Learning from NPCs

Learning from NPCs

Non-player characters, even when inhabited by players, are less than human. They are props and toys for the player characters to do with as they please.

Keynote: Nordic Larp, NPCs, and the Future, Jaakko Stenros, Oslo, 2017

The Non-Player Character is an interesting legacy of table-top roleplaying games where the gamemaster would play all of those characters not under the direct control of the players. For larps they have proven useful as plot devices, as functionaries of the game used to make a specific event happen at a specific time or in a predetermined way; or as short term characters who may only be present for a part of the larp. They exist at the service of the larp, and their existence and agency are secondary to those of the player characters. For the purposes of this chapter we will use the term “supporting character”.

For example the Krampus in Midwinter (2020) are supporting characters whose function is to torture, terrify, and re-educate Santa’s elves when they are naughty. The design suggests that all players must visit the Krampus at least once during the larp, and thus the people taking on the role will find that their (functional) play will be intense and unrelenting, but that they will have little time to simply play the character. From a design point of view the Krampus should not have full agency to affect the outcome of the larp, because they have too much power and too high a status.

Similarly guards in a prison larp may spend much of their time moving inmates from one place to another, or teachers in a magic school may have little time to explore personal plots. Antagonists often find themselves falling into a purely functional role, even if they are not supposed to be supporting characters, for much the same reason. However, a larper who takes on a supporting character is role-playing, embodying and experiencing a character with their whole body; so the experience can be just as powerful, or traumatic, or bleed-inducing as playing a full player-character. This short piece asks what we can learn from the NPC, and whether there are any techniques and methods that we can adopt for normal play.

Making Game for Other Participants

Some supporting characters are net producers of alibi, designed to create opportunities for play, to offer that invitation to the players, and to give them explicit permission to engage. A supporting character would not normally directly affect the story of the larp,unless specifically designed to do so. A supporting assassin who murders the queen is less interesting than one who tries to blackmail a player character to carry out that murder, as this second approach creates play for other participants. For example, in Countdown (2019) the host of a live TV show knows that one of the contestants is pregnant; a fact that she is unaware of. Whilst it would be a dramatic reveal to announce this to the world, doing so would reduce the agency of her player. Instead, the host whispers in her ear and leaves it up to her whether or not to let the secret out. Her character arc is her own, and her play — and moments of dramatic revelation — are more important than his. For players this is a generosity of spirit, an acknowledgement that the shared experience of larping is significant and that sometimes our own experience is not paramount.

Providing Alibis for Interaction

In addition, this idea of producing alibi is a useful tool for all larpers; we may create opportunities and invitations for interaction every time we speak to another player, but some larpers may need a more explicit invitation to engage.

“Would you like to dance?” Samuel asks William. This is a literal invitation to play, but William’s player is nervous. He wants to engage, but has not yet made the step from audience to participant. It is very easy for William to say “no,” to look away, to stutter an excuse.

“Can you dance?” is a more interesting opening. If William says “yes” Samuel can follow it up with “Well I can’t! Can you show me how?” and if William says “no” Samuel can either offer to show him, or can admit he is also gifted with two left feet and they can learn together. In every instance the supporting character is offering the player a reason to say yes. A nuanced version of this can be used for oppression play; the antagonist offers a reason to escalate in their line of questioning,

“There are people who you care for?”

“Yes”

“Well if you don’t answer my questions, we will come for them next”

or

“No”

“Then why resist?”

offering the victim both something to fight for and a reason to capitulate.

The supporting character creates new stories and activities, but when these opportunities arise, they pass them over to players and step away. The supporting character creates opportunity for play (makes game), cedes opportunity for play (gives game), and encourages play from all parties (produces alibi). But we can all do this, it simply involves a little extra work: steering for generosity.

Avoiding “Blue-on-Blue” Action

One of the pitfalls of having supporting characters is that they can end up playing scenes amongst themselves. This is particularly common with high status characters. It makes sense to the story for the king and the wizard to argue in the throne room, but their high status tends to force everyone else to become an audience.

High status characters take the spotlight simply by existing. Players want to talk to them. They have access to information and contacts, and they are responsible for taking decisions. Sometimes a co-dependency emerges. Players bring information to the supporting characters rather than sharing it with their co-players, although the supporting characters often have insufficient capacity to assimilate and disseminate the information; so the information gets lost. This bottlenecking comes from poor management or poor design.

Finally there is a high-status tendency to perform; to deliver a speech that takes ten minutes when it could probably have been done in thirty seconds, and when a high status character is talking it is difficult for a lower status character to interrupt. Instead they can facilitate conversation to ensure that everyone who wants to be heard has an opportunity to be heard.

There are lessons here for players, as every criticism aimed at high status supporting characters applies to any high status character. High status players need to be aware of their privilege and use it to create opportunities for everyone to engage.

A larp is a compressed fiction; it offers a finite amount of playable dramatic space which is shared by all participants. An experienced player should be aware of the space they take up and look for ways to share or cede that space.

Hug Your Antagonist

Antagonists are often written as supporting characters because they perform a one dimensional, one directional, or disposable function. An oppressor may do terrible things to generate game for their victims, but it is hard for the victims to willingly engage with their oppressors outside of this context. Indeed characters who are dangerous and powerful can end up isolated. Their energy is directed at their victims, but beyond that interaction there is little opportunity for them to engage with the story. It is a lonely experience to play the sociopath bully.

I was playing an oppressor, and I honestly felt like a ‘Service Top,’ I never really got to play the character at all.

Aleph Behaviour Player, Conscience (2019)

It is easier for a supporting character to interact with an antagonistic player character. Perhaps the alibi of being in a supporting role and thus not having to find a good diegetic reason to interact with the antagonists helps. Because supporting characters are not fully in play, they are in a position to notice when a player character is isolated or disconnected from play and can engage with them and bring them back into the fold.

Recognising the narrative labour carried out by antagonistic co-players is important. Players can engineer interactions with characters who are awful, without expecting awfulness or oppression in return. If we fail to do this, we are treating our antagonist as a supporting character, not a co-player.

Serial Focus

Some players are willing to interrupt what they consider to be a non-dramatic scene in order to inject their own drama, or to further their own play. Supporting characters sometimes adopt the “nothing is more important than the player I am talking to right now” technique; this is a strictly serial order of interaction — essentially a queue — which means that they will always finish the scene or conversation they are having before moving on. The news that another character is bringing might be important to your larp, but it is not as important as the play you are having right now.

Creating an Accessible Character

A well designed supporting character heuristic is to always engage, to always make play, to always have a conversation. Supporting characters tend to accept invitations to play more easily than some player characters (or some players.) This is the most important lesson we can learn from supporting characters: to always find a reason to engage, to initiate play, and to offer other players alibi to engage with you.

We do not want to emancipate Non-Player Characters, we want Non-Player Characters to have the agency to emancipate themselves.

Celtic larp communique #3

Authors

Simon Brind
Simon Brind is a PhD candidate at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE, UK. He is researching moments of narrative crisis in participatory fiction. He has been playing and writing larps since 1985 and hopes one day to get it right. He believes in the primacy of player agency. He lives in London, England.
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