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NOTE: Survivor NPCs aren't in the game at the moment. If you hear gunshots, planes, or helicopters, that's just the metagame messing with you.
A NPC, or non-player character is any character within the game that is not controlled by the player. This includes zombies and other survivors.
In the upcoming release, the NPCs (both infected and non-infected) will be potentially improved.
Survivors are able to team up with both the player and other survivors. The player can request a human to team up, he may answer positively or negatively, based on the player's attitude and the NPCs personality this may end in a good relationship or it may end in a duel to death between the player and the npc (this happens if the player is aggressive towards the NPC, or the human the NPC is teamed up with).
Like the player, the survivor has to consume food and water to survive. In addition to that, survivors will scavenge buildings and fortify shelters by putting sheets on them and sometimes even by barricading them with planks. Because a survivor needs to consume resources to survive, many players consider all NPCs as "nuisances". Most survivors may also ally without a player, they will give instructions to each other and go hunt zombies together.
Survivors get the traits and professions the player also starts with, and they too, can level up skills. Survivors are also given a level of bravery; more cowardly survivors will flee from enemies while braver ones will stand and fight, despite him fighting a hopeless battle.
There are 3 attitudes of survivors: gun nuts, loners, and true-neutrals.
A gun nut is an aggressive survivor who will attack the player, zombies, and any other survivor on sight, although a warning will be given before the attack. The player can usually kill them with relative ease with the right strategy and rationalized thought. These NPCs will never spawn naturally, and only in scripted locations in story mode. They cannot join the player's team, and they cannot chat with the player.
A loner is an "initially-neutral" survivor who will spawn naturally in Knox County. Loners will not want to join the player, regardless of the attitude of the player, and any attempt to team up will end in anger in both sides. A loner that is continuously bothered with team requests will fight the player in a duel to death. Other than their team attitude, they will generally act like true-neutral survivors.
A true neutral survivor is a survivor who will team up with the player if the player has a good attitude. True neutral survivors can then be ordered by a "leader" (usually the player if the group is formed by a player). As of the 0.2.0r RC2.5, they can be ordered to "stay", "follow", or "guard". In addition to that, they will fight or flee from zombies, depending on personalities. The player can give a team NPC items, and the NPC will respond with gratitude.