When roleplaying game players have affection for the friends and allies in a campaign’s supporting cast, the game improves. Players who feel an attachment to non-player characters will strive to help and protect them. That draws players into the game world, raises an adventure’s emotional stakes, and encourages player characters to act like responsible members of their community.
How can a game master make players care about imaginary people? To help answer that question, I asked for advice. Hundreds of game masters weighed in. Many suggestions linked to research that shows how people can increase their real-world charisma. The same qualities that make imaginary people likeable can work for real people like you. Will these techniques really supercharge your sex appeal?
Yes. Trust me. I write about Dungeons & Dragons on the Internet.
How can you create likeable NPCs (and also apply the techniques to become more likeable)?
Make characters distinctive
In a roleplaying game, before characters can become likeable, they must become distinct and memorable. If characters blend into a game’s supporting cast, no one will care for them. So key characters need traits simple enough to flaunt in a roleplaying scene and quirky enough to stay memorable.
For GMs comfortable acting in character, traits might include mannerisms, speaking voices, or a phrase someone uses and reuses. Some characters might have distinct passions. Wallace adores cheese. Others might have quirky habits. Perhaps the informant at the bar cracks raw eggs in his beer.
Traits that defy expectations often prove most memorable. In D&D, the beholder Xanathar would be just another Lovecraftian horror if not for a beloved pet goldfish.
In a roleplaying game, subtle traits disappear. Broad strokes work best.
In the real world, quirks make you interesting. When you share your passions, your enthusiasm shows. All these traits make you more likeable.
Make characters flawed
Flaws often make the most likeable traits. For instance, romantic comedies always seem to make their female leads a klutz. Such movies start by casting a gorgeous actress, and if her character is good at her job, no one will empathize with Ms. Perfect. How could she be unlucky in love? So filmmakers make these characters clumsy. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant, a similarly gorgeous co-star often played characters with a certain shy hesitancy that made him relatable. Even Indiana Jones may be handsome, smart, and brave, but he panics around snakes.
Flaws make fictional characters relatable. After all, we all feel acutely aware of our own flaws.
Movie leads serve as the imaginary stand-ins for viewers, so we rarely mind if they seem better than us. In roleplaying games, our own player characters become our stand-ins, so we accept perfection. But in NPCs, we favor flawed characters.
In life, competent people who fall to everyday blunders and embarrassments become likeable thanks to something called the Pratfall Effect. We relate to flawed people too. None of this means you should purposely embarrass yourself, but when you goof, own it and take it in good humor. People will like you for it.
Make characters relatable
People like folks similar to themselves. In life, if you share an attitude, background, or interest with someone, you have the start of a friendship.
In a game, you can create NPCs who reflect bits of the players’ personalities and interests. For instance, some players inevitably love books, so NPCs who share that affection almost always make friends at the game table.
In life, you can make a good impression by finding a shared anchor that connects you to another person. You become relatable.
Relatability explains why a fondness for pets like Sylgar the goldfish makes such a likeable trait. At any game table, players who love animals will identify with such affection.
A desire for connection also explains why powerful non-player characters become disliked. These characters don’t just steal the spotlight—any hint of arrogance or request for deference shows the NPC putting themselves above the players. In the real world, a lack of humility also makes people less relatable and likeable.
Make characters useful
According to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, some charisma comes from a person’s power and from signs of a willingness to help others.
While players dislike NPCs powerful enough to overshadow the party, players favor NPCs who can help. Often useful NPCs act as a source of secrets, clues, or as a guide. Perhaps a helpful NPC pilots a boat or casts a spell outside the party’s repertoire. Don’t make friendly NPCs good at any talents the players want for their characters. Those characters become rivals.
Make characters authentic and vulnerable
People love dogs and children partly because they always reveal their true emotions. In roleplaying games, the same goes for NPCs too stupid for guile.
“Because most NPCs only exist to oppose, trick, or act as disposable exposition devices,” writes Tom Lommel, “the players inherently distrust or dismiss them.” Authentic characters break that pattern, so they work particularly well in roleplaying games.
In life, likable people are authentic, says Karen Friedman, author of Shut Up and Say Something. “They are comfortable being who they are, and they don’t try to be someone different,” she says. “They are approachable and sincere even if what they have to say isn’t popular.”
Often people avoid showing their authentic selves because that makes them feel vulnerable. What if people don’t like me? Will I be judged? But people admire folks brave enough to be vulnerable.
Make characters struggle
Sometimes vulnerability comes from characters thrust into a bad situation. R. Morgan Slade and Tom Lommel both named examples: Players might witness NPCs caught in an unfair deal or by a false accusation. NPCs might struggle with a sick child, a debt, or their own vices.
We admire characters for trying more than for succeeding. Give an NPC a goal to struggle for, but out of reach.
In a 70s TV show, the tough-guy detective Kojak sucks lollipops to cut his smoking habit. This trait works on several levels: The visible habit defies his hardened image, making the quirk memorable. Sucking candy like a child makes Kojak vulnerable. His battle against smoking shows a struggle.
Make characters ask for help
When players help NPCs, a quirk of psychology called the Benjamin Franklin Effect makes the NPCs more likeable. When we do something for someone, we justify the good deed by supposing we liked the person from the start. Our rationalization makes the affection real.
In life, you can trigger the effect by asking someone for a small favor.
In a game, players do favors and even save lives. If players save an NPC’s life, they can become particularly attached. When people invest in someone, they feel connected. The investment becomes a sunk cost, and people unconsciously work to believe the reward was worth the price.
Make characters show warmth
People reveal warmth by showing concern for another person’s comfort and well-being. We appreciate warmth in others because it demonstrates a generosity that may help us, even if we just need understanding and a cool drink.
In a game, GMs can have NPCs show warmth just by offering an imaginary chair. Brian Clark suggests building an emotional bond by having NPCs sharing wine, serving a meal, or defending the party against criticism.
In life, warmth is an unappreciated trait leaders need.
Make characters show admiration
Everyone loves getting a compliment—if it’s authentic. People of give compliments show warmth and generosity. In life, avoid complements on outward appearance. Instead seek chances to give genuine compliments praising things people choose, or especially traits people worked for.
Compliments come from admiration, which makes a likable trait in the game world. Many GMs cite examples of players favoring NPCs who admire the player characters.
“Tell them that a little girl with a bucket helmet and a stick sword runs to the strongest character and asks if she can join the party because they are her heroes,” writes Niko Pigni. “They will love that NPC.”
In most campaigns, player characters grow into heroes. Sometimes, NPCs should treat them as celebrities.
Respect reveals a sort of admiration. Brandes Stoddard writes, “Players like and respect people who offer them respect and social legitimacy.”
Make characters entertaining
When romantic comedies feature ordinary-looking leads, they cast comedians. We like characters who entertain, especially when they make us laugh. In life, the most likable folks make jokes at their own expense or that tease folks about traits outside of their core identity.
In roleplaying games, stupid or otherwise exaggerated characters can be funny and entertaining enough to be loveable. Recently, I played in a game where a foolish goblin who fancied himself king fit this role.
I take my player characters seriously, but I often give them humorous quirks. My monk recites his master’s nonsensical aphorisms and pretends they hold great wisdom. “The stone that weeps in silence weeps best.” My sorcerer points out ordinary things like a bed, and says, “Oh, this inn has straw beds! That’s much better than where I come from. We only got a bed to hide under on our birthday.”
Make characters optimistic
Part of my affection for my sorcerer stems from his optimism. We like people who show optimism because it lifts us. Optimism brings confidence and suggests competence—all traits that foster charisma.
NPCs don’t need all these qualities to become likeable. Adding too many traits will dilute them all and waste creative energy. A few likeable qualities make a loveable character.
Author Eric Scott de Bie writes, “One of the NPCs in my current D&D game has been dubbed ‘the cutest dwarf ever.’ Not because she’s a romantic interest or anything, though the low-Charisma, half-orc bard might have plans, but because she’s cute, optimistic, and helpful. And she has a dire weasel animal companion.” This NPC checks optimistic and useful, plus she brings a pet.
Minsc from the Baldur’s Gate computer games appears on lists of gaming’s most beloved characters. As a companion, he’s useful, but he gained notice for an authentic lack of guile, optimistic enthusiasm, entertaining dialog, and for being the proud owner of Boo, a “Miniature Giant Space Hamster.”
Meepo the kobold from The Sunless Citadel surely ranks as one of D&D’s most loved NPCs. Meepo serves as his tribe’s Keeper of Dragons, but he struggles to find his missing dragon. He is distraught, making him seem authentic and vulnerable. He needs help, but also becomes useful as a guide and intermediary. In the hands of many dungeon masters, Meepo’s broken Common, exaggerated woe, and low intelligence add an entertaining comic element. No wonder Meepo became irresistible.
As for Meepo’s sex appeal, perhaps some of these traits work better in fiction. Instead, just tell folks that you’re a dungeon master. It’s a thing now.
Related: See part 1, How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like.
Honestly, funny voices are 50% of the battle.
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These also apply in spades when creating PCs as a player, especially for organized play when you may not be interacting with the other players in more than one session. Nothing is worse than a bunch of loners all forced into a “party” but acting independently without any emotional connections.
You make a lot of great points here, and I’m flattered to get quoted. =)
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These two posts have a lot of interesting ideas. But they miss what I’ve found to be the most important aspect:
Buy in from the players.
I’m not a great ‘acting’ type role player. I can’t do funny voices or mannerisms consistently, and I’m horrible at improvising dialogue. But our campaigns have lots of NPC interaction. It all starts from the beginning.
The players treat their PCs as real people in a real world. They approach NPCs in the same way. That is, we agree from the start that personal interactions are an important part of the game. Not to further the plot, per se. But to develop their characters. Our PCs tend to have families and friends, and goals outside of whatever might develop as adventurers. They also don’t assume every NPC is an enemy or plot point.
A driving force in real life is romance, and while we don’t necessarily have a lot of scenes acting it out, it does play a big part in why so many of our PCs retire and become NPCs (and occasionally return as PCs). The fact that we have so many ex-PCs also helps build familiarity with the people of the world. We also use the ‘I know a guy’ type approach (before it had a name), especially when in a location they know well.
Finding ways to improve your skills as a DM is great. But the attitude and expectations set with the players from the start makes a huge difference.
The other really big factor at our table that significantly increases the amount of interaction with NPCs is fostering interaction at the table. It’s not uncommon for me to be the person who says the least during the evening. I’m an old AD&D guy, and anything less than 6-8 players is too few for me. There is more interaction and more brain-power at the table, so I can build more layers of intrigue, mysteries, and threats. Which encourages them to talk it out, which they do in character (although not necessarily ‘acting’).
Because they are so accustomed to interacting with each other at the table, interacting with me as an NPC is just part of the game. The fact that I don’t have presumed encounters (I rarely know where they are going to go or what they are going to do), means that each encounter can lead in unexpected directions.
In other words, they aren’t coming to the table to listen to me set the scene and have expectations that they have to either fight them or figure out what purpose I have invented for them to further my story. We are all at the table to participate in developing or, as I prefer, uncovering the narrative together. NPCs are a key part of their interacting with the world, and not just on a superficial level.
Did you mean to say “People of give compliments show warmth and generosity.”?