Your Next AW NPC is going to be awesome
February 26, 2016

Your Next AW NPC is going to be awesomeVincent Baker gives some excellent advice about making Non Player Characters in the Principles section of Apocalypse World:

“Name everyone, make everyone human”.

He instructs you to give them straightforward, sensible self-interests to help drive the fiction, so your players will care about them when something terrible happens. The text doesn’t really tell you how to do that beyond instructions to let your NPCs follow their parts around, and not to overthink them.

It’s great advice! Simple motivations and primal drives make for good NPCs that are fun to interact with, but…how do you do that, exactly? And how do you make interesting NPCs that are fun to play over a series of sessions? Vincent’s advice is good for every NPC, but my advice is aimed at those recurring NPCs that work for the long term.

I’m going to walk you through two examples of how I make an NPC for AW, and then how I play them. This applies to ongoing NPCs that spend a decent amount of time interacting with the PCs – so no, I don’t do this for cannon fodder. The following 5 steps should cover it:

  • Pick a name and look.
  • Pick a drive.
  • Pick a PC for them to align with.
  • Pick a PC for them to be at cross-purposes with.
  • Give them a soul.



Let’s give our hypothetical AW game a little meat so we have something to work with. We’re the MC, and 3 of our friends have sat down at the table: Chen is playing Damson the Battlebabe, Jules is playing Nils the Savvyhead, and Kit is playing Dust the Hocus. They make characters, and we establish that our post-apocalyptic wasteland takes place in the industrial ruins of what was East St. Louis. The sky is full of burnt rainbow colors, the river still smells like shit, and the PCs are part of a larger group that’s set up in an old railroad repair yard. Damson and Nils are figuring out their gear and workspace, so let’s take a look at Dust.

Kit has decided that Dust’s followers are:

  • her family
  • constitute a powerful psychic umbrella
  • are involved in successful commerce
  • the followers feel Dust is more theirs than they are hers
  • they are decadent and perverse.

Neither Damson nor Nils are followers. Excellent.

While there will be other NPCs to make, Dust the Hocus certainly needs some followers to interact with. Kit can talk to the group of her followers in general, but I decide to make one who can be in the background of scenes and pass messages to the larger group when needed.


Example 1: October the Follower

I take a few notes, but know that the follower will really be fleshed out as we play.

Pick a name and look.

I grab one of the unused playbooks and pick a name from the list: October.  (You can use the NPC name list on the MC sheet, too.) I also use the Looks from the playbook I picked up to figure out what October looks like, with the exception of her clothing. October will have similar but not-as-nice clothing as Dust, but her look is otherwise different from her’s.Dust vs. October looks

Pick a drive.

The examples Vincent provides are: their noses, their stomachs, their hearts, their clits & dicks, their guts, their ears, their inner children, their visions. In this case, I decide October follows her visions – namely, that Dust is destined for greatness amid the ruins of this world, and October is pretty sure some of that will rub off on her if she’s patient. This keeps the focus on the PC, but gives October a reason to care about what happens. It also provides ample opportunities for stuff to do if Kit fails a roll related to the hocus interacting with her followers. You know that sharp pain when you find out someone you admire did something terrible? That’s just a bad die roll away for October.

Pick a PC for them to align with.

Obviously October is aligned with Dust the Hocus. She is a loyal cult-member, needs Dust just as much as Dust needs her, and knows the difference between blindly following and a gentle nudge when your leader’s brain is too full of other things to see the gaping pit right in front of them. October is part handler, part personal assistant, and she wrangles the rest of the cult when Dust is busy.

Pick a PC for them to be at cross-purposes with.

For this step, you can wait for the PCs to pick Hx and see whose interests align with whose, or you can see how interesting it gets when that doesn’t happen. In this case, I decide, regardless of Hx, that October is at cross-purposes with Nils the Savvyhead. She doesn’t hate Nils, just thinks that not putting all that talent at Dust’s disposal is an obviously dumb move. This means she’ll be trying to recruit him to the cult, and convince him that Dust is the second coming. If Jules decides the Nils is into it, then awesome. Nils will probably have a little some-some on the side and a gig making stuff for the cult. If not, well…we’ll see what happens in play.

Give them a soul.

By this point I’ve got a pretty good handle on what October looks like, how she thinks, and what she wants, but what does her voice sound like, and how does she act?  I don’t do extreme voices or accents for NPCs very often. It can get old fast, and is usually more distracting than it’s worth (except for goblin voices. I love me some goblin voices). But modulations, changes in volume, those can all be great ways to indicate character. NPCs can benefit from both a posture when you play them, and a defined vocal habit. October is a support position, so she might be hushed and calm, making the whole room quiet down to hear what she’s saying. Her back is straight, signaling how she’s offering strength to Dust, and she might lean in close and look people in the eye while talking.

October is ready to play! In most cases she’ll be taking her lead from Dust, but fleshing her out a little means October will be more memorable than the rest of Dust’s crew. In the next example I’ll be making another inhabitant of the railroad yard.


Example 2: Tinker the Secret Romantic

Both Dust and Nils are connected to the first NPC, October, so I figure Damson the Battlebabe could probably use someone to show her a little love.

Pick a name and look.

I grab a different unused playbook and pick a name and a look. Tinker is one of the bodies you can round up when going on a run, and while she’s no Battlebabe or Gunlugger, she does ok. Tinker is sturdy and has seen too much, but she can handle herself in a fight, and her gear is good for it too. Tinker will be around when shit goes down.Tinker's lookPick a drive.

Tinker follows her clit everywhere. In this case, it means she wants to get her rocks off with Damson, although she’s too shy to just come out with it. It might translate into her taking some harm to protect Damson on a bad roll, so there’s enough drama to play with without overshadowing the PCs.

Pick a PC for them to align with.

Tinker is begging Damson to love her with every look, every bullet fired. I’ll leave it to Chen to figure out exactly how Damson feels about that, but Tinker doesn’t need to be loved back. She just needs someone to dream about when she’s lying on her hard cot at night.

Pick a PC for them to be at cross-purposes with.

In this case, let’s say Chen chose Dust the Hocus as the least trustworthy while they were doing Hx. Tinker agrees – that cult-y fuckpuppet gives her the creeps. The cult is valuable, so Tinker will bit her tongue, as long as Dust doesn’t cross Damson.

Give them a soul.

I’ve known shy-but-loud people, and that’s how Tinker comes across to me. She spreads her arms wide and laughs loudly, then hides in her bunk and wonders how she said something so stupid. Her mouth definitely can get ahead of her brain, which is why she learned to fight. Tinker is capable in every situation except ones where someone is vulnerable, and is quick to make a joke at her own expense.

There’s Tinker, ready to play and hoping for love. She’s in a triangle just like October, because giving your NPCs feelings about more than one PC means more stuff for the PCs to push against. You’re building your PC-NPC-PC triangles into your NPCs from the start, which is only for the good of your game.


It takes a little more work to think through your NPCs and give them feelings, motivations, and dislikes, but will make your game even more fun if you build out a few important NPCs like this.


A note on why my NPCs in this example are both female and use she/her pronouns:

You’ve probably seen studies about how even a few women in a crowd scene in a movie translates to those watching thinking that it shows equal division between genders. Depending on your group, you may end up with a lot of male-reading characters in the fiction, even if that’s not the makeup of your actual player group, or something you intended. If all of the authority figures in your games are usually men, you may want to switch it up. Defaulting to NPCs who are female, genderfluid, or ambiguous can help make sure that the population of your game includes a wide array of interesting people in a variety of roles and positions of power. While both of my example NPCs play supporting roles, neither of them are without their own power or agency. Some gamers randomize the gender presentation of NPCs through dice rolls. You should do what works best for you.