NPCs Are People Too

"crystal street" | Art by sandara. Used with permission.
One of my favourite parts of being a Dungeon Master is creating and playing the characters that the players interact with. An NPC (Non-Player Character) can be a person, creature, deity, or any other inhabitant of the world who is not represented by a player. It is part of the DM’s job to not only create a world for the player characters (PCs) to explore, but also to fill the world with living beings for them to interact with.

The nature of the game puts the PCs at the center of the story. For all the players know, the world appears to revolve around their characters. Players can become conditioned to see NPCs as either quest-givers, loot fodder, XP farms, or final bosses. The world ends up being a vehicle to carry the heroes to fame, fortune, and victory. 

I am no more special than any of them, I just happen to be the one playing me.

Very often, players are surrounded with NPCs that pop in and out of existence based on whether a player chooses to interact with them. All the shopkeepers in a market are glossed over unless a player wants to buy something. The beggar on the street is ignored unless the players think she has a quest for them, or is somehow significant to their story. Hundreds of guards can be killed and looted without a thought, but if a PC’s life is endangered, no power in the multiverse is going to keep his friends from trying to save him. Usually. If he brings snacks.

This perspective can lead to a very black-and-white view of the in-game world. The people are immediately divided into two categories upon meeting them. The first is “useful.” This NPC is identified as friendly and of use to the players in meeting their goals. The second is “enemy.” This NPC is either useless or hostile toward the players. Here is where an interesting dichotomy develops. If the NPC is useful or aligned with the player’s own goals, she is allowed to live. If the NPC is useless or set against the player’s goals, he is deemed an enemy and often attacked on sight.

As a DM, it quickly became my goal to counteract this way of seeing the world that I had created for my players. I began giving enemies back stories and families, making some allies annoying or unlikable, tallying the cost of lives in battle, and showing the players both the good and bad consequences of their actions. I tried to create a world that has depth to it, with lives and events carrying on whether or not the PCs were there. I hoped my players would learn to value life and gain a sense of a larger world that they were a part of, rather than the masters of.

Sometimes I think I treat the people in my life like most players treat NPCs.

Sometimes I think I treat the people in my life like most players treat NPCs. How often do I walk down the street and ignore everyone around me? I pass by a homeless man and pretend he is not there. I see a child slip and fall and pretend I don’t notice. A girl sits alone at the bus stop, hunched over and crying, and I tell myself she’ll be fine. I don’t know these people; they’re not my problem. If any of them had been my friends, fellow players, I would have jumped to their aid. But they weren’t, and I didn’t, because in my mind they were NPCs.

I don’t want to think of them as more than that, because that would require some action on my part. But maybe, if I thought of the people around me as I am encouraging my players to think of NPCs, I would act another way. A little more awareness of the larger world around me could mean a difference in someone’s life. A second to smile, say something kind, offer to help, or lend an ear to listen, is all it might take to let someone know that they exist and have worth in the world and I see them as a fellow PC.

Every person I encounter is the hero of their own story, with their own quests and hardships. I am no more special than any of them, I just happen to be the one playing me.

Sheela Cox

Sheela Cox

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Sheela talks to horses, loves to dance, and adores making fancy outfits. She lives with a handsome young man in her cozy home filled with books and the smell of fresh-baked cookies. (Photo by Don Nowicki)
Sheela Cox

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