Any dramatic story has roots in the characters that drive it onward. Whatever plot twists and turns you have, and no matter how exciting they seem, a narrative that lacks interesting characters just sits there, failing to pull you along. This is especially true in a Pathfinder or D&D game, because the story is literally character-driven–the players make decisions and play through, and their interactions will determine the course of the game.
As players, you have just one all-encompassing rule for the character you create: he or she must be able to work with others. They must assert themselves with an interesting and unique identity while being able, when it counts, to bend with the will of the group. You can create tough warriors, religious zealots, or magic-crazed wizards, so long as you don’t disrupt the game; make yourself fun, dramatic, or funny, while considering that others need room to do the same. Finally, you should consider the needs of your GM; help them craft the story to include your character, and provide yourself with plot hooks for them to use. Care about the characters in your world, and you will reap great rewards in richness of storytelling.
As a gamemaster, you create a multitude of other characters. You want to make them all interesting and unique, while paying special attention to just a few. Here are the general guidelines: Villains need a sympathetic (or at least understandable) streak, something that makes them worthwhile and not just another monster to kill. Allies of the PCs need to be approachable, or if they have difficulties with helping, these must be surmountable obstacles. Indeed, most NPCs should be able to help the party in some small way, should the players choose to overcome whatever obstacles (unfriendly, PC’s killed their pet, needs help with a monster), you put in the path of that potential aid.
Lastly, the largest yet often neglected category of characters: background NPC’s. Without receiving too much distracting attention, these are the characters that really make a world come alive, as they define what is ‘normal’ and give the players a real sense of fantasy. The grubby baker’s boy with dreams of adventure, the gentleman knight down on his luck, and the lonely dragon tamer help to define a game to a vastly greater degree than the mad necromancer the PC’s must kill.
The psychological power of fantasy in the everyday is hugely important to a role-playing game, and these characters are enormously worth putting thought into. Indeed, the tavern keeper of the place when”all your characters meet at a tavern” may define the player’s impression of the entire game, always unable to shake it away. A tavern keeper with a glass eye and a toothy grin makes for a game vastly different from a tavern keeper with a tattered, patchwork cloak and a religious amulet. Pay some attention to these characters, and the game will reward you by growing richer without you quite planning it. Most of all, give NPC’s a quirk when first introducing them (both the old DM guide and the Pathfinder Gamemastery guide have excellent NPC quirk tables to inspire you). If the players respond and seem to be in the mood to interact, play it up to the hilt! If you have to make little adjustments to the adventure to include this suddenly-important character, be prepared for that. Always go with what’s working in a game, rather than what you planned.
Go forth and make characters!
-Max Porter Zasada