True, it’s a trope. But never underestimate your players, allow me...
And while you expect a barmaids top to be revealing, it did not reveal what was expected. Oblivious to eyes distracted by the obvious, tattooed on her side, just below her breast. 'The map to the city of Avada!' The wizard gasps. He turns to the ranger. 'You do have leatherworking, do you?'. He nods. 'Kinda crowded'. 'Allow me to solve that' whispers the bard as he waves over the barmaid. 'So when do you get off work?'
It's a 15-year-old scene and still puts a smile on my face. But it's no joke when players ignore or downright slaughter your NPCs. Yes, their lives are fickle but their contribution to the story is not. This brings us to the main question of RPG world-building. How not to over-prepare while still coming across prepared.
The little girl begging in the street and the compassionate guard that bought her a loaf of bread are examples of casual NPCs. They’re not intended to play great roles in the story to come but adding depth to them brings your world to life.
Giving names and small backgrounds to all the beggars, guards and merchants still is a big ask. Your players will ignore, or worse kill them. What if I tell you, you can manage this with a cheat sheet, a deck of cards, and a set of dice.
Storyline NPC’s are NPC’s that are intended to play a great role in the story to come. And they need a different approach. To gain insight let's take a look at how Mull and Sanderson realize this.
Brandon Mull uses the following template:
Brandon Sanderson uses the acronym PROMS to define his template which is interestingly enough, quite similar:
Merged together we end up with the following template.
A little more work than the casual NPC, true but almost guaranteed to provide you with at least one great hook!
Notice there’s no name, NPC face card, or small background on the Storyline NPC template. Casual NPCs with whom the players interact and engage can evolve into Storyline NPC’s. Fill out the Storyline NPC template with the name and other data of the casual NPC the players engaged with.
Example: After they praised the compassionate guard he takes on the role the town's poor nobleman was intended to play. He requests their help, his people are starving.
Evolving casual NPCs has great added advantages;