The PC/NPC continuum

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This week I want to share with you some insight on the distinction between PCs and NPCs, and how this is less of a dichotomy than the actual terms suggest.

The terms Player Character and Non Player Character seem to delineate a clear division of all Characters into two groups: those played by players, and those played by storytellers (or dungeon masters, or however else your favorite game systems calls them).

Having a clear separation into two groups is appealing… However, as with all things, nothing is a simple as it appears to be. In most games, there are a few characters that are 100% Player Characters, and characters that are 100% Non Player Characters. But often you will find a few characters that are not as clearly placed into one of those boxes. And so, I would like to present to you:

The PC/NPC Continuum
PC/NPC Continuum

The PC/NPC continuum as shown here describes how much of the characters actions and thoughts are influenced by the Player, and how much by the Storyteller. The different positions are best explained with an example: Cohorts.

Cohorts in the dungeons and dragons context are characters that joins a Player Character on their adventures, often gained via the Leadership feat. The rules state that this characters is an NPC. Depending on the play style of your group, however, cohorts are treated in wildly different ways.

Second Player Character

In some player groups cohorts are treated as a second Player Character. The player whose PC has the Leadership feat will assume full control of the cohort, both in and out of battle. This allows the player to have their “main” PC sit out a mission or quest, while still joining in the action with their cohort.

Sometimes treating the cohort as a second PC leads to some awkwardness—the “main” PC having a heated discussion with the cohort—while other times it creates new and interesting ways for the player to interact with the game world from a different perspective.

Hybrid Cohort

In other groups the cohort is treated as an NPC while outside of battle, with the storyteller playing the character where necessary, while used as a PC inside of battle—often as a way to free up the storyteller to run the battle and the battle’s opponents.

Treating the cohort as an NPC outside of battle offers the storyteller a way to interact with the PCs in most situations to point out things the players might be forgetting, or to drop hints. This can lead to a situation where the storyteller and player differ in opinion on how the cohort should act—which might become an issue over time.

“Shared” Npcs

Sometimes, it is the other way around! The storyteller has an NPC or two that join the party for a while, potentially into battle. They can hand off control of the NPC to one of the players while in a combat situation—again to free up time—while controlling the NPC themselves outside of battle.

In Conclusion

As you can see, the difference between a Player Character and a Non Player Character is not a clear-cut as the terms would have you believe. Each character sits on the PC/NPC continuum. Some of them sit solidly on one end or the other, whereas other characters sit somewhere in the middle—and might shift around over time, the continuum is somewhat stretchable when the players agree with each other!

In RPGpad, we try to take into account the different ways player groups handle the PC/NPC continuum:

  • Cohorts that are practically second player characters can be handled in the system as if they are Player Characters.
  • Hybrid cohorts can be handled by creating a new player character and giving them an NPC-enabled tag, which allows their player to roleplay fully with them in the forums, but also allows storytellers to use them—which now also allows them to make dice rolls for the character.
  • And, finally, shared NPCs are supported by allowing you to add players to any NPC-enabled tag, which allows those players to use the NPC as well! And if the NPC needs a character sheet, a story teller can simply make one, and then stop playing the character, leaving the character sheet in place to make rolls for.

In the future, as we expand the communication and roleplay options on RPGpad, we will also keep an eye on potential new ways to support the PC/NPC continuum. With our goal, as always, being to allow you to organize your campaign the way you want it!

This week’s changelog is available for you, though it is rather devoid of actual changes.