I think we can all agree that NPCs are important in an RPG. They give the players someone to interact with, they bring life into the world and they also make the players feel more like badarses. But a meatbag NPC with no depth is usually a boring NPC, and in Storm King’s Thunder’s (SKT) setting filled with chaos and giant threats there is a lot of material to flesh out your NPCs.
I’ll be starting off with the guards, as they’re one of the first things my players interacted with when I started SKT. Not every guard is the same, those that are trained and part of larger cities are more experienced and have more morale, whilst guards of smaller villagers will pale in comparison. Not all of them will be willing to jump right into a fight with giants, but all of them must. When they’re fighting in an encounter I suggest not making them all blindly charge at a giant or stand back in fear. Have most of them fight as normal, have a small few display some bravado, over-eager to prove themselves while some others stand back and appear hesitant to jump into the fight.
Don’t just stop at describing their actions though, give some brief details on their appearance or how old they look, that way they’re given some life rather than being the faceless guard who isn’t doing enough damage. Here’s an example that you could work from (Partly based off something that happened in my campaign): The players enter a small village and ask for directions from two nearby guards. They’re young, probably 18-20 and look similar; same height, eyes and curly brown hair. Most likely related in some way, brothers probably. That’s all for now, they give the PCs directions and they go on their merry way. A couple of days later giants attack and the town is rallying any fighters to help with the attack, the PCs volunteer and are paired with a group of guards to deal with hill giants in the crop fields. Just before heading into the fight the players recognise the two guards from earlier, and maybe exchange hello’s. One of them looks visibly nervous, almost sick. Combat plays out as usual, with brief descriptions for NPC actions. The players notice that one of the guards is staying back, the young guard who was looking nervous while his brother is fighting along the other guards. Combat continues and one of the giants strikes a killing blow on a guard, sending him flying. The nervous looking guard cries out and runs over to cradle the body, oblivious to the rest of combat. After the giants are dispatched the surviving guards carry off the wounded, move the dead bodies and a few move to console the nervous guard. Some of the players may move over and do the same, or just scold him for not fighting. No matter how the players react to this, negatively or positively, it gives the world some life and won’t take up more than a few seconds of brief description mid combat.
There are so many other ways to make the guards stand out, and not all of them have to be so grim. However given the circumstances of SKT, I like to remind the players that even though they’re getting stronger and more able to deal with giants, the majority of people are incapable of dealing with the threat and are in constant fear. This isn’t a happy-go-lucky sandbox campaign setting, it’s one where giants are tearing up the entire region and everyone is being thrown into panic.