Friday, June 22, 2018

What Concerns Me with NPCs

This is not a Master Class post.  It describes a tangent that came out of the last teaser I posted for the Master Class, NPCs Lie.  At the front of that post I wrote that, "role-players who must treat every encounter with excessive dramatic importance" frustrate me.  I then gave an example of a group of cotters met by the players ... leaving off the player's reaction deliberately, as the post itself is a teaser.

Forget what that reaction is.  The tangent was proposed by a comment I received from Homer2101, who had not read the full post (so it isn't relevant to this discussion).  The comment started,
"A real traveler coming upon some cotters has the benefit of about fifty million years of evolution plus a few decades' experience in local social expectations, when intuiting the correct course of action in a particular social situation. A player sitting at a game table has none of those benefits. The player sees an action (NPCs going for weapons) but she cannot reliably divine the reasoning behind it. To her the NPCs are black boxes. The same forces that cause otherwise-normal people to behave like fuckwads on the Internet, make it very difficult for players to intuit the appropriate course of action when interacting with NPCs.
"Clever players try to guess what the DM is thinking."
Homer then describes solutions that might be employed to solve the problem he identified.  That's fine.  I've tried some of them, I don't think they work, that's opinion, it's not relevant to this post either.  I answered Homer in the comments of that post, and among other things he replied with this question,
"... distilling ideas into discrete numbers has some advantages, which you are probably aware of. So What makes an NPC's relationship with the players different from combat, trade or knowledge?"

Okay.  There's the background.  I'd like to deconstruct this.

I don't accept that a real person in a real place has special intuition in problem solving that a role-player doesn't also have.  This, in fact, is the fundamental psychology behind the invention of role-playing as a therapeutic technique, one that long predates its use in gaming.  A player sitting at a game table ALSO has the benefit of evolution; not just the 50 million years of mammalian development, but centuries of experience with fictional development, theme, motivation, character and resolution.

I don't accept that only clever players try to guess what the DM is doing.  I think all players do this, with varying amounts of success.  It's a part of our human nature: guessing what other people are thinking.  Not just the DM. Everyone. It is what we do when we interact.  It is what the reader is doing while reading these words: "What is Alexis thinking?  What is he trying to get across?"  Our ability to do this with anybody we hear or read is not, I think, a special element of what clever players do.  Clever players are possibly better at it.  Or read another way, clever players consciously do something that everyone else does habitually.

Is that superior?  Or is that a way of overthinking?  My experience as a DM is that players who push to circumvent my thoughts by guessing ahead of me are usually a very large problem in game play.  This is part of the issue I proposed at the start: that savvy players treat every episode of NPC interaction as HUGELY important ... largely because they take the position that if the DM put this cotter's village in front of us, it must ~ MUST ~ mean something.

If it doesn't, all that DM's mind guessing will likely find a plan where there is no plan.  And that is a problem.  In my game, I'm likely to put a cotter's village in front of the party, because they've chosen to visit a place that would logically have a cotter's village.  And that is my thinking.  Like saying, if you're in a neighborhood with homes, there's probably a convenience store.  The convenience store isn't relevant to what's going on with the game.  No one at the convenience store has information for the party.  It is a convenience store.  And that's all.

I can create parts of my world all night long that way, without anything having "meaning," because my world is a sandbox.  Not a pre-made adventure, with NPC's waiting in a Truman Show manner, ready to play their part when the players walk by.  I'm good with my world being that way.  That's fine with me.  That's how the real world works.  No one at the local convenience store cares who or what you are, or what your plans are, or what adventure you're on.  It is up to you, the player, to show how what matters to you needs to matter to them.

If you won't do that, or can't do that, they don't care.

What makes an NPC's relationship different from combat, trade or knowledge?  The latter three are game metrics ~ performance measures of a player's activity or performance, at something the player attempts to achieve or succeed at.  Combat is a metric that measures the player's success at surviving battle.  Trade is a metric that compares the player's wealth with what the player can buy.  Knowledge is a metric that defines the player's performance at knowing things, both abstract and concrete.

The NPC is a not a metric.  The NPC's relationship with the player CAN be treated as a metric; gawd knows, I've tried to do that.  But a relationship is a correlation of statistical dependencies and associations, some of which are causal, some of which are reactive, but mixed in with motivations that might come from anywhere.  Relationships are not measurements.  Some might feel that they can be measured, but they themselves are not, like combat, a method OF measurement.

What the DM is thinking in creating an NPC might be, hell, anything.  We're just used to thinking that we can guess what an NPC thinks because the endless stream of modular adventures that have been thrust into the culture all have that Truman stank connected with them.

The NPC exists because the player exists.  This is, we have been told, the ONLY reason the NPC exists.  And in that argument, the NPC does seem like a metric.  It allows the clever player the fundamental a priori argument that I've already stated: since this NPC exists, it must therefore serve the player.  I have to figure out what that is.

But this is actually bullshit.  If I don't accept the premise as a DM, you as player have no leg to stand on.  And I don't accept the premise.  The NPC does not exist to serve the player.

Now, in recent building block posts, I have written that the NPC ought to provide a service for the player.  This is true.  The convenience store provides a service. You can buy things there.  This does not mean the convenience store serves you, as pawn in your life's game, as the old man who approaches the party does in a typical store-bought game adventure.

So.  I'm not very concerned about the NPC's relationship to the player. The player has to create and build that relationship. I only supply the NPC ~ and the NPC's motivations might be anything.  Literally anything.  How many people exist in the world, and what is the number of their collective motivations?

I'm not very concerned with the players taking the appropriate course of action.  There is no appropriate choice.  There is no inappropriate choice.  I'm not frustrated by players who don't take the appropriate course.  I'm frustrated by players who treat every encounter as though there is one.

I'm not concerned about clever players who try to guess what I'm thinking ... except that they keep thinking that I'm thinking something that I'm not.  Or worse, that I'm thinking what I will never, ever think ... that this NPC exists to serve the player.  If clever players would open up their minds and actually consider what I might be thinking ... they'd learn to be less concerned with that, and more concerned with addressing what's happening.

What's happening is much more interesting and concrete than what might be happening.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

Bringing up The Truman Show is appropriate for another reason you've pointed out in previous posts: Truman is safe. Just as Truman doesn't have to worry about being out of a job, or having no one to drink beer with, many "adventurers" don't have to worry about running out of carrying capacity, food, or spells... just so long as they don't try to go outside of the boundaries set by the almighty Dungeon Master, Christof.

And yet, plenty of players seem to actually prefer this. Even in the real world, there would be plenty of people who would gladly live in Seahaven Island, or the Matrix, or what have you. Of course, that story wouldn't be very interesting or exciting except to the participant; and even then, it would only sustain their interest so long as they didn't get bored of winning all the time.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Perhaps, the reason why most campaigns only last a few sessions?