The Perfect Ten: The secret lives of NPCs

It is fun, I've decided, to overthink things in life. This is especially relevant in MMOs, where we've long since taken absolutely bizarre staples as the accepted status quo. Sure, it's all polite fiction that allows developers to merge necessary game mechanics with a veneer of credibility, but many elements of MMOs simply fall apart when put under the microscope.

Case in point, the NPC. Is there a figure in online games that more symbolizes the thin barrier between the server database and user playerbase than the non-player character? NPCs exist to fill the world with warm bodies so that places don't feel empty, yet they also exhibit no more life than a mannequin with a tape recorder strapped to its back. These cardboard cutouts of the MMO scene are either reanimated corpses struggling to remember basic quest-giving instructions, or else they're prisoners of a foul witch who has struck the entire land with a paralyzing spell.

So even though it's 2011 and you'd think that NPCs would be showing us more signs of life than swiveling slightly when we approach, I'm happy to jump in and offer my opinion as to the secret life of these figures. What makes them tick? What do they get out of helping -- and prodding -- us into action? Why don't they ever sleep or use the bathroom? Just who are these people we encounter and dismiss every day?

1. The retired bum

This NPC used to be an adventurer just like you, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (whatever that means). He wandered the world, slew hundreds of dragons in hopes that one would be carrying sneakers that fit, and accumulated a vast pile of wealth.

Now he just doesn't care. He's level 50 and retired, and whenever a tourist comes into town, he squints and then spits in disgust. He'd rather be fishing, but he long ago figured out that if he merely mentioned some nebulous "XP" as a reward, these fools would do anything he asked. "Take out my garbage... that's, er, 500 XP!" he barks. "And then kill some rats. Want to make me rat stew. There's 300 more XP in it for you, lad!"

2. The hoarder

No one ever suspects the dark secret of these vendors, nor does anyone question why these so-called "merchants" purchase any and all bits of trash, animal ears, broken swords and pungent scales of newt. Adventurers simply unload cart after cart of garbage and skip away with pockets laden with coin, feeling as though they got the better end of the bargain.

But the truth is that players have fallen into the classic trap of the hoarder NPC, the figure who simply cannot stop snatching up worthless junk and storing it in his home. It's almost impossible to walk into his abode, that's how much crap is in there, but still he spends every last penny to acquire more. He has a severe psychological problem and his friends are too scared to form an intervention.

And the worst part of this? You're enabling him.

3. The prankster

"Um, so, yeah! I have a quest for you! So this wizard... Captain... Crunch came and stole my uncle's favorite pocketwatch, and I need you to retrieve it for me. He lives on the far side of acid creek amid the soul-sucking Bog Fiends. Make sure you take lots of friends, and -- this is very important -- you cannot see Crunch if you are wearing clothes. So go naked. Very, very naked. And ignore any flash photography you might see out of the corner of your eye."

4. The lovers

They stand a mere 20 feet apart, but with their inability to move, it might as well be a million miles. While their mouths converse with the heroes who ask for directions or advice, their eyes seek each other out and whisper silently of their undying devotion to each other. Each sunrise, they imagine that this might be the day that the spell breaks and their love is consumated; each sunset, their tears fall to the ground as they go to sleep in an upright position without feeling each other's embrace.

5. The grouch

It doesn't take much to set her off. After all, you get to travel the world, collect entire wardrobes' worth of clothing, and see exotic sights while she is and always has been stuck in this one-spotlight town. She hates you to your very core, even if she doesn't show it. It burns slowly within her gut, a churning resentment of everything you are and represent. One day she will get her revenge.

You will never see it coming.

6. The turncoat

Four years ago, the dread lord Turgoth approached him with an attractive offer, one he simply could not refuse. And so, since then, he's been on the enemy's payroll, slyly directing adventurers right into deadly traps and accepting fistfuls of cash in exchange. His conscience long since dead, the turncoat knows that one day Turgoth will purify this land of all opposition and reward his faithful. On that day, this NPC will rise in power to become a raid boss, oh yes. One with three, no, FOUR distinct stages of combat!

7. The hero-worshipper

The kid looks up at you with wide eyes, drooling a bit as your armor crackles with ancient magic. While she's been playing knights and dragons with sticks and a dog in her back yard, you've been out doing the real deal. She either is ignorant or overlooks the fact that you are a mass murderer of several cultures, because you appear to embody everything she knows about true heroes. Chances are good that she will covertly follow you out of town in an attempt to become your sidekick, but she'll be eaten by a wild wolf pack instead.

8. The bartender

He's heard of fortunate bartenders in other realms, ones who run full taverns and dispense sage advice, but he's never seen that in this world. Instead, he stoops forlornly behind the bar and waits in vain for anyone to pull up a stool and unwind. Every day, the world beats him down as travelers rush in, dump frog intestines and empty flasks into his inventory, and run out without buying a single drink. It's why he's seriously considering burning down the place and collecting the insurance money.

9. The puppet master

She has a plan -- and don't you doubt it, it will be brilliant. Through the subtle art of manipulation and misdirection, she's employed armies of adventurers and sent them out to do her bidding. As a result, any opposition to her rise in power has been eliminated, forests have been chopped down to make room for her iron fortress, and nerdy animals everywhere are routinely humiliated. The best part? She doesn't even have to get her hands dirty. That's what unquestioning fools are for.

10. The teacher

He graduated from college full of energy and intensity, ready to go out and make the world a better place by shaping young minds. Years later, he's stuck in the boondocks, selling study sheets to travelers looking to learn a quick spell or two. And yet he holds out hope for the rare student who genuinely wants to sit at his feet and learn true wisdom, for on that day his life's purpose will come to fruition. Until then he bides his time and takes three months off in the summer for vacation.

Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.