Here’s a little idea that just popped into my head that I thought folks might find useful when one needs to generate a NPC personality on the fly with very little to go on. It works on the idea of, for lack of a better term, stereotypes.
In D&D – heck, in so many things – there is a general conception of what an elf or dwarf or magic-user (etc.) should be. Maybe these ideas come from the game books or other pop culture, and maybe they change over time, but they do exist. Take elves, for example. Lots of RPG’ers have an idea in mind of how an elf behaves and what they look like. Consider this as, rather than a stereotype, an ideal. The ideal elf in old D&D was 5′ tall, Chaotic Good, came from the woodlands, etc.
How many elves, though, live up to this ideal? Perhaps, when an elven NPC shows up, we can roll a dice, perhaps a good old fashioned d6, to find out how close the NPC is to the ideal. Maybe a “6” means we have the perfect elf in front of us. But for every point lower than a “6”, we dial that elf one step from the ideal.
Here’s where we get free-form with this thing. The ways in which the NPC differs from the elven idea is up to the DM. Say we roll a “5”. We have an almost ideal elf, but he differs in one particular way. If we think of elves as having happy personalities, maybe our elf is morose. Maybe he doesn’t come from the woodlands, but instead the coasts. Maybe he’s a step away from Chaotic Good – Neutral Good or Chaotic Neutral. Maybe he’s stout instead of lean, dresses in scarlet instead of green – whatever your conception of an elf is, this guy doesn’t quite live up to it.
Roll a “3” for a dwarf, and he differs from the dwarven ideal in 3 ways – he’s Lawful Neutral, lean instead of stout and is funny instead of dour … or he has auburn hair, prefers the woods to being underground and thinks elves are groovy.
A simple d6 roll, an idea of an ideal, and a little imagination to get a memorable NPC.