[MUD-Dev] Respecting NPCs

J C Lawrence claw at 2wire.com
Tue Oct 23 14:33:27 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

On Tue, 23 Oct 2001 12:41:13 -0400 
Lee Sheldon <linearno at gte.net> wrote:

> My first step is to identify the various roles NPCs play in
> current MMORPGs.  But I'd also welcome input from any MUDs,
> commercial or otherwise, just please indicate that it's not an
> MMO.  Without too much thought I've identified the following basic
> roles:

I view NPCs as falling into four roles:

  0) Backdrop
  1) Targets
  2) player props
  3) Mechanical translation points (*)

    * A mechanical translation point is a game entity whose
      existence/purpose is to mechanically translate world mechanics
      into player terms such as by handing out quests, money,
      acting as economic exchange points, etc.  Arguably all the
      categories fit this definition, so its a bit of a catch-all.
      The main delimiter between mechanical translation points and
      the other categories is that other categories exercise such
      well known mechanics (eg kill/targets) that they are placed on
      their own.

Four of the roles you listed (merchant, expositor, quest giver, and
trainer) fall under the mechanical translation section.  Your fifth
category, quest participant, falls under variously player prop or
target (eg the player team member NPC would be a player prop, the
quest goal would be a target).  NPCs used as interactive player
props or mechanical translation points are an almost guaranteed way
to get me to quit a game and not come back.  I'm not interested in
robots on parade and find it somewhat offensive to my sense of space
and purpose for the world.  Merchants are typically especially
egregious cases.

I like a fifth category:

  4) Incidental outgrowth

Its really a variation on backdrop, except that they occupy a
critical but incidental role in the game and world definition, as
well as player activity.  In the commercial realm Skotos has
possibly made the largest stab in this direction.  In the hobbyest
world Island did a lot (that was almost compleatly unrecognised), as
did LambdaMOO and a few other mediate derived/centric games.

You can't read AliceInWonderland without running headlong into the
Walrus or the Cheshire Cat.  Outside of literary analysis they are
not critical to the plot, but are critical to the perceived story
and reader/player experience.  They are intensely interesting and
rewarding to spend considerable time and effort investigating.  They
also reflect well on the rest of the book, and import well into the
rest of life.

  Is there an NPC anywhere which can be even remotely compared or
  contrasted functionally with Alice's Father William?

I like NPCs as opaque, inscrutable, and purposed.  That doesn't
necessarily mean they are super-AI driven, but that they are neither
poor reflections of the players, or poor props for players, but can
credibly be viewed as having a discrete existence.  I dream of
AliceInWonderland-like NPCs.  They're not typical even among
themselves, they're relatively uncommon, they're not world or player
reflections, they behave according to internal logics which are only
partially determinable and fractionally visible but which are also
readily apparent as being present, and they don't ego stroke.

Of course from a functional definition, what do such NPCs offer?
They offer a chance for the game to speak, for it to beckon and say
to the player, "Come over here, this is interesting, it will reward
your interest, have a look," and for it to remain mysterious without
being crass.  Which is perhaps my largest complaint on NPCs to date;
They've been so excessively deconstructed that all that's left are
pure functional entities wearing incongruously frilly skins and

The goal is depth.

How about inscrutable not-quite-deterministic NPCs?

Or, more recently, how about NPCs ala the Vorlon Kosh?  

J C Lawrence
---------(*)                Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas.
claw at kanga.nu               He lived as a devil, eh?
http://www.kanga.nu/~claw/  Evil is a name of a foeman, as I live.
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