During my review of ‘The Talons of Weng-Chang’ I noted Robert Holmes’ skill with characterisation. This can be seen in the first episode of ‘Spearhead from Space’ with many minor characters who are none the less important to the story.
In fact the story actually starts with two UNIT officers manning a radar station who we won’t see again. Regardless this scene helps establish many of the threads of the plot. It shows us that UNIT is a well equipped organisation with the resources to keep an eye out for alien intrusion.
There is the struggle between the what they see and scepticism illustrated by the technician claim of seeing meteors flying in formation being dismissed by his female associate.
We also get an indication of the heatwave gripping the country, both from the dialogue and from the sheen of sweat that can be seen on both characters faces. All of which is a lot of information that was imparted by a short scene.
Minor NPCs can be used purely to provide pieces of information or to establish something about the setting. This could range from a newspaper seller providing all the latest information on current events, a worker complaining about is factory being shut down to a bystander who grumbles about the number of people who have been disappearing.
Not long after one of the meteors has landed it is discovered by the poacher Seeley. By removing the meteor he puts the whole Auton invasion plan in jeopardy. His action unintentionally puts the Doctor in danger, making the Autons suspect the time lord because he was found unconscious in the area where the meteor came down.
NPCs can be used to put a spanner in a plan, whether it is the villains plans or the player characters. This can help to keep plots unpredictable. For the player characters it makes working out what is going on that little bit harder because they rarely account for a third party being involved in the plot.
If you think your adventure plot is to straight forward think about how minor NPCs could add complications. Could they stumble across something the villains or heroes need and steal it? Might they cause an accident which delays the main characters or discover a secret being kept?
Such NPCs could therefore become vital for either side to locate. Typically villains will want to eliminate them but heroes have more options to them. They can use charm or intimidation to get what they want or if it is a physical object they can resort to deception and stealth to steal it.
Another demonstration of how a minor NPC can make things more complicated for the player characters is Mullins, the porter at the hospital who over hears that the Doctor isn’t human and calls in the journalists.
Mullins is a reminder that in most places there will be someone who could see or hear something they shouldn’t. Be aware when the player characters have a conversation who might be close by.
For ease of play most conversations in public shouldn’t have consequences but if they are in a crowded room and have a loud discussion about time travelling, monsters or weapons they might find that someone has called the police.
If the player characters or the villains are tight lipped some attentive ease dropper might hear some valuable information that they can use or that they could sell to someone else. For example a bar tender who hears two patrons talking about their time machine and where it could be found might just decided to investigate and take the vessel for himself or a taxi driver hearing a passenger chat about where a valuable treasure is hidden might decide to make himself rich.
The journalists add a nice piece of realism and make a straight forward trip to the hospital for the Brigadier more interesting, forcing him to tactfully answer their questions without revealing anything about why he is there.
Crowds are useful as they allow you to have the NPCs to voice several theories about what is going on. The majority of these ideas will be wrong but you can slip the correct information among all the wrong leads to serve as a clue for the player characters.
Later in the story the journalists provide a vital piece of information when a photo taken by the journalists reveals the presence of the auton agent Channing at the hospital.
A handy demonstration that minor annoyances can also have benefits in the long run. This change of fate can make every encounter more unpredictable. You do not even have to necessarily have to plan this ahead of time.
In this scenario a player character might have spent a story point to gain a clue. A games master could recall the scene with the journalists and reveal that they took a photo of the man the player characters are trying to find.
Another minor NPC has a big impact at the end of the episode. Startled by the Doctor stumbling out of the undergrowth an unnamed UNIT soldier shoots him. Although we aren’t provided with any great detail about this soldier it does establish that they will use force, something the Doctor will rail against during his time with the organisation. It seems appropriate that this resentment could have stemmed from this incident.
All of this shows that minor NPCs can be used in many different roles during an adventure. The biggest advantage of using a selection of minor NPCs is that the setting feels alive. If you have only a few NPCs who do everything you can make the location feel empty, inhabited only by a handful of people.
A time saving method is to keep a list of names and minor roles that you can mix and match during a game. If the player characters decide to hail a taxi you can simply draw a name from a list, should you have to give them a name at all. Or if you need to move the plot forward you can consult your list for a NPC role that might fit the bill.
They might not be memorable but the minor NPCs can really help keep an adventure moving.