Dungeon Master’s Guide Preview: Building Memorable NPCs

The cover for the new Dungeon Master’s Guide features a powerful lich who bears a striking resemblance to Iddy the Lich, the mascot for this blog. I have joked about Iddy being on the cover of the DMG on occasion through Twitter with team members from Wizards of the Coast in the hope that they would allow me to preview some pages before the book is released. Without burying the lead, the team at Wizards was gracious enough to send me two pages from the manual to share with the community!

If you Photoshop his staff to hold a d6, then it's basically the same character!
You would not like Iddy when he’s angry!

Many of the articles I have written about Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop gaming have been influenced by my background as a licensed psychologist. The team at Wizards thought it was fitting to provide me with two pages with details on how to create non-playable characters (NPCs) with personality. Below, I present the pages on NPCs, demonstrate how to use the tables to create four NPCs, and discuss how the Big Five personality traits can be used to develop memorable NPCs.

Dungeon Master’s Guide Preview

Behold, the pages from the new Dungeon Master’s Guide!



Before going any further, let us appreciate the art; Ming the Merciless picked the wrong treasure chest to loot! The art in the Player’s Handbook is gorgeous, and this slobbering, bedazzled beholder shows that the illustration and layout of the DMG will follow suit. By the way, have beholders always worn jewelry on their stalks? As a player, if I pry a ring off a stalk of a beholder – it better be magical!

The pages above present the dungeon master (DM) with multiple tables to assist with building NPCs. The tables can be used to purposely select NPC traits or the DM could roll for random results. It is quite useful to prepare each location in a campaign with one or two well-defined NPCs for the players to interact with as the adventure progresses. For example, players typically interact with innkeepers and city officials as they travel. To demonstrate the utility of the DMG tables, I rolled to create the following four NPCs – two innkeepers and two city officials. Prior to using the tables, I rolled a d6 to determine the character’s sex with odd numbers being male and even numbers being female.

Innkeeper #1 – Female

  • Talent – Sings beautifully (12)
  • Mannerism – Uses colorful oaths and exclamations (10)
  • Interaction – Quiet (11)
  • Ideal – Live and let die (3)
  • Bond – Dedicated to fulfilling a personal life goal (1)
  • Flaw or Secret – Secret crime or misdeed (10)

The first randomly generated innkeeper presents an interesting combination for the DM to play with as the players interact with the character. The first two rolls indicate a larger-than-life woman who is gregarious and easily approachable. The result on the Interaction roll shifts the NPC’s personality in another direction. She may be a strong singer and have colorful language, but she rarely performs and avoids being the center of attention. The combination of these three traits could lead to memorable moments; for example, she could interact with the party on numerous occasions in a quiet manner only to blow them away in a later interaction by singing beautifully or making bold statements. Perhaps a past crime has her running from someone and she is trying to quell her typical boisterous nature. She might be focused on escaping a troublesome past life to pursue the mundane existence of an innkeeper.

Innkeeper #2 – Male

  • Talent – Great with children (6)
  • Mannerism – Stares into the distance (15)
  • Interaction – Blustering (3)
  • Ideal – Creativity (2)
  • Bond –  Dedicated to fulfilling a personal life goal (1)
  • Flaw or Secret – Foolhardy bravery (12)

The second innkeeper presents the DM with other options in terms of how the NPC engages with the party. The party could first see the innkeeper ranting and raving at other staff and patrons as the players enter the inn. The man could be played as quite the boor while conversing with the NPCs since he rarely makes eye contact and speaks in an aggressive manner. The party would likely come to dislike this NPC. However, later in the interaction – or perhaps at a second or third meeting – the DM could show how the man is incredibly gifted when interacting with children. He could be shown lovingly teaching children a craft to show off his creativity. This combination leads to a potential adventure as a child could go missing and he would foolishly decide to go after the child on his own – or offer to join the party when they search for the child. The DM could play the NPC during a short adventure and use his blustering personality to good effect to spice up a brief delve.

City Official #1 – Female

  • Talent – Great with animals (5)
  • Mannerism – Makes constant jokes or puns (11)
  • Interaction – Hot tempered (8)
  • Ideal – Neutrality (5)
  • Bond – Protective of colleagues or compatriots (3)
  • Flaw or Secret – Forbidden love or susceptibility to romance (1)

The first city official just screams to be a great foil for a charismatic member of the party. I am reminded of several rogues – also with a soft spot for romance – who would enjoy flirting with a humorous, temperamental character. The official could have a unique pet of some sort, likely one that is not usually domesticated, to give her additional intrigue. She could be an ally to the party or turn on them in an instant if they intend to harm any of her friends. The DM could take this NPC in several directions, and perhaps wait to see how the party interacts with her. She could be a great queen who sits on a throne and sends the players on quests, or a second-in-command, city-administrator type who acts as an intermediary for the town’s true leader.

City Official #2 – Male

  • Talent – Skilled dancer (19)
  • Mannerism – Fidgets (13)
  • Interaction – Argumentative (1)
  • Ideal – Might (3)
  • Bond – Loyal to a benefactor, patron, or employer (4)
  • Flaw or Secret – Overpowering greed (5)

What a great tapestry to create a truly loathsome NPC for the party to encounter! A character that immediately comes to mind is Iago from Aladdin. This man could be a young, spoiled, petulant prince who is truly serving an evil lord, and who tries to use the party for his own selfish goals. The party could first interact with him during a social gathering to give him an opportunity to demonstrate his smooth dance moves. Another character from my childhood that leaps to mind from these traits is Johnny from The Karate Kid. The DM could have a wonderful time hamming it up with this type of NPC!

The above NPCs – and the brainstorming that followed – were a result of quickly using a few tables from two pages in the forthcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide. The pages also introduce the concept of using monsters as NPCs. The same tables could be used to give any monster in the campaign more flavor and depth of character.

Adding Personality to NPCs

A final brief note on infusing NPCs with personality. The field of psychology has identified five factors of personality that have been shown to be stable over time. The Big Five personality traits are:

  1. Openness to experience – curiosity vs. cautiousness
  2. Conscientious – organized vs. careless
  3. Extraversion – outgoing vs. withdrawn
  4. Agreeableness – cooperative vs. antagonistic
  5. Neuroticism – nervous vs. confident

A DM could roll a d6 to define a NPC by that specific trait, with a result of 6 leading to a re-roll. The DM could use the personality trait as a means for brainstorming during NPC creation. For example, a roll of 3 means the NPC is defined primarily by the extraversion trait, and the DM can decide if he or she wants a NPC who is extremely outgoing or very solitary. For increased randomness, roll instead to determine which end of the spectrum the personality trait falls; an odd result means the NPC is strongly on the front end (eg., outgoing) and an even result means the NPC is strongly on the back end (eg., withdrawn) of the personality trait. The Big Five could be combined with the DMG pages above to flesh out memorable NPCs!

Thank you, Wizards of the Coast

I want to thank the team at Wizards of the Coast for allowing me to preview some of the pages from the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. I am quite eager to see the rest of the book! I realize this may be the first time some readers are visiting this site. I want to take the opportunity to say, “Welcome” to first-time readers, and to encourage you to poke around the site. There is a good stockpile of articles from the past three years. A few places to start:

What do you think about the DMG pages above? Leave a comment and let me know!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

25 thoughts on “Dungeon Master’s Guide Preview: Building Memorable NPCs”

  1. Those Big Five personality traits are very intriguing… you could expand on that and roll a d6 for each of the five traits—1 representing one extreme of the spectrum and 6 the other.

    1. Carl, that’s a good idea if you wanted to make the NPCs even more unique and complex. I may elaborate on how to use the Big Five with characters in the future.

  2. How does a beholder put something on its eyestalks anyway? Great idea, but judging by the size of it, you’d probably wear it as a bracelet (well, you can always shrink it through magic).
    Congrats for the excellent article and the examples. We’re all eagerly waiting for the release of the Dungeon Master’s Guide!

    1. “How does a beholder put something on its eyestalks anyway?” Telekinesis, or slaves.

      “Great idea, but judging by the size of it, you’d probably wear it as a bracelet (well, you can always shrink it through magic).” Magical rings, which is what those most likely are, automatically re-size to fit the user, otherwise you would have to get it magically re-sized everytime you passed it between players. People already have different size fingers, imagine handing off a ring to a dwarf or a halfling.

    2. I’m guessing magic! I was thinking a PC could wear a beholder ring as a crown. What a terrific conversation starter, “Well, you see – I took this from a beholder I defeated last week.”

      “You mean WE defeated, right?”

      “Of course, WE. My apologies.”

      Whispering to NPC, “It was really all me.”

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, and please leave a comment on any of the other articles you find interesting – or contact me if you have any thoughts or questions.

  3. This looks fun, I want to play! Mine is the town doctor.

    Talent – 3 Unbelievably lucky
    Mannerism – 2 Speaks in rhymes or some peculiar way
    Interaction – 9 irritable
    Ideal – 17 redemption
    Bond – 3 protective of colleagues
    Flaw – 3 arrogance

    I see this physiker as a crazy old man who won a bunch of money off a once in a lifetime bet. He used the money to set up his own herbalism and healing shop in town although he knows nothing about either profession. The players might see him as a wise old sage at first because of his cryptic speech patterns, but over time realize he is just mad – and irritable because no one understands him. If they dig deeper into the meaning of what he has to say (perhaps with a quest) they will find the backstory of an arrogant man who was cursed with madness because of his lack of morality and how he now wants nothing more than to redeem himself by helping others.

    1. Awesome, I like it! It reminds me of a NPC I ran during a “pirate” segment in an old campaign. I played up that the NPCs were looking for an old pirate and they found this crazy guy talking to parrot on the docks. They assumed he was the pirate. He would break from talking to the characters to screaming at the parrot on his shoulder. They tried to reason with him – and finally learned he wasn’t the pirate they were looking for. It was a fun moment.

      I wonder how the party could help town doctor?

  4. Congratulations on the exclusive! I agree it’s perfectly suited to Iddy 😉 It’s been a while since I’ve been to the site, so this was an excellent reminder. And that gorgeous, old school beholder art is my favourite piece of all the 5E work!
    I’ll be sure to take another look at your articles, because 5th Edition has me eager to do a little DMing and home brewing, more so than Pathfinder.

    1. Thanks for coming back to visit! I know my posts are geared toward D&D but some of the articles can translate to other game systems, especially those about group dynamics, etc. I’ve enjoyed the art in the books; I’m a sucker for fantasy art!

  5. Hey congrats for the good work! I just don’ t like the NPC Ideals table, for the same reason I don’t like the way alignment is put into play on dnd – this has all to do with the good/evil dualism. It is so empoverishing in terms of understanding how the world goes, how people really think and behave. I don’t use the good/evil dualism for quite some time 😉 Anyway, what I most like in these tables is the association between few options and great variety of NPCs!

  6. Nice article!
    About time something like this showed up in the DMG. It has been an article in the Dragon Magazine. Not exactly the same but close. Back in the AD&D days I think. (Damnit I’m old…)
    That reminds me to dig it up again.

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