Tell me about your NPCs

So one thing that I think I want to know, before signing up for a larp: does it use NPCs? – and if so, how?

This is not just a question of taste, or even a question of ideology. Rather, I think the answer to it may reveal quite a bit about the ‘style’ of the larp, which won’t necessarily be apparent from other parts of the description – particularly where this design choice is a ‘well of course we do it this way’ one.

(‘Crowd of Bystanders’, by Flickr user Choo Yut Shing: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

What are NPCs?

Well, that’s a complex thing to answer. ‘Non-player characters’ arose in traditional tabletop roleplaying, where there’s a clear distinction between ‘the players’ and ‘the GM’ – so, the players play their own player characters (PCs), the GM plays everyone else (non-player characters).

In larp it isn’t so easy, because it isn’t always clear who is a ‘player’ and who isn’t (and/or, what is a ‘character’ and what isn’t). So, probably worth trying to break this down a bit, into a rough typology kind of thing. (The usual caveats about everything having exceptions should be applied.)

  • No NPCs – the only bodies inhabiting the play space, and the only human inputs into it, are those of ‘the players’. These will typically be people who’ve paid to take part in the larp experience, and who haven’t been involved in its organization.
  • Thin organizer NPCs – the organizers/facilitators have roles that allow them to inhabit the play space, but they are there mainly to respond and to help with offgame stuff, rather than taking an active role in play.
  • Active NPCs – characters who have some function in directing or driving play. Usually they are permanently in the play space, rather than coming and going like other types of NPC often do. Usually they will be played by people who have not had to pay to take part in the larp (or who have paid less). It may be kept secret from the players that these characters are actually NPCs. Not to be confused with:
  • Directed PCs – player characters whose play has been to some extent dictated by the organizers, at the expense of personal freedom (eg. head teachers at magical schools). The point where such a role has so little freedom that it becomes preferable to treat it as an active NPC instead is a matter of taste (and perhaps also of finances).
  • ‘Crew’ NPCs (or ‘monsters’) – played by people who are working for the organizers, who take on perhaps a succession of short-term NPC roles, entering the play space for a particular story purpose. (These are the ones who are ‘dehumanized’, in Jaakko Stenros’s discussion.) They usually either don’t pay, or pay less.

And then of course some larps use a mix of these.

So what does this all mean?

If I know in advance how/whether a larp uses NPCs, that tells me some things about it, I think. If it doesn’t use NPCs at all, that means that the story is going to be made from among the players — either predesigned into their characters, or emerging from their play, or some combination of those. That suggests a particular design aesthetic, and also may point to a particular ideology about player authority, and a particular philosophy of story.

Conversely if a larp uses crew NPCs, that probably means that the story is going to be managed and tweaked interactively by the organizers – deploying their forces in response to what’s happening within the larp, and/or according to a predetermined timetable of incident.

If there are directed PCs, that usually suggests hierarchical play; secret active NPCs usually means some big hidden plot; and so on.

Suppose that you’re told that a larp is set on a spaceship, with the players taking the roles of officers and troopers. If you know that everyone is a PC, that suggests one kind of larp. If the stewards are thin organizer NPCs, that suggests another kind of larp. If the captain and senior officers are active NPCs, that suggests another; and if they’re directed PCs, another again. If there are a host of ‘crew’ NPCs, that suggests a different kind of larp too.

Of course ideally people would spell out clearly what kind of larp they are running. But this isn’t really a possible task, given the lack of shared terms and assumptions about what is ‘normal’ in larp – particularly across different play cultures.

The Mixing Desk of Larp can, I think, do a great job in communicating specifics about a larp design: and it’s informative, once you know how to read it. I wonder if ‘Use of NPCs’ might be an interesting fader to add.

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