One of the best ways to make our RPG worlds feel real and vibrant is to fill them with well-rounded characters who are integrated into the game world at all levels of play. I don’t mean that each NPC needs to have a fully-written backstory, necessarily, but having complex characters who are involved in the main storyline to varying degrees lends an increased sense of reality to the gaming experience.
And so, following the series on personality types and characterization, I thought it might be helpful to discuss different types of in-game characters and how bringing them into the narrative creates interest and engagement for the people at the gaming table and the characters you’re portraying. This post covers seven basic character categories: the primary character, central party, allies, important NPCs, secondary PCs, villains, as well as regular NPCs, creatures, and monsters.
Some of these character types will need further detailing beyond this introduction, especially villains and allies. So, following this post, we’re planning a villains series and further descriptions of types of allies.
One of my goals for these posts is to encourage you as you create challenging and interesting characters, some of whom are important to the PC and those closest to them, and some of whom are not. Though duets lend themselves to centering around a particular character (or sometimes characters), every other person they encounter has hopes, dreams, and desires too. The question becomes how to portray that at the table.
Some of those goals may be more basic, like low-level undead who want to consume, and others may be even more complex than the characters themselves can understand, like high-level allies and villains dealing with cosmic balances, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to make a world that feels believable, one that encourages immersion. An essential step for making that happen is to present the PC with a world full of diverse and interesting peoples, many of whom lead lives completely disconnected (as far as they know) from them and the interests of their party.
Quick caveat: Each campaign is going to be unique and different, which is wonderful! I use the labels below as distinct categories for the sake of clarity, but these divisions will be more fluid in actual play. Some duets, for example, start out with the player having two PCs. Others forego a regular central party and pull from a collection of close allies depending on the adventure.
The key is to do whatever works best for you! My hope is that having a cast breakdown clarifies options so you have more flexibility when a particular character becomes more interesting, a villain grows in importance, or a setting gets more richly developed.
Character Types and Descriptions
As the name suggests, this is the main character, or protagonist, for your game. Having just two people at the table opens up options that aren’t as available in multi-person RPGs, such as featuring a particular character.
In our experience, this is the easiest way to structure a duet, by structuring the story, other characters, and events around the PC [player character]. Some of our previous posts work through things to consider when first making your primary character and how to empower them to do well in a game system designed for multiple characters instead of one.
But in addition to those resources, the best bet for your primary character is creating a central party.
The central party is the group of characters who travel with the PC. You’ll want the party to be balanced in terms of class and their personalities and alignment so that your main set of adventurers are as balanced as possible.
We recommend adding in one central party member at a time so the PC can get to know them and the DM can be comfortable portraying them. As you adjust to having this second member and, perhaps, once the player is ready to run this character during combat, you could look at adding another. Having a party of three or even four (including the PC) alleviates a lot of the pressure around scaling the game for one player but, again, take your time adding these characters.
A common and very valid concern people have in their one-on-one campaigns is preventing the DM from having to talk to themselves. There are a few shifts that help prevent this which we discuss more at length in our post on role-playing in a duet, but, briefly, you’ll want to keep conversations narrowed to one-on-one with transitions between. Multiple characters can be present for these dialogues, but the PC is going to remain a near constant who all the other characters interact with.
How we most often balance this is specifying who is speaking to whom at a given moment: “Marcon is going to say…” “Iellieth looks over to see what Teodric thinks…” We had an amazing RP session this weekend that involved my PC having unique and important conversations with each of her three central party members separately by fluidly signaling who she was addressing.
Note: Don’t be afraid to pause for a moment or two if you need to switch gears between characters or bring someone in to talk to an NPC!
Some of my very favorite characters are allies to our main party. They bring in so much RP fun and create lots of character growth opportunities alongside various missions and sources for news.
In this case, I would define an ally as a character who is going to be able to help the central party or who the central party is going to be able to help. They’re likely quite a bit more powerful than the characters or slightly less.
Allies bring a greater sense of reality to the world because they make it clear that the characters aren’t going it alone. They have access to information the PC needs help getting, or a spell that they won’t be able to do for a significant period of time.
However, they’re more than someone in the game who has a similar alignment or interests to the central party—allies are deeply invested in the adventuring party themselves. They’ll know, at least to some degree, what’s going on interpersonally, and they’ll be uniquely positioned to advise the party about a particular region or enemy.
Speaking of region, allies are a lot more likely to be static in terms of their location. They’re invested in a particular area and therefore a great connection for the party. They can ensure that things continue to move in the right direction after the adventurers need to be on their way.
While of course there are going to be NPCs who matter a lot in the world because of their access to power or resources, here I’m referring more to NPCs who matter to you as players and to the members of the central party.
In some cases, they can be very similar to allies. For instance, we have a carpenter and an artificer/inventor who are able to create new and interesting technologies and materials for our characters. However, they can also move from place to place with the party or resettle in a stronghold if need be.
Important NPCs might also be characters one or both of you really like! Maybe there’s a funny bartender or a really sweet hat-maker. Perhaps you’ve left an eloquent and sophisticated love interest on the other side of the world because adventuring has called you away?
Depending on your individual game, it’s possible that the “important NPCs” could be incorporated in play even more often than allies, but they’re less likely to be central in terms of overarching narratives. They create a lot more fun—drama, danger, silliness, and opportunities for amazing accents—instead.
Important NPCs might also function, like our carpenter does, as small secondary DMPCs, such as in the category below, but for DMs.
Somewhere between Important NPCs and Allies, we have character mentors: an NPC who is close in level to the PC but has access to different information or experiences, so they still have something to teach the character. They’re also likely from the same class as your main PC, and they can bring in variety to gameplay for both the DM and player.
I wrote more about this recently but, most basically, secondary PCs are characters that the player usually portrays at the table who serve to round out the other members of the central party or the player’s gaming experience. DMs often have access to multiple different classes and character types in a given game or series of games; secondary PCs create a similar opportunity for the player!
We’re planning a whole series on villains, because they’re cool and exciting and come in lots of different types and forms, but here’s a start!
With any character, knowing their motivation is important, and the key to amazing villains is no different. I like keeping motivation positively framed, “I want ______ because ______” so that any character is fighting for what they believe in or trying to shape the world in line with their desires. Though this is not always the case, often, our energy and drive are more sustainable when fighting for something we believe in rather than against something we don’t.
Villains, too, would be different than opponents whose interests are simply at odds with the players. At first, villains might not see the party as much of a threat, especially at lower levels, and could just write them off as a nuisance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they might be a personal enemy of one of the party members, bent on threatening what that character values.
Regular NPCs, Creatures, Monsters, etc.
Calling someone “regular” doesn’t sound very nice, and this label certainly doesn’t mean that equal amounts of time and research can’t go into creating them. They may even stay important in terms of a character’s development, such as the first person they killed or a monster they found particularly horrifying. In most of these cases, though, regular NPCs and other creatures are ones we wouldn’t expect to come back.
If an NPC is a major hit with the player, or they become attached to someone in a region, that character might transition into a different category as an important NPC, even a secondary NPC, or an ally, depending on how powerful they are.
We’ve linked to this before but just in case, one of my favorite resources for help with creature tactics is The Monsters Know. Keith Ammann covers so many monsters and NPCs and how they’ve adapted to the world of 5e, aiming to survive just as much as the party.
The myriad of character possibilities is part of why collaborative worldbuilding and RP are so important in duets. However, that one-on-one connection with another person can also lead to uniquely meaningful NPCs and encounters across all levels of narrative centrality.
Related Posts in this Series
Be on the lookout for follow-up posts on villains and important NPCs, and please let us know in the comments below what you think and what you’d like to see more of!
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