Strings and Rails: NPCs vs. Supporting Characters

Strings and Rails: NPCs vs. Supporting Characters

For larps [Non-Player Characters] (…) exist at the service of the larp, and their existence and agency are secondary to those of the player characters (Brind 2020).

In many larps, Non-Player Characters (NPCs) are diegetic tools for larp designers and runtime gamemasters to set specific events in motion, to convey important messages and to anchor story beats in the timeline of the larp. Their psychology is often simplified compared to other characters, and they are single-minded in their pursuit of the given task. NPCs are a bridge between the plot and the player characters, and their primary goal is to serve the story.

Sometimes, however, the game benefits from the presence of Non-Player Characters with more complex personalities and agendas; characters who must remain on the runtime gamemasters’ strings, but who can no longer be on rails. For convenience, I call them supporting characters, and I separate them from the NPCs, even though there may be various degrees of overlap in their design.

Where NPCs serve the story, supporting characters serve the players. Their interactions with player characters are paramount to their personal agendas, and they are often used as a litmus paper for how the game is going and what aspects of it need to be tweaked on the go. Supporting characters bring out the internal struggles in player characters, draw them deeper into the story; not for the story’s sake, but for the characters’.

The Polish larp Fallout: Xanai’s Revenge (Poland 2023) used both NPCs and supporting characters with great success. The larp’s plot centred around a small village that drew in travellers from various conflicted factions, and with them – all sorts of trouble. NPCs were the overt antagonists who made the other characters’ lives difficult – they were thugs on the roads, raiders attacking the village, one-dimensional villains with straightforward agendas and one simple task: to pose a challenge to the players. They set the tone for the game, and their actions clearly communicated the level of danger facing player characters.

Simultaneously, each faction at the larp contained a supporting character, some openly introduced as such, some hidden among the players. Their role was more complex: they were expected to provide play to their respective factions, to incentivise players to develop their personal stories, and to provide a living and breathing world where the players could feel at home. Those supporting characters had their own allegiances and agendas, but they were allowed to change them and even switch sides if they bonded with the player characters, or if the direction in which the game was progressing didn’t seem to appeal to the players.

They were still on the larp designer’s strings – the potential change of their goals was written into the design and had to be consulted with the designer, but the freedom of action set them apart from the single-minded NPCs whose actions and goals were set in stone.

An important trait separating NPCs from supporting characters is their “screen time”. NPCs are typically one-off appearances. They serve a specific role and then they disappear, or in the case of random encounters, they respawn into equally one-dimensional roles to repeat the same task. Meanwhile, supporting characters are either present throughout the game, or recurring at specific times. Since their role is that of supporting the players’ stories, their availability is crucial for the formation of emotional bonds, the building of stakes, and the escalation of conflicts. Supporting characters are there to encourage players, to create spotlight for them, and to weave the player characters’ personal stories into the overarching story of the larp. They are the manipulative antagonist who tempts the heroes with the promise of power and glory; they are the vulnerable rookie who needs guidance and protection; they are the dying elder who brings out the worst in the relatives fighting for their inheritance.

Railroad tracks leading through green forest.

Photo by Antoine Beauvillain on Unsplash.

Sometimes, all the larp needs are one-off NPCs. The larp Paler Shade of Black (Poland 2013) introduced NPCs whose only job was to incite riots and let themselves be captured by the palace guards to be made an example of. The game focused on a small kingdom surrounded by inhospitable lands, whose survival depended on the absolute trust in the ruthless but effective rulers. Civil disobedience was a major theme there, and the NPCs served as both its enablers and primary victims. Their off-game goal was to provide play to the guards and play up their authority, but because their “screen time” was so short, they didn’t require extensive backgrounds or personalities. Despite this, the cast of the NPCs decided to add flavour to their roles. With the runtime gamemaster’s approval, they wrote quasi-backstories for their characters, weaving them into letters and pages from diaries that could be found on them once they’d been captured. 

These props didn’t turn the NPCs into supporting characters, but they sprinkled their one-dimensional roles with a little more personality, providing the guards with something new to engage with. Had the NPCs survived and used their backstories as alibi to interact with the personal stories of the player characters, their conversion to full-fledged supporting characters would have been complete.

When designing a larp, it is crucial to decide which of the roles will be needed, and to clearly communicate it to the cast who will be playing them. While NPCs mostly stay on rails and depend on the runtime gamemasters to direct them, supporting characters require thinking on their feet and a level of selflessness that allows them to cater to the players’ needs while keeping the overarching plot in peripheral vision. Due to their recurring nature, full-fledged personalities, and often complex backstories, supporting characters carry an emotional investment that needs to be recognised and approached with proper care. The supporting cast may experience bleed just like the players, which means that regular check-ins and a thorough debriefing is just as important for them as the pre-game briefing.

NPCs and supporting characters set an example of generosity, serving the plot and the players alongside the gamemasters. Distinguishing between the roles we perform in larp and the implications they carry is just another step to creating a safe, generous, and wholesome experience for everyone involved. 


Brind, Simon. 2020. “Learning from NPCs. In Eleanor Saitta & al. (eds.). What Do We Do When We Play? Helsinki; Solmukohta 2020.


Bartczak, Wiktor & Patryk Wrześniewski. 2013. Paler Shade of Black. Poland.

Nowak, Lech Witold. 2023. Fallout: Xanai’s Revenge. Poland.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:

Fido-Fairfax, Karolina. 2024. “Strings and Rails: NPCs vs. supporting characters.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Jonne Arjoranta, and Ruska Kevätkoski. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo: Photo by Esteban Trivelli on Unsplash. Image has been cropped.

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Karolina Fido-Fairfax is a Polish larp designer with 13 years of experience in collaborative storytelling. She is the lead narrative designer for the Wonderlarp Foundation and a member of teams working on larps such as Adventurers’ Academy, College of Wizardry, WereWar, Conscience, Odysseus, and Wards of Czocha. As a larpwright with a vast experience in game design and crew coordination, she holds Nordic larp as an example of inclusivity, creativity, and collaborative spirit.