in a good friend’s wedding. We’d had a great reception where I’d been talking to a very pretty girl that I hit it off with. While, sadly, she couldn’t go, the rest of us went out to some bars afterwards and I got to spend a truly wonderful evening with my best friend and people who mattered to him and his bride, who was like a sister to me from the first time I met her.
I was exuberant. I was so happy that I wanted everyone else to be happy, too. After waiting 15 minutes at the cab stand at 4am, a cab finally pulled up.
“Hello, my good man. I need to go to the Hilton.”
“That one?” He pointed across the street.
I could have thrown a rock and hit the side of the hotel which, in fairness to myself, looked a LOT different from the other side that I had seen before.
I was overjoyed. “Well…. Let’s go.”
“There’s an $8 minimum.” The cab ride would be about 30 feet.
“It’s been a good night and this is fantastic. Let’s do it!”
He laughed as he pulled out of the cab stand and across the street. I gave him $16 total, wished him a great evening, bought hotdogs off a street vendor because I’d seen other people with them, and ended a wonderful day.
I was a random guy to that taxi driver. I was an NPC in his life and I guarantee he’s told that story. I certainly have. Nothing that happened in that situation had anything to do with what he did. It was all down to the emotional state I was in that night.
And this can be a fantastic technique to take into your GMing to make an NPC the characters run into someone who is interesting, memorable, and who the players want to meet again.
I’ve got a bit of a leg up on making NPCs interesting because I’ve been doing long form improvisational performance since 1995. There is, however, a fairly easy technique that I use with new improvisers to get them to go places they might not have considered before.
Make an emotional choice for the NPCs reaction BEFORE the PCs interact with them.
This is great practice for making NPCs more interesting and learning how to justify on the fly. This skill will do a lot of work towards helping you learn how to improvise when it comes to story, plot, and characters.
Take an NPC interaction that’s not terribly important—asking for directions, a minor official or guard, etc. Someone that could easily be hand waved with a bit of exposition or done entirely out of character. Before the PCs talk to them, decide on a strong emotional choice. Do not make that choice with an eye towards what the players are doing. There’s nothing wrong if it fits, but leave yourself open to surprise.
A strong emotional choice is one where the NPC is genuinely moved one way or the other. Apathy doesn’t often work. My drunken exuberance made for a fun encounter. Your NPC's grief, church giggles with their friend, flirtatiousness, crankiness, aggravation, or exhaustion can do much the same.
When the players interact with the NPC, let that emotion drive their response and then justify it to yourself.
The initial thing they say or do can be based on instinct. “This person is in emotional state X. What do they say?” You don’t have to figure out why immediately, but at some point make a decision why they’re this way and don’t tie it into things that the characters have done or will do.
Any way you choose, that NPC now feels like someone who’s had a life. They’re not simply a random menu the players buy something from or find out where the next MacGuffin might be. They’re a person who’s had a day. Maybe a great day, maybe a bad one, maybe a strange one.
Choosing the emotion is the easy part. It’s the practice of justifying that will allow you, as a GM, to start to learn how to roll out threads of plot or character without having to struggle with them before a session.
By using an emotion and then justifying it, you can create a chain of events and emotions simply by asking “why?” with each one.
For example: your PCs in a Wild West game high tail it to another town because they had a bank robbery go bad. It doesn’t make sense for the sheriff at the new town to know what they did, so you have a decision to make when they met the sheriff over there.
Here’s the chain of Emotional Choices and Justifications that lead to a story you hadn’t anticipated.
- Sheriff’s emotion: Relieved.
- Why: Needs help to bring in a gang who set fire to a ranch.
- The gang’s emotional state: Righteously angry.
- Why: Turns out the ranch owner was intimidating the sister of the gang leader to sell her land.
Now you’ve got a plot that could last several sessions and puts the characters in a position where they might find the gang just to go back to the Sheriff and see about going after the rancher. All because you kept choosing emotional states and then asking why they felt that way. All you need now is a name generator, decide on why the ranch owner wanted the sister to sell her land--and that probably won’t come up for a session or two--and you’ve got all you need.