Thursday, November 18, 2010

The point of NPCs, and styles of play

This morning I met an old friend whom I used to game with. We chatted a bit about life, work and family before delving deep into our gaming experiences since last time. Since I split from a game after inheriting this friend's character I talked a bit about why that game didn't appeal to me. This made me verbalize a few things which I've been thinking but never before put into words. I'll try to share some of that insight here.

I was playing in this game where we were young adults in a weird kind of post-apocalyptic fantasy world with religious overtones. It kind of made me think of the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card. We all had some Gift, and our village felt like some kind of religious commune. Since everything around the village, out in the woods, is dangerous and strange we all had the roles of rangers in training. After having encountered some soldiers and had a big fight there erupted a thunderstorm and when our village elder visited the druids in the wood afterwards we learned that he had made a deal for us to stay for one year in the village, not trespassing into their realm.

So, here we were, sitting for a year in the village with a bunch of refugees from another village which had been invaded by the soldiers we'd fought. Note that this year was not to be glossed over. We were expected to play it out, in a fairly low pace. That is, we would spend the game chatting with ourselves and "getting involved" in the refugees and other NPCs in the village. Character based soap opera, in other words. I quit the game.

I realize I'm already a bit long winded, but will now get to the point.

What are the point of NPCs in your game? Sources of information? For you and the players (I'm writing this from the point of a referee here) to interact to find out more about that NPC's inner life or maybe develop the character you're playing?

Now when thinking of why a soap opera game was to contrary to all my wishes, I managed to narrow down what I like with roleplaying as the possibility to explore a secondary world. Using NPCs you can showcase how someone who knows this world acts and thinks. Basically, they are they way the secondary world shows itself to the players. The NPCs are a way to make that world look like it breathes and moves while your players are not looking.

Contrast that with NPCs who are there in order for your players to get to express their longings from drama class. In that case you are interested in the NPCs for their own sake, and in the player characters for their own sake. Not for their actions, which is very different.

I've come to the insight that the latter way, especially combined with ideas like "freeform" or "jeepform" bores me to death. I want to play a roleplaying game not act in an amateur theatre group. If I wanted that I would be better served by finding an amateur theatre group, I think. Add to that the pretentiousness of some of the people involved in that kind of "gaming" and I feel like throwing up.

How do you feel about styles of play, and the roles of NPCs? It might be different, and it's totally ok. But, if you differ very much from how I feel, I doubt we will enjoy the same game for long. Now I at least have something to show people when they want to know what kind of game I like.


  1. I am torn on this issue. A part of me can't think of the NPC's as anything more than highly versatile objects in the world. Pump some for info, persuaded some to fight for you, kill some and ignore all the others. But the other part of me thinks that’s kind of wimpy; if the world is to be believable, NPC’s need to have a life of their own.

    One Pathfinder game I am in has struck a balance, I think. We started as level zero characters, which is just a wimpy level one. We also started younger, which makes me think of the game you quit, where you were in training. At first I was afraid that there wouldn’t really be any action, I mean, we didn’t have weapons or anything. But we spent a lot of time dealing with bullies, rescuing Tyler from his room where he was grounded and generally exploring. I guess we didn’t play out a whole year, but I think if the town hadn’t been overrun by goblins and orcs, forcing us to flee, we could have kept it a high action game without any serious “adventuring”.

    So, I think I agree with you that the point of a game is not to learn the rich histories and characteristics of the NPCs, but I think that a year trapped in a town doesn’t have to be boring either.

  2. For our games, NPC's were pretty much sources of information and Quest hubs. There was pretty much little interaction besides that.

  3. On reflection, I think I have a few types of NPCs these days. The first is the 'plot-point character,' who's function is to provide crucial information and advice. This may or may not be a mentor.

    Then there is the 'voice of reason/devil's advocate.' These I employ to raise questions about PC actions, e.g. "Are you sure we should attack the Evil Overlord directly, master? Last time we tried, we nearly died..."

    There is the 'friend/ally,' who will be more on equal footing with the PCs, and here I try to include some relationship-building.

    The enemies fall under a different category all together, but I try to present them as more than cardboard cut-outs.

    Lastly there's the 'faces in the crowd' - random people who have no function other than to sell a horse, offer a service, and so forth.

    This categorization is probably a bit rough, but it shouldn't be too far off the mark. The realistic socio-drama isn't my cup of tea at all, and I must say the prospect of playing kids trapped in a village for a year sounds mind-numbingly boring.

  4. Being the guy Andreas talked to about this, I more or less agree with him. I enjoy the drama and the in-depth growth of a characters life, but I need the frame of adventure, of a goal-oriented something to give the group a gentle push from time to time. I really, really enjoy throwing a bucketful of dice, which completely obliterates multiple enemies, and leaves me searching for the ones which got lost for the rest of the evening.

    My point, I think, is, that as a player I want change and versatility in my gaming experience. As a Referee, I try to match my NPC:s to my players unspoken needs. Some require a constant supply of obnoxious street urchins, bad women in distress and farmers who are out looking for somebody to chat to about the recent weather and the up-coming harvest. Others, I try to feed the important movers and shakers, in full confidence that they not only will find out every single plot known to man, but invent a couple of new ones I can use further on. To me, NPC:s are the windows to a world, and it seems rather silly to have everybody looking out throgh the same one, when we all seek something unique.

  5. Glad to have you chime in BobbiWoll! Always interesting to hear what you have to say about gaming. We should play some more games together again.


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