Force of Nature NPCs

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“Wait, wat?” is a good way to describe our reaction this morning, when we discovered that this blog post was not actually published last week. This week we have triple checked… If you read this we succeeded where we failed last week! So, let’s get on with the actual blog post.

We’ve had a run of several more technical blog post one after the other — so this week we want to talk about a topic that is a little less technical than the previous few blog posts.

In this post I want to share an idea: The concept of “Force of Nature” non player characters.

“Force of nature” evokes images of hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. In most games, we do not recognize such phenomena’s as characters: a hurricane is not an active agent in the world, it has no motivation or agenda. We cannot take up arms to defend against it, nor can we stop it with diplomacy or bribes. A hurricane simply exists. If we happen to cross paths with one we deal with it as best we can: we prepare, when it hits we flee the area or take shelter, and finally we deal with the aftermath.

This is in stark contrast to the qualities that we normally ascribe to NPCs. Non-player characters have agency, take actions in accordance with their motivations, agenda and thoughts. They can be talked with to find common ground, fought to stop them or make them go away, and bribed to take certain actions.

However, some NPCs share characteristics with a force of nature. A force of nature NPC has a motivation and an agenda, but cannot be warded against, they cannot be defeated through combat by virtue of being superbly overpowered, and they cannot be reasoned with. They have no base of operations, no friends or family, nothing that could give your character an angle to influence them. They simply exist. If you happen to cross paths with one, you deal with it as best you can. You flee or take shelter, and you deal with the aftermath.

Some of us will recognize such an NPC either from a setting we known or a game we have played in. White Wolf in particular was fond of them and has produced several of these NPCs over their different settings, especially in their older editions. But other settings are not spared, as players of fantasy settings with very active gods can attest.

Note that most powerful NPCs are not forces of nature — most powerful NPCs in settings are just that: powerful NPCs. They might have an army to command, could be personally powerful, or just be very well connected. But they also have what can be cynically described as “weaknesses”: their agendas and motivations can be influenced via diplomacy, they like their home, they have friends, family, an organisation they belong to.

The narrative role of a force of nature is demonstrative. A force of nature shapes the world, and shows why the world is as it is — they are, sometimes literally, a representation of the underlying principles and the “way of things” in the game world.

By virtue of their existence the force of nature NPC has had an impact on the world, and everyone in it. Those in the game world have adjusted their behaviour because the force of nature exists, just as they have adjusted their behaviour to cope with the occurrence of hurricanes.

Why is the World of Darkness dark and filled with doom? Because there are elders that care not what effect they have on others as long as they reach their goals. Why are there so many adventurers in a fantasy setting? Because there are gods that chose some people above others, either directly in the case of paladins or clerics, or indirectly in the case of a wizard’s guild existing because the god of knowledge exists.

Force of nature NPCs are of such impact that they need this narrative role to work well within the larger story. A massive tornado in the background makes turns an epic battle into an even more epic battle. But that same tornado simply sucking up and destroying the player characters’ enemies is anticlimactic.

Having the tornado as too active a participant in the world robs the players of their hard-earned victory. Without care, the force of nature NPC can turn into a force that undermines the player characters’ achievements and development.

As player having your character encounter a force of nature NPC that actively works against your goals can bring with it a feeling of profound helplessness. There is little your character can do to stop them, since a force of nature cannot be fought, nor reasoned with.

That isn’t to say that there’s nothing to be done. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to simply take shelter and wait out the storm. And that might be enough. If the force of nature NPC really acts as a force of nature, they will move on after having achieved what they wanted to achieve. And what they want to achieve often has little to do with your character.

There might also be some detail or piece of information that you do not currently know of, and which will allow your character to predict what the force of nature NPC will do, perhaps even allowing your character to take advantage of their presence.

If you as a player feel that the situation is becoming unfair, or that there is simply nothing your characters can do, the best way to approach this is to bring it up to the table for OOC discussion. I have been in a few of these situations, and I have always found the other players (game master included) supportive in such situations.

As game master I found that having force of nature NPCs in your game means you walk a fine line. It is important to recognize when an NPC is a force of nature in the setting you intend to run. Their presence can significantly affect how players perceive the world and the game.

By recognizing which NPCs are forces of nature, you can play them accordingly — a hurricane has no desire to actively oppose the player characters, so why would a force of nature NPC have such a desire? Some gods, or other powers-that-be can turn into force of nature NPCs when they are too active, or if their agenda’s are too worldly.

A guideline that I follow, and that might work well for you, is that any force of nature NPC is working on their own agenda and cares little for the player characters. I play them as if a hurricane has attained agency, and simply wants to move from A to B. They will wreck the neighbourhood when passing through, but have no desire to actively oppose others, unless those others are in direct opposition to the agenda of the hurricane.

It helps immensely if the agenda of said hurricane is either clearly broadcasted, or well-known to the PCs and other NPCs — that gives the force of nature NPC a level of predictability that allows players to plan around them, or even take advantage of their presence.

And be open to discussion about the situation. If your players indicate that they would like to discuss something OOC, listen to them. Explain how you intended the situation and how you view it.

In conclusion Force of Nature NPCs are NPCs that share the qualities of normal NPCs and actual forces of nature: they are implacable, unassailable NPCs that can only be dealt with by evading them or ignoring them.

Encountering, or having, a force of nature NPC in your game is not a problem of itself. However, some care should be taken that they act like forces of nature do, otherwise they can (and often will) drag the game down.

If you like this more roleplay-oriented blog post and want to discuss the idea further, hit us up on our community forums. And as is tradition on Fridays, we have this week’s changelog ready for you!