Looking at the people who live in Blackheath (my name for Phandalin), you can separate the NPCs into a few groups:
- Quest givers and/or allies
- Adversaries (I’ll include the Big Bads for this adventure even though technically some of them aren’t in the town)
- Miscellaneous Townfolk
Before we dive into the analysis of these categories, I’d like to talk a little about NPC descriptions. The adventure booklet gives a list of the “Important NPCs”, and this list gives “their relevance to the adventure”–but that’s it. The rest of the description of the NPCs–what they look like, what they know, what quests they give–is in the location keys. So the innkeep has some info in the section about the inn, the Townmaster has some info in the section on the Town Hall, and so on. The problem with this is that everything the DM needs to actually run these NPCs is buried in a wall of text. Scanning through a half dozen paragraphs to remember something about an NPC so you can roleplay that person is slow and inefficient.
It would be much better if they had separated the NPC information from the location information, wouldn’t you agree? But since they didn’t do that, we’ll have to do it for them. There are a few templates out there that you can use, depending on your style and the amount of time you want to spend.
The shortest by far is the Universal NPC Template created by Justin Alexander. Similar to it, but a little more expanded, is the template used in Masks: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game (a book I highly recommend, along with its predecessor Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters). The last one I recommend is the Entity Template created by K.J. Davies (it’s actually for any entity in your campaign–people, places, things), which is a bit more comprehensive if you like having a lot of info to hand.
Example NPC using Universal NPC Template
To use Alexander’s template as an example, we can pull together the info for one major NPC, Sildar Hallwinter (god, these names!). Most of the information for Sildar is actually in the Goblin Hideout section, because as written that is where you are supposed to find him. There’s a little more in the town section.
- Name: Sildar Hallwinter (or whatever replacement name you choose–The Adventure Zone podcast used “Barry Bluejeans,” which is more honest about its silliness)
- Appearance: Here’s our first snag–the only description given for Sildar in the adventure booklet is “kindhearted human man of nearly fifty years”. He’s a retired adventurer, so make up a couple of sentences describing a guy in late middle age who’s seen some fights.
- Quote: Again, you’re out of luck here, as the booklet doesn’t really give you any good quotes. In my view, he’s probably fairly charming and easy to talk to, since he’s part of the Lord’s Alliance and deals with people on a regular basis. So something like: “It’s easier to get what you want by buying someone a drink and chatting them up, than it is to use brute force. Less painful for everyone, too.”
- Roleplaying: Alexander suggests 1-3 things that help you get into the character, including one physical action/mannerism the NPC uses with frequency. The booklet doesn’t give you any of these either.
- Background: Alexander describes this as “essential context” and “interesting anecdotes”. I would include “how they got here” and “what they want here”, but you could also put that in the “Key Info” section. For Sildar, his essential context is that he is a captive of the goblins (unless you skip the goblin hideout like I did), he’s acquainted with Gundren Rockseeker and knows about the Lost Mine, and he’s also in town looking for someone named Iarno Albrek. He’s also a retired adventurer with considerable skill that could join the party.
- Key Info: This is where you put the essential interaction the PCs could have, or the essential information they need to get, from this NPC. Here the booklet actually gives you something! Sildar knows: 1) the three Rockseeker brothers located an entrance to the Lost Mine; 2) the goblins are holding Gundren and his map at Cragmaw Castle and that the goblins were hired by someone called “The Black Spider”; 3) his contact in town was supposed to be Iarno Albrek, but this guy is missing. Sildar is also a quest giver, so you can also include his quest “Finding Iarno” in this section.
- Stat Block: If there is any chance the NPC will be involved in combat, as an ally or adversary, include the stat block with the description. That way you have everything in one place.
Fixing the NPC descriptions
As you can see from the example, the adventure booklet doesn’t give you a whole lot to go on for roleplaying. Trust me, the rest of the NPCs don’t get much more information than Sildar does, and most of them get even less. Fortunately, there is a whole section on creating NPCs in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide! It has tables for interesting physical appearance traits, mannerisms, how they communicate/interact, secrets they may have, bonds or obligations, etc. The only complaint I have about that section in the DMG is that the tables are pretty small, having only about 6-10 options. But it will still give you more tools for roleplaying than the original adventure booklet did.
So to continue our example of Sildar, let’s use the tables in the DMG to give him a few more characteristics, and a bit more that we can use when roleplaying this guy. The parts of the template we were sparse on were Appearance, Quote, Roleplaying, and Background (the adventure booklet gives some background but you may want to change that, add to it, or whatever).
Appearance: Since Sildar is a retired adventurer, it makes sense that he would have a scar or two. So I took “pronounced scar” from the Appearance table. Let’s say he has two, one scar on his face, and one scar on his lower arm.
Quote: In addition to the suggestion I used above, I might use: “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee. Just kidding, it was really an arrow in the chest. Thank the gods for clerics, eh?” If you can’t think of a quote yourself, you can find 1000 of them in Masks: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game, since that book includes a quote in their NPC template. You can also steal quotes liberally from movies, TV, books, comics or video games. If your players notice, it will be a funny reference. If they don’t, well it’s their loss and your gain, right?
Roleplaying: You have two options here, the “Mannerisms” table and the “Interactions” table. I’ll take one from each. From “Mannerisms” I’ll pick “squints“. Maybe his eyes are getting bad but he refuses to get spectacles? Or maybe he squints and looks into the distance as he’s trying to remember something. From “Interactions” I guess I’ll pick “Friendly” but that’s rather bland. If the tables in the DMG are too simple or limited, try going to DM Muse’s Master Table List and checking their excellent NPC tables (there are a lot, scroll down to the “N” part and you’ll see “NPC” in the name of the table). From their “NPC Mannerisms” table I got “Whittles“.
Background: You could pick a background from the ones in the Player’s Handbook, if you wanted to–there isn’t anything specific in the DMG for NPC backgrounds. But it’s better if you pick a specific background that fits with your setting and the events happening just prior to your adventure. For example, in my setting there was a revolutionary war about 100 years before the “current era” I’m playing in. The king is building a wall at the northern border, but while it’s being built his military is constantly fighting border skirmishes to keep out slavers and other elements from the northern empire. Sildar (or Branno, in my setting) did a tour in the king’s army, fighting along the border. He also spent time as an adventurer, fighting monsters and seeking artifacts and treasure. Now he works for the Lord’s Alliance (I stole this faction from The Realms; I may change the name or goals of it later), trying to help them reestablish settlements and solidify safe travel and commerce throughout the new kingdom.
So there’s an example of how you can use a template to quickly flesh out an NPC, putting everything you need to roleplay the NPC in a game all in one spot. Once you establish a template, on paper or in a word processing document or in a virtual tabletop app, it should be easy for you to organize what information there is in the adventure. And it will also help you see where the adventure doesn’t tell you what you need to know. I’ve given you some suggestions on how to fill those gaps in, too. Chances are, you can find other random generators or lists to help you flesh out your NPCs. Donjon, Mithril and Mages, and Seventh Sanctum have some excellent random generators related to NPCs (as well as other things), and I’ve got all of them bookmarked. They are all good in different ways, so I recommend checking all of them to see which fits you best.
Next: We’ll look at the townspeople of Blackheath/Phandalin, their factions, and their quests!