A well-designed monster’s lore informs its rules, and its rules should hint at its use in encounters

Make Great NPCs with Celeste Conowitch!

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hi everyone and we are now here with a special special guest for how to be a DM this is Celeste Connor wits hello it’s so good to be here I thank you so much for inviting me well I I couldn’t be doing learning about dungeon mastering without without talking to you you have a wonderful reputation but a lot of people will know you as a T RPG designer and streamer and also one of the co-hosts for the D&D community which airs it’s on Fridays right yeah every second Friday of the month you know it’s a lovely show where we just basically like talk about how wonderful this community is and shout out cool people and just a very fun positive little little tea party show and I was saying earlier I’m trying to like become more of a tea drinker so I might have to pick your brain about tea absolutely well I am learning a lot from that show and definitely also trying to cultivate my knowledge of teas so extensive no it’s not there’s tons of stuff in between there hee-hee-hee drops have you had peep drops no I think that I might I’d be calling him that I will send you a link after because my neighbors a big tea drinker and she got me into these little tea drops that you just dropped and the hot water was that like making to like cool flowers and stuff like that it was it was like a vanilla lavender flavor and like I didn’t even know that he could do this it’s magic anyway in addition to your knowledge about tea I hear that you’re also very skilled in creating interesting NPCs that is uh that is definitely something I have been told um so for the actual play podcast and venture maidens we we usually get a lot of feedback that what people really enjoy about our show and our story is the quality of the NPCs and how important they are in the story and and I feel real and important and are a big part of our show so I absolutely love making interesting NPCs I think even you know following up with like Noel look at like how Shira has evolved you know when you have interesting characters it just really makes your story real and potent and magical so definitely one of my favorite things to talk about this is so I guess I’d never maybe I haven’t really encountered as a player that many NPC that that did something other than hello our town is in trouble and and you do this and then we don’t see them again until we come back and collect our money so it wasn’t until I started digging into this how to be a DM show that I think it might have been West Nider who was talking about DM zinnias like oh my you can or uh let’s talk about NPCs and he was like you can use them for a host of other thing like they can propel the store like you can just drop them in anytime and your characters are doing something you don’t want them to do have an npc come in and be like did you guys hear like the noise yes staircase inspect it out absolutely absolutely there’s I mean there’s a thousand different ways you can use NPCs and really help like create them to make your world more interesting and more believable I think you know having having fantastic conversations with NPCs is almost more telling for your world than like scenery or setting because that’s when you know people are used to having conversations with other people and that’s like the most natural thing I think for humans to do so having these good conversations just really drives home a world that makes sense and your players want to be a part of so I guess as a new dungeon master yeah I mean I’m not even a dungeon master yet so but you’re learning but I’m learning uh maybe I get I do get very inspired from these conversations but I know you know a lot of people who are our new and our you know kids just getting their feet wet with Dungeon Master II might have the same question I would feel like already I got enough to do oh yeah I’m trying to get the story out there I’m gonna have the monsters coming in here I can’t possibly have to manage NPCs as well but for a new dungeon master I feel like they can actually serve a great purpose they can actually help you in what ways could I use them yeah I mean I you know there are of course the classic ways you can use NPCs as quest givers to convey information but I also really like using NPCs as resources for the characters so something I really recommend for new dungeon masters you know if you’re going to be playing a campaign for a while is setting up some kind of like home base in your games so maybe this is like a castle that you know like there there are mercenary people there who can hand out quests your characters so the players may revisit this castle at this point or like a friendly tavern that they know you know sort of a Cheers situation where everybody knows their name they know like five NPCs who go to this tavern so over the course of your campaign you can you can come back and like revisit these places you can have a safe place to rest or to get food you know or to buy equipment so I really love using NPCs in that way and having like a grounding quality to that more location so I think that’s something that’s really good to do especially when you’re starting out just having NPCs that you know will show up again and again because that helps you know it helps train you to run and PCs effectively if you’re revisiting the same character and those characters are showing up again and again it helps you fall into the voice you know it helps you get used to running those conversations and it really is a way to your confidence and your players confidence that there’s some safe place or a safe person in the world oh that’s nice you put it that way yeah when you are running your games or even starting a campaign do you have like a roster of NPCs you know you’re gonna pull out or do you kind of create them on the fly yeah so usually when I you know I’m sitting down I’m gonna make a big campaign I I assign like names to people place them like okay yeah there’s a capital city this person rules the capital here’s their name go and then I usually stop there until my players actually interact with these people most of the time I find you discover a lot about the NPCs as you actually run them and as they interact with your characters cuz your characters may never go to this capital city so you know don’t confuse yourself by investing time and ever learning the story of every single NPC start small so if you know they’re gonna start out in this tavern and start with your innkeeper who are they like how do they communicate and you know roll on as you need to I think the only real exception I have to that rule is if you have a villain that you’re gonna use for your campaign and that that villain is really going to drive the story and everything I would invest a lot of time in them right from the get-go because that will kind of like guide your narrative journey in general but otherwise start small start easy it is intimidating to remember 15 different personalities in your head yes so do them one at a time so what what does make them interesting yeah so I hey I get this question a lot and I’m always really really grateful that I studied the theater in college because I think theater gave me a lot of tips and tricks about how to play interesting characters and how how to make compelling and interesting people and a lot of that always has to do I remember so many professors saying this over and over again no no your motivation no your motivation so even if it doesn’t necessarily come up in the conversation know what goals your NPCs are striving for know what what they do when your characters go off scream like keep these in mind because what they ultimately want really helps inform how they interact with your players or what they do next so you can start very simple again like let’s let’s go to this innkeeper maybe they’re only ruining the end because they want to buy a summer house that’s their whole thing they they want to buy a summer house no interested you know like if you keep that in mind when they interact with the players that can give you a lot about what they want so maybe they aren’t actually really interested in running an inn one that’s a personality trait you could do – maybe they just want money because they want to get out of here as quickly as possible so maybe they overcharged for everything or you know like maybe they ask the characters if they seen any beautiful locations on their way just keeping this this thing this abstract like goal in the back your mind automatically helps you know how to respond to a lot of questions and and get a conversation going that is very interesting I also studied theater in college I fit in I did not take that away from anything I didn’t because I wasn’t paying as much attention maybe I just had professors who really really like to say no your motivation yes I remember like you know hearing that but I guess applying it to like I mean your character to any character it’s you’re right I’m thinking of different motivations for the the innkeeper and how that would affect how they interact with the players and you know whenever you laughs yeah when you do feel like you have those motivations to firmly in hand I think the next step is is making sure that those motivations change and shift based on the interactions with your characters so say for example I mean your players burned down the inn for this innkeeper the innkeeper’s goal probably is gonna shift from getting a summer home to maybe taking vengeance out on the characters who did this or getting another job and then when you can maintain these these arcs or these motivations especially when they change an adept off screaming it really makes the npcs feel real and feel like real people in your world it does it really does so other how have you used NPCs in your campaigns in like other creative ways like have they propelled of the story have they changed the story for you because you discovered things about the NPC that’s now kind of interesting in a new hook yeah absolutely something I really enjoy especially when you get into higher levels of D&D you know and you’re like your group is the big-deal heroes in the world right there running around they’re saving in the world they’re doing all kinds of stuff and at that point they can’t be everywhere at once so if they can enlist NPCs to do some of the work for them or to you know had to have other agency in the world that’s a really great motivation to make friends with some NPCs and to build some relationships so you know if you if you do have like a rogue NPC that you interact with frequently you know making it open that your players could send them to go spy on something for you or to gather information for you or you know you have access to a big deal wizard maybe he can hunt down magic items for your players off screen just making these in NPCs resources I think is a really great thing to do that’s kind of outside just that just give the quest or like you know so if you were gonna have if you were gonna do that you were gonna give them a rogue to go off and spy would you actually roll for the rogue to see if they got the information or would you just make it up in your head I think probably based on I take it case-by-case because you know if it is like a high level big deal NPC rogue is it more interesting that they get the information is it more interesting that the Rogue is like captured by the enemy and that becomes a big thing or I think playing the level of interest your players have in this NPC and you know the stakes they have and their health and safety can inform what happens next it’s always a really good idea to you know when your party decides to do something so they decide to send this NPC into a dangerous situation making it feel like consequences are real and that NPCs they care about are going into danger yeah is always a great strategy so yeah I say play it case by case because if they are really invested in this character I think it might be more interesting for your story if something goes wrong or something happens to them yeah now that I’m thinking about it I am thinking about some NPCs that have traveled around with us that we took a liking to and we ended up we kill them right I mean we like to put them in dangerous situations where they shouldn’t and kind of I know I’m god that just came back to me I feel really I mean those moments too you know because when you do invest in your NPCs and your characters get to know them over time and you build a relationship those relationships become such pivotal story moments like you know if you’re building say a best friend relationship with an NPC and say you know a fight is going very very badly for your characters and the NPC steps up and like will sacrifice themselves so you all can get away or you know though they’ll come in at a pivotal moment and well it is sort of a de ex machina it’s also like there there are consequences to losing these NPCs and all that emotion and time you invested in that relationship becomes so much more meaningful when it’s when it’s threatened or you know can potentially end I for a while I’ve always had this misconception that when an NPC joined our party that it was kind of cheating mmm that was like well now we’re not doing it yeah we just I didn’t feel like like we really accomplished the goal and I didn’t feel as proud because well we had this guy that was with us that was poking us but they’re not I mean they’re I had I guess I still kind of have that impression like I want to do it on my own I don’t want us and I mean that’s that’s also a relation that you you can define you know not all relationships have to be positive like if there is this paladin character who’s following you all around and making sure you do good things I mean that’s gonna be a tense relationship with some characters in the party and how that plays out is is interesting drama for both of your players and you know anyone who might be listening or watching your game yeah I mean that’s just gives you another story angle for your character to play off especially if it’s your character that doesn’t like this person but everything else does you know yeah and I mean it’s always really interesting to you know when you present the players with a new npc sometimes your players won’t care they won’t care about this NPC they don’t have anything in common with them and that’s okay this NPC can just stay with them for this adventure and then go away but inevitably there will be those NPCs that something about them you know sparks a player’s imagination or a character’s imagination you know they find something in this NPC that’s interesting and want to build relationship and as a DM I encourage you to invest more time in those relationships if you introduce an NPC and your players don’t seem excited about them don’t have them come back you know read the room and develop the relationships that are really interesting to your players so can you tell me about some of the NPC’s that really resonated with your players yeah so in Inventor maidens I did do the thing where we kind of have like a home base that you know our players go back to you and visit you know there’s this mercenary organization called the sisters of sorrow so all the agents and like the leaders who work in that organization and are sort of like the bosses for my players they’re all at this location so whenever they go back there they can spend some time with these people I mean we have like romantic relationships that have developed between some of these NPCs all kind of yeah and one of the characters I have to shout it out people in chat are talking about it we have the master of the house for this key is named Vladimir and he is just this very sort of creepy Ravenloft esque Butler who appears and sort of floats and disappears into the shadows and over time you know he’s a very stalwart sort of silent presence in the keep but because the players have just wanted to know so much about him he keeps popping up in the adventurism like I love doing for Halloween episodes you know he he invited them to like go find an arcane tome from his ancestral home and we got to hear a little bit more about how he might be from barovia and all these things that are like unwinding over the course of the adventure just because my players just needed to know so much that it grew from just like an interesting kind of oh he’s a creepy Butler like you know which is sort of an archetype you find and things but he his personality developed because they were so interested in it so that’s that’s one of those examples when it’s like when players get attached that’s the great jumping point to investigate that relationship more and to put more spark energy into that did you know that ever you’re gonna get that attached to him when you know I surprised do too honestly I mean we’ve been playing this game for four years now and what is still just mind-blowing to me is how the relationships with the NPC’s have changed over time like we had one of the bosses at the keep was sort of this this snooty like cleric character who my players just hated they just hate it at the beginning of the campaign and over time they’ve come to love her so much and like include her and things and like it’s it’s just so so awesome to see how these relationships follow them I mean when you when you really invest that much in your NPCs it does become like real life you know where people can not like each other and then all of a sudden they’re frenemies and then they’re best friends or you know because our relationships in life always change you shift and so when that happens in D&D they just feel so real and so special yeah and it is true because you don’t know how people how the players will respond yeah and the dynamics that are going to form it is yeah it was an interesting angle for the to develop the story yeah it’s like in real life how you know friendships and relationships evolve and change organically and when you can recreate that in your de games it becomes so exciting have you ever surprised your players with it like the motivation of an NPC like has an NPC ever just betrayed the party and you knew you knew that I think you’re gonna do that well I can’t know we won’t talk about what’s gonna happen I’m een I one of my favorite things to do with my NPCs is never to give away the whole story I love creating those situations like in real life where you know it’s it’s never clear who exactly you should trust or like who is right and who is wrong because in life people really aren’t ever purely right or purely wrong they all have different motivations and walk different things out of the same situation so when you do have a team of powerful characters you know looking to advance their agenda acknowledging that each of those agendas is different really you know forces your characters to be like okay maybe I’ll go with this send PC because I feel like I trust them because we have this similar characteristic or this NPC has done this in the past so maybe I won’t trust them because they might do it again so I love to throw wrenches in whenever somebody gets too comfortable like in a relationship and they think they know everything about this person you know unveiling some new detail or some new layer or putting them in a situation that really challenges what they think about that NPC can be just so fascinating and you don’t think this is too much like on top of everything else a Dungeon Master has to do yeah you know what’s really interesting is because when you get into your campaign and you have your setting like in place and you know your world really well the things that move in change really are just your players and the NPCs so when you have your world built and it’s all confirmed and kind of set in your mind this really almost becomes the only thing you have to worry about because these quests that the NPC’s give you or these interactions they have informed so much of the story and move things along that I think people fall into it a little bit easier than then you might expect over time especially if you do have the same people reoccurring in your stories and and really playing a part in your adventure so this might be a dumb question but as I’m thinking about it when you are creating these NPCs are you stabbing them up sometimes I do um like if if I know they’re going to be accompanying a character on an adventure I will most of the time though if I don’t need to I don’t okay and you know all sort of guide by like oh like okay this person probably is like the mage step lock so you know if we do get into like a deception Bluff Arcana skill check I’ll just go ahead and go to the stat block and be like this feels right yeah to make the rules but you know again like you don’t have to worry about the rules and the mechanics until you have to worry about the rules and mechanics yeah with NPCs so you know have something in mind maybe but I think it’s it’s safe to play that one by ear so would they be the same level as the party or different levels it could be a super powerful yeah yes it could be like a tiny little yeah and what’s just starting out too is like for form of my home base right now you know these characters who give them the quests and are their bosses you know they they started at a much higher level than the adventuring party but because of the nature of levelling you know characters at low levels level very quickly as opposed to higher level characters what’s fun is over the course of your campaign when your pcs start to become the same power level as your NPCs you know they catch up to them in terms of leveling and that really also is a big thing that changes in their relationship because you know how you how you treat a wizard who’s so much more powerful than you versus how you treat a wizard who’s the same level as you is another dynamic that shifts over the course of the game oh that’s so interesting and I I can see why your your name was brought up talk about NPCs and I was I love building interesting NPCs so do you so when you design and your adventures are you you’re building in these NPCs and the adventures definitely i i mean it’s when you do design you know writing in and pcs that are going to be helpful or interesting is always a challenge because you never know the party they’re going to go to so what I really find when you write an adventure is giving a good indication of what their motivation is already so that way you know you’re doing the DM a favor when you hand off like this module you’re writing or and then giving them characteristics that are easy to act so you know saying like oh this person you know they they take lots of long pauses between their words or you know they’re very thoughtful or you know they they speak so fast you know building and things like that that are really easy and accessible for for anyone to look at and go boom I know how to play this character yeah it’s just instant personality yeah instant personality you know cuz if they like raise at the end of their sentences every single time like that gives you an idea of like what what kind of personality you’re dealing with and I think it makes people just reading it on paper imagine and become automatically more more comfortable playing these NPCs are you mostly do you mostly DM when you play or are you a player as well yeah I’ve gotten to play a lot more recently but I’ve been playing D&D for about yeah 10 11 12 years or so and I would say 90% of the time Dungeon Master so I am very grateful that I get to play a little bit more than I used to yeah what’s what kind of characters do you create I do my gosh she’s very rich of I I am that back story player I’m the one who will hand you the big and my characters I always you know building in like weird hang-ups and little issues with them that you know so they’re not automatically optimized is I think something that that I really I really like doing so setting up challenges I guess for myself to roleplay along the way as something I really enjoy doing I love it you know I was just thought of something else that an NPC could do and I don’t know if this was something that came up at an earlier conversation yeah or what but a lot of things a lot I’m get concerned a lot with new players like if I what when I do might try my hand at dungeon mastering I feel like I want some new players because I don’t I think they would judge me less I don’t know they don’t know what they don’t know I’m just like I really like to have a mix yeah of players at my table you know one or two people who are experienced and who can help you like you know rules questions without judgement yeah and then new players are fantastic to have your table but I would worry that maybe they wouldn’t like some new players won’t initially be comfortable with role-playing or you know asking questions because when you tell people like you can do literally anything and then they’re never like but I guess you please yeah there’s too much too much choice that the NPC could kind of gravitate towards that character and bring them out of their shell if they’re being asked questions are being led certainly are being told information then absolutely I I think it’s also really fun for new players to have to have a really silly NPC or you know someone with a really strong but approachable personality so like a sassy kobold or you know just something something that lets them know immediately that they don’t have to take themselves too seriously and you know this is a game about fun and you can yeah you’re inviting them to laugh and be creative when when they see you laughing and being creative with your NPCs yeah you can really set the tone yeah immediately with with who the players encounter yeah cuz I think you know when you when you open up those rule books and you get a character she and you have those people are like okay now you add three and four and five and and it can be scary but you know silly voices automatically let them know oh man this is this is jokes this is telling jokes this is having fun so it’s a great signal for new players to just you know relax and enjoy themselves it is yeah and if you have those players that are not they don’t know what to do ya know like it’s the it’s your turn new player and that like I don’t I don’t know my sword or ask a question then I suppose this a friendly NPC could just gravitate and absolutely help them now answer questions in-game you know give give them a sense of direction if they ever get lost you know sending sending the old Knight looking to proclaim his glory along with you on the first game might be a great way to learn how to adventure or better yet how not to adventure right a silly NPC with your party do you do you voices for all your NPCs I do some voices I’m not great at accents unfortunately I have a couple in there but I do always try to note vocal quality for each of mine so like I was saying before you know if they like if they stutter or if they take a really long time to speak or if they use a certain word a lot so I try to put something like that in with each of my NPCs in fact I keep a spreadsheet I was oh yeah so I have I have a spreadsheet that lists all the campaign you know NPCs that are likely to come up again and I have little like notes about how to do their voices so I don’t get them mixed up especially when the dreaded situation comes up when two NPCs are talking to each other right I feel like you know just having a visual cue to keep in mind when they are discussing so you can tell the difference is is super do helpful that’s very cool um you’re very inspiring and actually people in the chat are saying the same thing yes this is this has been enlightening and I know that as dungeon master you know there’s a lot of tips and tricks that you could teach a new dungeon master or an aspiring dungeon master like myself so perhaps you would be willing to come back and share more yeah I mean I I do just want to say the big the big tip the biggest tip I have for anyone just try it dive in and do it you’ll get better every time you DM you fall into it but the best places to start and it’s it’s never as scary as you think it’s going to be really it really because once you get going those first ten minutes are terrifying right before you start the game and then you’re like okay it’s the time to start and I swear time will fly by for you it will just fly by it’ll be over so fast and you’ll be so excited to play again oh I bet I will have to try I will have to try Anna I’m actually really excited about NPCs and act and using them at first I thought I would run a game completely devoid of them because I don’t want to have to worry about tracking anyone else but you know I think that would be the wrong call they’re definitely they’re here to help all right so before we started recording you were saying that you’ve been very busy and just great for all of us so where can people follow you find you learn about all these great projects that you’re working on maybe ask your advice about absolutely the best place to keep up with me is to follow me on twitter at c– kana which there you know i’m always posting what streams i’m doing our our schedule what I’m working on if you want to see the full catalogue of the I’ve published everything I’m working on you can always check out my website Celeste kana which com otherwise yeah you know keep an eye out for me on the DMS guild always publishing stuff up there and I would love to chat about dee dee it’s my favorite thing you are awesome thank you so much definitely would love to to have you come back absolutely yes thank you so much for having me this has been an absolute delight oh thank you it’s been a delight for me too I might go do a little quick LARP with my son right now and you know practice some some NPCs on him absolutely that’s what I do when I play with his stuffed animals and you know it’s it’s amazing how much imagination practice we all have at making up imaginary friends and NPCs are just the same yes yes all right I’m doing it I love it alright thank you so much Celeste and thank you everyone in the chat and for sticking with us and we will be back next week with more dragon talk until then have a wonderful week everyone


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