This started as just a bank for all the NPCs in my Changeling game, which you can read the first four little sections of on the blog. But I ended up feeling like talking a little bit more: making NPCs.
An NPC, for people who don't know the terminology (though I highly doubt people reading this would actually not know the terminology, but if you don't, hey, how are you? Doing well? I appreciate you reading these) an NPC is a Non-Player Character. That means in a roleplaying game (and also in video games) any character that you as a player do not have direct control over. Video games have a little more ... wonkiness to the definition, what with pets and squad mates and yadda yadda yadda ... so perhaps a simpler version is "a character whose perspective is not the lens you see the plot through." I actually like that better.
NPCs are necessary to storytelling. You cannot have an entire game of just smashing things willy-nilly. Those games get tiresome. And even then, those games that you DO do that, someone had to guide you to go smash things. And if those things that you are smashing are intelligent, like a boss or even just a leader minion, those count as NPCs, too. A game with no NPCs is just a player ... and that's it. If it is a group of players, all you end up doing is fighting amongst yourselves.
Doing games, and creating characters, is about expressing concepts that are important to the world of the story you are telling. If you need to express ... that the city is incredibly poor, an NPC who is a beggar, perhaps even one that stole a silver coin from one of the players, is a much stronger way of involving the character and player into the world than just explaining "this city is incredibly poor." NPCs create stories, and all should have stories.
In the same vein, they all should serve a purpose. You cannot just have an uber-NPC around just to be better than everyone else, or just overpowered, or to "get players out of a jam." All games should be focused on the players: they are the protagonists to the story you are showing, and if all you do is have uber-NPCs wandering around, then it defeats any power the players have, and overall deflates the story, making the players merely voyeurs in another character's story. On the other side of that coin, you cannot just allow yourself to have pointless NPCs. Every NPC should have a purpose. They are the fastest, most entertaining, and most efficient way to present information to your players, and they will listen or ignore them at their own discretion. If you start having too many (something I tend to do quite often) then the messages they are passing around become muddled. Their purposes become mixed, and the players do not know where to move, who to listen to, and in the end, will more than likely not listen to anyone.
Using Changeling as an example, I needed to flesh out the world, because Changeling, by its nature, is an incredible social game. To get their energy to use their fae powers, a Changeling character has to interact with NPCs. To gain access to higher power spells, or artifacts, you have to interact with NPCs. Hell, to survive, you have to interact. It is a dangerous world, and very very few characters can survive alone. Oh wait, they cannot because even if a player DOES try to do that, the character slowly goes insane from lack of Clarity as they keep themselves locked off from either side of their bodies. And that's not even including antagonists, clues, quest-givers, retainers, allies, and just cool pieces of information. It is a LOT of NPCs to consider as you make your game.
And that's what makes it so magical. That's what I love. I had to create ... around 40 or 50 NPCs for this game ... so far. I have yet to create all I need, because we are only in the first story of seven. There are a lot of characters for my players to meet, and all of them need to serve a purpose and a plan for the story. Which is the difficulty. But I feel my players have really fallen in love with the concept of meeting these characters. And that thrills me. To hear Daniel exclaim how much he loves Roach because he sounds like Andy Richter (totally by accident/happenstance, because I have no clue how to do that voice) is wonderful. To see people roll their eyes because the Robbies are bros and are just goofing around is magnificent. To sit down with a player and just talk, over facebook chat, for long lengths of time, about small things like why they are hiding their name, or how the social system within this group of lost and hurting people works ... it is so fantastic. To just be able to say "Ogres are for Ogres" and have my players wonder and try to figure out what NPC said that, and what it means, and why they said that ... it is all so thrilling to me. To just be able to have conversations as these characters is wonderful. They are the only characters I actually control. It is the give and take of the game. So I suppose it isn't fair to call NPCs that, because I am a player within the game, and those moments, arguing with a crazy cat girl about her wanting to break into the aquarium, they are what make the games come to life.
Then when the plots come in ... then they are hooked. All because of a little extra work and well made NPCs. That is gratifying. And tabletop games are the only ones you can do that in.
But that's just my opinion.