TMC: Daedalian Musing – (N)PCs

by Delphine Lynx

This represents bits of a train of thought I’ve wanted to explore for some time now. As always, some of the ideas presented may not be popularly accepted, valid, or both.

“All gods are homemade, and it is we who pull their strings, and so, give them the power to pull ours.”

The idea of an Immortal with mortal characters tends to provoke a strong reaction from most people, be it a knee jerk rejection, or one less bitter in its intention. Surely, the reasons for this are apparent – and yet, as with anything else which seems so cut and dry, it’s hard to accept at face value. If these reasons were so apparent and obvious, why is it that they are never articulated in as concise a manner as should be possible? Whether or not they are indeed simplistic, then, the matter bears at least a cursory investigation.

Essentially, the objection to immortals with characters (referred to herein as NPCs, for simplicity’s sake, and to follow in the pencil-and-paper tradition, but not to be confused with mob-like NPCs) is that they imbalance the game. Before dealing with this, I would like to take a step back and define three broad types of NPCs, which we may look at as points of reference as the essay progresses. They are:

  • Unassisted. This is, without a doubt, the type least objectionable to most people. These are NPCs advanced just as a PC would be; no gifts, spells or other assistance are ever provided by the player acting in their immortal guise, and the character may not even be known to the other players as an NPC.
  • Stable-Assisted. Here we have a character who’s been helped in advancement by the immortal. Whether to a greater or lesser degree, this character has received spells, items or teleportation, simply on account of being a character of an immortal. Nevertheless, they do not directly effect the player base – the skills, spells and items are kept on the character, and aside from the trail of slaughtered mobs, this character does not impact the world.
  • Unstable-Assisted. Clearly the worst sort of NPC, this character has not only been helped out in the same way as the character above, but the help is then proferred to other players. What this means is that, as opposed to merely killing mobs, this character goes about helping legitimate players, giving away super-weapons, and generally corrupting any semblence of fair and balanced item distribution.

To return, then, to the stereotypical objection to immortal-run characters: They unbalance the game/world. Unfortunately for the critics, the first and second types are typically treated as being vastly different, as far as their moral and/or ethical acceptability. Most people are willing to accept an unassisted NPC far more than an assisted one, even one who keeps away from other players and provides no negative impact upon them or the world.

Unfortunately, the problem with this model is that the “unassisted” character is certainly not that at all. No matter how hard the immortal tries otherwise, their character will still have the knowledge of the player behind it – and in the case of any decent immortal, that knowledge will be extensive. As such, the character will still have better opportunities, equipment and hunting than a true PC would, to say nothing of all the quest solutions which would already be known. Certainly, then, even this is not a character who can fairly be put in the same group as a PC.

If the difference lies not purely with material assistance, then, what can be the core of the matter, the reason an “unassisted” PC is acceptable and the other two unacceptable? The solution to this lies along several possible lines. Before exploring the difference between the first two varieties, however, I would like to examine and eliminate the third from our discussion; the third being the Unstable-Assisted variety.

Unstable-Assisted NPCs fall into the ironic category of being disliked by fewer people than their less disruptive, stable cousins. The reason for this, naturally, is that their disruptiveness comes in a manner beneficial to the players. So long as you’re one of the recipients of such gifts, super weapons are never objected to. Unfortunately for them, it is clear to an outside observer that no good can come of such practices; likewise, characters not benefitting are likely to object to this behavior. As, obviously, any kind of favoritism by an immortal toward legitimate players (in a MUD with any hope of survival, in any case) is unacceptable, so, too, must be this sort of NPC.

In examining the acceptability or unacceptability of the other two, however, the lines blur more. To an impartial observer it is harder to see where the lines of fairness can be drawn. As aforementioned, two solutions to this become apparent.

  • Complete unacceptability. Though not ofted adherred to, there is a frequent tendancy to go ahead in the direction suggested by the initial discussion, banning completely any NPCs. The grounds for this are based upon a genuine understanding of the true inability ever to play an NPC on level ground with the PCs present, and this is, indeed, the only true solution insofar as eliminating a situation where players are competing on ostensibly equal terms with a character inherently superior to them.
  • The second is more complex. Relying again on the competition between PCs and NPC as the basis for any fairness, we here say that, so long as they are fairly competing, the arrangement is all right. In this regard, a Stable-Assisted character is perfectly acceptable, so long as they completely avoid player contact and therefore player competition.. And such we see is the case; players never object to NPCs built purely for testing things, etc. The reason? Because this NPC is not competing with them; it is never placed into a situation where they feel the need to equal it in any way.

Likewise, for an Unassisted character, it is acceptable to players so long as there are no gross situations of comparative knowledge. Clearly it would be inappropriate for an NPC to engage in a trivia quest, but, that aside, completing quests quietly is not a large issue (Area based quests, that is. Obviously quests run by immortals should be off limits to these characters). Admittedly it is done in fewer hours than it would be by a player who needed to figure everything out from scratch, but, after all, they did manage it in the end anyhow – it’s not as if this character has things unattainable by the masses.

Unfortunately, this also brings up a distinction between Stable and Unstable, even as regards unassisted. To what degree should these NPCs be able to disseminate knowledge? Certainly somewhat, just as other players are allowed to…. But a line must be drawn. If the NPC shows superior knowledge and exhibits it in a flaunting manner, the problem of competition returns. Again, it is vital that nothing be done which violates the sense of equality between PC and NPC. So long as the knowledge expressed is something otherwise widely known by the group it is being expressed to, there is no harm. Interestingly, knowledge dissemination takes on the same psychological role as does the item dissemination of Unstable-Assisted characters. After all, for those receiving it, there is no reason to object.

Clearly it is important to contain the playing of NPCs by immortals. But for all that, the problem is more one of injured pride than actual game alteration or imbalance – and therefore crops up to a greater or lesser extent in any environment except one in which the playing of NPCs is banned entirely. Most often, players object on the grounds of jealousy, rather than because an immortal is actually disturbing any issues of game balance. Here one falls into a player-relations matter. Though it is crucial to decide carefully on the proper stance to take, it is of no consequence from the perspective of game mechanics; though given the colossal role it will play in player retention, it is nevertheless an issue which cannot be disregarded.

(N)PCs – copyright © 2002 by Delphine Lynx – All rights reserved.

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