Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Some Advice for Playing a Role (And Then I Swear I’ll Get Back to the Juicy Bits)

First of all, when talking as an NPC, do not force it. Do not try to dress up your speech with flowery or archaic language. Don’t worry too much about anachronisms. Speak naturally. I know I just gave a thousand basement-dwelling wannabe thespians a heart attack and someone is going to scream about immersion in my comment feed, but those people are wrong. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does. If your speech doesn’t come naturally or you use words your players don’t understand, its going to ruin the scene much more than an out of place remark. I’m not saying you should refer to cars and trains and lasers in a medieval fantasy game, but don’t worry about having your medieval police inspector speak a little more like Joe Friday than Inspector Javert. It’ll get the point across and players will actually get a stronger feel for the character if they understand the character and can relate it to something. So, just be natural.

If the players say something that is unclear, do not be afraid to ask them to clarify. And you can let the NPC do the asking. After all, if you are confused, the NPC probably is too. This is the one time when you can actually ask the players direct questions through the game world and have it make sense. Take advantage of it.

Likewise, remember that if people want something, they will eventually say so. If an NPC has a price or some reason why he doesn’t want to help the party, he’ll only banter for so long before he outright says “I don’t trust you guys” or “it’ll cost you.” It is a natural habit for DMs to withhold that stuff because they like to make an InterACTION! a puzzle. But it usually ends up being an unfair and frustrating puzzle because the players can’t read minds and the conversation just sounds bizarre and unnatural. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for an NPC to be cagey (like not wanting to ask an official for a bribe), but usually, not asking for something is the quickest way to not get it.

More generally, don’t be afraid to give the players clues as to how they can wrap things up. In a combat situation, a good DM uses descriptions to communicate information about the monsters, right? A monster that dodges a blow instead of blocking it with a shield or just taking it on the armor is obviously more agile and has a good agility defense (or whatever). A monster with heavier armor is harder to penetrate than one with light armor. And so on. If you know the NPC needs a reason to trust the party or that the NPC is afraid of ratting on the crime boss, hint at those things or say them outright. It gives the party something to play off and stops them from spinning their wheels. “Why should I trust you?” “I can’t talk or I’m a dead man.” Whatever.

When you get started, it is more important to run InterACTIONS! (drinK) correctly than to worry about bringing them to life. But you can inject a bit of personality into every NPC pretty easily. Begin by practicing (away from the table) how to change your phrasing to match a specific personality trait. While you’re driving to work, take a single phrase or question, and repeat it over and over, using a different tone every time.

Neutral: “What do you want?”
Helpful: “What can I do for you?”
Curious: “what are you looking for?”
Suspicious: “What do you want from me?”
Beauracratic: “With what do you require assistance?”
Angry: “WHAT?”
Frustrated: “Yeah? What do you want?”

Obviously, typing it out doesn’t convey tone and tone is important. That’s why you have to practice. Then, during the game, you can assign an NPC a single word that defines their personality and phrasing. Each time you say something as that NPC, phrase it to match the tone you’ve chosen.

Don’t be afraid to pause and think about how to respond. You are doing a lot of mental gymnastics whenever you run an InterACTION! and players just need to f$&%ing understand that! You are acting, playing a role, trying to pace the game, trying to offer hints and clues, and watching for the inevitable true InterACTION! so you can demand dice rolls and resolve the stupid scene. Sometimes, you need a moment to think.

In real life, people use all sorts of verbal and physical cues to say “hold on, I’m thinking.” When someone asks you a question and you say, “ummm…” or “well…” or “let me see…,” those are social cues. They indicate you have heard the question and that you are now thinking about how to respond. “Please wait, loading speech file, language will come out of me in a moment.” Most people, as part of learning how to be social, learn to shut the hell up when those happen. Use that to your advantage.

When you need a moment, drop a pause indicator. “The guard thinks this over for a moment.” “The elf says ‘Hrmmmmm….’” Or just you, yourself can go, “Welllll…” either in character or out of character. Body language works too, but sometimes it is too subtle for people to pick up on. Still, breaking eye contact and looking at the ceiling will stop most players from talking for a moment, as will stroking your chin, looking down at your hands, or other “thinking” gestures. Breaking eye contact is a vital first step. It is the clue most people respond to right off the bat.

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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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