Image by myfreakinlife and taken from www.DeviantArt.com
By Scott Bingham
Welcome back and welcome to the New Year! As the newest member to join the wizards of the Flying Pincushion I must express my thoughts on their magic. Such talent, such ability has truly been a remarkable experience to be a part of and I consider myself extremely lucky to be among their number.
For this week, our first real week of return for the magical wonderings and musings of a gamer, I would like to pick apart an aspect of table top role playing that is often overlooked and/or soon forgotten without a second thought; the NPC. Now why on earth would a non-playable character, a bot, have any sort of value when the heroes are present? What can one gain from the influence or participation of a character that isn’t even a character? They can’t be that important… Can they?
The Hunger Games gives us some very strong examples of the value that an NPC can hold over gameplay and the overall experience that our players will have. For this piece we will focus primarily on two NPC’s that really struck me as I read through the first book of the series;Cinna, KatnissEverdeen’s stylist, and Rue, the 12 year old female tribute from District 11.
Let’s begin with Cinna. After Katniss goes through the appropriately horrifying experience of being washed, scrubbed, and waxed she meets with the man who will be her stylist for the games. Now up until this point Katniss has had a very stereotypical view of the people of the Capitol. The inhabitants border on the slightly insane or obsessed when it comes to their appearance, opting for whatever look or alterations to their bodies that they view as true beauty. When she meets Cinna however his appearance is very clean and simple with only a light application of gold eye liner to accent the golden flecks found in his eyes. His quiet demeanor and natural calm appeals to Katniss and she gravitates towards Cinna as both a counselor and an anchor amidst all of the stress she is undergoing with the fast approach of the Hunger Games. Cinna’s expression of his artistic work is memorable and may even be considered to be contrary to those who have gone before him.
Just before Katniss is to enter the very arena of death she is alone with Cinna. He helps her with the outfit she’ll be wearing for the duration of the games and the two of them share a very personal and intimate moment.
“Do you want to talk, Katniss?” Cinna asks.
I shake my head but after a moment hold out my hand to him. Cinna encloses it in both of his. And this is how we sit until a pleasant female voice announces it’s time to prepare for launch.
Still clenching one of Cinna’s hands, I walk over and stand on the circular metal plate. “Remember what Haymitch said. Run, find water. The rest will follow,” he says. I nod. “And remember this. I’m not allowed to bet, but if I could, my money would be on you.”
“Truly?” I whisper.
“Truly,” says Cinna. He leans down and kisses me on the forehead. “Good luck, girl on fire.” And then a glass cylinder is lowering around me, breaking our handhold, cutting him off from me. He taps his fingers under his chin. Head high.
Now let us remember that this is an NPC. Katniss is the hero here, the player, the person who matters. And yet to her Cinna means so much more. This is a friend, a valued companion, an embodiment of trust and strength. Cinna’s quiet calm and ease of mind has helped to bring peace to Katniss despite standing alone before the unforgiving nightmare that is the Hunger Games. And in that moment when in Catching Fire Katniss is to enter the arena once more we mourn with her when Cinna is attacked and dragged away by Peacekeepers. Katniss does not forget Cinna and nor do we. There’s value in that.
On to Rue. In The Hunger Games Rue is described as small, quiet, and quick. When Katniss looks upon this tiny tribute from District 11 she sees her own young sister Primrose for whom she volunteered to replace in the Hunger Games. Rue is clever and resourceful despite her youth and warns Katniss of a nest of tracker jackers that our hero effectively drops on the heads of the Careers. She again comes to the aid of Katniss when they ally themselves together and Rue helps to heal Katniss’s stings from that same attack. Seeking to even the playing fieldKatniss and Rue come up with a plan to destroy the Careers’ food supply and the ensuing display of pyrotechnics is indefinitely a well-played skill check on the part of Katniss.
As Katniss returns to the forest in search of Rue she hears the screams of a child. Running through the woods she finds the tribute of District 11 trapped in a net just before a spear wielded by another tribute pierces the small girl’s body. Katniss doesn’t even hesitate to bring the boy down and she rushes to the aid of Rue but it’s too late. Rue is dying and in her last moments asks Katniss to sing for her.
Throughout her short lived friendship with Rue Katniss felt the desire to safeguard those who stand in need. It’s the very reason Katniss volunteered in the first place to protect her younger sister from the horrors of the games. As Katniss sits next to the still body of Rue she reflects upon something Peeta had said earlier.
Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof. “Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to . . . to show the Capital they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” And for the first time, I understand what he means.
In an effort to strike a blow against the Capitol, to make them feel responsible for the death of Rue, Katniss gathers nearby wildflowers and wreaths Rue’s body in them to show them that she will not be a pawn to be moved and acted upon. Her actions with this NPC leads to a riot in District 11 and moves Katniss closer to the undertones of revolution that hum quietly throughout the first book of The Hunger Games series.
The player behind KatnissEverdeen has managed to do something that I dream of and hope for with my own players. She has placed value on something that doesn’t necessarily matter in the world and displayed a certain depth of character that is nothing if not admirable. Often times in a party setting a member of said party will die and will be asked to reroll a character. How many of the other heroes mourn the loss of their companion? How does the death of a friend and ally affect their psyche or perception of their journey? Does the death of a player hold value in the eyes of others?
In the examples discussed Katniss places value in the deaths of these two non-playable characters and by doing so has displayed her own measure of value to the DM. She is not simply playing a character in a table top game; she is her character. To have such a player is a dream come true for any storyteller. There is value in our players and when they display the measure of their character we enjoy their characters that much more. Such a thing makes for a story worth telling.