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Phystus

Reuniting: Keeping Track of NPC's

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Very early on in my DM days (1980) I realized that I was terrible at making up fantasy names on the spot. It often happened that a PC would unexpectedly strike up a conversation with some blacksmith’s apprentice or farmer’s wife, and all of a sudden I would need a name for an NPC for whom I had no details whatsoever. Every time, my mind would freeze up and all I could come up with were painfully normal names.

Me: “Uh, the apprentice’s name is, uh, um, Fred”
Player: “Fred? Really?”
Me: “Uh, well, it’s pronounced ‘Fred’ but it’s spelled, um, er, P-H-R-E-A-D”
Player: “Suuuure.”

So I decided I should make a list of possible NPC names. When I needed a name in mid-session I could just pick one off the list and carry on. So I began to cast around for good fantasy names. I used the names of minor characters from novels, took more major names from fiction and changed a vowel or two to make a new name, cherry-picked the few good ones generated by computerized random name generators, and even browsed baby naming books for inspiration. Soon I had hundreds of names to pick from at a moment’s notice. I wrote then into a spiral notebook so I could keep it handy at the table.

As often happens, though, the new solution lead to a new problem: the players tended to remember these NPC’s and want to go back and see them again the next time they were in town. After all, I knew these NPC’s names, so they must be important somehow, right? So now I needed to be able to remember them too. I began to write notes next to the names as I used them, so I would remember that Theron was the apprentice and Elonora was the farmer’s wife. The notes were sketchy, it was true, and not in a consistent format, but a paper-based filing system to track it in detail seemed too daunting. I added on to the list from time to time, and used it every session.

Fast-forward to 1987. I scored my first computer and found a good source for shareware software. Like a man with a new hammer looking for nails to drive, I cast about for ways to make this wonder of technology useful, until my eyes fell on the well-thumbed names list. Soon I had a database built in PC-File (a shareware database management system) to track my NPC’s. I worked out a format of data I wanted to have available, and created reports that would sort them by location, list only unused names and so forth, and print the results on the dot-matrix printer at work. This was a definite improvement.

Technology has moved on, of course. Currently I use a simple spreadsheet to track my NPC’s, rather than a full-blown database. But the concept remains the same: track the NPC’s digitally, and view them in customizable formats that are useful both at the table and between sessions.

Advantages of digital NPC notes

Building such a database, especially for an existing campaign, is a bit of a task, but it helps you out in many ways..

  •  First, it keeps you consistent. It’s hard for me to remember if Thanikris is the jeweler from Grimpen and Thanarin is the stablemaster in Pegasus Falls, or is it the other way around? But computers remember it perfectly.
  •  Second, it allows you to project the illusion of having an amazing level of detail in your world without actually having to make it up beforehand. If the party finds out the name of the gate guard, well and good - pick a name off the list and record it. Three sessions later they may talk to him again, and learn the names of his wife and children too. Again, pick some names, make up a few details and record them. You know that you just picked those names off the list when the player asked, but it looks like you had that at your fingertips all along.
  •  Third, I have found it builds player engagement in my setting. When all the NPC’s the players engage have names, and seem to have some life apart from when they’re talking to PC’s, the players started seeing them as people rather than props, and this lead to them being more engaged with the setting as a whole.
  •  Fourth, having these records in a digital format means you can sort and filter the data. Only want to see living people in Pegasus Falls, sorted by faction? Maybe you just want a list of names that haven’t been used? It’s easy to do with a computer.
  •  Finally, you can also search it. So once you have your list of living people in Pegasus Falls, you can search for “guard” to find that gate guard, then search his name to find his wife and kids.

I hope you find that helpful. Next time around I will discuss software choices, and how to structure the information. Thanks for reading!

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Comments

  1. MarianDz's Avatar
    "Phystus" this was .... GREAT reading!!! Thank you very much. Hope next part will came soon
  2. Phystus's Avatar
    Thank you! You're in luck, I just posted the next part here. Enjoy!

    ~P
  3. LordEntrails's Avatar
    After all, I knew these NPC’s names, so they must be important somehow, right?
    This is so true. PCs the world over always think the same don't they?
  4. Phystus's Avatar
    Amen! The funny thing is, they keep going back to visit these completely unimportant NPC's. I'm not sure what they're expecting, maybe they think someday they'll give the party a treasure map or something.

    On the other hand, it can make for some great roleplaying. We played out a large-scale battle a while back, and one of the shopkeepers that the party was friendly with was badly hurt. The party was aghast! They insisted that the cleric run over and heal him immediately, even though several of the party were hurt as well (albeit not as badly). It was nice to see.

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