Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Role-Playing vs. Roll-Playing (I F$&%ing Hate That Phrase But I Couldn’t Think of a Better One)

People endlessly debate how to deal with InterACTIONS! as if they are some strange, incomprehensible part of the game where all the rules suddenly change. I don’t know why. People are stupid. Its like this: suppose your friend got some new breed of dog. One of those strange hybrids like a cockapoo or a piddle or a rottschaund or whatever. You might ask “is it safe to pet him” or “what sort of dog is that?” You would not ask “hey, that thing is not suddenly going to distend its jaw and snake out a tentacle to strangle the life from my body, is it?” Because it is a still a f$&%ing dog. A weird-looking dog is still a dog! And InterACTIONS! are still actions! But, when we try to discuss them, we hear stupid s$&% like: “should you roll dice or just role-play it out or give random bonuses because the person took an acting class or maybe we shouldn’t roll dice at all because that isn’t really role-playing.” ARGH!

I am not going to rehash all of the arguments here. Just know that if you put all of the different ways to “handle InterACTIONS!” on a spectrum, you’ll find these two endpoints:

  • Never ever roll dice, just act out conversations naturally and whatever happens happens.
  • Roll dice for everything the PCs might say but do not allow players to speak in character because it is the character’s skill that matters, not the players.

You can go look up the actual arguments for yourself. The point is that they are all stupid. I understand some of the reasons for each, but I also understand the reasons why some people might have actually enjoyed Pacific Rim (reason: damage to key brain lobes). Just because a reason is comprehensible, that doesn’t mean it is a good reason.

Let me try to spell it out for you. When an InterACTION! begins, a player might describe what their PC says to an NPC. Something like “I’ll tell the NPC to let us in or I’ll kick his ass.” Or maybe “let us in or I’ll kick your ass.” Then, the player is going to look at you, the DM, for a response. Something like “please don’t kick my ass, I’ll let you in.” Or maybe “the NPC stands aside and let’s you in.” Or even “the NPC is unimpressed by your threats.”

So, we have a player trying to accomplish something (getting in) and describing how their character tries to do it (threatening to kick one or more asses). And the player is expecting the DM to tell him how it works out. If only we had some way of modeling that particular exchange…

It’s Adjudicating Actions you thickhead. I mean, it is exactly Adjudicating Actions. Word for word. Same motherf$&%ing step-by-step process I spent 8,000 words pounding into you!

All of that debate about how it should be handled and whether dice should be rolled and whether you give bonuses for this or that or penalties or whatever? It all completely misses the point. When the player speaks in character or describes their character’s words and actions, they are declaring an action. They are trying to accomplish a goal by doing something. That’s all it is. Of course dice should be rolled if dice need to be rolled. And of course what the PC says and how they say it should have an impact. But it is no different than swinging on a chandelier or leaping onto a horse and riding it away or swinging a battle axe into an orc’s skull. Mostly.

Now, some people like to give bonuses for exceptionally good “role-playing.” I find this to be bulls$&% for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as you’ll see when we get to encounter building, I like to give bonuses for actual, useful, meaningful things. Secondly, remember that talking in character isn’t role-playing, it is acting (I wrote an article about that too). Acting is a specific skill and involves specific talents. Some players are better, some players are worse, and some players are just uncomfortable with it. Rewarding good acting with a bonus is no different than giving someone a bonus for describing their axe swing particularly well. And if that sounds okay, remember that both of those are exactly the same as giving someone a bonus for having good penmanship on their character sheet. Or color coordinating their dice. They aren’t relevant to what’s happening in the game. They are arbitrary bonuses for things that have no real impact on the characters and the world. Moreover, they reward certain skills or talents and therefore punish the players who don’t possess them.

If you want to do it, fine. I can’t stop you. As an American, I support your right to be willfully incorrect whenever you wish. But, do you know how people say there is no right way to run a role-playing game? They are wrong. There are right ways and THIS ISN’T IT!!! (Exclamation points!)

Speaking vs. Describing: The Other Stupid Debate for Morons

Many people also get up in arms over whether it is “correct” or “preferable” for players (and the DM) to speak in the first-person, as if they were the character, or to speak in the third-person, describing what the character says. For example:

First-Person: “Hello there, innkeeper. My friends and I need a room for the night.”
Third-Person: “My character walks up to the innkeeper and tries to rent a room.”

If you couldn’t tell from the subheading, I don’t have any f$&%s to give about this particular debate either. It’s idiotic and it changes nothing. And so help me, if you mutter the word “immersive,” I will deck you. Because you don’t know what immersive means if you think that’s it.

Again, it comes down to comfort, preference, and talent. Some people like to throw themselves into the role and act as their character. Other people don’t. Neither of the examples above fails to convey the necessary information to everyone at the table. They work fine. Don’t get your panties wadded up over this!

But, here’s my advice, if you want it (and you do, or you wouldn’t be 2,000 words into this already): as a DM, learn to do both and switch back and forth. That way, your players can pick whichever way is the most comfortable for them, individually, and you can follow suit. Here is social interACTIONS! sound like at my table:

Player 1: “I tell the innkeeper we need three rooms.”
Me: The innkeeper says the inn is full. He apologizes. [Rolls Dice] You get the sense that he’s uncomfortable and might be hiding something.
Player 2: “Your stables are empty and there’s no one here in the common room. You don’t have any empty rooms? You’re lying!”
Me: “I don’t have any empty rooms for the likes of you is what I meant! I’ll be in my grave before I’ll let some elf sleep under my roof!”
Player 3: “My character finds that offensivee. He throws out a racial slur in elvish about humans and tells the rest of the party he won’t sleep here even if a room suddenly opened up.”
Me: “Go kiss a tree, skinny!”

Yep. That is pretty much what social interACTION! sounds like at my table. Renting rooms and racial eptihets. F$&%ing Shakespeare, isn’t it? But my point is that each player has their own style and comfort level. It doesn’t change the tone of the scene. Everyone knows what is going on and everyone can follow the conflict. When you get very good at it, you can even address specific players in their preferred tone. So, learn to switch back and forth and let your players pick their own styles.

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21 Responses to Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

  1. Olav on August 6, 2013 at 6:12 am

    Oh man, I would definitly buy these as a book ;-) Several copies actually and give them to other GMs I meet or (sometimes) have to play with.

  2. Red Ragged Fiend on August 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Insightful and useful article as usual. I find your articles like raisin brownies. I don’t like raisins, but I’m not about to turn down a free brownie. I’ll just pinch out the little bits that don’t agree with me.

    • TheAngryDM on August 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      Hold on just a moment… are you saying that the existence of a single idea or statement that you don’t agree with doesn’t taint the entire work? Are you saying you can judge individual ideas on their own merits? Are you saying you can get something out of a work without having to like absolutely every single word in the work? Who the hell are you and what are you doing on the Internet?! Burn the infidel!

      Seriously, thank you very much. That is the most amazing comment I’ve ever gotten. Please continue to enjoy my brownies. I like raisins, but I respect people who don’t.

      • Red Ragged Fiend on August 16, 2013 at 3:24 pm

        You’re right, as penance I’ve committed myself to 10 hours of inflammatory Youtube trolling.

    • Vinay on April 7, 2014 at 12:16 pm

      That is a totally awesome analogy, I’m going to steal that.

  3. Baron Blakley on August 13, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experience. I always have a much better sense of how all the parts of the game fit together after reading your articles. And, not brown-nosing, you’ve got a very engaging style, which helps a lot.

  4. Bjorn Stronginthearm on October 28, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    I am jealous of the players who get to play with you. Your advice is extremely helpful to a new DM.

  5. Kaijp on November 9, 2013 at 12:02 am

    Wow, I’ve been reading on this subject for a while now, but this is really some sweet tricks. Your model really focus on the important bits, is light but extremely efficient, and need little to no planning! (For real, unlike most tips that need little planning that I’ve stumbled upon in the past. Those things usually consist of nothing but a giant character sheet about useless trivia like what kind of pasta the Npc prefers most.)

    Those articles are truly masterwork, if not +2.

  6. Omen on March 8, 2014 at 12:48 am

    I just wanted to say thanks for the advice. I’m trying my hand at DMing an Urban Campaign and I am sure your advice will help a lot when I have to randomly improv some InterACTIONS!

  7. Vinay on April 7, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    I was a player in a DnD game, and we finished our story arc and disbanded a few months ago, as life started getting in the way of regular meetings. I had a thought a couple weeks ago that I could start a game up with a few friends that live close by. They’ve never played DnD so I figured I’d try my hand at DMing. I’ve never done it, so I was looking around the internet for tips. I found this article on your site, and wow it has some awesome information! I even now realize that my old DM was doing some of this (I especially remember how he changes his posture and phrasing for different NPCs). I look forward to reading your other articles. Thanks!

  8. Ben Korytkowski on July 18, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Thank you so much for posting these! Now I realize what my DM goes through! By the way, do exclamation points in the comments count for drinks?!!!!

  9. Pedro O on August 29, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    New articles, please! Thank you for your tips, they’re awsome

  10. TheDjinni on September 11, 2014 at 1:01 am

    “Bartering is based on pricing, economic forces, and a deeply ingrained sense of what things are actually worth and how much the money in your pocket can buy.”

    First, you mean haggling, I assume? Existence of coinage preempts barter.

    Second, you would think that, but haggling is really about directing the narrative towards the closing value you desire. The narrative of the conversation is composed of the bluffs and truths both sides have presented which suggest a level of knowledge on their part as to the true price of the item. The closing value is a value that both sides must accept to remain consistent with their bluffs and claims, as well as the statements of the opposing party. You don’t need to even know anything about the value of the item, you can bluff everything; it all comes down to controlling the narrative.

    For example, if you make an offer of x and the merchant replies “I’m insulted, I barely cover my costs with that”, then he’s implying that the item costs him around x to produce. That means if you offer x+10%, he’s forced to accept to remain consistent, because then you can browbeat him for expecting more than a 10% profit, then use this leverage to hint that you’re thinking of backing away from the deal because of his greed/dishonesty. This is a technique called forcing a close, where you use their words against them to propose an ultimatum.

    Of course, any canny merchant who paints himself into a corner like that too quickly is probably doing it deliberately. Maybe because his actual cost is a fraction of x, and he wants to bait you into closing at x+10% by giving you an easy way to force a close.

    Usually you let them make the first offer and then counterpropose at around 20% of it. As the customer you usually have the advantage in controlling the conversation, because while they can’t directly call you a liar (you’re the customer), you can usually dismiss their bluffs out of hand, within reason. Because of your power advantage, they try to get one of their own early by starting the negotiation with an offer of quadruple the asking price or something equally absurd so that counteroffering at anywhere near the actual cost looks crazy.

    You can totally make an InterACTION! out of haggling if you understand much of the concepts yourself.

    • TheAngryDM on September 11, 2014 at 6:38 am

      I will concede that yes, I did mean haggling, not bartering. I actually mistyped “bargaining.” But you’re conflating strategy with the goal. Haggling is rooted in the things I said and, in most reasonable cases, the only portion of the price that is haggled is the profit margin.

      That said, it still makes a s$&%ty thing to simulate in the game. Don’t bother. I mean, if you want to, you can do so. But it rarely works out the way you want it to at the game table. People just do not have the deeply ingrained understanding of the world.

  11. Bryce on September 20, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    Was there ever a follow up article on building social interactions? I wasn’t able to locate one on the site, but there is reference to it in several places in this article.

  12. Aolis on September 23, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Great article.

    How would you work Sense Motive into this? Your guard example on incentive seems to imply that they are hidden (fearing the elven attack). Can this skill be used to tease them out? Would the players always roll it at the start of each interAction?

  13. Ian on October 7, 2014 at 2:04 am

    I’m not sure how you look at this, but for me personally a dice roll is not enough by itself when we’re talking about interaction (or interACTION!). For instance, if a player decides to lie to another character and I let them roll a bluff-roll, the only thing the number that rolls out of that determines is how believable the player brings his story, not wether NPC’s actually believe it. For instance:
    Players are covered with burnmarks and similar things after fighting a demon (this entire scenario actually happened). For some reason they don’t want anyone to know they just killed a demon in the most badass way ever and thus come up with a lie. Their lie, and I shit you not, was ‘We encountered a bear with a fire-penis’. Now, let me assure you, my setting does contain bears, but none of them has a flaming phalus. Their roll, however, was a natural twenty.
    The result was that they brought their lie in a very convincing way, but the lie itself is ludicrous. Thus:
    The naïve Patriarch of the Grand Cathedral was more worried about their wounds than their obious lies and only realised later on that their story might not hold too much truth, but by then too much time had passed to bring it up again.
    The sly politician didn’t believe them at all, but realized that they would not tell him the truth. Furthermore, from the convincing way they brought this story he concluded that the only thing that might happen if he would ask more questions was that they told another convincing lie which WOULD be believable, and he’d rather be sure that they are lying but not know the truth that think he knows the truth but actually fall for their next lie.
    The head of the city guard wanted to interrogate them further but was stopped by his boss, aforementioned politician for aforementioned reasons.

    So there you have it. Maybe my way was not the best way to handle this, but this was from my very first time DMing and I was a bit taken aback by players actually succeeding a bluff check on a lie like this, so this is what I came up with. Hopefully in other scenario’s it can be useful and make a bit more sense than it did this time.

  14. Robert on January 15, 2015 at 10:29 am

    What are your thoughts on how to encourage players to fully participate in social encounters when they are playing PCs with average or below average social attributes?

    In non-social encounters, unless there is some other factor at work, the party will leave the more difficult, technical or high-stakes tasks to the closest thing it has to a specialist. And that generally works fine.

    But I feel that social encounters should be more inclusive, and when they’re good, are relatively free-flowing. What happens when the conversation flows in a direction where it would be most natural for the half-orc with a Diplomacy check of -1 to make the proposal? What can be done to prevent the player from regretting his decision involve his character so deeply in the interACTION! as to be the one who makes the check, when he could’ve just left all the talking to the Bard with +7ish checks?

    I can think of ways to contrive situations where it’s beneficial for someone other than the party face to do some of the talking — NPCs who are biased against the party face for whatever reason, NPCs who feel particular kinship or fear towards other members of the party, splitting up the party so the party face will not always be present, combining a time pressure which multiple NPCs that need to be questioned, and so on. However, singling out the party face for penalties to neutralize his advantage is a cheat, and the other options sometimes feel burdensome or unnatural to implement.

    Basically, how do you reconcile having meaningful social ability scores with inclusive social encounters?

  15. John E on January 21, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Awesome, angry and fierce article as always. Just a small comment in bribery, cause I think maybe you dismissed your own wonderfully built structure here.

    “It just seems that once the PCs hand over the coins, the decision is all on the NPC as to whether or not the bribe is worth it. The PCs really can’t influence that decision too much… ”

    Isn’t bribery just Creating an Incentive to outweigh the Objection? I think that should be an interACTION that requires a roll. Because.. well, bribery is a touchy subject because you are actually questioning someone’s loyalty and integrity of their work and character, and is really puts it to the test. And all this for an ignoble appeal like money (self-justification is probably easier when the incentive is to avoid a war). So, while you are trying to create the incentive, you need to prevent the possibility of creating a new objection at the same time. For example, that the guard simply stops liking you and just want to prove your annoying face wrong or whatever.

    I do think bribery is solid example of something that requires an interACTION and a roll, but I don’t agree with most game-systems including bribery as its own motherf&%¤# skill. It’s merely a persuation/suggestion with an added incentive.

  16. Robert P on January 26, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Hi Angry.

    I’ve really enjoyed your posts so far and will be applying it to my next adventure. All very logical.

    What is your opinion on the following.

    How do you handle NPC’s attempting to influence the players or players trying to influence other players. Your article was very one sided on the approach since only the players are the instigators never the NPC’s.

    I’ve found that the Legend of the Five Rings RPG has a class that allows players(Or NPC’s) to learn stats or details of the subject along with creating social disadvantages. Would you recommend something like that or something that simulates spell effects on players?

  17. Trevortni on January 28, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    It just occurred to me that knowledge of InterACTION!s (drink) could be useful to the players as well, and make things more entertaining for everyone:

    Player: Are you a Guard?
    Guard: Yes I am.
    P: What are you guarding?
    G: This castle.
    P: To what end?
    G: I am to prevent anyone unauthorized from going in.
    P: So only authorized people are to be prevented from going in?
    G: No, only authorized –
    P: I interrupt the guard and start asking him confusing questions until I get him to convince himself that he’s supposed to prevent unauthorized people from NOT going in.
    DM: Roll your Sneaky Con Artist check.
    P: 17!
    G: So like I said, I am to prevent any unauthorized – hey! Get in the castle, you sneaky PC! The door’s this way!

    Guard: Wait a minute! It’s time for some Consequences!

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