As a Gamemaster, sometimes it’s more important to just pull the strings.
In the right hands, an NPC can be a brilliant addition to a campaign’s narrative. Interactive, fully fleshed out and generally dynamic – NPCs represent the world the PCs are
murdering their way through adventuring in and are their best method of interacting with this world in ways not provided by the set pieces and enemies they commonly experience. A good NPC can give the party a trusted ally, a daunting nemesis or even just an adorable Goblin they can claim as a mascot. Whatever the purpose or goal of the NPC, it’s important to remember that important NPCs need to feel alive. The GM needs to play the role of the NPC, not just control it. Good NPCs have no strings and are as alive and organic as the players themselves. It should feel as though a new player dropped their way into the campaign, complete with their own unique goals, talents and flaws.
However, it’s also important to remember that some NPCs are allowed to be fairly inconsequential.
Too often a GM will try to fully flesh out every. single. NPC. This is incredibly dangerous, especially in Urban campaigns where PCs may encounter a LOT of NPCs. I find this especially taxing when the party needs to interact with merchants. One member of the party needs weapons, so here comes a blacksmith. Another member needs potions, so I better come up with a potion seller. Oh hey, this guy needs some provisions, better whip up a different general merchant. Oh look, the Paladin is off to the temple…. time to slap together some monks. Oh hey, the person at the blacksmith is now asking about anyone who might know the value of stolen jewelry, better concoct myself a fence. And so on.
And so on.
AnD sO oN.
It’s exhausting being hit by 100 NPCs at once and wanting each one to have their own unique voice and personality and phrases and ways of reacting when the PCs inevitably do something crazy and/or murdery.
In this case or cases similar, it’s entirely fair of the GM to just make the NPCs essentially cardboard cutouts of people with a vending-machine style money-in-swords-out kind of thing going. “Welcome to the Circus of VALUE” they exclaim, as the PCs count out their loot and feed it into the “make the GM look up the value of ill-gotten gains” slot.
Moral of the story: Not EVERY NPC needs to be a potential celebrity cameo. Think of it in the scope of movies: there are people in just about every film you love that are simply credited “Drug Store Manager” or “Guy on Street 3” or the ever-progressive “Hot Girl 2” etc etc etc. Like the florist in The Room, it’s totally okay for inconsequential NPCs to just be
dead inside quick, shallow interactions as they shout “thanks, Johnny. You’re my favorite customer!” Hell, spice it up. Give them funny voices or goofy accents. People don’t remember the Weapons Dealer from Resident Evil 4 because of his winning smile and deep backstory #JustSayin.
Now, one thing to remember is that this doesn’t work EVERY time the PCs need to encounter and interact with a large number of NPCs. Namely investigation focused campaigns, where the NPCs are integral to unraveling the story. Depending on the campaign, an investigation may see a numerous cast of characters that are varying degrees of importance to the overall investigation. At that point, it’s GMs choice as to the depth each character has. However, it’s important to note that lesser characters, typically those that only hold very circumstantial information or simply exist to point the finger somewhere else, don’t need to be fleshed out as MUCH, but you probably still want them to feel at least baseline organic. Rigid, cardboard characters would absolutely just absorb the momentum of an investigation, and that can be really frustrating for players. Save the animatronic NPCs for things that don’t directly effect the outcome of the mission. That’s why I went with the merchant example.
As always, this may not be true for everybody. Feel out your group, feel out yourself (just don’t feel yourself in front of the group) and figure out what works best with the table. Just from personal experience and from watching others, it can get exhausting FAST when 8+ unimportant NPCs are suddenly thrust at you in rapid succession and you try to make them all feel real. It’s okay to just say “The blacksmith has this many weapons and this many armors. Oh you want that one, okay it’s this many gold.” and then just move on. These interactions typically happen in downtown anyway, so it won’t squash the immersion just because the NPCs don’t get to meet Jeffy Aster, the Gnome Potions Master when they want to offload some vials of useless alchemical bleach. Not every role is one worth stepping into the skin of. Sometimes, just pull the strings.
Another option worth considering is to limit the amount of characters you’ll need to flesh out. If you know the PCs are going to want to buy/sell a wide variety of items, have the shop they go to be owned by twins who run a general store/blacksmith. Make it like a medieval big box store. Ye Olde WalleMarte. At that point if the group has potion and weapon and armor and provision and jewelry needs, you have it all covered with two NPCs (and if you go for the twin cop out, one voice). If the PCs ever hit a tavern or temple or anything of that ilk, and then find they have need of such a thing, rail them into going back to the one they have been to because “they know the people there and it will be easier” even if they are on the other side of town. Help them help you.
Finally, just remember that NPCs should be fun and give BACK to the campaign, never take away from it. An overly fleshed out NPC during down time can slow down progress, while a rigid and flat one during narrative time can break immersion. Experiment and figure out which works where and save yourself a TON of headache in the meantime.