As you might have gathered from the last month of content if you’re not a complete dumba$&, people ask me A LOT of questions. I mean, it is partly my fault. After all, I basically dared the entire internet to ask me whatever they wanted to and even e-mail me. And let me tell you, putting an e-mail address out there for anyone to use was kind of a dumb thing to do. There are some really weird obsessive people out there. And there’s a lot of people who hate me. And there’s also still a lot of people in the world who want to e-mail everyone and remind them that porn exists. That seems weird. Do we really need to ADVERTISE porn on the Internet? I mean, everyone knows it’s there.
My point is, though, that people ask me a LOT of questions. And the nice thing about that is that it’s really easy content to generate. Pick a question out of a hat, insult the asker, and then ramble about whatever I want vaguely related to the question for 1,000 words. The best part about it though is that there really isn’t any struggle to introduce the damned thing. I can just say “this dumba%& asked me a stupid question, here’s my answer.” Meanwhile, a REAL article that requires ACTUAL effort requires me to find some way to get from a cold opening remark to an actual useful topic in something close to three paragraphs. And, as you might gather from THIS particular opening, I’m not actually GOOD at introductions. But I digress.
Among the LITERAL HUNDREDS of questions choking my inbox, only about a third of which are actually useful in any way, there’s a few recurring themes that just keep popping up. For instance, people want to know why I’m an a$&hole, why I hate bards and gnomes, why I’m such a a%&hole, why I hate FATE, and boy am I ever a massive a$&hole. But, ignoring that sort of crap, the whole Ask Angry thing has given me a chance to see the sort of topics my readers want to know more about. And THAT finally brings me around to today’s topic. Or rather topics. Because two questions that I get a LOT in various forms are: “how do I create NPCs for my game” and “how do I actually get the players to be emotionally interested in my game.”
Now, since – this doesn’t count as introduction anymore, this is ON TOPIC, so it’s okay to be in paragraph four – now since we’ve been exploring all the various bits and pieces of building an adventure, it seems like as good a time as any for a discussion about NPCs. Because NPCs are actually way, way, WAY more complicated than, say, characters in a movie or in a book. Because NPCs are where the two different sides of RPGs smash into each other like kittens strapped to the front of train engines on the same track.
So You Think You Know What an NPC Is
One of the funny things about NPCs is that every game master pretty much knows exactly what an NPC is. But if you’re some pedantic, smart-a$& internet gaming a$&hole like me, you can actually make people realize they have no f$&%ing clue what an NPC actually is. I mean, let’s start simple. Let’s play: is this an NPC? I’m going to describe something in the game and you have to decide if the thing I’m describing counts as an NPC.
The king who gives the players their question? NPC or not? What about the king’s evil advisor who secretly betrays the PCs while pretending to help them? NPC? What about the blacksmith the PCs buy their new armor from before they go on their quest? NPC or not? The bandit that tries to extort money from the PCs on the road? NPC or no? What about the goblins that jump the PCs in the forest? Are THEY NPCs? How about the ghost of the priest at the fallen shrine deep in the forest? The god that blesses the PCs after they restore the shrine? What about the giant forest spiders that try to eat the PCs? Do those count as NPCs?
Turns out, different GMs have slightly different answers to those questions. For example, me? The smart guy, the guy that counts? I say yes to all of them. And you might think that, because I say yes, that’s the answer we’re going with. But this is a way more complicated question than it seems. At MY table, all of those things are NPCs because of the way I run my games. But at your table, the god might not be an NPC. Or the spiders. Or the shopkeeper. Or the bandit. And you might even be correct even though it SEEMS like you’re disagreeing with me.
What makes an NPC an NPC is actually very a very subtle point. But it’s an important point. Because, like all of my points, it will help you run less worse games. So, what DOES make an NPC an NPC?
The term NPC is a simple term on the surface. But it has grown complicated over the years. First of all, if you don’t know, NPC stands for “non-player character” or “non-playable character” or “non-player-controlled character.” It’s a term that gets used in both RPGs and in video games and it refers to any character in the game that isn’t controlled by a player. Of course, we’ve discussed in the past that the GM is technically also a player. And since the GM controls NPCs, the term “non-player character” is somewhat inaccurate. If we wanted to be really, really nitpicky, we could call an NPC a “non-protagonist character,” but that’s kind of unnecessary. We can basically agree that NPCs are not controlled by players. The GM makes the decisions for NPCs.
But, there’s two things that complicate the idea of what an NPC actually is. Firstly, thanks to video games, the term NPC has gradually absorbed an implication of nonaggression. That is to say, in video games, the term NPC is often used to connote characters in the game that AREN’T controlled by players but that also AREN’T hostile to the players’ characters. So, video game designers tend to classify characters as EITHER enemies OR NPCs, but not both. And that has bled into RPGs as more and more people drift from video games into RPGs. So, now, there are GMs who distinguish between enemies and NPCs.
Secondly, there is the idea of interactability. Is a god who exists entirely off screen and affects the story in passive ways an NPC? Suppose the PCs do a thing that pleases a god. That god decides to bestow upon them a blessing. They never talk to the god and the blessing is never explicitly stated. The PCs are left to infer the nature of the blessing as a form of indirect storytelling. Does the god count as an NPC? Does anything that the players can’t interact directly with count as an NPC?
The problem is, once you start accepting off-screen entities that interact in indirect ways with the PCs, you end up with a very fuzzy notion of what NPCs actually are. I mean, by the same token as the indirect blessing, the PCs are indirectly interacting with the long-dead architect who built the dungeon they are currently exploring. Do we count THAT dude as an NPC? And if we accept the gods as NPCs and natural forces are manifestations of the will of the gods, don’t we have to count things like weather and gravity as NPCs?
Now, you might think this is merely philosophical banter. But it really, really isn’t. Because if you can drill down to the concept of an NPC, you can do some pretty amazing things. In one of my campaigns, the PCs were exploring a city that was literally alive. You couldn’t talk to it. It didn’t have a mouth. But it could manifest its will in some pretty powerful ways. It could subtly change its layout. It could cause accidents. It could manifest a variety of magical effects. It behaved like a living entity. The city was an NPC. For that matter, if you want to run a really, REALLY effective game in the Dark Sun campaign setting, it helps to treat the post-apocalyptic and extremely hostile world of Athas like an NPC.
And THAT is where we can get to the REAL definition of an NPC. And NPC is anything in the game that the GM actually role-plays as. How’s THAT for a definition?
Role-Playing Ain’t What You Think
Now, a long, long time ago, I published an article calling out a bunch of dumba$&es for saying that “role-playing” is synonymous with talking and complaining that most combats don’t involve any “role-playing.” Those f$&%wits literally don’t understand what role-playing is. They are using the world “role-playing” to mean “speaking in character.” And for our definition of NPC to be remotely useful, we need a more correct definition of role-playing. So, if you’ve forgotten that article – or you never read it – let’s go over it really quick.
Role-playing is the act of considering a hypothetical situation, projecting yourself into the mind of a character in that situation, and making the choice that you think that character would make in that situation if it were real. In other words, role-playing is the act of making choices based on a combination of situation and motivation.
Players role-play whenever they are called upon to make a choice. Now, I’m not going to argue about strong role-play vs. weak role-play and the difference between choice and computation here. You can go back and read that old article if you want to. We’re just going to leave it at this: if you have to make a decision based on a situation and motivations, you’re role-playing.
And THAT is why some GMs would never consider their gods and spiders and cities to be NPCs while others would. Take the spiders, for example. Some GMs plonk spiders down in a room and decide that will be a combat. The PCs enter the room and the spiders try to kill them. It’s basically automated. The GM just preprograms the spiders to kill and doesn’t think any more about it. Other GMs, though, put the spiders in a room with an understanding that they are protecting their eggs. When the PCs enter, the spiders might try to intimidate the PCs to going around the room. If the PCs press into the room, the spiders attack. If the PCs retreat, the spiders give up the fight. Those GMs are actively making decisions as if they WERE the spiders throughout the scene. And thus, those spiders are NPCs.
Likewise, if the GM designs an adventure with a sentence like “if the PCs kill the shrine ghost, they get a +5 bonus on all perception checks and initiative for 24 hours because the god of being really alert blesses them.” On the other hand, if the PCs kill the shrine ghost and then the priest PC decides to waste an hour while the rest of the party is taking a short rest to consecrate the shrine and clean it up and restore it and the GM decides that the god is so impressed that he rewards the PC, now the god is an NPC.
The trick is that the GM is role-playing. The GM is making decisions based on the game situation and an understanding of the thing making the decisions.
That’s why things that aren’t even human can still be NPCs. Spiders can be NPCs because they have motivations and can make decisions. Magical living cities can be NPCs because they have motivations and can make decisions. And with the right frame of mind, any natural force can be an NPC. The blistering landscape of Athas CAN be an NPC if the GM thinks of it as a vengeful, dying husk that hates all living things because it was blasted by environmental disasters and now seeks to punish anyone who sets foot outside of the walls of the city-states.
NPCs as Game Elements
Now, here is where things start to get complicated. In past articles about adventure and scene building, we’ve talked about building scenes for your adventure around a specific purpose and then putting interactive game elements into the scene that fill that purpose. For example, take that first scene of the adventurer wherein the party is hired to rescue a beautiful dragon from an evil princess. The dragon king invites the party to his throne cave and sets out the quest, explaining how his daughter got kidnapped by the vengeful princess who is now demanding tribute, and how she is being held in the princess’s dark, dank palace deep in the wilderness.
In terms of adventure design, we’d say that we have an exposition scene and the dragon king is a game element that exists solely to deliver the exposition.
And now we have a dilemma. If the dragon king exists just to deliver exposition, it isn’t really an NPC. It’s just a robot. It’s basically the RPG equivalent of a dialogue box or an on-screen text scroll. No decisions, no NPC. And since we always want to understand the purpose of our scenes and use various game elements to achieve those purposes, ALL of the characters in our game are just robots or text-boxes. The shopkeeper is just an interface between the PCs and the equipment list. The spiders are just monsters that try to kill the PCs. The evil princess is just a boss fight that spouts pre-written monologues and one-liners.
So, our NPC definition isn’t so useful after all, is it.
Why it’s Important for NPCs to Be NPCs
But who cares? Who gives a f$&% if our dragon kings and shopkeepers and evil princesses COUNT as NPCs? It’s just word play. It’s just semantics. Right?
No. NO! You shut your f$&%ing mouth. I NEVER waste my time on JUST semantics and JUST word play. Except when I’m writing the Word of the Week. Apart from that, none of what I do is EVER just semantics. What I’m discussing now is actually at the core of GOOD NPC design.
A LOT of GMs have a problem getting their players to CARE about their NPCs. A LOT of GMs want their players to be emotionally invested in the game world, but, for whatever reason, they can’t seem to make it happen. And they want to know why. And THIS dilemma is at the heart of it.
See, there’s two sides to an RPG. RP and G. The RP side represents the game as a story. That is the thing that people get emotionally invested in. And the G side represents the game as a game. That is the thing people strive to win. And trying to pretend either side is more important than the other is going to f$%& you up, no matter how many brilliant internet GMs try to tell you the game is really all about story. It isn’t. Those people are dips$&%s.
A literature professor of mine used to say all the time that “all stories are about people, even the ones about elves and robots and monsters.” The point is, the reason we get emotionally invested in stories, the reason we are drawn in by stories, is because they speak to us as human beings. They reveal things about ourselves or about others or about the human condition. Nobody was interested in Finding Dory because there’s something compelling about a fish with Alzheimer’s. We got interested because it was essentially about a person searching for their identity and dealing with an illness that literally robbed them of who they were. We are the sum total of our memories and experiences. And we are the children of our parents. When those things vanish, we become nothing. THAT is why some people who ABSOLUTELY WEREN’T ME cried through about half that stupid movie about a forgetful cartoon fish.
I didn’t cry. Shut up.
Dory’s struggle to find herself was something we can understand as human beings. The loss of self is a fear we can all identify with. And the reason all of that worked is because we understood who Dory was and what she was about. She had fears and motivations. And by understanding those, we understood who she was and why her quest was important. And we understood what was at stake. So when she ended up back out in the kelp farm near the end and the background gradually faded into darkness until she was nothing but a voice in a murky grey void and she tried desperately to hold on to herself, we cried. If we were people other than me. Because I didn’t. Because she was goddamned cartoon fish.
The truth is this: a well-structured and satisfying game demands NPCs that serve functions in the story. An emotionally engaging game demands NPCs who trick the players into thinking they are at least as human as a brain-damaged cartoon fish.
The thing is, no matter what else is going on in your game, your game has to be about people. It doesn’t matter whether those people are people or goblins or spiders or kidnapped dragons or evil princesses. Every game has living beings in it that CAN be NPCs. And if those living beings ARE NPCs, your game will draw players in emotionally. It is impossible for human beings not to become emotionally invested in stories that are about human beings. If you want your players to care about the world and the game, it has to be full of people. Nothing else creates emotional investment. Nothing else is necessary. Just a sense that your world is about people.
How to Have Your Cake Both Ways
Now, first of all, I’m not going to talk about NPC design today. I’m going to come back and revisit that topic as a follow-up to this. Today, I’m exploring the IDEA of NPCs and emotional engagement. But, what I am going to do is blow your f$&%ing mind with the basis for the idea of running compelling NPCs at the table. An idea that is remarkably simple and one that basically does all the work for you. It’s a trick you can start using tomorrow and it will change the way every NPC in your game feels. It’s remarkably simple. And yet, I’ve seen very few GMs actually do it because they don’t understand how important it is or how much of a difference it makes. And it’s going to sound like a tiny, pointless thing that can’t possibly make a difference.
Don’t run the game, run the NPCs.
Mind blown, right?
Maybe not. Not yet. Let me explain.
You have the scene where the dragon-king is hiring the players to rescue his daughter from the evil princess, right? And you and I understand that the purpose of that scene is just to provide a motive for the characters and the players so they will go have a fun adventure. In that respect, the dragon king is just a tool to deliver the exposition. So, you deliver the exposition, you offer the PCs the payment, and you answer any questions they have. And it’s basically just a transaction.
Imagine if you were a player, though. Imagine your character’s daughter got kidnapped and you had to convince a bunch of mercenaries to rescue her from a dangerous situation. A player can’t just deliver exposition, offer a bribe, and then send the heroes on their way. The player would actually have to decide what to say. The player would have to make compelling arguments. The player would have to plead or beg. The player might be desperate or frightened or whatever. And that’s because the player is uncertain. The player doesn’t know the mercenaries will say yes. The player has to do his damndest to MAKE THEM say yes.
And THAT is how YOU should do it as a GM. Instead of approaching the interaction as a scene for you to manage to dole out the necessary information, approach it like your victory is not assured. Approach it like that NPC is your character and you’ve got to make what you want happen. Approach it as a role-playing challenge. Why is this important to the character? What is the character willing to do to make it happen?
Role-play the goddamned giant spiders. Those are YOUR babies in those eggs in the middle of your lair and a group of powerful, dangerous monsters have blundered into your home. Fighting them is dangerous. They are powerful. And if you get injured or killed, nobody can protect your babies. But if you let the monsters near them, they might kill the babies. What do you do? You posture, you threaten, you try to frighten the monsters off. But if they approach, you have to fight. And you don’t leave the eggs. You back right up against them. And as your hit points drain away, you limp over the top of your next and lay your body over the eggs, shielding them with your last ounce of strength, until you are beaten to death, slumped over them.
Imagine that scene. Imagine that spider fight. Don’t you think at least one dumba$& player is going to be affected by that? Especially when they turn the body over to loot the nest and discover there aren’t gems or gold. Just eggs. That they murdered a spider for protecting its babies. And that’s just a f$&%ing giant spider fight.
Role-play everything. Don’t run scenes, run characters. And run them with the assumption that you have to win. If you run enough scenes like that in your world, eventually, the players will realize the world is about people. And they will start to care. And all it takes is just imagining yourself as a player and the NPC is your character and you have to win. Oh sure, when you’re being the villain, you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose a lot.
Doing that forces you to think about the NPCs as characters with motivations and then to behave in ways consistent with those motivations. And when an NPC has motivations that are clear and consistent in their actions and choices, that makes them seem like they are alive. And that makes your game about people. And then the players will start to get invested.
Of course, investment comes in many forms. This isn’t just advice about how to make your players cry over cartoon fish or feel guilty for ganking giant spiders. There are lots of different emotions. If your gnolls are wild and feral and delight in spreading terror and destruction, and you play them that way, your players will fear them. If the orcs are vicious savages with no respect for any life that isn’t orcish, your players will hate them. If the evil princess is a sociopath who delights in toying with the minds of her victims and scarring them emotionally, your players will find her disturbing and upsetting. Even something as a dungeon control can provide emotional investment if the creatures are terrifying and the atmosphere is oppressive and the quest is desperate. And those things all come from the living, breathing people in the world.
Don’t script NPCs, role-play them. Whatever scene they are in, figure out what they want and why. Then, assume you’re a player and that they won’t get what they want unless you win. Then, play to win.
Building Good Characters
Now, that advice works whenever you run a game: whenever there is a character in a scene, understand what they want and do your best to make it happen, just like a player would. And it stems from a firm understanding of what makes an NPC an NPC and what makes a story compelling.
But, is there a way you can build NPCs to make that approach even more powerful? Or make it easier? When you plan a scene, how can you design an NPC that is both functional and emotional so that you can easily play it right at the table? That, people, is what Part 2 is for.