The interaction between the player characters and the support characters is one of the pillars of roleplaying games, so a varied cast of support characters is vital. Here are some GM tips on how to create support characters.
I have previously mentioned I keep lists of simple support characters for improvised encounters in posts about generating starter areas and how to run a game session. Even just a name and a few keywords improve immersion and the pace a great deal. I always keep a list of at least twenty new support characters available for these encounters. Let’s explore this a little further.
I’ve been waffling a bit regarding terminology: GM Character, Non-Player Character (NPC), support characters. It is all the same to me.
Support Character Requirements
“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
You never know which support characters the players will grow attached to, so you want to do only what is needed to establish a new character and emphasise the first impression.
The basic features of the support character is:
The description is what the support character looks like at first glance. Appearances is important for improvised support characters.
A support character’s occupation is what the character is doing for a living. Consider what kind of characters the players will ask for. I emphasize what is in plain sight and use categories like “scribe,” “innkeeper,” “soldier,” “thug,” and so on in my notes. This occupation should say something about the support character’s skills and abilities if developed into stats.
Behavior is a short summary of the support character’s behavior.
Every character should want something. Having an agenda motivates the support character and will help you play the character.
Every feature in your setting, including characters, should have a secret. The secret gives the character some depth right from the start. Many characters can have the same secret and no one will notice. Secrets are easily changed, as they can be removed, shifted around between characters, or retconned later if they did not work.
Secrets and agenda are likely to overlap and are part of the support character’s background.
Ironing out all five requirements gives me ready-to-go support characters. A new support character looks something like the example below in my notes.
Name, Occupation, Sex Ethnicity Species (Age)
Description. Occupation. Behavior. Agenda. Secrets.
Preferably somewhere between three and five lines.
Using Online Character Generators
There have been many GM character generators online over the years.
The one I’ve used the most is the Donjon, which is worth checking out. The Donjon generates output like this:
Ezar Khari: Male Human Paladin, Good. Ezar has cropped silver hair and hazel eyes, and a thin nose. He wears plate mail and wields a ranseur. Ezar is steadfast and practical.
This is a good starting point for an encounter with a random armed person on the streets of your fantasy city. Randomly generate twenty of these, and you have a lot fleshed out to your game with minimal effort.
The formatting does not quite match my own style for support characters, and I edit and flesh out the output as needed.
Ezar Khari, Male Human Paladin
Ezar has cropped silver hair and hazel eyes, and a thin nose. He wears plate mail and wields a ranseur. Ezar is steadfast and practical. He is looking for ways to settle the family’s debt. He believes the city government is corrupt and his family is part of the problem.
Repeating this exercise is a chore but pays off quickly. Your game improves, your pacing is faster, and the players sense the depth in your story (imagined or not). You can get more mileage by swapping names and few details. In short, you can use that list a long time.
Here are five more examples, also edited from Donjon, for your inspiration:
Kamri Meini, Male Human Mercenary
Kamri Meini is tall, with cropped black hair and light brown eyes. He wears scale mail and wields a shortspear. Kamri has an animal companion, a gray wolf named Hansha. Meini is friendly but nervous, and is looking for ways to topple the city rulers. He has committed atrocities in the past but has convinced himself he had no choice.
Arior Woodaye, Female Human Craftsman
Arior has short copper hair and brown eyes. She wears well-made clothing and a bronze amulet. She is quiet and listens to her customers. Several dogs accompany her in the workshop. She wants a better life for her family and is considering murder to advance in the guild.
Ausan, Female Human Necromancer
Ausan is plain in appearance, with auburn hair and green eyes. She wears tailored clothing and wields a dagger and crossbow. She attempts to be friendly but tends to brood. Ausan have a keen interest in everything happening in the city. Ausan is fanatical and insane, and seek to destroy the church.
Ehrab Miri, Male Human Priest
Ehrab Miri is repulsive in appearance, with tangled auburn hair and amber eyes. He wears modest garments and a silver holy symbol. Miri appears to be kind and patient. He wants to collect gold to fund a home for injured soldiers. Miri is horrified of the corruption he sees every day within the church and is furious for being sidelined by his superiors.
Shahrzia Kheju, Female Human Scholar
Shahrzia has short red hair and green eyes. She wears beautiful
clothing and carries a fine stiletto. Shahrzia has an animal companion, a green firedrake named Mehri, which she keeps secret. She is looking for a lost library and would do anything to find it. She dabbled in witchcraft as a teen and is terrified to go back and invoke that power again.
…and of course, I had trouble following my own rule of only three to five sentences. It is so easy to get carried away when creating characters.
What About Stats and Power Level?
Support character stats and powers are usually not necessary unless the players have the habit of fighting everyone they encounter.
Still, understanding the rules of the game is helpful to play a paladin, as their abilities will influence their appearance, knowledge, and skills.
Also, keeping a small library of stock support characters is very helpful if an encounter escalates, as they sometimes do. Reskinning an angel from the monster book to a human paladin will usually do the trick. Alternatively, having a “paladin recruit,” “paladin veteran,” or a “paladin champion,” somewhere in your GM Binder will help you run the game.
… or Support Character Ethics?
Note that I do not include any ethical standpoint, beyond what’s included in the secrets, in this initial write-up. My games have lots of grey areas and hard choices, so the support character’s moral compass is often unclear. So, they are very often unimportant, let’s say the characters are looking for a translator, and morals are irrelevant for the encounter.
The support character’s moral are also often decided reactively from the story. For example, the characters are unlikely to find a lawful good information broker. Or, anyone recruiting thugs will have trouble finding loyalty. The players choose the supporting character’s ethics in many situations.
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- Your First Pathfinder RPG
- Random Fantasy Roleplaying Game Character Backgrounds
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starting Areas
- GM Tips For Fantasy Roleplaying Game Companions
The Reading List
Interesting topic! Every GM advice book worth a damn should say something about this topic. Here are a few more GM tips.
GMs: Introduce Large NPC Casts Without Boring Your Players To Death, from Geek and Sundry.
Leveraging NPC Relationships in Tabletop RPGs, from Dungeon Solvers.
Have a look at the Wikipedia definition for the straight facts.