Pell's informal rules for creating more naturalistic NPCs

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Pell's informal rules for creating more naturalistic NPCs

Post by willpell » Fri Sep 21, 2018 10:40 pm

When I build NPCs to amuse myself, there are some unwritten (until now) informal rules that I try to follow, in order to make the characters feel more natural as they evolve. For the first time, I'm going to attempt to explicitly document this process, and possibly post an example of how I go through it.

Rule 1 - Build one level at a time
Nobody comes into the world as a 10th-level fighter (well, almost nobody). Just because Toughness is a sub-optimal feat at 10th level doesn't mean you shouldn't have it, because your odds of surviving level 1 get a lot better if it was the first feat you took (particularly if you're an Elf who rolled/bought a low Constitution). I like seeing how a character can evolve over the course of slowly leveling them up; I build a lot of these characters, and update them one at a time in an intermittent sequence, which vaguely simulates the idea of them having to actually live out their lives over time. I often lack the inspiration necessary to really flesh them out with flavor text about the adventures they've had in order to make it through this "career", but every once in a while I'm able to come up with a really neat idea that is directly suggested by the difference between how I was thinking a month ago, when I first built a character, and how I feel about that character today, five levels later, as I come back and pick a new Feat for them while not remembering my original plan. Sometimes this goes horribly wrong, and I lose my original idea for where a character was going, but just as often I create something new and cool which I didn't previously imagine.

Rule 2 - Avoid Maxing All Skills.
Say that your moderately intelligent human fighter gets 16 skill points at level one. Should he have Ride 4, Handle Animal 4, Jump 4 and Craft (Weaponsmithing) 4? Then, six levels later, does he have 10 in each of those skills, and still no Climb or Move Silently or Sense Motive or Knowledge (local)? I try to avoid this. Instead, a level 1 might have Handle Animal 4, Jump 3, Ride 2, Craft 1, Profession (sailor) 3, Profession (guide) 1, and Swim 2. Then at level 2, he raises Handle Animal,Profession (sailor), Swim and Craft, and at level 2 he raises Handle Animal, Profession (guide), Craft again and Jump. Maybe the level after that, he puts 2 into Craft so he can get that Appraise synergy, while also keeping Jump and Handle Animal as his greatest specialties, and taking the Open-Minded feat so that he can bring up those lower-level skills that are starting to fall behind and be forgotten. By the time he reaches level 10, his 52 skill points might be spent as 10-9-8-7-5-4-4-2-1-1-1, and you have a character who is still heavily specialized in those first four skills, but dabbles in all sorts of other fields which say something about his personality.

Rule 3 - Skills Increase Gradually.
In conjunction with rule 2, I try to avoid letting a skill increase by more than 1 or 2 points, 3 at the absolute outside, on any one level. Occasionally I break this rule for the sake of a PrC qualification or making a new Feat useful or something, but in general, if I just unlocked a synergy that gives me +2 to my Jump check, I tend to pick Jump as one of the skills that doesn't get a new rank this level, because I don't want my Jump check to just randomly skyrocket by a huge amount all of a sudden. Skill Focus is the main exception to this rule, since a Focus skill is something a character cares deeply about, but even then, I usually try not to also add a rank at the same time, unless this is the main skill that the character revolves entirely around. By a similar token, if I forgot to raise Jump at level 4 and then find myself putting 2 into it at level 5, I'm likely to go back and revise the previous level, switching another skill point over to Jump so that it increases more smoothly, unless I can come up with a good story explanation for why Jump should have suddenly become a higher priority for this character's build choices, when he was content to neglect it before.

More to come.

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Re: Pell's informal rules for creating more naturalistic NPCs

Post by Khedrac » Sat Sep 22, 2018 9:06 am

I agree with all of that - which is one of the reasons I don't run 3.5 except for pre-written - it takes far too long to build NPCs. I know some like doing it, but I am not one of them (or not on a large enough scale to populate adventures).

Now I have worked out high level builds where the character will turn to new pursuits at a high level (e.g. they now have 10 ranks in all the knowledge skills they want and think that's enough so they start travelling and quickly learn to pay attention to what's around them - 6 ranks into Spot in just one level) - but as you say, that should always have some story justification
"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might just be a crow".

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