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I saw something several years ago that has stuck in my mind vividly even after all this time. It doesn't have anything to do with Shadowrun, but it's a pretty good example of the kind of thing I want to talk about in this section.

I was doing some shopping at the local supermarket, just minding my own business, drifting down the aisles, when around the corner comes a woman. A relatively unremarkable woman—middle-aged, average-looking, the kind of woman you see every day in the supermarket—except for one thing.

Her arms were filled to overflowing with about twenty little boxes of Massengill.

Now, if you don't know what Massengill is, I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to go find out. Suffice it to say that it's not the sort of thing that one would be likely to be carrying twenty-odd boxes of at one time.

I wasn't GMing Shadowrun back then, but I was still writing, so my mind immediately started trying to come up with likely reasons why this woman was doing what she was doing. I have to admit I didn't come up with much, but I filed the image away in my mind for later use. I have no doubt that one of these days my players are going to encounter a woman carrying twenty-something boxes of the 2050's equivalent of Massengill. Maybe she'll just be background; maybe she'll even be integral to the story...who knows? But she's there when I need her.

In a way, good NPCs are easier to create than good PCs, and in a way, they're harder. On the easy side, they're usually only on stage for a short time, so you don't have to know everything about their character and motivation. On the hard side, you often have to make them up on the fly, so you don't have much time to think about what they're like.

Making up NPCs on the fly is actually pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. You just have to realize a few things:

  • NPCs are people (or dragons, or bug spirits) too
  • NPCs have lives above and beyond the game
  • NPCs (at least the kind I'm discussing here) are usually single-purpose creations brought into being for one reason only
  • Inspirations for NPCs can come from anywhere
  • For NPCs, one good "hook" can be better than a whole pile of background

Let's take these one at a time. The first one seems kind of obvious: NPCs are people. At least they are if they're played right. A lot of the time, you don't really have to show this; just keep it in the back of your mind. Yeah, the NPCs have been created with the sole purpose of getting geeked by, providing information to, or otherwise hassling or helping the PCs. That's a fact of life. But if you keep it in your memory that the NPC who's making life miserable for your players by refusing to reveal vital information is a human being (or an ork, or a dwarf, or a free spirit in disguise) it might just provide that little "something" that makes NPCs come up off the page of numbers and be a little bit real.

Following logically behind that radical "NPCs are people" idea is the notion that they have lives. Think of the meeting between the NPC and the player characters as a tiny snapshot in this person's existence. He had just done things before meeting the PCs, and will likely do something afterward (assuming the PCs don't kill him, of course). No need to go overboard with this—it's just as distracting to have made up a whole backstory for the guard who's going to almost certainly get his head blown off by the runner team as it is to just have a cardboard cutout pop up, yell "Stop!" and get blown away. But a little bit of "big picture" thinking can go a long way toward fleshing out NPCs.

While you're doing all this thinking, though, it's a good idea to remember that these transient NPCs are there for a reason, and in Reality Land (that's where you and I live most of the time) they're not that important. The guard is there to get killed or otherwise thwarted by the runners breaking into Aztechnology's research lab. The dwarf junkie is there because he saw some stuff going down that the runners need to know about. The joygirl is there because she's been paid to distract one of the characters long enough for her partner to steal his credstick. The hot-dog guy is there because—well, because for some reason the team samurai decided he couldn't go on without a Tast-E-Frank. Successful NPC maintenance is well served by walking this fine line between getting too involved with your transient NPCs and not getting involved enough.

So "Okay," I hear you saying, "This is all cool, but how do I make up NPCs?" (I have really good hearing. Trust me.) The first thing to know is that inspiration can come from literally anywhere. The world is your playground. Got friends with interesting personality traits? Borrow 'em! (The traits, not the friends.) See an interesting stranger in the store, at the library, walking down the street? Make up a story about what that person's life is like. Look at the entertainment world—how 'bout a nine-foot troll woman with a Marilyn Monroe personality, or a fixer who talks like Bogey? Too obvious? Okay, then lift personalities from obscure movies, TV shows, or books that you've seen or read and your friends haven't. Change them just enough so they're not readily identifiable. Need a bartender? Model him after Al from "Happy Days," or the bartender in Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles." Why come up with your own personalities when there are so many out there? Of course, I personally think it's better to make them up, but it's not always easy or possible. Don't ignore the vast resources available to you.

Finally, remember that a good "hook" is your best friend when inventing NPCs on the fly. Once you've decided that your cyberzombie has the same basic motivations as the evil Terminator, you're 90% there. You can sit back and have fun running the NPC, because you know where he's going. If you know that Mr Johnson is channelling Jack Benny, then you know how hard it'll be to get him to give up any extra nuyen for the job he's hiring the PCs to do. If your junkie dwarf's primary motivation in life is to get enough cred to score his next fix, that can define a lot of what he will and won't tell the runners, and what they'll have to offer him to get him to tell it. NPC hooks free up your mental cycles to work on keeping one step ahead of the PCs (never an easy proposition) while still allowing the people who populate your world to be as rich and detailed as they can be.

Now, let's see...maybe she needs all that Massengill for some kind of weird shamanic ritual that involves summoning the spirit of...

Oh, never mind.