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Jun 09, 2007



No, (most) roleplayers are playing up to the response of other roleplayers. NPCs can never become an audience. AI is a wasted effort on that player segment.



> NPCs are PROPS!

Lol, given the Harry Potter time of this year, my first thought is of Hermione Granger's SPEW: "I no PROP!"

More seriously, isn't the charm of "playing up to the response of other roleplayers" precisely why simpler (may i say it, deterministic) behaviors is better to conquer Europe by ala a Total War? Put it this way, if one concocted an Online Total War where players acted out out the NPCs, i betchya the game would look more like Diplomacy (AH), which is fine, but that is a different game?


I think what makes this a bit difficult to discuss is that I define "roleplay" as "improvised theatre where you work on establishing a personality".

Quite often the term is used as a catch-all "play-pretend-anything" or D&D marketing term (throw in D&D-style stats and your adventure/strategy game becomes a CRPG).

We could avoid this by framing it as an issue of "immersion" rather than roleplay.

So which camp are you in, theatre or immersion or ...? (I am not teasing you, "roleplay" discussions always become rather confusing because of all the ambiguities.)


I think there are two things that play to this.

1. It's easier to project a persona on a person when they don't have very much persona; you're talking about the point before the Uncanny Valley of Character Personalities!

2. NPCs never break character. They don't attempt to force their own role-play upon you. They don't make bizarre stories entirely incongruent to the game universe ("I was there when Arthas took the Frozen Throne... I tried to stop him... but couldn't"). They don't get in the way of playing the game. Role-players, good and bad, do all of these things at one time or another.

Calling it immersion or theatre or whatever helps to maybe separate what we discuss, but at the end of the day, we're talking about whether role-players or NPCs make you feel like you are a part of a certain reality, and that you are having fun doing it. I think that we've reached a point where we can be more certain of NPCs achieving this than we can real players. As AI gets more advanced and we hit the Uncanny Valley in AI, then my feelings will swing the other way.

Syntheticist - My own blog on virtual worlds


>theatre or immersion

By way of your framing of the issue, the OP sense of roleplay would be closer to "immersion" (== "'establishing a personality'"). I'm not thrilled with mapping "roleplay" in this context back to immersion, however.

It may be quite possible to look at a Total War sim as a large machine filled with moving parts told in the manner and style of John Keegan. A game about the machinery of medieval war. A character from such a setting feels a different beast than one from an AD&D campaign in this way: such a character is on a tight-leash and is a product of its sim (the game setting and rules) more than of player inputs and improvisation.

When roleplaying becomes less about projecting "me" into the pixels than trying to empathize with Fraunce, one weird dude, is that still immersion? In any case, whoever plays Fraunce, human or machine - I want her to play him by the rules and personality of that wargame - be that by the traits or other rules, and let me imagine that weird time.


Actually NPCs are a big opportunity to create something I would like to refer to as "roleplaying reputation". In other words - getting non-roleplayers to strengthen roleplaying elements.

Example: Everquest 1, pre-Velious

A guild mate played a Troll (evil character) that was able to wander freely around Felwithe (good aligned, elven city) without getting attacked, due to massive faction increases he got from fighting orcs. This didn't result in any direct in-game benefits, but it was clearly visible to everyone else and it made him special in a similar way raiding guild members receive recognition (after all, a big part is not owning it, but showing it).

NPCs - by not attacking the character - probably create the strongest possible roleplaying element. While many roleplaying expressions get ignored by non-rolelayers, this one was one, that didn't go unnoticed.

Unfortunately this element is largely lost in most games nowadays, with factions being pretty much part of game-play progression for the mainstream due to popular direct rewards.


I'm not thrilled with mapping "roleplay" in this context back to immersion, however.

Oh, roleplay and immersion are related, but also orthogonal dimensions (independent). It sounds like your "ideals" for roleplay is more like "real theatre" than "improvised theatre", but still different.

What kind of experience would you "sell" to the users of a MMO with your type of roleplay? It sounds more like reliving a characters' life without knowing the plot than bringing a character to life (which involves negotiations setting the plot). Quite a different experience, thus justifying a need for a separate term?

Or did I get it all wrong?


Ola> Quite a different experience, thus justifying a need for a separate term?


Well it could be. Another way of looking at this distinction is as:

a.) "play with your role"
b.) "play your role"

The former is about embellishing your character (and hence role). The latter is acting out your bit as assigned by the game world (and interpreting). Now in the case of the OP, the NPC generals could not choose their verbs - those choices were mine (excepting involuntary actions - e.g. panicking in combat etc). But they have subtler influences (via traits). In that case, one might say, their roles were cookie-cutter cut.

I seem to recall a story about Peter the Great as a child having his guards act out chess games - moving by the rules under direction etc, that would be more in the spirit of b.)


For some reason, this makes me think of X-Com as well as Total War.

I'd almost break the problem into two separate pieces.

There are incredibly well-scripted, well-written, "authored" NPCs. They're not role-players, but they may engage my emotions when I play any game, including a MMOG.

But the NPCs that seem to have the quality Nate is talking about are ones who have an emergent "history" to them that results from the gameplay. I don't encounter them as obstacles or puzzles or loot-dispensers, typically: instead, they're part of my team, and at least partially under my control.

So the team members in X-Com start to become "real" to me sometimes merely because they survive, gain stats, and so on, but also because I have a memory of the distinctive things that they did and were done to them. "Oh, yeah, there was that time that Smith almost died, that was amazing..." Their personality accumulates. To a limited extent, I think pet NPCs in synthetic worlds can have this dimension to them, especially when the player can name or customize them.


Well designed NPCs big advantages over PCs in terms of immersion in that they always stay in character and don't blatantly metagame; which even the best human roleplayers are prone to doing. They can never replace a good roleplayer, but they play an important role in setting the mood.


Nate Combs: The latter is acting out your bit as assigned by the game world (and interpreting).

Ah, yes. Of course, most practical role-acting involves both, but the dinstinction is still analytically useful.

Reminds me of game-play propositions I made on mud-dev a long time ago.

  • Loss of control. There were some debates over how bad it was to tell the user how his character felt, rather than objectively stating what happend around the character. I pointed out that you could bend this to your advantage by exposing a male character to a "stunning beauty" providing lush descriptions of the characters arousal ("you feel..."), leaving the character stunned. After the encounter the game tells you that you feel like you are missing something (she stole your wallet).
  • Goal directed interaction. Mud-designers tend to argue that the player should have full control over their character, using imperatives to tell the character what to do. One alternative is to tell the character what goals to follow, thus gradually building up a personality by stating the priorities. The character will then be played by the inference-engine (e.g. prolog).

Cayle: Well designed NPCs big advantages over PCs in terms of immersion in that they always stay in character

Maybe, I dislike human NPCs in general. Unless they actually are presented as robots or animals, which their AI might be able to fake.

I do get your point, but remember that the moment another player starts to interact with the NPC it will fall out of character if the other player presents it with unexpected actions which it by nature should have responded differently to. This is a fun game to play for many players... It works best in solo-play.


Actually, this does remind me of an incident recently. I occasionally, strictly for fun, will start responding in /say to an NPC's quest dialogue. So I was doing a bit of this in the Burning Crusade areas of WoW and another PC ran up to me and started yelling, "IT'S AN NPC YOU IDIOT!!!!!"


As a game designer on Total War, mmorpg theorist, and long-time Terra Nova reader, I'm really happy to read your post. It's great to know that you find the traits system working so well, not only in terms of gameplay, but also in terms of immersion. I'll forward your article on to the person who came up with the traits system.


Its a matter of opinion what/which Roll players are supposed to play.

Seems to me that their primary purpose in life is to try to advance their skills, and like humans make money to pay their bills and buy stuff in world...they might have "jobs' which they complain about (or relish) which are quests.

Complainging about a quest in IRC is like complaining about a boss... very much in game..cause its a buy in.

Saying "aye" or "ye" or talking in a period way is what NPCs do, but they're not engaged in a real struggle, just spouting a script.

If people are hanging out talking about in world things, like how to complete a quest or whats the best sword to farm for.. they are immersed in the role and playing it actively.

If they are talking about the Dodger Giant game well thats akin to someone on a street corner in SF talking about how they took down a boss in WoW.

Now would that real life person be "out of character" for talking about what they did in a fictional (virtual) existence?

Out of character is a sign that the structure of the events in the game aren't worth talking about, or the extent which UI or learning curve forces people to talk about those things which if working easily and intuitively wouldn't be mentioned

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