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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21 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.

  14. Robert on January 15, 2015 at 10:29 am

    What are your thoughts on how to encourage players to fully participate in social encounters when they are playing PCs with average or below average social attributes?

    In non-social encounters, unless there is some other factor at work, the party will leave the more difficult, technical or high-stakes tasks to the closest thing it has to a specialist. And that generally works fine.

    But I feel that social encounters should be more inclusive, and when they’re good, are relatively free-flowing. What happens when the conversation flows in a direction where it would be most natural for the half-orc with a Diplomacy check of -1 to make the proposal? What can be done to prevent the player from regretting his decision involve his character so deeply in the interACTION! as to be the one who makes the check, when he could’ve just left all the talking to the Bard with +7ish checks?

    I can think of ways to contrive situations where it’s beneficial for someone other than the party face to do some of the talking — NPCs who are biased against the party face for whatever reason, NPCs who feel particular kinship or fear towards other members of the party, splitting up the party so the party face will not always be present, combining a time pressure which multiple NPCs that need to be questioned, and so on. However, singling out the party face for penalties to neutralize his advantage is a cheat, and the other options sometimes feel burdensome or unnatural to implement.

    Basically, how do you reconcile having meaningful social ability scores with inclusive social encounters?

  15. John E on January 21, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Awesome, angry and fierce article as always. Just a small comment in bribery, cause I think maybe you dismissed your own wonderfully built structure here.

    “It just seems that once the PCs hand over the coins, the decision is all on the NPC as to whether or not the bribe is worth it. The PCs really can’t influence that decision too much… ”

    Isn’t bribery just Creating an Incentive to outweigh the Objection? I think that should be an interACTION that requires a roll. Because.. well, bribery is a touchy subject because you are actually questioning someone’s loyalty and integrity of their work and character, and is really puts it to the test. And all this for an ignoble appeal like money (self-justification is probably easier when the incentive is to avoid a war). So, while you are trying to create the incentive, you need to prevent the possibility of creating a new objection at the same time. For example, that the guard simply stops liking you and just want to prove your annoying face wrong or whatever.

    I do think bribery is solid example of something that requires an interACTION and a roll, but I don’t agree with most game-systems including bribery as its own motherf&%¤# skill. It’s merely a persuation/suggestion with an added incentive.

  16. Robert P on January 26, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Hi Angry.

    I’ve really enjoyed your posts so far and will be applying it to my next adventure. All very logical.

    What is your opinion on the following.

    How do you handle NPC’s attempting to influence the players or players trying to influence other players. Your article was very one sided on the approach since only the players are the instigators never the NPC’s.

    I’ve found that the Legend of the Five Rings RPG has a class that allows players(Or NPC’s) to learn stats or details of the subject along with creating social disadvantages. Would you recommend something like that or something that simulates spell effects on players?

  17. Trevortni on January 28, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    It just occurred to me that knowledge of InterACTION!s (drink) could be useful to the players as well, and make things more entertaining for everyone:

    Player: Are you a Guard?
    Guard: Yes I am.
    P: What are you guarding?
    G: This castle.
    P: To what end?
    G: I am to prevent anyone unauthorized from going in.
    P: So only authorized people are to be prevented from going in?
    G: No, only authorized –
    P: I interrupt the guard and start asking him confusing questions until I get him to convince himself that he’s supposed to prevent unauthorized people from NOT going in.
    DM: Roll your Sneaky Con Artist check.
    P: 17!
    G: So like I said, I am to prevent any unauthorized – hey! Get in the castle, you sneaky PC! The door’s this way!

    Guard: Wait a minute! It’s time for some Consequences!

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