I Want NPCs in My Chili
I've always liked NPCs. Those who know me might even say that I'm obsessed by them. There are times, it seems, that I'm more interested in NPCs than PCs. I've been known to get bogged down in describing some "off-camera" scenes involving NPC action. I've also been known to over-extend a bantering session between a PC and a NPC - sometimes the play-acting and dialog are just too good to let go, though such things may ruin the pace of a game. But, I'd also like to think those are exceptions, not the rule. And I'd like to think that my obsession with NPCs help make my games cool.
I've always liked NPCs. Always. Those who know me might even say that I'm obsessed by them. There are times, it seems, that I'm more interested in NPCs than PCs. I'll be the first to confess that my obsession is sometimes detrimental to the overall quality of the game. I've been known to get bogged down in describing some "off-camera" scenes involving NPC action. I've also been known to over-extend a bantering session between a PC and a NPC - sometimes the play-acting and dialog are just too good to let go, though such things may ruin the pace of a game. But, I'd also like to think those are exceptions, not the rule. And I'd like to think that my obsession with NPC's help make my games cool.
A well tailored NPC is the spice that makes my chili taste good.
When you're watching Star Wars, you know that Luke, Han, and the gang are the Player Characters. They do most of the cool, hero stuff and get most of the screen time. Luke fights the Wampa and Vader. Han shoots Greedo and gives some Star Destroyers the laugh. Leia makes nice with the Ewoks. And so on. If Star Wars is chili, then Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader are the meat.
If Star Wars is chili, Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader are the meat.
But, then you see guys like Wedge, Boba Fett, Lobot, Paploo, and Admiral Motti floating around. They're not just some random stormtrooper or rebel soldier in the back-ground. They're more than just fodder and set decoration. They have names and, often enough, discernable personalities. They're the Star Wars equivalent of NPCs. They're the spice.
Now, explaining why spice is good isn't easy. It's like trying to describe why blue is your favorite color. Even so, allow me to try.
After watching Star Wars, we learn quite a bit about Luke, Han, and the rest, but we don't know much about these other guys. As NPCs, they don't get as much screen time or character development. Most of them exist to satisfy a certain function. In a RPG, a NPC may exist to act as the bar-tender, or the blacksmith, or the captain of the guard. In Star Wars, the NPCs perform similar functions as wingmen, officers, and lackeys.
On the surface, there's not much to these guys. Boba Fett, in fact, initially earned legions of fans just because he had a cool suit. What is it that makes these NPCs so interesting? Why do I call them the spice? Patience, dear reader... all will be revealed.
Over the course of three movies, we get to know Luke and Han pretty well. We know their personalities and get a feel for what seems "right" for their character. It feels right for a roguish Han Solo to soften a bit for Leia and, eventually, fall in love with her. It feels right for Luke to grow from a hot headed-youth into a diplomatic Jedi Knight. The progression of these PCs is sensible and works well for their character and for the story.
But there's no surprise with the progression. While it may have originally been shocking to learn that Darth Vader is Luke's father, it's not surprising that Luke returns to his father, confronts him, and prevails. It's good storytelling, it's good for the character of Luke and Vader, but it's also fated.
Granted, RPGs aren't as bound by fate as a movie or a book. But, Luke and Han follow a certain path, and so do most PCs in RPGs. To use a simple example, a PC chooses to be a paladin of Neheod and sets out to crusade against evil. His quests put him at odds with an evil devil, who seeks to steal the paladin's soul. Said devil later corrupts the soul of the paladin's mentor and stands in the position to corrupt the entire church of Neheod. The stakes have been raised and the paladin must find a way to overcome this evil and, if possible, redeem the soul of his mentor.
If this were a movie, it's a sure bet that the paladin will overcome the devil. Or, if the movie is made by an existentialist, then one can assume the paladin would die in some attempt to make a poignant observation about the meaning of life, or some such. Now, in an RPG, the outcome isn't set in stone, because there are dice involved. The paladin might get killed in a random encounter or might get burned to death by the devil. But, just as Luke is destined to overcome Vader, one can safely assume that this paladin PC will do what he can to fight this evil. This PC has a purpose and a path to follow... and, if the dice are kind, a destiny to fulfill.
When Luke finds out that Vader is his father, it wouldn't make sense for him to hang up his saber, open a bar, and spent his money on drugs. Such a course of action isn't good for the character of Luke or the story of Star Wars. It just doesn't resonate. Likewise, it wouldn't make sense for the paladin to follow a similar course once his mentor becomes corrupted. Luke and the paladin are PCs. They have a destiny to follow and they have a story to be told. Any attempt to deviate from their path will likely strike a bad chord. It doesn't work well for PCs, whether they're in a movie or an RPG, to abandon their path. There are exceptions, of course. But, by and large, the PC must keep to his path for the story / RPG to succeed.
NPCs are not as bound by destiny as PCs.
NPCs, however, are not as bound by destiny as PCs are. NPCs, oddly enough, have more freedoms and liberties than PCs. This is true in movies / books and it's also true in RPGs. Luke and the paladin may be bound by destiny, but what of the NPCs in their lives?
Those familiar with Star Wars will know that the character of Wedge appears in episodes IV through VI. He's a pilot and is involved in every major space-ship battle in the original trilogy. He's the only character to make an attack on both Death Stars and he's the first pilot to take out an AT-AT. Beyond that, there's not much you can say about the guy. But, practically everyone who is a fan of Star Wars will tell you that Wedge is cool. And, well, Wedge IS cool.
Wedge is also an NPC (no offense, Wedge). The story of Star Wars is not about Wedge. He doesn't get the screen time that Luke or Han get. In fact, Wedge doesn't even really have any plot revolving around him. His role is that of the ever-present, ever-loyal buddy. How, then, can this NPC with a handful of accolades become so popular and interesting? How can we say that Wedge is the spice that makes Star Wars good?
For one, the fact that we know so little about him is part of why he's interesting. We're given a sense of who Luke is, where he comes from, and why he does what he does. And in our RPG example, these are also things we'd know about the paladin. But, these are things we don't know about Wedge. We're not told why he joins the fight against the Empire or how he became such a great pilot. Was his home planet destroyed? Did he train at an academy or is his talent natural? Not knowing these things add an element of mystery to NPCs like Wedge. And mystery is almost always interesting.
Lack of background also gives NPCs room for exploration, room that a PC usually doesn't have. On the surface, Wedge and Luke are similar personalities. They fight the good fight. We know where Luke came from, but not Wedge. Well, if one were so inclined, one could contrive a back-story for Wedge that involved an addiction to gambling, a bad incident with a harlot, and an accidental murder of her other customer, an Imperial officer. Such circumstances could have forced Wedge to throw in with the Rebellion and, over time, he finds that it is a cause that he can believe in, one that will give him some sense of redemption. Or, one could just as easily say his planet was blown up and that he wants justice. Or, one could say that he's an Imperial spy.
The possibilities for tweaking the back-story and motivations of a NPC like Wedge are virtually infinite. None of the back-stories that I've proposed for Wedge would ruin the overall story or the development of Luke or Han.
In the RPG setting, we can suppose that the paladin has a buddy who is much like Wedge. On the surface, he's loyal, eager, and enthusiastic to help out the paladin. And the proposed back-stories that I offered for Wedge are just as valid for this paladin's NPC buddy. Maybe this NPC buddy is trying to atone for some past sins. Maybe his father was killed by the same devil that strives against the paladin. Or, maybe he's a secret ally of that devil. Such mystery makes this buddy interesting or, at the very least, worth a degree of scrutiny.
The paladin's path is somewhat predetermined. In order to be a good paladin... and in order to be played well as a PC... he must do what he can to overcome his devil. But, the guidelines for his NPC buddy are more blurred - the Game Master has more options, more opportunities for the NPC, whereas the PC is bound by the confines of the rules and, often, the story.
The taste of the chili depends on the spices.
It is this combination of mystery, opportunity, and creative freedom that draws me to NPCs. They're not the main ingredients of the story or the game, but they are the spice. Just as one needs meat to make chili, one needs PCs in order to have an RPG. But the taste of the chili depends on the spices. The flavor of an RPG, therefore, is largely dependent on the quality of the NPCs. And the taste of a good RPG often depends on the use of well-crafted NPCs.
If one wants to make a game about Byzantine plots and treachery, then one designs back-stabbing and conniving NPCs. If one wants to make a game about honor and hubris, then one makes NPCs who are hearty and unquestionably loyal. If one wants to make a game with cool magic, then one designs an interesting magician - or, better yet, one designs a fallen magician who yearns to reclaim his old glory.
Not only are NPCs the spice of the game, they can be the medium through which details of the game are made known. A novice GM might simply tell his players that the Lands of Lunarda are a place of magical mystery. A craftier GM would introduce the elven character of Ord, a native of Lunarda, whose method of speech and topics of conversation reveal plenty to the paladin on his quest, over the course of several games.
Furthermore, NPCs can bring tension to a story in ways that a PC cannot. Again, consider Wedge. While this is a NPC with essentially minimal development, one cannot deny that the story of Star Wars is that much more flavorful and intense because he exists. The fact that Wedge has a name and is present in each movie makes the final battle against the Death Star that much more interesting. Most folks wouldn't care if some nameless pilot gets blow up - I know I wouldn't. And while not everyone may give a hoot about Wedge's character, I doubt there was anyone who wasn't slightly curious if he would survive yet another attack against the Death Star. While one can safely assume that Luke and Han would survive Return of the Jedi, first-time viewers can't safely bet whether Wedge will make it out alive or not. Wedge is a NPC... he exists at a level between cannon fodder and hero material and, therefore, it's anyone's guess whether he'll get blown to bits or not. Such uncertainty breeds tension, which breeds excitement. And when Wedge makes it out, I'm sure there were lots of guys who turned to each other and said "wow, that cool guy made it!" Likewise, when Boba Fett falls into the Sarlacc Pit, there were guys who groaned "aw, man, what a sorry way for that cool guy to die!"
It's ironic. PCs are the reasons why stories are told and why RPG's are played. Yet, in an odd way, they are less powerful than the NPC. The NPC tends to have more creative leeway. The NPC is more likely to bring tension to the table than the PC. And the NPC is the more likely medium through which the details of a story-world are revealed. And, yet, they are not the focus of the story or the RPG. And it is this irony that solidifies my love for the NPC.
And is my love for the NPC that leads me to spend so much of my time designing and researching when I create NPCs for my games. While I've been known to overdo it, I've also found that a game tends to flow better when the NPCs are well designed. After all, they are a primary interface for the PCs into the game world. A well designed dungeon might be fun for the PCs to explore... but I've found that it's even more fun when they have a well-crafted NPC who is able to explain certain mysteries of the dungeon and has unanticipated reactions. And when this well known NPC dies in a trap, the PCs know that the stakes have been raised and that the game is on.
It is the well designed NPC that brings spice to the RPG environment because NPCs have the power to make a game cool. Are NPCs the only spice that can be added to RPGs? No, there are others. But NPCs are the spice I like best. They're the reason why my chili tastes good.