Have you ever been to a carnival that has kiddie rides? One of the more popular rides for young kids is the mini-coaster. It consists of several cars, usually decorated to look like a dragon or an alligator. It rolls around on a metal track with gentle ups and downs—a placid, oval journey. It's many a kid's first thrill ride without the comforting presence of mom sitting alongside. This is as tame as amusement park rides get, and running The Gator has to be about the most boring duty a carny can pull.
One July 4 weekend, as my family and I strolled through the midway at a local carnival, The Gator caught my eye. It wasn't the ride; that was the same as always. It was the operator.
Here was a guy, probably in his mid-50s, dressed in scuffed cowboy boots, stiff blue jeans that were a bit too tight, a growing paunch restrained by a belt with a huge silver buckle, and a denim shirt with pearl snaps and the sleeves rolled up to show his USMC tattoos and knock-off Rolex. A pack of thin cigars was tucked in his shirt pocket. His skin was so leathery that he looked like he might be half gator himself. His face was mostly hidden behind mirrored shades, a handlebar moustache, and a straw cowboy hat with the brim rolled up on the sides and broken down so sharply in front that it practically brushed the tip of his nose. And he was chewing a matchstick.
You could find a more intimidating figure to park in front of a carnival ride for three-year-olds, but not without some effort.
What really grabbed my attention about this scene, however, was the sign taped to the ride. It was scrawled in black marker on a piece of corrugated cardboard, and read:
| GATOR MAN NEEDS A WOMAN!
Willing to travel
What does this have to do with D&D? Much of what brings a game to life is NPCs. Battles can be exciting and memorable, but they're not where the characters live. You have a battle; you interact with NPCs. They are the most direct expression of the world that characters will meet, and the more varied and colorful they are, the more the world breathes. If your characters stroll though a carnival, you could describe the sights and sounds around them or you could describe Gator Man and let the characters talk to him. The conversation will make a deeper impression.
What might Gator Man look like in a D&D setting? Consider his essential characteristics. Gator Man didn't look like just any cowboy; he looked like the cowboy. He went out of his way to make himself look grizzled and fierce for his job of working with young children. Your NPC could be an old warrior, retired from adventuring but still tough as nails; his ornate sword hangs in a patched, cracked scabbard and the battered hat of an officer in the Dragon Cavalry is crushed around his skull as if it grew there. Is it true that he saved the Duke's life but then was dismissed in disgrace? Why does he call himself the Gorgon Man, and how did he wind up running the town's orphanage?
Answer those questions and you'll get a unique NPC who the characters will remember whether they encounter him once or a dozen times.
The good news for DMs is that varied, colorful people are all around. You can't miss them if you keep your eyes open. They might not all be as distinctive as Gator Man, but he was one-of-a-kind.
What are your stories of NPCs that break the mold? Do you know any real-life characters who would make unforgettable NPCs? Let us know about them at dndinsider @wizards.com.