They're one of the reasons I play.
Here is a tale that explains one of the reasons I try to remember how important NPCs are to the players.
In Lew Pulsipher's campaign for many, many years the last bastion of safety and civilization was the stronghold of a 9th level cleric. This fortress, called simply 'J.C.'s Castle', was not just the leaping off point to explore Mount Thunder, Skystone Castle, or the Lake of Dread, it was the first line of defense for the poor peasants of the countryside against the ravening hordes of monsters lurking in the wilds.
More than once the adventure was to hold J.C.'s Castle against those very hordes.
The one I remember most clearly had a party of 5th-6th level with the men-at-arms/followers of J.C. defending against an army of many lurfs (think furry 4 armed kobolds with atlatls) and a few cavewights (think hairless bugbears with troll strength that can Spiderclimb stone) led by a cabal of pyromancers. The paladin, cleric, thief and fighter led teams of followers in holding the walls while the mage took to the central tower to snipe foes with spells.
J.C. was gone on a mission.
Lew uses numbered tiles of various colors/number colors to represent foes and hirelings, etc.
Through the long, long fight a number of memorable events happened; the mage drained the last charge from his laser rifle killing a pyromancer 700 yards away and emptied his pearl-handled .44 magnums (kept in shoulder holsters under his cloak of protection) into a cavewight; the paladin held a doorway by himself against 30 foes for 6 rounds only to have to pivot and hold it the other way for 5 more against another 20; the thief never missed a backstab or missile weapon to-hit roll; the cleric ran out of spells, potions, items, and scrolls of Cures for the only time since 1st level.
And a lone man-at-arms survived. Tile #23, the 3rd ranking sergeant, stayed in the thick of things the entire battle. At one point #23 was back-to-back with the fighter on top of a tower eventually cutting down 4 lurfs while the fighter killed 2 cavewights. At another time he rallied other men-at-arms and led them in a counter-charge which held a wall but cost the lives of the other 6 NPCs.
When dawn came the evil army was broken and fled, the spell casters were out of spells, and everyone was in single-digit hit points. But #23 was alive, if with just 1 h.p.
Cool story about a fun adventure.
But a few real world months later a different party went to J.C.'s Castle. The thief was the one from the defense and the player was careful to say,
"I look up #23."
He was the new top sergeant of the fortress' staff. The thief's player said his character would certainly tell the story of that night and #23's bravery to the party.
This kept happening; as characters from that adventure leveled up the players were careful to look for #23, tell his story, even give him things like potions or +1 chain.
In the 28 years since the Third Defense of J.C.'s Castle I've thought about that fight often. Not just because that was my mage, but because f the impact that an NPC had on the campaign. Not a hero; not a villain; not a sage; not a henchman. An expert hireling of another NPC who was never, ever even given a name. And yet that event was so memorable that in 2001 I was relaxing with an old friend. After 5 beers and a cigar he asked me,
"Hey, remember #23?"
And we laughed about that event all over again.
Every GM has the experience of the carefully-crafted NPC with a page of backstory, a list of plot hooks, and well-practiced mannerisms that the players don't care about and can't remember no matter how many times you give them notes. Why are they forgotten but not #23?
I have a handful of theories, but the two I want to touch on are Interaction and Independence.
#23 interacted with the PCs. Sure, sure, there was virtually no dialog (which was probably good) but just noting 'he sticks with the fighter' and 'he makes sure to cover the fighter's back' was critical. This interaction was both relevant to what the PC was doing and actively part of the action of the adventure. The player was, not surprisingly, feeling that his character was exposed and in danger; #23's interactions with the PC were about that element of the game, making the player emotionally invested in what the NPC was doing.
That well-crafted NPC mage with all the backstory? If the party's magic-user meets with him about copying spells there isn't going to be a lot of emotional investment in the words or deeds of the NPC. You have to make them memorable some other way.
And by independence I mean the NPC must be shown to be more than a prop.
QUICK ASIDE: How often are the henchmen and hirelings in the game simply forgotten? Here is a great example from film.
In Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail we see retainers like Patsy, hirelings like Sir Robin's minstrels, etc. But the others only appear, as if out of thin air!, when needed.
In addition to being a barely credible excuse to insert Monty Python into my blog it is a great example of how a lot of NPCs are treated. They aren't there until you need them, then they appear to fulfill their purpose, soon after a monster eats them.
When #23 led that charge he proved he wasn't just a prop; he had independence. His own thoughts and the ability to make decisions and take action. Between that and covering the fighter on his own the only real difference between #23 and a PC was who was running him. And not only is Lew immune to GMPC effects, #23 was obviously just in the wrong place at the wrong time.Again, if that NPC with a ton of backstory only reacts to/responds to the PCs then he isn't going to seem "real" (whatever that means in context).
So, learn the lesson of #23 - have your NPCs interact in meaningful ways when possible and make them independent.
In my own campaign there is a scout henchman fairly infamous for going off to do thing while the party is making camp - fetch wood, hunt for game, scout their back trail to see if someone is following them - all sorts of things. But he often just - leaves - and doesn't tell anyone until he gets back. He is reliable, and honest, he just is gone during camp setup. This is the whole 'independence' thing as well as, sometimes, interaction when he brings in a pheasant or captures a kobold that had been trailing the party.
More to come!