Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Merriam-Webster's Mutants: Creating Interesting NPCs With Just A Dictionary

The Land of Nod had a great idea for “Dictionary: The RPG.” Blog-meister John Stater came up with a loose collection of rules for running an RPG campaign using only a standard dictionary. It’s a pretty cool system to play around with, and I encourage you to check it out.

While trying to come up with interesting NPCs for a project I’m working on, I remembered “Dictionary: The RPG” and the way it forced you to creatively use a set of random words to fit your vision. So I decided to use my big ol’ chunky Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) in a similar fashion to generate some random NPCs. It worked so well, I decided to share it with everyone. Keep in mind that this is geared toward a post-apocalyptic setting, but you can easily tweak it for fantasy, sci fi, or whatever.

First up, get a dictionary. I recommend a large, hardback, unabridged dictionary as your word selection will be better. (You could use a small paperback pocket dictionary, but the word-per-page ratio is much lower, giving you even fewer options.) Randomly turn to any page. That page is going to become your NPC's "character sheet." Scan the page and get a feel for the words listed on it. You’re going to select three words from this page that will each describe a facet of your NPC:

1. “Who?” One word will describe the person. It could be their profession or some other descriptive physical term. If you come upon a word that brings to mind a certain body type or personality, use that.

2. “Drive?” The next word you settle on should describe their underlying motivations. What makes them tick? What do they want out of life? This word could also help flesh out the physical characteristics of your NPC.

3. “Mutation?” The final word should point to a mutation this NPC has. Is it physical or mental? What extraordinary ability do they have? (Keep in mind that I run Mutant Future, so of course this is going to be one of the defining characteristics of my NPCs. If you’re running a different genre of game, come up with your own final characteristic such as “Skill,” “Talent,” “Hidden Secret,” or whatever.) OK, let’s take this for a test drive. For each entry, I’ll list the page number I turned to as well as the “guide words” listed at the top of that page so you have a feel for the range of words I had to select from.

Page 435: "excel – exclamation point"
Let’s see, the first word my eyes fall on is “exchequer,” someone who collects and manages royal revenue. So I've decided he'll be a “tribute collector” for the local barony. Next we need to determine what kind of person he is – what drives him. The word “excessive” jumps out at me, so I see him as being portly, self-absorbed, and draped in fineries. He’s someone who revels in his position and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. (He’s obviously skimming from the collected revenues.) And what mutation bubbles under the surface? How about the word “exchange”? If you can exchange your mind with someone else’s, that certainly points to the possession mutation. So here we have a corrupt tax collector who eats too much and wraps himself in “the better things” who uses his mutation to take over the minds of weaker individuals to fleece them of their hard-earned coin. All generated from three random words. Let’s try another:

Page 1154: "show-and-tell – shrining"
First up, who is this mutant? Ha! I see “shrimp,” so he’s a diminutive human. I know, let’s say he’s short because he’s a young boy about 7 or 8 years old. (Of course, I could have made him a mutant crustacean who dwells on land, but I like having a child NPC better.) Next up is “shrewd.” This kid is cunning, sneaky, and with his size, he’d probably make a living as a thief or cutpurse, living on the streets using his wits. His mutation? Surprisingly, one of the words on this page is the name of an official Mutant Future mutation: “shriek.” If he’s caught during one of his midnight raids on the local merchant’s warehouse, he’ll use this vocal blast to deafen and disorient his captors. So we have young kid who’s learned to fend for himself as a child of the streets who possesses a powerful sonic blast ability when the going gets rough. How about another:

Page 717: "library paste – liege"
For this next one, we’ll make her a pure human. So in place of our Mutation word, we’ll use a second Drive word. Up near the top of the page is “library science,” so let’s say she lives in the ruins of an Ancient library, translating the texts and imparting wisdom to the nearby villages. Survivors come to her with questions (“How can I grow my crops in irradiated soil? What is this illness plaguing our village?”), and her research gives them the answers they desperately need. The post-apocalyptic villagers look upon her with awe and respect (and just a hint of fear). But the next word reveals her hidden secret: “lie.” This “scholar” actually cannot read the Ancient texts. But since no one else can read them either, she fakes her way through the translations, making up whatever she wants, using the pictures and sketches in the Ancient books to support her “facts.” What else drives her? Here’s a word for you: “lickerish.” It means “greedy, desirous.” Our librarian charges for each question asked, knowing that people only come to her if they’re desperate for a solution. Coins, food, rare tech, and other valuables are all accepted in exchange for her services. Those with nothing are either sent away or tasked with some dangerous quest to acquire something she wants. She probably earns enough to hire several mercenaries and goons to provide protection for her as well, as she knows it’s only a matter of time before someone discovers her secret and tries to end her gravy train.

There you have it. Three fairly-well fleshed-out NPCs all derived from 9 random words. Try it yourself and tell me what you think.


  1. Thanks for the great idea. If you want something that might be handy in deciding mutations or creating new ones, try this dictionary: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/onlinedictinvertzoology/2/

    The download link is at the right on that page.

  2. If you had a series of dictionaries you could use them as character advancement. e.g. A first level character gets the 'Abridged Pocket Dictionary' all the way up to 20th level who gets to use 'The Supreme Tome of Words' which comes with its own lectern. You could even use dictionaries meant for school kids at the lower levels. [although they might be more useful in word selection since they aren't as comprehensive as the "collegiate" dictionaries.