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Monty Python references! Now with cutting-edge IMAGE-O-GRAPHIC technology!
Today, I’m going to be talking about a staple: Unhelpful NPCs.
You know the type: The villagers are low on supplies and high on rampaging bandits. The mayors and police chiefs are outgunned, outmanned, outsmarted and outbought by the crime bosses. The Masters of the Hidden Order keep their deepest secrets out of your hands because of their sacred oaths. The Faction Bosses are too busy fighting each other to focus on the Really Bad Thing up ahead.
Pictured above: Accurate representation of your average NPCs.
Too weak, too stupid, or too uncooperative. Whatever the case, the result is the same: Their situation represents a roadblock to the main plot, so the main characters end up dealing with the mess for or despite them. When that’s over, they get showered with praise and perhaps even the satisfaction of showing up the snobs who dismissed them.
Most of the time, the narrative will try and justify reasons why these guys can’t or won’t do anything: they don’t have the skills, they don’t have the time, or they’re tied up by rules and oaths. The most common reasons tend to be matters of legality, ignorance (actual, not pejorative), or opportunity: they can’t officially help you because it would be illegal, or because you’re the only one to bear witness to the Main Plot and have only yourself to count on.
And certainly, it can develop any number of ways from there. Many of these NPCs end up developing into allies for the future. And a lot of the best ones don’t just beg for help, they are equally involved and come along for the ride. Many of the best party members started out as ‘guy/girl who needs your help and follows you afterwards.’
On a purely mechanical level, their existence is simple: It’s a means to create conflict and move the plot forward. This is especially pertinent in interactive media and games, because designers usually aim to create a sense of empowerment in players.
So that’s what we’ve all come to know over decades of seeing plucky heroes as the lone hope for a town, a city, a country, or even a world, with no one believing them or able to help them. That said, I’ll attempt to share some of my experiences as a Games Master and my insights in creating NPCs who were actual people capable of rational, efficient thought.
See, what I did was I imagined “What would happen if the supporting/leading figures had been through all sorts of stuff and actually LEARNED something from it?” So I followed through with different groups having their own logic and solutions. So when something weird is going on, they usually DO know to investigate. That way, it’d minimise the plot holes of their inability to help, keep them helpful, and narrow down the things that truly DID escape their attention.
Sounds amazingly amusing and brilliant in my totally unbiased opinion, right? Actually, I wouldn’t know. Your opinion is entirely your own. However, I’m not afraid to share how it actually went. Basically, it was definitely interesting, but not perfect, either.
These NPCs were certainly entertaining and more lifelike. However, in my first run with them, many of them ended up TOO paranoid, and in fact TOO realistically insulted that main characters would come in and tell them how to do their job. There were quite a few miscommunications before a fun balance was found. Basically, while the plot still moved on, there were times where the players were stalled by the whole “Who are you people?!” deal, or had nothing to do because “Oh yeah, we know how to deal with that.”
So all in all, while a level of competence can help flesh out the world, it can also cause stagnation. An NPC that can resolve his own problems has no need for a player character. That’s not only boring for the main characters, it’s boring for the story. Nothing to see here, move along. Good for a novelty, bad for a sustained story. A realistic response DOES NOT mean a flawless one.
There’s also the matter of feasiblity. A lone storyteller can do this because he’s the only one in charge of production for what is a purely oral piece of media. Realistically speaking, you can’t program that sort of responsiveness into a videogame, and there’s a limit to how much of that can go on into even literature and shows. They DO need to plan for the entire plot/season/series, after all. What if Game of Thrones never erupted into the War of Five Kings?
So bear this in mind the next time a hapless NPC asks for your help. He’s there to make you feel good about yourself, and there’s a limit to how many reactions they can give him. Additionally, if the job was easy, would it be much of a story?