When You Can't Tell Who's an NPC

Fortnite launched two new features for its battle royale game in its eleventh season, matchmaking and bots. The two features are important lessons on how players perceive status of other characters and how they can be fooled -- a lesson most game masters know is not easy to pull off in a tabletop game.


On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Bot

Fortnite's battle royale game features up to 100 participants gliding down from a floating bus onto an island to compete for equipment and resources, killing off everyone else until there is only one person standing. A storm slowly tightens around the island, ensuring the players are forced into increasingly cramped quarters. What's new this season is that Fortnite introduced skill-based play, ensuring that battle royale matches players of similar skill.

As most gamers know, it's not easy to find players of similar skill. Like D&D levels, characters (and player experience) at the lower end are easier to come by and games that challenge higher level players become increasingly scarce. So while Fortnite's system could certainly sort players by skill level, newbie-friendly games might be overwhelmed while higher level players may find only a few opponents to battle -- far less than the 100 required for game. Fortnite's answer to this is bots:
They will behave similarly to normal players and will help provide a better path for players to grow in skill. Bots will work in conjunction with the new matchmaking system, and as your skill improves, you’ll face fewer Bots. Bots will not be present in Competitive playlists.
This change is significant for a few reasons. For one, the bots look just like players. For another, the bots are not very good (as implied by the statement, "as your skill improve, you'll face fewer Bots"). But that's okay, the point of bots is to fill out the 100 player requirement so that games are more evenly matched. What's different is that bots play as if they are controlled by people. They shoot each other, they build things (thus the "fort" in "Fortnite"), and they have the same appearance of other random players. The "real" players are still out there -- usually their skins are more customized and they react differently in combat -- but they're mixed in with bots running around. Fortnite is now essentially playing itself and you're along for the ride.

The Bot Conundrum

One of the reasons Fortnite can enable this sort of bot play is because of the level of anonymity of its participants. You can turn off voice chat and never speak to your squad mates in teams, or you can just play solo. You have no evidence (other than the fact that the bots aren't very good) that an artificial intelligence is controlling other players.

When you attempt to apply this to a tabletop role-playing game, this paradigm begins to break down. I've tried scenarios in which players had to figure out who might be a doppelganger (or a charmed/possessed character, the model still applies) among PCs and NPCs. The players immediately circled the wagons around the PCs, accusing NPCs of being the impostor In essence, they thought they knew it couldn't be them, because they could see the other players controlling the characters. If there was a impostor, it had to be controlled by the game master -- who takes on the cloak of any other character in the game.

There are a few ways to get around this, and all of them require significant buy-in from the players. You can take players aside (via notes or in another room or even before the game starts) to let them know they're the impostor and have them play along. This essentially gives the player control of the impostor.

The other alternative is to not tell the player his character is a impostor. This takes away player agency and it's one of the facets of body horror that is challenging in a tabletop role-playing game where player agency is central to how the game is played. Taking away player choice can upset folks who didn't agree to do it, and of course having the player not know they're essentially a NPC is taking away their control.

A third option, used in some board games, is to not let anyone know who is the impostor until a certain condition is met (dice roll, card draw, etc.). This leaves the identity of the impostor to chance and thus can only be blamed on the luck of the draw, but is significantly harder to pull off in a complex tabletop role-playing game.

I've written previously about how anonymity affects the roles we play and Fortnite's newest innovation takes the question of who is a "real" player to new heights. But because our tabletop games thrive on the interpersonal nature of players, impostors (and the bots who manage them) will largely remain in the realm of video games for now.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Victoria Rules
A few things:

Each character, be it PC or NPC, always has its own goals and objectives - which may or may not agree with anyone else's. On top of this the party as a whole (usually) has some sort of goal or objective which may or may not agree with anyone's individual goals. If PCs have conflicting goals the players are free to play this out.

There's enough notes flying around in a lot of my sessions anyway that to pass one to tell someone their PC is cursed or a doppelganger or possessed or whatever wouldn't attract any attention at all. That said, it's a long time since I've run a doppelganger or possession scenario - nearest I've come is when evil clones of a PC suddenly appeared in several places around the region, and the party had to track them down and kill them (fortunately they had a very easy way of telling which was the real one, as he'd been feebleminded in the meantime and was in long-term care)

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