Plot:Design:NPCs

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Here we discuss some guidelines for designing non player characters. As a rule of thumb, NPCs should have the same options the player has and vice versa.

Roles

NPCs are as important for a good plot as the various locations. They are one of the parts of the game world the player can interact with; they hand out quests and information and provide items and training. Most of them are harmless, but others may turn hostile, or are enemies right from the beginning.

What follows is a breakdown of the different roles NPCs can play. Note that individual NPCs can play several roles at the same or at different times.

  • Key characters play a special role in the main plot, either active or passive. They could help the player with information or required artifacts, but the player might also have to do something with them, be it killing or saving them, or something completely different.
  • Party members are those NPCs that may join the player for a short while or the rest of the game. They may do so because they really like to aid the player, or simply because they believe they can reach their own goals that way. Of course it is up to the player to chose her companions, but sometimes the plot may leave her no real choice if she wants to make any progress.
  • Side characters have no part in the main plot, but offer side quests or are involved in their completion. The player may completely ignore them, but they often provide helpful items and experience to support her in the course of the main plot.
  • Merchants sell and buy from the player. Whether they sell goods or informations, or just a room to stay for the night makes no difference. Most would go openly about their business, but some might act more hidden.
  • Teachers are a special class of merchants. They allow the player to improve her skills and learn new things. Like merchants they may charge money or ask for a favour. They may prefer certain characters and refuse to teach others.
  • Diversion characters are NPCs that take no part in plot or side quests, and are neither merchants nor teachers. Their main purpose is to liven up the game world. They may be funny or severe, provide interesting information about game world related topics, or just crack silly jokes.

If a NPC does not fall into any of those categories, it should be left away. To populate a location you shouldn’t fall back on “dummy” NPCs that just stand around idle with no purpose at all. Use diversion characters instead!

Design

After having seen the roles a NPC may fill in, we will now take a look at a few guidelines to make the most out of them in terms of gameplay and plot design. In general, all NPCs should be viewed as real people with a background and occupation, goals and dreams and various connections with the game world, independent of player and main plot. If these things are regarded when creating NPCs, they will add a lot to the game world’s ambience, and watching NPCs and interacting with them will be as much fun as possible. If a NPC has a spouse or children, the player should be able to meet them, unless they live in an area not covered by the game. More distant relatives need not be covered, but it should become clear that most NPCs do have a family. If NPCs have friends or foes, the player should be able to learn about them too, if she wants to.

NPCs may have the latest gossip about neighbours and other NPCs and will in general share their thoughts and opinions with the player. Not all NPCs will share such news readily and for free, and only few would bother the player, even if she isn’t interested in their gossip. Most NPCs do not treat the player in a special way, just because she happens to be the player. To them she is a stranger and needs to gain their confidence first, unless she gets credit from another NPC or belongs to the same faction. On the other hand, the player should be able to get to know select NPCs better, make friends and allies but also enemies. This is especially true for key characters and party members, who feature largely in the main plot. It should be possible with a few other NPCs as well, though. Of course this also depends on the path the player takes through the game. In the most extreme case, a NPC could become her best friend in one game and her utter enemy in the next.

When creating NPCs it is important not to fall into a black and white scheme. Few NPCs will be totally evil, and few are complete saints. The more interesting characters are simply misguided, or seek to accomplish the right things in the wrong way. Others may happen to have goals that conflict with those of the player, but that needs not make them outright enemies. Of course there are also unscrupulous bastards, but even they might have some good, or at least less evil, traits.

Even if two NPCs are individually good, they might not necessarily like each other. Such conflicts can often lead to interesting side quests, where it is impossible for the player to tell right from wrong. In other cases this will be more obvious, but there should also be NPCs where the player’s first impression turns out to be completely false. Seemingly bad characters might become good friends in the end, while good ones will finally betray her.

Apart from their background and affinity to the player, NPCs should also have an occupation. That doesn’t mean they have to be productive, they just should spend their time with different activities. Especially, no NPC should stand around idle without purpose. If possible, the player should be able to guess on a NPCs occupation from its activities. Otherwise, she should have other ways to figure it out.

The activity of NPCs might even be important for the plot or a side quest. Some roles of an NPC may be tied to a certain activity, or even to a special location. A shopkeeper for example, would only sell things while in his shop. Another NPC might only reveal informations when invited to a few drinks while staying in the pub. In general, an NPCs occupation will not only liven up the game world; it can also be relevant for gameplay.

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