A non-player character (NPC) is a character that is controlled by the gamemaster in tabletop role-playing games. In video games and other scenarios with character representations an NPC is generally controlled by a program, not by a human.
In a traditional role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons, an NPC is controlled by the gamemaster. Non-player characters populate the fictional world of the game, and can fill any role not occupied by a player character (PC). Non-player characters might be allies, bystanders or competitors to the PCs.
NPCs vary greatly in importance, from the NPC innkeeper seen once by the player characters, to the NPC arch-nemesis who comes back time-after-time again for an entire campaign. While every inhabitant of the game's world except the PC's are NPC's, very few are given any detail by the gamemaster (GM). In fact, most of the minor ones are invented on the spot as needed—doing this well is in fact one of the hallmarks of a good GM. There is some debate about how much work a gamemaster should put into an important NPC's statistics; some players prefer to have every NPC completely defined with stats, skills, and gear, while others define only what is immediately necessary and fill in the rest as the game proceeds. There is also some discussion as to just how important fully fleshed-out NPCs are in any given RPG, but it is general consensus that the more "real" the NPCs feel, the more fun players will have interacting with them in character.
In some games and in some circumstances, a player who is without a player character of his or her own can temporarily take control of an NPC. Reasons for this vary, but often arise from the player not maintaining a PC within the group and playing the NPC for a session or from the player's PC being unable to act for some time (for example, because they are injured or in another location). Although these characters are still designed and normally controlled by the gamemaster, when players are given the opportunity to temporarily control these non-player characters it gives them another perspective on the plot of the game. Some systems, such as Nobilis, encourage this in their rules.
Many game systems have rules for characters sustaining positive allies in the form of NPC followers; hired hands, or other dependent stature to the PC. Characters may sometimes help in the design, recruitment, or development of NPCs.
In the Champions game (and related games using the Hero System), a character may have a DNPC, or "dependent non-player character". This is a character controlled by the GM, but for which the player character is responsible in some way, and who may be put in harm's way by the PC's choices.
Computer and video games
The term non-player character is also used in console and computer role-playing games to describe entities not under the direct control of players. Nearly always the connotation is that an NPC is allied with, or at least neutral toward, the player, while hostile characters are referred to as enemies, mobs or creeps. In video games, NPC is sometimes expanded as "non-playable character" or "non-player class".
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