Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Non Player Characters: Populating Your World

Non player characters span a range of concepts. Monsters and villains, sources of information and confederates the list continues for quite awhile. I am going to take a look at three with some ideas of how to use them. Please feel free to disagree with me, my ideas are not necessarily your ideals.

A villain is a more complex antagonist than a monster. They can range from humans with evil intent, to near deific elementals who rule over planar kingdoms. In my opinion, villains should be as complex as player characters. They should have goals and flaws. They should have strengths and weaknesses. Many players enjoy the information gathering aspect of game play and one of the best ways to make that aspect cool is by giving them information about the main villain. I know that I have said this before but I feel it bears mentioning again, steer clear of the Cape. Capes are villains who cannot be defeated, they require the silver sword of plot(Deus Ex Machina) to defeat. When I create a villain, I try to do it with the idea that a high level group may decide that they want to kill him when he is giving his soliloquy. I like the idea that a plot line can alter to the players direct action. A word about villain flaws and weaknesses; it is OK to make the villain have an obscure weakness, but they should have a common weakness as well. A common weakness, like double damage from ice, makes fighting the villain and his minions have an extra layer of strategy. Villains therefore are characters who oppose the PCs, they should have all of the attributes of players plus whatever powers or abilities you decide to give them to make them fun to fight.

Information sources are NPCs whose purpose is primarily the dissemination of game knowledge. The most important thing when creating an information source NPC is making sure that the entire plot team is aware of what information the source has. It is also important to make notes about what information the NPC has put into game. I have found that managing information is one of the most complex parts of running plot. Making sure that enough people have access to places where they can get information, and making sure that the appropriate information is in game so the plot can advance, takes serious organizational effort. I started taking notes this season immediately after conversations with my information NPCs. I found this helpful and it will be something that I recommend to new plot people on my team. Organization is the key to information NPCs.

Plot directors are NPCs who guide the players down the appropriate plot lines. The most common example of this in the NERO game are NPC nobles. Plot directors are probably one of the trickier NPCs to run correctly because it is so simple to overuse them. When using an NPC noble to stress an idea or a plot line, we as plot people walk a fine line between railroading the plot and not creating priorities. Railroading plot is when players feel like they have no choices, they simply must do this or the world will end. Priority creation is a scheduling tool for plot people, allowing them to know what mods will probably be run and at what time. In my opinion plot director NPCs are your priority tools but you need to use them sparingly to maintain the illusion of a living world.

These are just three types of NPCs out of many. I may do more of these as I think of useful ideas for other types of NPCs. I may come back and edit this post to add new things that pop into my head for these types. For now, I would like to hear your thoughts. Any questions or comments?


  1. I have a few thoughts or comments. One is that the "weakness" of your NPC doesn't have to be stats-based. It could be something that drives them berserk, some insult or lost memory. Or maybe they have a secret love child they'd do anything to protect, and this makes them vulnerable. As you said, make the character interesting!

    The other thing I thought of was consistency. We tend to use NPCs like kleenex. Think about putting NPCs in for the long haul, experts in subjects that will come in useful often, or maybe something like a rune reader or other "mystic." Make the character interesting, and make them someone the PCs can interact with, gain trust, and trade favors. Sometimes it's needed and better to have a disposable NPC, but I think it adds a lot to the game to be consistent and have NPCs stick around, and you can use them for plot ideas as they scheme and create their own plans.

    Just some thoughts!

  2. I completely agree with both points.