Dungeons & Dragons 5e: How To Homebrew NPCs

Summary

  • Non-player characters (NPCs) are essential for a game of Dungeons & Dragons, as they provide interaction, information, and make the game world feel alive.
  • NPCs can be created by borrowing from existing material or by homebrewing them, allowing for flexibility and customization to fit the needs of the campaign.
  • Homebrew DMs should prepare NPCs ahead of time, especially for locations the players are likely to visit, but also be ready to improvise and convert background extras into NPCs when needed.


Aside from Player Characters and the Dungeon Master, Non-Player Characters are one of the most important and necessary ingredients for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The players need other characters to interact with, rescue, fight, and gather information from — essentially, there wouldn’t be much of a game without characters to inhabit the Dungeon Master’s world.

These Non-Player Characters, or NPCs, are vital to almost every session ever run. Without them, the game world is dead, uninhabited, and uninteresting. Even the most bland NPCs keep a game running as it should, but a standout NPC can make for one of the most memorable and enjoyable aspects of a campaign.


Who Are NPCs?

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Non-player characters can be anything the DM needs or wants them to be: strangers in a strange land, locals and townies, visiting mysterious merchants, barkeeps and security guards, vixens and vagabonds. Since NPCs are the living population of the in-game world, they will occupy every character slot not taken up by a human player. They are every other character in the game, and as such, they are almost without exception played by the Dungeon Master.

The homebrew DM has a fairly expansive task before them in crafting and roleplaying every NPC from scratch, but it’s not as hard or laborious as it sounds. The DM can always take inspiration from famous NPCs in Dungeons & Dragons or other IPs, or pre-published materials, borrowing scripts, names, and roles from the existing modules. However, homebrewing NPCs allows for each one to fit exactly where they are needed, and perform specific and helpful functions for both the players and the Dungeon Master.

Remember, NPCs are the characters doing every job in the campaign not being performed by a Player Character. They are the bartenders and innkeepers, farmers, lawmen, and citizens of every town in the game world. True NPCs will have roles to fill, like the local hunter’s guild leader recruiting a group of heroes to slay a mighty monster, or the foreman of the local mine pointing the player group in the direction of great treasure. The world must feel alive and inhabited, however, so the homebrew DM will want to make mention of the background characters. To borrow a film term, these are the “extras” in the campaign; characters in the deep background with no role to play and no dialogue to deliver. All the same, they must be there to make the world feel alive.

The homebrew DM must have a plan for even the most obscure-seeming NPCs, though, because players can always interact with background extras. Background extras often need to be converted into NPCs in a heartbeat, and that takes mostly quick thinking and solid preparation on the part of the DM. When homebrewing a location for a campaign or session, the DM will want to go ahead and populate that location ahead of time, too.

Prepping NPCs Ahead Of Time

Dungeons and Dragons: Artwork of an Academic Wizard and Warrior

The homebrew DM will want to prepare a populace ahead of time to have NPCs to pull from, depending on where they expect the players to go. If the players are visiting a far-off mountain peak, for example, the DM may only need to create an NPC or two. Not many people live on faraway mountain peaks, after all. But NPCs in sparsely populated areas need more detail than NPCs in densely populated areas because it’s more likely the PCs will talk and interact with them. It may very well be the point of the particular location existing.

The DM will need to prep NPCs for roles that they know the players have a good chance of encountering, such as a general store or a prominent military outpost. However, D&D players have vast amounts of freedom, meaning that the DM will never be able to predict where the party will want to go, and who they might encounter on their quest. In this case, it can be useful to prepare some names, backgrounds, and maybe even a character sheet or two, in the case that an NPC would liven up an encounter. It’s a common occurrence for players to latch onto a random character who’s introduced as a throwaway, only for that NPC to become a recurring ally for the party.

How To Homebrew NPCs

A Dungeons & Dragons party fighting off goblins

  • NPCs with a high probability of being interacted with should feel like real characters.
  • Name, face, physical description, personality, demeanor, information, and role should be created for necessary NPCs.
  • Generate NPC tables to quickly materialize NPCs needed for unexpected interactions.

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Homebrewed characters should feel like a natural extension of the Dungeon Master’s world. The NPCs should match the tone that the DM is aiming for, both in behavior and backstories. Of course, going against that tone can be an impactful choice when intentionally done — if the party has spent the first few levels embarking on goofy adventures, encountering a troubled NPC with a grave quest to give the party could make for a sobering encounter that sets all new stakes.

NPCs should range from friendly and helpful, to standoffish or downright combative. Every person in a town shouldn’t have the same demeanor; though witnesses of certain events may not all have the same information, every one of them shouldn’t hold a crucial secret, either. Maybe if the townspeople saw a dragon attack, they could all describe the dragon’s abilities differently and quarrel about which direction they thought they saw it fly off in.

NPCs should be differentiated by the amount of information they hold and their importance to the campaign or session. NPCs with vital information or necessary roles to perform should have names and personality traits. The tavern keeper should have a name, a physical description, and either a cheery or gruff demeanor. Does the tavernkeeper want to sell the party ale and talk freely about the events in town, or do they want the party to pay, drink, and leave, keeping the towns’ secrets to themselves? Whatever kind of NPC they are, they should have some basic elements to them if there is a high likelihood the Player Characters will interact with them.

NPC Tables

dungeons and dragons dm

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The homebrew DM can generate an NPC table for their campaign or session if they want to be able to have lots of NPCs on the fly. With an NPC Table, they can quickly roll a d20 and a d100 a few times and instantly generate an NPC. Pick a number, either 20 or 100. Write down that many names that fit the larger context of the world. Next, they will want to generate a table of 20 personality traits, ranging from seductive to sweet to deceitful to combative. The homebrew DM can even generate a table of 20 interesting pieces of information or side quests to mention. The Dungeon Master can front-load as many types of NPC Tables as they want. This is a handy way to roll a few dice and instantly have an interesting NPC on their hands. Tables take a fair amount of work on the prepping side of things, but they save stress and surprise from happening in game. Even with pre-generated and preplanned NPCs, having some spare NPC tables around is always a helpful thing.

Non-player characters are vital to any campaign, as a world without NPCs is an empty and lifeless world. Contrary to what some players might think, creating an engaging character doesn’t require professional-level voice acting or improv skills. Homebrewing memorable characters simply entails the DM using their imagination to flesh out the world as they imagine it. Part of what makes great NPCs, too, is how much players are willing to invest in the random characters that they meet along the way. Dungeons & Dragons is a game of collective storytelling, so players play more of a role in creating NPCs than might be immediately apparent.

A snapshot of the classic Dungeons and Dragons poster

Dungeons and Dragons

A fantasy roleplaying tabletop game designed for adventure-seekers, the original incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons was created by Gary Gygax in 1974.

Franchise
Dungeons & Dragons

Original Release Date
January 26, 1974

Publisher
Wizards of the Coast , TSR Inc.

Designer
E. Gary Gygax , Dave Arneson

Player Count
4-8 Players Recommended

Age Recommendation
12+

Length per Game
3 hours +

Expansions
Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition , Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition , Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition , Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

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