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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10 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!

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