Friday, February 01, 2008

Design Element #5: NPCs

NPCs. Non-Player Characters. Essentially, they are any character in a video game (or tabletop game) that isn't you. This includes your many antagonists, bystanders and non (directly) controllable followers, which are all controlled by the in-game AI. The term NPC does have a slightly more refined and condensed definition, specifically used in RPGs, which limits the term "NPC" to any important, developed character that isn't controlled by a human player. So a named innkeeper that has their own gruff personality might be an NPC while a mindless, nameless zombie opponent might not.

For the purposes of this Design Element article, I'll be discussing the use of NPCs in a hypothetical free-roaming RPG (similar to an MMO like World of Warcraft, or a single-player RPG like the Elder Scrolls series) which allows you to hire NPC assistants, all of which have parameters and statistics randomly generated from a complex algorithm. Such a game may already exist, but it's been my experience that any game that uses developed NPC hirelings (such as Neverwinter Nights) uses specially created characters that remain identical for each playthrough.

These generated NPCs will follow some basic rules. For instance, a character that generates a low strength roll will not be a fighter - the stats will be generated first and then the game will simply assign the class that best suits those stats. It will then follow by generating, in order, the character's history (based on the class and stats), personality (based on the history - a troubled history will no doubt create a troubled character) and quirks (which, of course, will come from the personality aspect). A character's quirks may end up creating complications, but may also create various boons to that character, such a strong aversion to one type of enemy. Since the quirks are the last thing to be generated, they are also the least predictable, since they depend on every previous generated factor turning out a certain way. Therefore, players should always be on the lookout for a character with a generous assignment of positive quirks as they will be the rarest and most valuable allies to have.

Additionally, because the generation process can end up creating a dud and an overpowered freak respectively, the game will make a note of how powerful your hireling is and attach an experience handicap. Like golf, this handicap will boost or penalize the character depending on how good he is. As such, a powerful character will go up levels far slower than a weak character, who in turn will become high level very quickly and less of a liability as time goes on. This system is a variation of 3rd Edition D&D's Challenge Rating-affected character raising system that denies players controlling a particularly powerful race (such as half-dragon) from levelling up at an equal rate to their peers, to reflect that character's enhanced starting parameters. For simplicity's sake and also so the system can be balanced easier by the designers, the highest handicap will be x0.5 and the lowest x2.0.

The following are a few NPC "tags" that will strongly effect the NPC's usefulness and growth. These tags are generated along with everything else about the character and can often be very rare occurances. Most tags will be displayed on that character's readout during the hiring process and may also be worth your consideration--along with class and stats--when deciding who to hire.

Destiny - The destiny tag reveals that the NPC has some important factor about themselves which will come to light at a certain point of your adventure (should you stumble across the thing that triggers it). If a character with the Destiny tag is invoked (created by the generation tool, in other words) and hired, the game will generate a "secret" backstory for that character based on a selection of various RPG standards (or clich├ęs) for a mysterious character hook. These can include the following:
  • Prince/Princess of a lost or remote kingdom, hidden and raised in obscurity so that the enemies of that kingdom's royal family might never find them, allowing the royal line to continue. Obviously, to resolve the destiny of this NPC would require discovering this kingdom and their heritage. It may also include defeating the kingdom's current usurpers and recovering the throne. Fulfilling this destiny may grant all sorts of riches and bonuses to the NPC (and also therefore to the character who hired them and helped them reclaim their kingdom).
  • A cult's chosen one. This may go very, very well or very, very badly depending on the cult. The game will have various story-developed cults, both active and abandoned, with a different destiny for each cult's respective chosen one. You may assist the cult in enacting that destiny with your hireling, or try your hardest to stop them. Obviously a doomsday cult should not be allowed anywhere near their chosen one. Inversely, a cult looking for the avatar of their fallen deity might be a good idea to invest some time into.
  • The successor to another NPC's legacy. Various powerful non-hired NPCs populate the world and while the world's dungeons, hirelings and even topography may be randomly generated, these faction leaders stay the same. They're like the major characters in any kind of highly developed RPG world, like the Forgotten Realm's various famous personalities. A destiny-tagged hireling may have various aspects in common with any of these major NPCs and may decide to align themselves with them (or perhaps take over their legacy) instead of staying with you. As such, whenever the opportunity to enact this successor destiny presents itself, the NPC will do just that with or without your consent. Though this sort of Destiny will probably be irksome and entirely unexpected, there may be clues in the character's backstory and personality profiles which hint at an affinity to the chosen major NPC. Obviously a wizard with the Destiny tag and a personality that mentions "may be willing to do anything to increase their powers" will probably not result in anything good, especially with a famous power-mad lich character on the loose. The in-game hints will probably be a little less overt, however.
As you can see, the Destiny tag can end up being either a boon or a hindrance and will probably end up with you losing that NPC as they go off on their destined path without you. But it should be an interesting ride nonetheless and could grant you all sorts of advantages down the road. The friendship of a monarch or repowered deity would probably come in handy.

Epic - An Epic NPC hireling is one that will eventually be able to pass the regular level cap for NPC characters and become a truly powerful ally. Because not everyone in the world is capable of such a feat, the Epic tag is reasonably rare. Epic NPCs will also be able to unlock all sorts of powers and abilities they would not normally be able to, such as learning magic if they're a warrior class (provided they have a high intelligence stat) or being able to heal due to some divine sponsorship (when a God takes special interest in an amazing NPC). The downside, of course, is that the Epic tag traditionally only affects the over-powered characters that level as quickly as molasses in January. It can, however, and this is rarer still, affect those of a moderately powered character with halfway decent level progression. Such characters will be NPC gold if you can find them.

Cursed - Opposing the Epic tag is the Cursed tag, which works in a similar but usually far more negative way. Like Epic, it will unlock various randomized abilities at random levels. These abilities will almost always be bad. Like a strong allergy to water or lycanthropy; leading to a berserk, uncontrollable werewolf character during nights with a full moon. The plus side is that the game takes the Cursed tag as a major negative character aspect and will therefore increase the XP gain that character will receive in turn. This will mean a highly overpowered but Cursed character will go up levels quickly as if they were a weakling. Of course, this means you'll be stumped with all kinds of random fun maladies later on in that NPC's growth.

Betrayer - Unlike most of the other tags, the Betrayer tag is a secret one that the game will conceal from you. You won't receive any hints that this character will eventually betray you at your darkest hour, either because of some sociopathic disorder or simply because it would mean their fame and fortune. NPCs with the Betrayer tag exhibit no unusual behavior patterns or a change in their abilities and powers. The Betrayer tag is, fortunately, as rare as most of the tags and there's a chance they will simply abandon you after too long instead of stabbing you in the back at a crucial moment. Still, creating this sense of distrust among your hirelings should create some interesting drama and will stop you from being too dependant on the hired help.

I may cover more NPC aspects and tags in a future update, using the same hypothetical game template. Perhaps it will be tweaked for a sci-fi theme next time.