[MUD-Dev] Respecting NPCs

Lee Sheldon linearno at gte.net
Wed Oct 24 16:21:34 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


-----Original Message-----
From: J C Lawrence

You win, JC.  Yours was the only response from three lists that I
felt the need to print out and study.  Yours is also the only
response from this list from someone also not represented on
another, and I find that somewhat surprising.

> I view NPCs as falling into four roles:

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

    <DEFINITION SNIPPED>

> Four of the roles you listed (merchant, expositor, quest giver,
> and trainer) fall under the mechanical translation section.

Yep, this is mostly due to the fact that NPCs are viewed as objects
that perform functions, and who just happen to not be shaped like
accordians or pencils.

> 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.

For me at least, this is mostly due to the fact that NPCs are viewed
as objects that perform functions, and who just happen to not be
shaped like accordians or pencils. Ack, deja vu...

> 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.

Alice is of course picaresque, structured as many fairy tales or
myths are.  This kind of structure is the hothouse in which
non-critical characters can grow and flourish.  And when they're
well done, they become the equivalent of an action setpiece in a
film produced by Joel Silver, or the next stop-motion animated
creature in a Ray Harryhausen Sinbad film.  Now that I've
trivialized them sufficiently, let me say that I whole-heartedly
agree with your observation, if not your conclusions.

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

No, however we often don't have the luxury of populating worlds
entirely with these characters.  And I for one see no reason why the
Cheshire Cat couldn't dispense little pills that shrink and grow
you, or was that the Hooka-Smoking Caterpillar?  Or somebody else?
All I've got running through my head right now is The Jefferson
Airplane...

> 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.

I would love to see these (more of these?) in a world.  I also think
a world populated solely by them would look a lot like Pi, and give
players similar symptoms to Pi's lead character.

> 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 affectations.

Here we are both back on the same wavelength again.  The entire
thrust of this portion of my tutorial is to encourage looking at
NPCs in ways that may help to make them into something more.

> The goal is depth.

Amen.

> How about inscrutable not-quite-deterministic NPCs?

How about just not all of them?

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

I had to look that reference up.  Sorry, some small and ancient
personal baggage with J. Michael doesn't allow me the ability to
respond favorably to such references.  But I expect I see the point.

Lee

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