Stop making bad NPCs, the guide.

  • Darken
  • 08/05/2011 04:42 AM
So lately I've been playing quite a few RPG Maker games and even professional RPGs where the typical town NPC seem to be completely useless and avoidable. It's really a shame that we've come this far and the purpose of NPCs have been lost on many. Keep in mind these do not apply to important NPCs that appear in cutscenes like villains or whatever, but rather the standard RPG town resident. This guide is mainly focused on dialogue, but some gameplay/graphic insights may creep in.


The Purpose of the Town NPC

From the beginning of console RPGs, NPCs were simply made because towns existed. It would make sense to have people living in these towns to make it a little more realistic. NPCs can also act as faces for shops, resurrection points, healing spots, save points, and other such features to the player. But when those gameplay elements are either already taken up or handled in other means you are left with the task of filling up the rest of the town with people. You know, people who you can talk to, and they say stuff to make it seem like they are in fact alive and breathing. Thing about NPCs is that their dialogue is a form of interactive writing, the player may not talk to some NPCs that you put in for external reasons. There's a weird balance they you have to keep in which to make them not essential to talk to, but still interesting or useful.

This distinction is easy to ignore, most people don't even think about it when they make the town, "it's a town so there should be people in it". But at the end of the day every town NPC that contains a conversation or dialogue box should at least fulfill one or more of these criterias:

1. Educate (teach the player certain game mechanics)
2. Expose (provide story/lore connected to the town or world)
3. Entertain (jokes, interesting things, or mini games to amuse the player)

You can combine two or all three of them or whatever, but the general idea is no NPC should be useless when interacted with. Otherwise, what's the point? Why should the player speak to the NPCs if they contribute nothing to the gameplay or experience? Don't waste the player's time. This is about as narrow as I can get when summarizing good town NPCs. So let us go into detail about these three Es.

"Did you know you can hold down X to..."

Without a doubt any game can benefit from optional hints and town NPCs are a perfect opportunity to give them. Sometimes these hints are perhaps stuff the player is simply reminded of, tips on how to deal with certain enemies, or even those little things like how to sort your items properly. If you drill all those hints in some over elaborated tutorial the player may not enjoy it as much. But when a player seeks out these helpful hints she feels rewarded for taking the time to talk to NPCs and learn on her own.

Pokemon hammers this aspect into its NPCs and it pays off wonderfully.

The NPCs giving the tips should also be in very suitable for their environment. Is there a guard wandering around the weapon shop? Have him tell the player about weapon types! This will help the player for when she is about to wonder what weapon to pick at the buy screen. A connection is drawn, thus unifying the game mechanics with the NPCs that are informing you about them. However these given tips should not only be suitable for where they are given, but WHEN they are given. Never have a starter town NPC tell you about a feature that's introduced in the 5th chapter in the game. It'll not only be useless at the time being but also forgotten by the time the information becomes useful. Keep the information concise and connected to whatever relevant obstables the player is dealing with.

One last point about the helpful NPC, make sure their hints aren't 100% necessary to complete the game. Unless you're placing them in a very controlled tutorial, keep in mind that almost all town NPCs are optional. Anything too important might be missed. The help the player recieves should improve her knowledge of the game but not so much that she relies on it.

"The empire is limiting my shipment, it's all because of that senator whatshisface!"

Basically give the player the idea on what it's like to live in the area she's in. These NPCs are very good for filling in backstory your cutscenes probably don't detail. Alternatively they can express the lore behind the world. These NPCs are probably the most realistic as they can easily talk about personal problems that relate to what's going on. People are sometimes willing to complain to anyone, especially those grouchy old men longing for the good old days! There's also the heavy addition of atmosphere, which is something I'll get into later.

Wait, this place has actual history?

In an even more traditional sense, these town NPCs are everywhere in a lot of old RPGs. The general goal is to arrive at a town, discover town's problem, fix it via dungeon or mystery solving. Golem blocking the road to the next town? Have a traveling merchant complain about it. The mayor's gone mad? The distressed daughter can be found crying on her bed about it. Everyone turned to stone? Have the... wait. Anyway you get my point. These NPCs can either provide optional lore about the game or guide the player through the story related tasks that need to be done. This is really a no brainer and largely depends on how much depth your story has or how it is told.

"You're standing on my fecal matter."

This is the most tricky NPC to handle. Not only is comedy really subjective but you're not allowed to overdo it, unless you're the guy behind fucking Earthbound.


Remember, a comical NPC shouldn't be "random" they need to have a thoughtful joke behind them. It doesn't have to make the player laugh, it can just provide light heartedness to your game. There's also providing the hero's reactions to give him/her more personality. Sometimes it doesn't even have to be funny, maybe just philosophical or something for the player herself to think about or react to.

Games like Earthbound had enough entertaining NPC dialogues to make it the whole point of the game.

It helps to have these NPCs in your games, because if your game is too serious and morbid it can dull the experience a little. Life is full of comedic moments, so it doesn't hurt to add it in your town too. However that doesn't mean you should pollute your town with NPCs that contain really random and stupid lines (unless by exception the town is some temporary weird tripped out dream area). This is likely the result of the creator being really lazy and wanting to just fill up some spots of the town by adding in inane children that say shit like "I love unicorns!" you'll see this in a lot of newbie RTP games. It's understandable, but at the same time the player will hate it.

As for NPCs that give you sidequests, minigames, forging, buyable stuff etc. these more interactive events go into the game design territory. But their worth should be conveyed well in their dialogue and looks. Don't be afraid to exagerrate it. A blacksmith who forges weapons should be obsessed with his work and invite the player to take part in the feature.

Cackling while stirring their pot, the player's perception of witches in LoZ never falters.

Anything else?

Yeah, a lot. The stuff previously mentioned are the three molds that you can bend or combine a little. But there are other things I need to explain that apply to all NPCs no matter what.

Atmosphere or Mood

When making a town It's not all about fog effects or well placed music. NPCs are very good a portraying of what it's like to be in a town. How are they doing well economically? Are they happy with their government? How do they speak, do they have any slang or interesting use of language? What activities are they doing? What are the usual professions? Do they like or hate the hero?

Midgar's Slums are filled with prostitutes, gangsters, and sleezy businessmen. You won't find the same types in the Kingdom of Zeal!

Basically every NPC in a town should FIT into their town. If there's a well dressed man in a shit hole with houses made out of dirt, there have better be a good reason (like a tourist or something). The dialogue of every NPC in the town should be affected in some way. Here's an example:

Let's say you're in a poor slum town. You decide to make an NPC that educates the player that it's a good idea to stock up on antidotes for the upcoming dungeon. You place him next the potion shop and have him say this:

That's all well and good. But it lacks immersion. Why is this guy infront of the potion shop? Why is he telling you this? Don't get too detailed with him though, just spice it up a little!

You can get the sense that this guy is a lowly hunter who got caught off guard by some of the monsters. The player is invited to speculate a little and doesn't question the helpful information given. There's also the subtle hint that the people in this town are not doing well financially if a hunter can barely afford essential tools. Anyway don't put too much atmospheric detail into the NPCs, make them detail the town's atmosphere itself. Using this to good effect will make the towns memorable.


Well... shit.

In a lot of traditional RPGs if you talked to an NPC, they would say their thing and that would be it. Later on it got more experimental (especially when less mute protagonists started showing up). Often the heroes might react, or have dialogue options available. There are so many ways you can talk to an NPC. But remember, no matter how realistic or cool the interactivity with the NPC may be, if the dialogue itself sucks, there's failure involved.

It really comes down to preference. People suggested things like overhearing conversations between NPCs, making the hero actually say hello and stuff to the NPC before it has its say, or even having the NPC have 1 out of 10 things to say randomly. But really, realism isn't too important. I personally like to have the hero usually react to the NPC's thoughts if s/he disagrees with it, or sometimes have the NPC inquire about the hero's clothing or intents. This all goes towards keeping the hero into the world. I'm not saying every RPG should strictly do this. Like I said it all comes down to preference but you should think about how NPC conversations flow, and the consistency of it between NPCs.

Last thoughts

Overall, this isn't rocket science. You're not developing characters that are important to the story, you're writing short blurbs from every day people. This isn't even a matter of powerful writing, it really comes down to giving some thought into how you entertain the player with common town entities. There are some things that go beyond just writing what the NPCs say (like what do they look like, things you can do to them) but I think I've pretty much covered the basis of an RPG town NPC. I hope this helps people.


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Guardian of the Description Thread
This is awesome just for the Planescape - Torment reference. Not that I'm saying this isn't useful in other respects, but showing how NPCs work in more professional games really make the "vanilla" NPCs that are exemplified here stand out (in a bad way) more.
NPCs can also be used to talk about secrets you can find. Talk to a NPC and learn about a sidequest cave that you might've missed with some neat loot you could use. Or initiate side quests! Ultima used their NPCs to pretty much drive the main quest. There's a lot you can do with NPCs beyond having a text box!


I find this article very useful.
An avid lover of Heartache 101
This is one of my favorite article so far. Very, very interesting. I have stopped interacting with NPCs ages ago because of botched dialogues.

I hope you'll be writing more articles soon, Darken.

darken please have my babies please baby please

This article is fantastic, dude. I've taken great pains to ensure that my NPC's are interesting and relevant, and it's always good to see someone else realize how important it is.
A good article reminding us of the importance of NPCs, bookmarked.

NPCs can also act as a source for side quests, for example in Link's Awakening this is used so effectively that you must talk to everyone to get item A to B. In my mindset, not doing is your loss as you don't get the best sword in the end. This also added a lot of immersion in the game as you got to know a lot about characters that aren't even central to the game.

Education for me is the most important thing for me. A lot of games don't use it well enough that you go to places unprepared and have to waste time replaying the same location. Maybe it's intentional on the part of developers to up the play time...

Also, the best example of NPCs IMO is Dragon Quest 4 onwards, I just love talking to NPCs in those games. DQ VI also has reactive party talk which acts as all three of your points, it takes a lot to code though. :/
Glad this is of use!

There's a lot you can do with NPCs beyond having a text box!

Yeah for sure. Though I think there's a point where you run out of interactive NPC ideas and or still need to fill the space with text box limited NPCs. This guide is pretty much aimed at that.
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
You should write more articles.
Great article. This is often what separates an interesting town from a dull one. I've seen towns with awesome mapping that looks full of life- until you start talking to NPCs.

About the expose part, I especially like it when a writer can express what's going on without spelling it out.
You should write more articles.
This is a very good article. I hate writing for NPCs with a passion and you've given me things to think about.
I just finished reading this article...and I agree, it is awesome!

I think anybody who is planning to make an RPG or write any sort of dialogue for NPC characters in any town / city / cutscenes should definitely READ THIS! This is very helpful advice, and it should be stickyed it's so damn good.

Great stuff, Darken! 50 points! :D
Resident Nonexistence
Is that last pic something from a game that's Baldur's Gate related?

As long as there isn't another "go to this place and kill this thing for no given reason what-so-ever" or "I AM ERROR"..
As long as there isn't another "go to this place and kill this thing for no given reason what-so-ever" or "I AM ERROR"..

Uh, oh. Your not goint to like what I've been cookin' up. Oh, man.
As long as there isn't another "go to this place and kill this thing for no given reason what-so-ever" or "I AM ERROR"..

Yeah, but at least you remember who Error is when you're later instructed to ask him about the tomb in the graveyard.
Guardian of the Description Thread
Is that last pic something from a game that's Baldur's Gate related?

Same (or similar) engine, different game:
This is awesome just for the Planescape - Torment reference.
This is going to help me a hell of a lot.
Thanks for the awesome article, Darken!
Hope to see more like this.
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
Good work, Darken.
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