Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Parsing InterACTIONS!: Understanding What the Hell the Players Are Trying to Accomplish (And How)

I’ve talked before about Adjudicating Actions (you know, between the exclamation points and the callbacks, reading my articles would make one hell of a drinking game, huh?). All actions start with a player somehow communicating what they want to accomplish (intention) and how they want to accomplish it (approach). Social InterACTIONS! are like any other action. Take, for example, the statement: “let us in or I’ll kick your ass.” The intention is that the NPC allows the PC to enter. The approach is threatening the NPC. What about “we need three rooms for the night?” The intention is to secure three rooms. The approach is by asking for them, though offering to pay for them is implied.

Teasing out approaches is actually a little bit trickier in an InterACTION! (drink). On the surface, the action is the same every time: the PC says something. But the approach is determined by what the PC said and how the PC said it. Is what the PC said true or false? Is the PC being hostile or polite? Is the PC being insulting? Is it accidental or on purpose? Is the PC offering something or making a promise? Is there an implied promise? There is no easy list of questions to think about. Worse yet, the number of possible approaches is nearly infinite and it is hard to adjudicate infinity.

You can’t even rely on something like the list of possible skills. I can’t stress that strongly enough! It is not good enough just to fit an action into a skill! You have to define the approach in more detail! (drink, drink, drink) For instance: playing for sympathy, offering a convincing argument, and seduction all fall under the D&D definition of Diplomacy. But they are very different approaches that might elicit different responses. A greedy, evil merchant doesn’t have any sympathy (that’s what greedy and evil mean), but some convincing arguments might work and he or she might like a good sexing from a high Charisma character. Who doesn’t?

You’re just going to have to practice. Get good at figuring out how the PC is trying to convince the NPC to cooperate. I’ll make this a little easier on you in a little while, but I wanted to mention it now. Nuance is central to good InterACTION!

One way to practice is to watch a good procedural cop show that has a lot of witness interactions. When the cops have to deal with a reluctant witness, wait for them to say or do something to convince the witness to cooperate. Pause the show and try to figure out how you would describe the approach. Procedural cop shows work best because the interactions are usually InterACTIONS!, an action taken to accomplish a specific goal. Because, remember, not every interaction is an InterACTION! (three more drinks, right?)

If all else fails, ask the player how they are trying to do things. “Hey, that sounded threatening. Did you really mean to threaten the NPC?” “You don’t really work for the Duke, do you? You’re lying to the guy, aren’t you?” “It sounds like you’re promising the NPC a good sexing. Did you really mean to do that or did that wink and nudge mean something else?”

The Tennis Match that is an InterACTION! Scene (Because I’m So F$&%ing Good at Sports Metaphors)

It is almost impossible to separate out a single InterACTION! from your game. Unlike other actions, which are easy to see by themselves, a single InterACTION! is like scoring a point in tennis. Sometimes, you score on a serve. But most of the time, the point comes after a series of returns. And each one of those returns is important in how the player finally manages to score. You were expecting some comical, stupid sports analogy, weren’t you? Like calling it a home run or something! Well, I fooled you f$&%ers, didn’t I? So now the score is Love to Nothing, Angry.

What does all of that mean? It means that even if you are not running a full blown InterACTION! encounter, there is almost always going to be a scene surrounding that one true InterACTION! that resolves things. A conversation. There doesn’t have to be, but there usually is. I can say “a player will say something and that something will work like a declaration of action,” but the truth is the actual “action” may be spread out over several conversational volleys.

So, you’re going to have to play a role (in a role-playing game!? Holy s#%$!!!) (yes exclamation points in parenthetical remarks count). You have to be the NPC and banter a bit with the PCs, setting up the one return that is going to count as a real InterACTION! Think of it like this: the player has to tell you what they want to accomplish, show you how they want to accomplish it, and it has to have a chance of actually working for it to count. Those things don’t all have to come at once, though. A player can build them up over time.

DM (as Nicky the Squid): “What do you want?”
Player: “I want to know what you were doing at the docks Friday night.”
DM (as Nicky the Squid): “Yeah? What business is it of yours?”
Player: “I’m makin’ it my business. Got a problem with that?”
DM (as Nicky the Squid): “Maybe I do.”
Player: “Well then maybe we can continue this conversation downtown. And we can also talk about these watches you’re selling that I’m sure were legitimately acquired and not one of the serial numbers will have been reported stolen.”
DM: Roll an Interrogation check!
Player: “Seventeen.”
DM: “All right, all right. Geeze, it wasn’t a big deal anyway. A business associate asked me to check out…”

That was a single InterACTION! but the intention and a useful approach were spread out over several remarks. First, the player declared his intent: get Nicky to explain his presence at the docks. Then, they bantered a little bit, but the player wasn’t really adopting a useful approach. Finally, the player leveled a threat at Nicky. The DM realized that Nicky might respond to that threat. Or might not. Nicky could have said “you got nothing on me and you’re grasping for straws. I’m exercising my legitimate businessman’s right to refuse service. Get out of my pawn shop.” At that point, the DM called for a skill roll because there was now a complete InterACTION! to resolve.

And that is how most InterACTIONS! tend to flow at the table. You, the DM, enter the role of the NPC and you and the players hit the ball back and forth until the players finally put themselves in a position to score. You need to constantly watch for an attempt to score and that is when you halt the scene to resolve the InterACTION!

I could stop there, but I’d be remiss if I skipped out on trying to give some advice for playing a role. And then, I swear, we’ll get back to the juicy bits.

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17 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.

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