When NPCs Become Heroes

  • 30 August 2021
  • Nick Jones

In the lead up to sharing on my Underlying Narrative Engine at GCAP this year, I thought it would be cool to share with all you rad developers who have supported me so far, another excerpt from my soon-to-be-released How To book on the same subject.

Much of my work is heavily influenced by my good friend and mentor, Narrative Design Extraordinaire - Jeff Gomez, of Starlight Runner Entertainment. This section in particular owes a lot to his work over on his blog, and while the adaptation of some of his ideas to the medium of game narrative design is my own, I do want to give him a big shout out and thank you for his hands-on-help with this book.

So please, enjoy a little excerpt as well as the practicalities contained within. Folklore is a genre that we all get to own, so please, feel free to incorporate whatever you want into your own design process and ignore what is not helpful for you.

So, without further ado...

Dethroning The OUTSIDE SAVIOR With Folkloric Game Design

Building a world and a player protagonist intentionally with player-to-game intimacy in mind allows us to completely reformulate how we structure quests and side quests in games, bringing them more in-line with the communal nature of folklore.

A trope particular to the fantasy RPG, but one that appears in all narrative and gameplay genres is that of the outside savior. A variation on the white savior trope, the outside savior is typified by the player character arriving in a land, community or faction foreign to their own, and meeting with some kind of leader of that society. This figure will relay to the player a massive problem their community is facing:

"Our trade route is overwhelmed by bandits!"

"Our water supply has been poisoned!"

"There’s an assassin in our midst!"

They then task the player with completing an objective or several objectives to resolve this problem for them. In the end, the player is celebrated and rewarded as a hero, before going on their way. This quest model, which derives from the Hero’s Journey structure, explored in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and popularized by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, is one which sees neither the player protagonist, nor the community they’ve helped, win. Yes, the problem has been resolved, but the protagonist continues on, forever an outsider, and the community – well... What do you think they're going to do the next time bandits appear at their gates? Or the newest evil Empire forces horrible and inhumane laws upon them?

The answer is of course, nothing.

They’ll wait and hope that the next wandering hero to pass their way is feeling generous.

When we look at it frankly, and with consideration to how such an approach cultivates a sense of tribal division, we can clearly see that this approach is rooted in colonialism and individualistic thought. It's a narcissistic force which we can negate entirely in the Player and the Pentacle model.

In previous chapters, we've laid the groundwork for the player to see the world and those in it as collectively struggling against a corrupt system, so, instead of following that same old structure of questing, why not explore one where the player can act as a catalyst rather than a chosen one or hero?

Through this approach, players provoke communities of NPCs into spontaneous self-organization using local stories to motivate, strengthen and push them as a collective into enacting lasting systemic change.


Regenerative Listening

The gameplay loop begins with the revelation of a story that holds great resonance to the NPC community affected by systemic corruption.

This story can be brought to the attention of the community via the player themselves or even before the player has arrived in their midst.

Whichever the case, this story should be expressed via authentic language and heartfelt emotion so as to create the greatest impact amongst those who hear it.

Example: The player encounters a community who highly value knowledge, history and tradition. However, the community has fallen into slavery beneath a cruel mercenary leader and his boorish army. This mercenary has forced the community into subjugation, demanding food, weapons, medicine and gold from them. For many years now, the community has lived in fear of this vast and oppressive system. However, the player brings word that the mercenary and his army have just burned to the ground one of the great libraries belonging to the community, located in the nearby mountains. Those whom the player initially informs are furious – how dare these oafs destroy such a treasure trove of information! This outrages them, and they decide enough is enough, it is time to act. But how?


The player then helps project this story across the community via various different platforms of influence within the story world. These platforms of influence can be characters within the community, social medias or public events.  

Example: As the player moves throughout the township, they meet various NPCs from all walks of life who have been negatively impacted by the mercenary group. These NPCs are non-traditional leaders – they are neither heroes nor rulers, rather, they are normal people – peasants, farmers, artists, beggars, prostitutes, merchants, etc. Through collaborating with these figureheads via small tasks or side quests (i.e. reigniting the passionate anger in an ex-soldier turned beggar, who had his family killed by the mercenaries years back, or revealing to a merchant how his business activities fund the mercenary armies), the player activates allies, who then inspire and gather factions around themselves to do battle against their oppressors.

Social Self-Organization

Through this superpositioning of story, wildly varying types of non-traditional leaders should arise as figureheads of movement. These figureheads now open up a variety of interactions for the player, where they work in collaboration for the sake of the community, pushing it as a whole past a tipping point into collective action.


The gameplay loop ends with this step, in which the community collectively takes action against whatever threat is impending on their well-being, activating lasting systemic change.

Example: With multiple factions now ready to create change, the player can now take the fight to the mercenary leader and his army. Here, the player works as a cog in each figurehead’s strategy rather than as the leader. The merchants cut of supplies to the mercenaries, causing them to grow weak with hunger. When threatened for their actions, they are protected by a small guerrilla army fronted by the ex-soldier turned beggar. As the mercenaries are increasingly struck by famine, their leader sends for local prostitutes to raise their spirits. Entering the camp, the emboldened prostitutes are able to get close to both the mercenary leader and his men, and empowered by the previous steps, they assassinate the mercenary leader and several of his top generals, causing the army to break apart and flee the village in disgrace.   

What we are creating here with this kind of gameplay loop is a non-linear decentralized and emergent movement, directed not by the player, but by the community that the player is in interaction with. By creating multiple potential figureheads within a community – more than what is required to reach the change-making step –we then have a diversity of combinations that will rewrite aspects of how that final step plays out.

To use the previous example, perhaps the player doesn’t rally the support of the local prostitutes, and so, instead of a series of assassinations putting an end to the mercenaries, famine kills them instead, or starvation causes them to raid the village, resulting in the beleaguered community fighting back with unmatched fury.

The idea being that these emergent systems, when triggered, can interact with each other, and create unique conclusions to quests, encouraging multiple play-throughs.

Emergent systems interacting with one another like this are nothing new. In Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when it rains, rocks grow slick and hard to climb, the player character’s footsteps become quieter and stealthier. Arrows, set alight by fire, will be snuffed out, and human characters not under cover, will shield their heads and run towards the nearest building. Areas with sunken terrain might flood, and certain creatures that prefer wet weather will be easier to find. This kind of weather model is a trademark of a story world where different mechanical systems within the game interact creating unpredictable and fascinating results.

What the Collective Change Gameplay Loop advocates for is using these kinds of interactions to express narrative progress through spontaneous leaderless movements inspired by folkloric storytelling.


My book, "The Player and The Pentacle: Folkloric Motifs for Narrative Design" is an extensive "how to" book on narrative design that utilizes the fascinating traditions of Indo-European folklore to build an underlying narrative engine encouraging player to protagonist intimacy and co-habitation, resulting in stronger storytelling, more immersive story worlds and evergreen transmedia franchises.

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