The Art of the NPC: Notes from a WyrdCon Panel
Over the weekend, I was privileged to attend the sixth iteration of WyrdCon, a convention focused on interactive storytelling (live-action roleplay, transmedia, and the potential of games as storytelling media). I was even further privileged to run a guided discussion regarding the use of NPCs in live events. Here’s a summary of what we discussed.
I opened by talking about a philosophy on the inclusion of such characters I learned from Jesse Heinig (from whom I get most of my good ideas about games!). And it boils down to creating a space for players to form emotional connections to these characters. One of my favorite examples of this is the digital game, Vampire: the Masquerade Bloodlines. A game that killed the company which made it, but has sustained fan support and involvement for over a decade. Part of this phenomenon, I firmly believe, is the effort expended on creating provocative characters. You can see a similar phenomenon when it comes to BioWare games – that’s a company which put a ton of it’s points into character development, and it shows!
So the goal of the panel was – how can we create that same effect in live games?
The first step I took was to deconstruct the use of ‘non-player character.’ In a digital/video game context, the term makes sense – there are real players at their keyboards and consoles, interacting with fictional characters. But in a live game, it helps to consider everyone a player; even those who are only playing the role of Dread Wolf #5. I’ve been in games where staff treated those who showed up to play those roles as basically interchangeable pieces of set dressing. Those games had pervasive problems in attracting and retaining players until they started treating those who showed up to help as players who also deserved to have fun. So I got people to start using ‘story character’ or ‘cast character’ in lieu of ‘NPC.’
We then discussed a two part question: what responsibilities does a story character have to the game; and what in turn does a storyteller owe their cast characters?
The conclusion of the group was that the answer to both was generally communication and trust. Storytellers should communicate with their cast characters the intent for their role. But then they should also trust their cast characters to step outside the bounds of the given instructions. And cast characters should be careful not to break the game, but should be willing to slide on some of their instructions if it’s better for the story. One example was of a cast character who’d been instructed to be unobtrusively sweeping in the tavern until they were noticed, and could then give a plot drop. But the cast character was being largely ignored, for a long time. And eventually made the decision to go against one instruction (‘be unobtrusive’) to serve the greater demands of the story (‘get this information into play’) by engaging in conversation with a few player characters*.
The other big topic, which never really came to a firm conclusion, was regarding NPC prep. How much is too much or not enough information to give to someone planning to play a cast character. Information overload is obviously a problem – you can’t expect someone to spend the time to memorize 10+ pages of game lore and mechanics and character information. But on the other hand, neither should you leave out important information. If the main goal of the cast character is to further the story for the rest of the characters, they ought to have a firm connection to at least one or two characters there. The consensus which the group arrived at was that a page to a page and a half of information was ideal.
All in all, it was a great discussion! I’m really grateful to WyrdCon for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to being able to have similar discussions at other events!
*If we’re getting rid of ‘non-player character’ because of it’s connotations, we should probably rethink use of the term ‘player character’ as well.