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> Running contacts and other NPCs, Averting the clone wars
Talia Invierno
post May 8 2005, 07:29 PM
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The scenario: a quick meet with a Lone Star cop contact. He's got some information for you that's going to break your investigation wide open. The negotiation is set, the deal is on, you're about to get down into some heavy and character-shattering revelations when --

"Hey, doesn't he sound just like the last five Lone Star cops we've interacted with?"

It's an issue, and it's a problem because we tend instinctively to think in types, to assign people to social pigeonholes and thereafter deal with them based on what we've decided they are rather than who they are. In Shadowrun this natural tendency in us is amplified by frequent use of templates to represent NPCs: consisting of a collection of attributes and skills and powers and professional ratings. And without some active and applied brainpower on our side, that's all NPCs will ever be.

Character templates can't bring across personality or motivation -- and they shouldn't. After all, they're intended as a quick fill-in-the-blank for number purposes only. If that's all you're seeking for campaign purposes as a whole, if you really don't care what's behind the "bad guys" or the "not-so-bad-guys" or even the "neutral guys", the rest of what I'm writing here probably won't interest you much; and given that there's as many ways to play Shadowrun as there are groups, that's perfectly acceptable.

For me: I find it absolutely essential to individualise every one of the NPCs I bring into a game, if only by some minor quirk or mannerism. Beyond the common questions of "what do they look like" and "what can they do", I add three:
  • What is the major motivation for this NPC?
  • What is the specific motivation for this NPC in this context?
  • What is the NPC like to interact with?
The first usually requires in parallel some minor fleshing out of character history, if only to know that (for example) they had a really bad experience with gangers in the past ;) It might drive their life; or it might just come up when the situation warrants it. Where the primary motivation does turn out to be "money", it's an interesting question, for me, to ask what exactly the money means for the character. In most cases, it won't be the physical accumulation of money that's important, so much as what it represents to that character ... and that could open up alternate ways to deal with that character.

The second: well, an easy way to approach this is to ask what a contact gets out of their continuing relations with a PC, over and beyond what a complete stranger might get out of the same deal. (In a surprising number of Shadowrun games, the differences aren't all that great, if not completely non-existent.) I've found that where the contacts aren't completely generic, there seems frequently to be an assumption that because they are contacts, they'll pretty much do whatever the PC wants them to (as long as it isn't absolutely over-the-top extreme). In other words, contacts become literally nothing more or less than resources: the person existing only in what they can get or do for you. So I ask: why? What, exactly, is the contact getting out of this, what is their interest in this, how does the relationship with the PC serve the contact's deeper motivation (or clash with it!): in general, how does it benefit this contact to maintain the relationship with this particular PC?

Edit: contacts can lie. Contacts might even do so in a way that isn't immediately obvious. Not everything out of a contact's mouth is chiptruth -- any more than it is for any one of us. Through omission or commission, deliberately or inadvertently, contacts won't always tell all the information that is theirs, or they might tell it completely differently than what another might recognise as true. Getting all the information and getting it accurately will always be a matter at least as much of approach as of NPC knowledge. Heck, it's even possible that a contact lies about a key piece of information in order to "spare" the PC!

The third is far more nebulous: drifting into that strange area where personality ceases to be quantifiable. Are there personality quirks that come out regularly, or when the NPC is stressed? Does the NPC always carry some item around with them? Do they have a habit of playing with that item unconsciously: eg. fiddling with a coin? If they like dealing with people generally, how does it show? If they don't: how does that show? It could even be as simple a matter as the pervasive body odour that the NPC never, ever notices -- and occasionally doesn't really have to, since the skills or information that NPC deals in almost forces others to come to their door when they need that kind of help.

Edit: I'll add in a paragraph here to reiterate that description exists in more than one or two senses. Visual description is common, auditory description less so, but still relatively common -- but it's the olfactory that really sticks with us. Did that NPC just come from working a soydonut joint, with the smell absolutely permeating their clothing? Do they use far too much perfume or cologne? Do they constantly reek of alcohol (or other substances)? Do they have bad breath?

There will always be situations where not much more than "just the numbers" are needed for a given situation: but I find it helps greatly to lightly personalise even these cookie-cutter NPCs, even just by taking the few seconds to give them a single quirk and assigning them some kind of deeper motivation beyond the obvious. After all, we all spend far more time on NPC stat generation than that!

So there's a starting point. Thoughts?
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Wounded Ronin
post May 8 2005, 07:51 PM
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My NPCs are disposable sterotypes. I differentiate them only by the different ways in which it occurs to me at any given time to make them look disgusting and stupid. For example, I once had a Maitre D' at a restaurant who was being all sterotypical and snobby. However, I differentiated him by making him read Soldier of Fortune magazine, so everyone could laugh at him for that. Someone asked if there was also an issue of Seventeen with the Soldier of Fortune magazine, and I said yes. So, people were entertained, and it was all good.
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SuperSpy
post May 8 2005, 10:02 PM
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Just an added thought: many times in writing characters, less is more. If you define four corners of your character's personality and history, your player's imaginations will fill in the rest of the rectangle. For example, a fixer may always talk about his father when he's drunk, but never mention him when he's sober. Then let the players decipher what kind of relationship the fixer had with his dad.

Even when you do take the time to develop full, rich backgrounds for your NPC's...resist the temptation to show off all your hard work right away. Giving little hints here and there over several sessions, letting the players connect the dots, will make for memorable characters, where blurting out the character history you worked on for two weeks might be interesting for only two minutes.

The same advice could certainly be used for players as they reveal their personalities and histories to their fellow players.
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hermit
post May 9 2005, 12:42 AM
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Well, this actually is one thing I usually take great care to not do.

For NPCs that pop up in a situation, I usually use a mix of cliché and random fleshing out as Talia described further up. For example, I play Lone Star cops based on three things:

- My personal experience with how American cops act, combined with how I have experienced corruption to work in Romania and India (there're 'fees' for really interesting things in these countries, and if you don't put something nice into your passport, you might well be in for a really thorough examination - or a plain "no dollar, no Romania at 3 am on a train in the middle of nowhere that surely wouldn'T have waited for me if I didn't pay the customs crook). Since the Star pays bad, I guess the temptation to get themselves some extra money is very high, especially among lower ranks.
- The standard Star archetype of a racist cop pig.
- Random stuff I make up. One cop may be an old-timer ffrom SPD times, still doing the job and basically desiring to stay alive and prefer to talk things out or dive for cover and call for an SRT or five; another may be some hothead yahoo who hates Indians because he's from what ocne was the Midwest, grew up in the Barrens and with stories of how his family lived in the land of milk and honey until some heathen redskins drove them out. Yet another might have a grudge against shadowrunners for killing his partner and might track the characters, should he identify them, give them leeway and pretend not to have noticed what they are, and as soon as he's back in his patrol car, radio for SRTs and combat drones and hope for a hefty premium, in addition to the good feeling of having gotten some of the scum who killed his friend.

Now, those are random NPCs I make up withut intending to use them for more than one scene. I try to create variety there, but really don't give them too much of a thought initially (though I never know whether players will try and build more on a certain NPC than I thought; a couple of contacts have developed out odf such random encounters).

Contacts, at least those my characters have and make, are usually worked out as PCs, in terms of background (they get less attention for stats, because I simply don't think NPCs need to abide by as strict rules as PCs do; whether a fixer is twinked to the max really isn't of any importance, right?). My contacts usually have half a page of text at least, if they're somewhat regularily appearing. I also update that text, and keep it in some sort of file regularily, should the relationship between contact and PC change.

I also take care to offer any GM hooks for my contact's behavior. Not all of it needs to be benevolent for my character, I EXPECT my contacts to not always act as my character would like them to, at least if they're not level 3, that is.

Fleshed out NPCs, even if they're just what Talia calls "cookie-cutter NPCs", are the single most important thing to make an imaginary RPG world seem alive. A GM needs to take care to give their NPCs distinct personalities. If you want to slaughter endless numbers of faceless, cloned enemies, go play some hack'n'slay game. A paper and pen RPG isn't about npc slaying, it's about interaction and storytelling. And killing the nth stereotypical, fight-till-they-die corpsec guard doesn't make a good story to me.
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Veracusse
post May 9 2005, 04:33 AM
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Fleshing out NPCs is a good thing, but it should be done in game. A gm should have some basic ideas for his NPCs, such as motivations, personality, and a reason to interact with the characters. However, further fleshing out of the NPC should be done in game and as the players interact with him or her. Inspiration usually comes at this point and if the NPC is a sticker for the campaign they usually take on a life of their own. The smart thing to do is after the session to record any significant notes about the NPC and how the characters interacted with him during the game. That way the NPC develops as the campaing develops and the NPC will be more integral to the game, plus more memorable as well.

Now, however, there will always be a lot of uninteresting people in the world. These are usually people that have no real direct impact on the characters or campaign. If you have some NPC show up for a brief scene in the game and then he is never heard of again by the characters then there is no need to flesh him out beyond what the character's expectations my be. Of course some of these types of NPC characters may spring to life on their own during the course of a game, and if the charcters want to pursue the NPC as a contact then that is definitley an option. I, in fact, try to make it a point for every character to have at least one chance per run to meet a new contact, if they are willing to invest in it. As a GM I put very little effort into this when preparing for a run or a campaign, but I am observant for when I see a character seeking out some generic NPC as a contact. In fact, I encourage it more often then it actually happens.

The cliches, stereotypes, and expectations that we have can be useful when trying to create an imaginary world together. It is often when we get passed these basic mental images that NPCs become more than just cookie cutters, but that requires effort from the players and not just the GM.

Veracusse
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Edward
post May 9 2005, 07:36 AM
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In my experience comps act in very similar ways when on duty, they ask the same kind of questions, have the same wary nature about giving out information and display the same reserved politeness to the general public. This comes from having gone threw the same training program. Buy the 2060s I would expect this not to have changed other than those that are not legal (no sin or have committed a verifiable crime) they will be universally more aggressive and demanding of facilitation payments.

If an individual cop is not going to be there for more than one seen you wont get beyond that, a nerves twitch would show up but most people don’t have one. Most cops try not to have one.

Lastly they cant afford to demand extra payments from the general public, they need the general public (and I mean the ones with SINs) to like them because knight errant is breathing down there necks wanting there jobs.

Edward
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hermit
post May 9 2005, 10:23 AM
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QUOTE
Lastly they cant afford to demand extra payments from the general public, they need the general public (and I mean the ones with SINs) to like them because knight errant is breathing down there necks wanting there jobs.

But it's the government, not the general public, who gives out the contracts. So long as corruption stays bearable (and by berable I mean barely tolerable), and so long as the government is equally corrupt (which, in Shadowrun, is safe to presume), noone will bother about the general public complaining aboput cops taking money for themselves. Hell, the general public propably steals themselves a lot, too, to get by.
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Talia Invierno
post May 9 2005, 11:40 AM
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I'm getting a curious vibe from these answers -- not all of them, but most -- that in vast majority of cases, the NPC is in every way exactly what they seem to be? and that they should be?

The reason I'm asking this is first because I'd like to understand what's bringing out this undercurrent: whether it's deliberate or involuntary, or even whether it's an unfortunate and inaccurate byproduct of this method of communication. It's also worth noting that if the NPC is to be anything other/more/less than they seem to be, that's entirely the GM's territory, to be pursued or not by the players as they wish.

(That last -- when the NPC turns out to be considerably less than the players think -- can be a very fun plot quirk when handled well. Remember True Lies? :) )
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Slacker
post May 9 2005, 12:29 PM
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Personally, when I gm I think of the NPC's as my characters. They are the incarnations of my roleplaying. Therefore, I try to flesh many of them out to give them more character.

At least for me, it is far easier to roleplay somebody when you've created at least some semblance of their background/motivations. While stereotypical behavior is occaisionally warranted, it gets old real fast and begins to detract from the believability of the game.

I found that my players enjoy the non-standardized NPC's that I throw at them and it adds to the overall enjoyability of the game.
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hermit
post May 9 2005, 01:25 PM
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QUOTE
I'm getting a curious vibe from these answers -- not all of them, but most -- that in vast majority of cases, the NPC is in every way exactly what they seem to be? and that they should be?

Well, 'smal' encounter NPCs - NPCs the GM needs to make up on the fly (corpsec, squatters, gangers, barkeeps in a random bar) should be. Most people are what they seem after all.

"Wrong" NPCs like the characters in True Lies need more work to turn out right. It perfectly is possible to work them out and put them into a 'cache' of sorts - save them for later, when there's an opportune situation to use them.

Actually, such an encounter could be the heart of a one-time run plot (like, an extraction with a really funny twist, where the headhunter marking a small corporation's personnel for extraction for some backers (most likely someone from one of the Threats files) fell for the fake facade, and thinks he will just get a random person who knows things about a certain project his backers want for themselves. And the runners are to find out the rather unpleasant (for them) truth. Same could happen the other way around, say, on a bounty hunter or counter-espionage run. Posers can be really fun, and will likely have a VERY hard time with most teams.

But to use this too much means to ruin it. Not every cop, ganger, wage slave, scientist or ice cream vendor is something more than he seems.

By the way, anyone played GTA: Vice City here? Remember that particular ice cream vendor? ;)
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Apathy
post May 9 2005, 02:28 PM
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Blackjack's webpage has some good NPC character descriptions. I often steal stuff from his site because I'm too lazy and unimaginative to make it up myself (Man, I miss Blackjack, anybody have an idea if he still plays SR?)

Blackjack's NPC Archive

I find that I've become more reluctant to spend much time on NPCs, because the PCs I often GM for tend to kill everybody before they notice any personality traits anyway.
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Belle Anderson
post May 9 2005, 06:20 PM
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From a player's POV I LOVE it when the GM actually puts some thought and personality behind random NPC's you never know what is gonna happen next. It adds a ton of flavor to the game and can be a jumping point for plot hooks and character actions later on.

Some NPC's can be made on the fly and turn out to be a major plot point later in the campain, others that are ment to be major players can end up flopping. It all depends on the group and the skill of the GM.

Of course this is coming from a player whose GM has tossed a pair of free spirits at us, one is a pink rat named 'Floyd' and the other a grey squirrel named 'Foamy' (as in Foamy from I Will Press). Yeeeah my GM has WAY too much fun with NPC's

Belle
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hermit
post May 10 2005, 12:51 AM
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For all I know, BlackJack isn't playing SR any more (that's what I got from the last update to his site).
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FrostyNSO
post May 10 2005, 01:01 AM
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This is kindof a tricky subject, and it really all depends on your group.

QUOTE (apathy)
I find that I've become more reluctant to spend much time on NPCs, because the PCs I often GM for tend to kill everybody before they notice any personality traits anyway.


Sometimes you can avoid this by giving the NPC a trait that will make the players laugh. I've found, if you make a character likable when the PC's first meet them, they'll be at least less likely to kill him in the future (unless the NPC does something that makes him/her deserving of it).

Most- scratch that. All of the NPC's currently playing a part in my campaign started as "on the fly" NPC's. Generally, my players meet a lot of people in their work, so it just doesn't make sense for me to create some super-fleshed NPC. I usually just try to give each NPC a little something to make them memorable. Then I make mental notes concerning how the characters interact with him, what his motivation might be, and how he views the characters. (Most would prolly want to write notes for easier recall)

One guy we have in our campaign is an arms dealer that works for an ammunition company. The first thing I did with him was give him a Louisiana accent, which by itself gives a chunk for a background. Maybe it was just my horrible attempt at a Louisiana accent that made him memorable, but what the hell, it worked. Then I thought about this guy's motivation, which wasn't some overblown miniplot. He just wants to make a little cash. To get himself a little edge over the competition, he throws in a box or two of ammo when someone buys a gun from him (did I mention he works for an ammo company?). Lastly, the players remember he works for an ammo company because it has a catchy name - "AmmuNation".

So here we have a pretty memorable NPC with 3 easy to remember gimmicks. No need to make an huge historical bio. Give yourself room to improvise and just make notes.

Most NPC's don't even need that many gimmicks, but having just one sometimes isn't enough. Probably a free box of ammo with each purchase was more than enough for the guy above!
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Veracusse
post May 10 2005, 05:12 AM
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I have fleshed out a couple of my NPCs in preperation for a game/campaign, but the vast majority are created "on the fly" in the same sense as FrostNSO above. I generally have a template for basic types of NPCs that the players may come across. That way I have stats already prepared before hand, and all I have to do is focus on rping the NPC. Usually little quirks come from the spur of the moment gaming, often from reading the players and giving them something that might be interesting for them.

I also like the point the FrostNSO made about the fact that every NPC doesn't seem major mini-plot and an air of mystery surrounding them. Most of the time people are people and they do things as if they were jsut normal people. Believability begins to suffer when every NPC you meet has some sinister plot, or dirty dark secret. An honest person, who also may be boring as hell, (such as a secretary) can also be useful too. They may also be interesting.

Off-topic: FrostNSO do you play Rome:Total War, or do you play RTR?

Veracusse
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FrostyNSO
post May 10 2005, 05:25 AM
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QUOTE (Veracusse)
Off-topic: FrostNSO do you play Rome:Total War, or do you play RTR?

Nope. What's RTR?
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toturi
post May 10 2005, 05:34 AM
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RTR = Rome Total Realism.

So Veracusse... Willing to take on my Egypt? :D

EDIT: This is a hijack, this thread is now under my control. Nobody is to move from his posts. Anyone attempting to contact the thread police will be dealt with severely. :P
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hermit
post May 10 2005, 10:43 AM
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Wow. Talk about hijacking ...
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Toshiaki
post May 10 2005, 07:11 PM
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*dives behind his computer tower, hitting the PanicButton™ along the way :twirl:
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Veracusse
post May 10 2005, 07:26 PM
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My egypt NPCs have alot of character. Although my Roman PCs have a hard time dealing with the evil Greek NPCs. Apparently the RTR GM has beefed the Greeks up a lot more than what my Roman PCs were used to. But my PCs are happy because they now have these new cool skins to play with.

See there is no hijack here. This post is all about NPCs. Now go back to your posting stations and post away. :D

BTW My Egypt is pretty good, but my Rome is even better. I think
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Talia Invierno
post May 10 2005, 07:39 PM
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These things happen. And I have absolutely no idea what any of you are talking about :spin:
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hermit
post May 11 2005, 01:34 AM
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I dunno, those guys always look the same to me, right down to the clet warrior berserker guys' face painting.
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shadow_scholar
post May 11 2005, 05:24 PM
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Okay, getting back to NPCs, I only play in a tabletop game, no online games, so I give each contact a distinctive voice separate from everyone else. I also try to add some physicalities/mannerisms to the contacts, if possible, while we roleplay, because they usually like to meet face to face instead of over the phone or matrix. If I feel a contact is becoming a commonly used one (like Fixers tend to be) then I'll eventually flesh them out, giving them full profiles, including pictures, stats, and history. I often think about a big contact's motivations and what that contact gets out of the PC. My contacts tend to be very businesslike, not much for letting their hair down, 'cause that kind of stuff can get you killed in the Shadoworld, unless the contact and the PC are buddies, then that's a different story. When it comes to just regular NPCs the Players meet along the way, I try to improv a voice, or something specific to the NPC, even if they are going to meet/see the NPC only once. It just adds color to the game and encourages more 3 dimensional roleplay all around.
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Crimson Jack
post May 12 2005, 04:43 AM
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I always associate each NPC with someone I know IRL or a movie star or celebrity. I play the role the way I believe that person to respond and deal with things. I also tend to put a few quirky objects in that NPC's possessions. It gives me a bit of a starting point for something random to throw into their life (i.e. rabbit's foot, curled copy of 2065: A Year in Poetry, wedding photo torn in half, solitary bullet, etc.).
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Glyph
post May 12 2005, 06:29 AM
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For NPCs, I prefer to have a set of basic stats, and a broad general idea that can be expanded on later... if that NPC becomes a recurring NPC.

Broad strokes are better when you are doing quick NPCs - for example, if the group meets 3 security guards, mayby one can be the old guy who is super-cautious because he's 2 months away from retirement, one can be the cocky new kid who wants to prove himself, and one is the burly bully who will actually wind up running away even faster than the old guy.

Now, if the group meets these 3 guys, and the new kid faces down the troll combat monster, going "Let's take him down, guys... guys?" as he turns around and sees his two buddies beating feet - then the group is so amused that they let the kid live, and even try to develop him into a contact; at that point, I will start fleshing out the kid's personality some more.

The problem with doing too much detail in advance is that you will want to use it, when that NPC could very well either be ignored by the group, or gunned down in the first five minutes. Plus, a rich personality may not be as easily conveyed as a few broad mannerisms. I have had that problem with PCs, too. I have made ultra-detailed backgrounds but had the character be nothing but bland, while other memorable characters started out as a quick, vivid idea, briefly fleshed out and then built on during play.

I think building up characters, PC's or NPC's, during play is often a more satisfying experience than trying (and often failing) to communicate the subtler points in your background to the other players. I think it is the interaction with other players that can spark creativity, and often sends a character into a new (often more interesting) direction.
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