WQRobb of Graph Paper Games is apparently quite impressed with me over I claim I made some time ago which stated that I statted out nearly the entire crew of a Miranda Class Cruiser for an old Star Trek campaign I ran. A TOS Movie Era Miranda Class has a crew compliment of 336 to 352 personnel according to the original FASA Federation Ship Recognition Manual. I believe I said I settled at 300.
The truth is, yes, I did this.
There are 50-75 members of the Order of the Winghorn Guard statted out for my D&D-But-Not campaign world of Aerth...per era of the campaign history. A little quick math places that at roughly 240 NPCs. That does not include shopkeepers, innkeepers, knights or captains of the guards of any cities, no rulers or royalty and certainly not the villains or their henchpersons. That would place the total NPCs for that campaign universe in the order of 500 at least.
My Superhero games are similar though there are actually less non-player characters statted on average than in other genres.
Am I insane. Perhaps.
I love NPCs and it's not about generating lots and lots of them but about creating ones that the characters will remember, want to see return and (hopefully) miss if they should they perish.
I once had a PC Chief Engineer in a Star Trek campaign over his Asst. Chief out of the Engine Room so he could perform an operation with the Matter/Anti-Matter system that would have saved the ship and surely killed him. The NPC said he would do it and the player said, "You have a wife and a child Lieutenant. Get out of here and up to the bridge and that's an order!" The two actually wrestled for a bit before the NPC tossed the PC out of the room as a blast door locked shut. "I am sorry sir, you will have to put me on report." The player was nearly in tears when the poor guy died. It was epic.
Damn I love running Star Trek. Where was I? Oh yeah, NPCs...
Here are some of my tricks to generating cool NPCs:
I have a knack for naming but I have picked up so great tricks over the years. WQRobb's post has some cool ideas as well.
Your first best friend...the Phone Book. Mix and match the names and your have thousands of potential PC names for Modern or Science-Fiction settings. I also highly recommend Gary Gygax's Extraordinary Book of Names. Awesome resource for Modern, Future or Medieval names of a variety of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Naming conventions help me a lot. My Vulcan males always start with an 'S' (sorry Tuvok) and I try to utilize the 'L', 'P', 'V' and 'K' consonants as much as I can. By placing this limitation on myself I get more creative with the names while keeping the proper feel. So off the top of my head: Solvock, Slevek, Sukel, Stevalek, Stolop and Spovol.
For Superhero and Supervillain names (as well as Fantasy Elf and Dwarf and Starship names), the Thesaurus is your friend. So is typing in, 'Synonym for...' whatever word you're looking for into Google.
I usually develop the personalities of my NPCs by starting with a character cliche or familiar type in my mind or by thinking of a similar character already in existance and modifying them. My Superhero Black Emerald's persona is a thinly veiled parody on all the Black Superheroes of the 70's, especially Luke Cage, while Mr. Spaceman is both the Martian Manhunter and David Bowie from The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Over time, that is, with each additional appearance of the NPC, more and more of an actual three-dimensional personality is constructed. It doesn't happen all at once. It takes time. One must be sure to give them that time.
The problem, as I understand it, for many a GM (most notably DMs specifically) is that their NPCs never get the chance to develop as they are often killed by the PCs. This is an issue I will not directly address here as, to be honest, I haven't the faintest clue how to avoid that if your players are that bloodthirsty. I've never experienced it myself.
One way to ensure this development time is...
Give your NPCs a purpose. Noisms noted as part of the post that started my GM advice series...
"My NPCs tend to blend together, unless I put on a funny voice or accent, being
universally sarcastic, cynical, mean-spirited, and rather unhelpful."
If the only purpose for the NPC you've created is to be unhelpful than I am not especially surprised if the PCs don't care for them, don't want to encounter them again or try to off them in pursuit of a less aggravating work environment.
Some of my NPCs are local color, like the Baugh the barkeep, his wife Bera, who makes the mutton soup that has those mild though massive onions, their daughter Bini, the barmaid, who loves to hear tales of dungeon delving and their niece, the odd girl, Helg, who talks to squirrels and raccoons.
Some are sources of information, such as Jimmy 'Jitters' McIntyre, an informant in the Superhero team's home city. Jimmy shakes a lot, sometimes so much that he visually blurs and is virtually impossible to see in the dark or in the rain. He can see and hear pretty well during these moments though and he, ya'know, notices stuff. Jimmy is a Mutant but with a power he can't control which has limited uses. Between that and his drug habit the heroes feel back for Jimmy and want to help him but how?
Some are employers like Lars Reinholden, snappy dresser and lover of coffee liqueurs. There are the neighborhood street kids like Big Gus, Little Gus and that kid who insists you call him DJ Hyperjump. Don't forget the local law on the space station at Gamma Plesiades II. Sgt. Cho'Glick is a real ass (I think he doesn't like Humans) but Corporal Kenner really is trying her best.
Another trick I love to use, usually checking player approval when at all possible, is to have old PCs act as NPCs in a later campaign. My entire world of Aerth sort of revolves around this. Any PC that has ever walked the face of the world and did not clearly die has the distinct chance of returning as an NPC. I do this in Star Trek to sometimes but in D&D it's a mainstay. It gives the world a cohesive feel as well.
Now, I still haven't revealed how I generate so many so quickly have I? Hmm. No, I haven't. Well than the secret is...
Sorry. We've run out of time. Tune in again soon won't you?