View Full Version : Backstory Justifications, and NPC Crunch

2012-09-01, 03:53 PM
Hey everyone,

I was wondering how much thought you put in to your NPCs when building them mechanically? How much of their stats, skills, and other abilities do you ensure are justified in their backstory (or in the story at large)? How much of their stats, skills, etc. do you just toss on so that they can make use of them?

1) The PCs are about to take down a powerful wizard. However, at the last moment he shouts something in draconic, a language which very few people know. This activates a door (speak friend and enter), through which he escapes.
Could they hypothetically seek out the Wyrmseer Cult, in order to learn more about their enemy? Was he bffsies with a dragon once upon a time? Or did he just happen to know draconic?

2) The party wizard finds himself in a duel with a knight, over the issue of whether or not magic is better than might. It quickly becomes apparent that the knight has artificially altered his height and reach through torture tactics (BoVE feats), and is skilled, where many are not, in disrupting spellcasting (Mage Killer).
Does it later turn out that the knight has a tragic past, tortured by evil mages? That he's a psychotic anti-magic crusader, intent on getting any advantage even at the cost of appearing as a normal human being? Or did he just happen to have those feats?

2012-09-01, 04:30 PM
Depends on the NPC.

The BBEG, for instance, will have more thought put into him and more justified mechanics to go along with it. If he's a necromancer, obviously he won't have necromancy in his prohibited schools. For the most part I keep the crunch the same as the fluff for the important NPCs.

The not so important, like the bartender who shows up for one session and is promptly killed by the chaotic evil character for pouring him a crappy beer? Well, characters like those won't have as much thought put into them, and will most likely be drawn up with a character generator. The bartender, who I described as a hefty old man with a bad back, somehow got a +8 bonus to jump, and a +4 dexterity?

Oh well.

2012-09-01, 05:42 PM
The stats for my NPCs are always completely tied to their story - my NPCs don't have stats until I need them, and when I do I'll just whip up a bunch of stats that describe what they're already known (be it only by myself) to be able to do.

For your example with the wizard, I would have already known he was a member of a dragon cult, and might have decided on the spur of the moment that being such he would speak Draconic and probably know the password for the door. If the PCs want to investigate him, of course they can.

As to the other example, I would certainly only assign such specialized traits as those if they had some in-character justification. However, it could easily be something as simple as that the knight knew that mages were a weak point in his technique and sought out ways to kill them faster and more efficiently. Everything has a justification from the character, but not everything about the character is determined by their circumstances and past. Sometimes, people just have thoughts and desires of their own making.

Man on Fire
2012-09-01, 08:36 PM
In your two examples I would go with former - in first one it gives plot hooks and in case of the second it's pretty much required, because a knight who just happened to pick up fight with a wizard just happened to have feats giving him advantage over magic users for no reason...that would make me come out as a jerk trying to screw with wizard's player.

Gamer Girl
2012-09-01, 09:24 PM
I put tons and tons of backstories into every NPC. A big part of the fun of being DM is making NPCs. And I have hundreds of them(thousands if you count each generation of the game).

I call this Greenwooding: Everything is something that can lead somewhere, so the game is full of all sorts of hints, clues, leads, rumors and such. I have a huge pile of randomly made up stuff that I can drop in as needed, but I also plan stuff out ahead of time.

Kol Korran
2012-09-02, 01:04 AM
In most NPCs I try and build from the concept first, which includes the background. I do go quite a way to justify the mechanics by fluff, and the flufff by mechanics. to me they are both part of the whole character. The NPCs need not exactly a justification, more a reason to do what they can.

In your examples- If draconic was quite rare, then the background will include a source for it. The knight will have reasons for his modifications and training in his back story if they are exceptional. I wouldn't go an explain every power attack, spell focus or diplomacy ranks...

Less important NPCs I often care less for, unless they have unique abilities, in which case I do explain those, but with a simple reason (often reflecting common training, heritage and the like.

2012-09-02, 01:23 AM
I typically write the outline of my adventures and, at the same time, NPCs, before I work up stats for things. So, the stats tend to come about from what I already wrote about them. The more important a role the NPC has to play, the more detailed their background and stats will be.

In both those examples, I probably would've had a few sentences about the NPC already in the campaign plan, and then would come up with the stats from there. Depending on how important the NPCs in question were to the overall plot, I might or might not have come up with enough stuff already that the PCs could just wander over and follow it up - but if I hadn't, I'd come up with it once they became interested.

2012-09-02, 02:53 AM
For me, mechanics and fluff are very intertwined. This is why I sometimes have problems with 'figure out the mechanics later, we're only doing fluff now', as I work my character's mechanical abilities into their backstory, etc.

For example, a character who is a cleric will have a different outlook on the world than others, because they have the power to warp reality with supernatural powers.

This often means refluffing. If, for example, an NPC has the BoVD feats (the ones mentioned in the OP) that modify their body, it might be from (un)willing torture...or they've just always been like that. Perhaps their body is afflicted by an all but unknown disease that twists their shape as time goes on, leading them to search for a cure. Maybe they embrace the change, believing themselves to be above non-'modified' people.

It generally depends on the NPC, though. I don't bother writing up reasons why Frontliner Mook #3 has Power Attack or why Enemy Lieutenant Cleric has a certain spell prepared, especially if it's some of the more generic stuff.