Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Possible and Unpossible: Using Objections and Incentives

So, you have an Objection (and maybe an Incentive) for the NPC. And a player has finally managed to spit out an Intention and an Approach. And now, it is time to decide whether the InterACTION! can actually work. This is shockingly easy.

In order for an InterACTION! to have any chance to succeed, it really must do one of three things:

  • Overcome an Objection
  • Appeal to an Incentive
  • Create an Incentive

If you think about, it makes perfect sense. After all, why would I say things that don’t make sense. QED. But if that is not proof enough for you, think about it this way: ff someone has a reason to want to not help you, and you get rid of that reason, the person will help. Likewise, if the person already feels inclined to help you, and you strengthen that feeling, that will tip the scale and they’ll help. Finally, if the person has no reason to help you, and you provide them with a good reason, they will help you. For a single InterACTION!, that’s all it takes. One of those three things. When we build more complex scenes and encounters, we’ll revisit these strategies and add a layer of complexity.

So, when the player finally provides an Approach, you have to decide if it does one of those three things. If it does, it is worth resolving. If it doesn’t, it cannot get the party anywhere. I know some DMs will balk at that idea. But these same DMs are okay telling a player that they cannot go west if the only exits to the room are to the north, south, and east. These same DMs wouldn’t allow a fighter to kill an ogre with a purple nurple or a wedgie. Like any other scene in the game, the players have to choose effective actions within the context of the scene or else there is no role-playing because there are no rational decisons. There is just rolling dice.

Let’s look at an example: suppose there is a guard guarding the crime scene where the elvish embassador was murdered. The guard has been ordered not to let any unauthorized people inside. The guard’s Objection is that he doesn’t want to get in trouble with his superiors. However, the guard is scared that, if the crime goes unsolved, hostilities will reopen with the elves and he’ll end up on a battlefield. That is his Incentive. Then, one of the PCs, a level 3 human unauthorized person, shows up.

Guard: “Halt! Authorized people only!”
PC: “Stand aside you fool. I’m authorized by the Duke himself and if you don’t let me in there will be hell to pay!”

In this case, the PC (who may be lying or telling the truth) is Overcoming the Guard’s Objection. The guard doesn’t want to get into trouble. But he won’t get into trouble if he let’s authorized people in. In fact, he might get into trouble if he doesn’t let authorized people in. This InterACTION! CAN SUCCEED!

Guard: “Halt! Authorized people only!”
PC: “Please, I just need to come in for a moment. I actually work for the elves and I’m trying to prove to them that this murder wasn’t sanctioned by the Duke and we’re doing everything to stop it. I want to prevent this from turning into a war! I’ll be gone before you know it.”

In this case, the PC is Appealing to an Incentive. The guard wants to avoid a war for fear of being assigned to the front and the PC is trying to convince the guard that he wants to prevent the war. This InterACTION! CAN SUCCEED!

Guard: “Halt! Authorized people only!”
PC: “Please. Something terrible has happened here and I’m an agent of Bahamut, the God of Justice. I need to make sure the guilty party doesn’t escape to kill again. Justice and right must be served.”

Here, the PC is not Overcoming an Objection or Appealing to an Incentive. Instead, he seems to be appealing to the guard’s sense of justice and the greater good. In other words, the PC is Creating a New Incentive. As the DM, you now have to decide if that new incentive is one that the guard will actually accept. You have to use your best judgment, based on what you know of the guard. I can’t tell you how to decide. Ultimately, YOU have to run your game.

But I’ll tell you that I tend to be reasonably open to any new incentive that is consistent with the NPC and that shows that the player is giving the situation some thought. For example, I don’t think the guard is a bad guy. I think he probably does have some sense of the greater good and justice. His motives are primarily about fear for himself, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a good person. And I can see the logic the player is using: “the guy is a guard, he’d probably care about justice and he might respect Bahamut.” You might rule differently. You might decide the guard is too afraid of getting in trouble and won’t risk himself to do the right thing for a stranger.

For that matter, you might interpret the whole scene differently. You might decide that the PC is actually Appealing to the same War Prevention Incentive as before. After all, if the crime is solved and justice is served, the elves can be placated. That is fine too. There is no right way or wrong way to deal with this, provided you are consistent in your approach. I can’t tell you how to answer all of these questions, but I can help you figure out what questions to ask in the first place.

A Digression: Costs, Prices, Bribes, and Motherf$%&ing Bartering

Sometimes, the only objection an NPC has is that the cooperation will cost them something or require them to take a risk. Technically, buying a sword from a blacksmith is an interACTION! in that the NPC has a reason not to provide the PCs with a sword: it cost him time and money to make it. The act of paying for the sword overcomes that objection.

Price as an objection in an RPG has two problems. First, if you pay the price, there is no uncertainty in the outcome. Once you hand over the gold, the NPC has no further objection. There really is nothing to roll. Second, the disparity between a reasonable price and the amount of gold PCs are usually carrying around means that most non-adventuring NPCs will let their help go relatively cheaply. Still, some DMs will either artificially inflate prices for no logical reason or else force the players to roll to see if the NPC accepts the price. That’s fine in some cases, but most of the time, it doesn’t work. It’s just strange and artificial. And stupid.

And then there is negotiation and barter. Motherf$&%ing barter. Thanks Pawn Stars dips$^%s for making this look like a fun game to play. Look, people: barter in any non-modern, non-real RPG DOESN’T WORK! Don’t play it out. Don’t try to make an extended scene out of barter. 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. None of those exist in an RPG. So, neither the DM nor the PC can really figure out what is a “fair” price and how much variation someone might reasonably accept in that “fair price.” If you must do barter, make it a single die roll. Maybe an opposed check between the PCs and the NPC. Whoever succeeds adjusts the “fair price” by 10% or something.

Apart from barter, when it comes to costs and prices and money changing hands, don’t try to nitpick it too much. If you want an actual challenge, do not make it about the price. Make sure the NPC has some other objection, a reason not to want to do business with the PCs. And let the PCs overcome that. Alternatively, you can create a situation where the NPC has a price and the PCs can overcome that price with a persuasive argument. You can even do both at once, creating a short (two action) encounter wherein the PCs first try to get the NPC to deal with them at all and then can try to knock the price down to a discount or to nothing.

Players: We need to take your horse!
Farmer: No! I love that horse! I birthed it and raised it! I couldn’t part with it!
Players: Please! We need to get to the next town as quickly as possible. Disaster is coming and many people will die! We’ll take good care of your horse, but innocent lives are on the line!
Farmer: Well… okay, but I will need ten gold to get a new horse.
Players: Lives are on the line and you want to quibble over coin? I had heard the people of this village were upstanding, gods-fearing people. But this makes me question that.
Farmer: Okay, okay… take the horse. Be good to her, though.

When it comes to bribes, treat a bribe like you would any other action. Decide whether the NPC would really accept a bribe. If so, don’t bother quibbling over the amount unless it is truly trivial. Just accept it and allow it to work. I personally prefer not to roll see if a bribe works. 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, though a good scene COULD be built around convincing someone how much they need the bribe if they are wavering. Those are the exception though, not the rule. I’m not willing to die on that hill, though, so just use your best judgment.

Sometimes, the PCs will offer a ridiculously expensive bribe. Offering a laborer ten gold in D&D 3E is approximately the same as offering someone about 14 weeks of pay. And you, as the DM, are on your honor to do two things. First, warn them that that is a HUGE amount of money and they could probably get the same result from a single gold (because you represent everything the PCs know about the world and letting them make mistakes like that is being a d$^%bag DM). Second, after you talk them down to “reasonable,” be realistic and consistent. That is, if they offer a huge amount of money to an NPC, most NPCs without other objections will give in as soon as they see the gold. A massive bribe to the right NPC is an “I win” button. You can piss and moan about letting the PCs automatically succeed (or buy success), but in the end, it is your own stupid fault for setting up an encounter with the depth and complexity of buying a soda from a vending machine and hoping to get a great encounter out of it.

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20 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?

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