Curiosity Killed the NPC

Will Hindmarch | 2 Feb 2010 11:53
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Faced with my own blown health, feeling bad for another leap to violence and starting to hate the murderous maniac my character was becoming, I loaded an earlier saved game and tried the encounter again. This time, the huckster made the first move: He shot the sheriff in the back, issued my character a quick threat and moseyed right out. Now my character wasn't just violent - he was a fool and a coward who stood and watched as a good man was gunned down before him.


As a player, I knew that the sheriff was doomed to die either way. That left me with a choice: I could reload the last save and try to kill that huckster again, or proceed from where I was with my hit points intact, the sheriff dead and that slick bastard on the loose. I chose the latter, but I despised my character for it. I hated him for getting people killed, for putting his feet in his mouth, for not being bold enough to take out true villains. It wasn't just my character that had to soak up the consequences of his actions - it was me, too. If I wasn't careful, I'd end up with a character I couldn't abide, and I had hours left to spend with this dude. It's a lesson I've learned the hard way over the years: The character it hurts the most to hate is your own.

Watching your own character develop into someone you don't like can be bittersweet ... or just plain foul. What do you do when one night's whimsy or a fleeting bit of bad attitude turns your character into a proper asshole? Where's the line between sordid, human complexity and just being a miserable jerk?

We inhabit our game characters only occasionally, and we often play games to vent, to decompress or to throw off the unhappy chaff that we accumulate between plays. Weeks might go by between visits with our characters, while in game-time only minutes have passed. Yet the choices we make during play are often so grand, so dramatic, that one evening's sour mood can steer our characters into choices that affect their identities forever. Have a bad day at school, and that afternoon your noble knight might badmouth the king to his face. Get anxious on a Saturday afternoon, and your post-apocalyptic escapee might get caught in a gray-area gunfight with the wrong men.

Old-school tabletop RPG players may have more power to dictate every nuance of their characters' personalities, but they can't rely on saved games to bail them out of sticky circumstances. Choices aren't governed by dialogue trees; every action is a chance to describe your character, both visually and dramatically. Is she the kind of wizard that relishes blasting hapless Orcs with mystic fire, or does she dish out damage with a twinge of remorse and a bit of terror at her own power? It's all in your hands, and if you succumb to a single day's errant whims, your whole character can change from one you love to play into one you love to hate - or hate to play.

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