I’m currently running two games and have a convention coming up (where I’m also running two one-shots), so it’s no surprise that game prep has been at the forefront of my mind.
The way I see it, my game preparation has three areas of concentration: people, places and plans. I’ll talk about about the first two this time around and the last one later.
This should be the primary concern of every GM. Your players have created characters with (hopefully) interesting backstories, motives, hopes and dreams. They deserve interesting people to interact with.
I always try to start with motivations when it comes to NPCs. If I know what they want out of life (both short-term and long-term) I know how they’ll react in most situations. I also try to get an idea of what their nature is like. Are they happy? Friendly? Quiet? Nervous? Twitchy? Considerate? Rude?
I’ve also discovered that players can find it interesting when two NPCs have a relationship outside of the context of the PCs. In my L5R game, Saga of the Inukai, two of the NPCs were brothers with a long-standing feud, the cause of which unfolded through the course of the game, leaving the players in some difficult situations.
Places can be just as important to a successful scene. It’s certainly true that a good scene can be carried by strong characters (both PCs and NPCs), but adding uniqueness to the setting for the scene can only bring more color to the game.
Think about the typical pub in a fantasy game. There are a bunch of tables and chairs, maybe a long bar with some stools, a fireplace in one corner, a pretty barmaid, a gruff, scared barkeep, and maybe a minstrel playing a lute in the corner.
But in a large city, the pub owner (we know his motivations, right?) might want to draw in a big crowd, especially on slow nights. Maybe he has to so something special on slow nights. So he features rat maze races every Thursday and Friday nights. Maybe he sneaks a bear-bating pit into the basement.
How about the general store? It looks perfectly normal, but even in the dead of night, the candles and lanterns are burning, and you can hear the sound of working (what’s he building in there?) .
Perhaps the local weapon smith keeps an intricately ornate custom sword displayed on his wall. It has gold inlay in the hilt and looks to be the finest thing he’s ever crafted. Which wealthy knight did he make that sword for? And why didn’t he pick it up? And why won’t the weapon smith sell it, no matter the offered price?