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.

Tags: , , ,




11 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?!!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *