Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Objections and Incentives: Enough Artsy Fartsy Bulls$&%! (Drink)

Eventually, a player is going to accidentally present both an intention and an approach. If you remember my article about Adjudicating Actions (callback: take a drink!), the next step is to decide if it deserves an actual resolution. Does it really, truly count as an InterACTION!? The criteria we use is:

  • Can this succeed? Can this specific approach actually lead to the player’s intention?
  • Can this fail? Can this approach somehow not lead to the player’s intention?
  • Is there some risk or cost or consequence that prevents the player from trying over and over until they succeed?

Well, InterACTIONS! are no different. We need to worry about the same steps. But, we worry about them a little differently.

Firstly, that last question is generally a moot point. In social interactions, (all of them, not just InterACTIONS!), everything each party says somehow affects the mood of the conversation and the direction it takes. Just like in combat, every action taken or not taken changes the shape of things, the way things are going to play out. So, don’t worry about it. Assume that if people are talking, everything said is going to have some kind of impact. All you have to worry about is whether things are possible or not. Strangely enough, that is where many DMs make a huge gigantic mess of their tennis game and send a ball careening at the umpire’s head.

Here is a perfect for example: the players are looking for a blacksmith so they can get some armor repaired. One player says, “I will walk over to a passer-by on the street and ask if they know where a blacksmith is.” The DM responds with “roll a Gather Street Information Diplomacy Urban Survival Charisma check.” Or something. And when I see that, I put my head through a wall. Because that DM is a f$&%wit.

Let’s be realistic: there is no reason, NONE, why the players can’t just get directions. If you stop random passers-by on the street, you’ll eventually find someone who will help you. You might have to ask two or three people, but this isn’t an InterACTION! It can’t fail. And even if it did fail, it isn’t exciting. It’s just frustrating.

But it gets worse. It seems like some DMs respond to every question a PC asks with a social skill check, no matter what the question is. “Did you see who stabbed that girl?” Roll Interrogate! “Hey, what time is it?” Roll Intimidate! Seriously. People DO THAT! And since I am not allowed to hunt down these DMs and beat them to death with a Pathfinder Core Rulebook, I am stuck just ranting about it on the internet.

Let’s make this as clear as crystal. I’m going to break out the big guns: bold face all caps: IF THE NPC HAS NO REASON TO REFUSE TO HELP THE PCS, THERE IS NO INTERACTION! DO NOT ROLL DICE!

As crazy as it sounds, in order for something to count as an InterACTION!, the NPC has to have a reason to want to NOT help the party. Why? Remember when we talked about Sources of Conflict in Four Things That Make Your Encounters Not Suck (callback)? I said that the DM does not create conflict, the DM creates reasons why a conflict could happen. I also said that a given thing is not a source of conflict. The source of conflict is the reason why the thing opposes the party. In an InterACTION!, the NPC is not the source of conflict. The reason why the NPC won’t help the party is the source of conflict. I’m going to make that obvious, too: IN AN INTERACTION! THE NPC IS NOT OBSTACLE! THE REASONS WHY THE NPC WON’T COOPERATE ARE THE OBSTACLES! THOSE ARE WHAT THE PLAYERS HAVE TO OVERCOME!

The guard is not a source of conflict. The guard’s orders not to let anyone inside the compound and his fear of getting in trouble for not following orders? Those are the sources of conflict. So any NPC who is going to play a part in an InterACTION! must have a reason to not want to help the party.

At the same time, if the NPC is ever going to help the party, they are eventually going to need a reason to want to help the party. Some NPCs start off with a reason to want to help the party, but their reason to want to not help is preventing them from helping. They are conflicted. Others have no reason to help party and the players will have to provide one. Or create one. Or overcome all the NPCs reasons to want to not help.

For simplicity, I refer to any reason an NPC has to not want to help the party as Objections. And I refer to reasons why the NPC does want to help the party as Incentives. Objections are the reasons an NPC wants to not help the party. Incentives are the reasons the NPC wants to help the party. And they can be anything. ANYTHING!

Objections: fear of getting in trouble, helping is costly, spite against the party, spite against the party’s patron, fear of danger, offended, thinks the party is up to no good, dislikes authority, dislikes strangers, religious objections, a vow or promise, protecting someone or something, and on and on and on.

Incentives: something in it for the NPC, desire to do the right thing, a vow or promise, respect for the party’s patron, inclined to respect authority, has something to prove, possibility of sexing, personal feelings toward the PCs, wants to put the PCs in their debt, unburden guilt or shame, avoiding personal harm or injury, just putting an end to the pain, and on and on and on.

Before you can run an InterACTION!, you need to have at least one Objection for the NPC. If you can’t think of one, you don’t have an InterACTION! If you want to make life easier, you can also create an Incentive. But you can also rely on your party to create Incentives.

Notice (and this is super important) that I keep saying an Objection is “a reason to want to not help.” I don’t say an Objection is “not having a reason to help.” Not having a reason to help is not the same as having a reason to not help. The first simply means the NPC feels neutral. They will help if it is convenient or not help if it is onerous and that’s it. And nothing the players can do will affect that. A reason to not help is more active. It is a thing in the NPCs brain that tells them not to cooperate. It is an actual obstacle. No matter how convenient it might be to help, the NPC has a reason not to. In order to make a real, useful InterACTION!, you need a true Objection. Something the players can attack.

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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?!!!!

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