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Thoughts on Writing BG NPCs


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#1 Sister Vigilante

Sister Vigilante

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Posted 16 August 2008 - 09:49 AM

These are just some thoughts I’ve had while working on Xan, Angelo, and hanging around the forums here. They’re stated as if they were absolutely true which of course they aren’t. I’d rather put them forward, though, as if I were some authority (which of course I’m not) and just let people make of them what they will. If you disagree, you’re probably right :)


1) Too much content is as bad as too little

An NPC mod should have at least as much content as the existing NPCs. It’s hard to avoid an NPC mod without slightly more content than the existing NPCs, who after all don’t have much unless you’re romancing them. But always remember that the mod is part of a game, and once it starts to eat up just a lot of raw space in the form of text, the game suffers—and in the event your writing is really better than Bioware’s, your writing suffers! You can just write a novel if that’s what you really want to do.

2) A good mod feels polished and streamlined

It isn’t too hard to find your way through quests. Small things like journal entries are given attention. Every option the PC is allowed to take, even if unlikely, is fleshed out. Equivalent dialogue paths have similar numbers of talks. The content isn’t all loaded in one section of the game, leaving others sparse. There are even numbers of banters with other NPCs. It doesn’t seem as if the mod author is pressuring you to take certain options. Custom items don’t have too many abilities. There are, of course, few typos or glaring grammatical faults. It’s hard to say exactly what “polished” or “streamlined” mean, but we all know when we’ve played a mod like this: that doesn’t just seem like it was produced by a mad genius of a writer, but someone who actually had our enjoyment in mind.

3) People are looking for different things in Mods

For example: I’ve seen so many projects take flak for making their NPC the “center” of the game, or at least noticeably more special than other NPCs. This is generally not a good thing, but I can easily see that a player might want their love interest to seem unique, creating a sort of classical love story in the game.

In short, this is a pitfall, but it doesn’t automatically disqualify a mod from being any good. If you think you can write a good NPC who happens to also be the son/daughter of a major deity and has half of Athkatla already in his/her debt, I might think you've got your work cut out for you, but the premise alone doesn’t make it bad (only perhaps more likely to be).

Conversely, some people just don’t like reading text and prefer mods that are as low-key as possible.

4) You can argue all day about what does and doesn’t “belong” in the game

I personally think, and if you’re playing it after all these years you might agree, that the original game produces an impression of great consistency in its characterization, general writing, design&etc. That said, pretty much anything you want to put in there, you can make a logical case for.

Baldur’s Gate contains references to everything from Monty Python to Cyrano de Bergerac. It ignores D&D rules. It breaks the fourth wall. I always thought Irenicus was a particular offender in this respect, with lines like “you warrant no villain’s exposition from me.” As for speech patterns, they’re so varied in the game that one might get the impression any bit of modern slang would fly. There are some points where the PC is given only one dialogue option, and many in which he/she is given only two.

That said, there are obviously some things that “break” the game experience. If you give your NPC a laser canon, there’s probably no way to make that work. The same goes for certain speech patterns and certain instances of in-jokery, fourth-wall breakage and even innocent references to outside D&D lore. A lot of it depends on how it’s handled, and I think you just have to go with your gut. It is important, at least for the vast majority of players, to have a mod that seems as if it belongs in the game; but debates about what doesn’t and doesn’t belong are bound to go nowhere.

5) Sometimes you have to sacrifice storytelling

Relating back to the first point, to make your mod part of the game, you can’t always fill in every detail you might like. For example, the temptation to flesh out minor characters is always strong; but in the game there are people, even those with names, whose only purpose is to step out and die—and this works. I once had a writing teacher who advised me to do this in all writing, telling me “Shakespeare was ruthless.” In fact, drama is a good place to look for these cues.

Also notice that we don’t know much about the childhood of most Bioware NPCs. That may seem like the rational place to start with a character, but in the game world, it’s far more important to know who a character is right now than to know every detail of his or her past.

6) The game world is existentially different from ours

Realizing this has a profound effect on writing an NPC. Faerunians, for example, are more or less guaranteed an afterlife, unlike us real folks who can never be sure. Accordingly Faerunian religion is different from what we might commonly think of as religiosity (and this is perhaps more true the more you know about religion). The same extends to debates about philosophy and politics, if you even want to run the risk of putting that in there.

“Existential” might sound highfalutin but it means nothing more than the basis of a character, influencing their psychology and worldview. And since a lot of mod authors are pretty smart, and like to put loads of psychology and philosophy in there, actually examining the philosophical underpinnings of the game world and their repercussions—if it doesn’t make you feel too silly—can be rewarding.

7) Conversely, if you want to write a serious mod, know when to suspend the game world

If you want to stage real human dilemmas, it sometimes means pulling someone out of the game’s world briefly into our own. A person might die permanently while, going by rules, there is a chance he or she could be raised. A cleric who’s lost his faith might do so for reasons that more resemble why a real person might. People may be motivated by prejudices or ambitions that don’t seem entirely native to the game world, but are crucial the story you’re trying to tell. Most Faerunians don’t seem to wonder if “life really has a point,” but bringing your outside perspective into the game, it’s easy to see that they might.

It is always best, I think, to try to come up with an in-game explanation for why something unusual happens; but if the story is powerful, I think you can get away with the explanation being a little flimsy. The point of fantasy is ultimately to look at potentially real situations in a different light, and sometimes it touches more closely on our world than at others.

8) Don’t insert your opinions, political, philosophical or religious, into the mod

I should actually say, don’t make your own opinions the only ones in the mod. There are few things uglier than seeing a writer’s convictions, whatever they may be, sort of peek through his writing—but it’s quite normal for strong opinions of some sort to be expressed in a story. Ideally, if two characters in a mod are having a debate (say, your NPC and a Bioware NPC), it shouldn’t be possible to tell which one of them represents the author’s opinion. You might even try (gasp!) writing a character whose convictions are radically against your own, and assigning your opinion to an appropriate Bioware NPC.

If you have the time, I really recommend the critic Bakhtin's study of Dostoyevsky's "polyphonic" novels. If you want the short version, he says the Dostoyevsky created characters with the ability to think for themselves, which doesn't sound as if it should be that revolutionary--but when you think about it...

9) Don't pick on anyone

This sort of goes with the previous point. Can’t stand that Anomen? This is actually a good thing! Once you sit down and try to start writing him fairly, in spite of disliking him, you may find that the effort produces some of your best and most surprising dialogue. The same goes for characters you find boring, to which I can attest from personal experience.

10) Good characters aren’t caricature

I saw it pointed out somewhere recently, and quite astutely, that what we’ve come to think of as the defining quirks of the Bioware NPCs (Aerie’s stuttering, Edwin’s muttered asides) hardly appear in every single one of their dialogues. If your NPC can be defined too easily by something they do, rather than what they think or feel, this may be trouble.

11) Conversely, good characters lend themselves to caricature

But yet again, this is a game world, and sometimes you have to work in broad strokes. A PC racing through the game can’t stop to appreciate every shading of a deliberately ambiguous character. When your NPC isn’t in the spotlight, it helps if they can have a sort of comic persona—like most of the existing NPCs—they can step into for a moment for one line of interjection. When the dialogue is all theirs, you can explore all the doubts and complexities they might have.

12) Anti-Mary Sues are as bad as Mary Sues

It might seem clever to create a character who goes against the grain by being as plain as mud, but this is fantasy, after all. A few unique abilities or a nifty origin set a character apart. Most importantly, a character should be who they are--not a reaction to a certain trend in the modding world.

The same goes for characters who "angst about their pasts." Whoever said this was necessarily a bad thing? The trick is to make them react uniquely and believably to a unique and believable trauma.

13) Use action text sparingly

(e.g. “NPC X glides across the floor towards you.”)

This is just a pet peeve of mine. It appeared almost nowhere in the original game and I can hardly think of any addition the game needed less. I’ve used it myself, as it seems to have become the industry standard, but it should be avoided whenever possible. Of course it's hard to avoid with flirts, but even there, the less text the better. You’d be surprised how much you can convey by dialogue when you try.

For some reason this form just lends itself to abuse. It is the hard truth that many people who can write living, witty dialogue are not so good at writing prose.

14) Especially in erotic scenes

Unless you absolutely must. But even if so, try to keep it short, the shorter the better. If I know one fundamental truth about writing it is this: fewer words are sexier. Seriously. Try it out and you’ll see what I mean.

15) But don’t. Do not. Describe the color. Of your character’s eyes

If it’s an exotic color like, I don’t know, violet-lavender, you don’t need to have that in the first place. If it’s a normal color, why are you describing it? Especially don’t describe their eye color if conveying their eye color isn’t the point of the sentence.

16) If you’re stuck for a banter idea, try changing who speaks first

I’ve been amazed at how often this works for me. Your NPC doesn’t have anything to say to NPC X? Try switching it around and seeing if NPC X has anything to say to your character.

17) Try to please a crowd, but not the crowd

There’s no shame in creating a mod you think that people might actually want to play; but if you try and cater to everyone, you’ll end up sacrificing your integrity and whatever artistic vision you might have had. If you want to see how this can destroy a good man’s soul, just look at your favorite political candidate. Trust the opinions of a few people you respect, take advice that seems especially fitting, and you should do fine.

Edited by Sister Vigilante, 16 August 2008 - 10:54 AM.

"Work while you have the light, before the darkness comes during which no one can work." --John 9:4

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It is hardly worth the effort of trying: Xan NPC - voice and ToB romance author
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