Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Outcomes, Consequences, and Ending InterACTIONS! (If Only It Were This Easy to Escape Conversations in Real Life)

Once you’ve figured out the Intention and Approach and decided it is a real interACTION! (still drinking?), ask for a skill check based on the approach and see how that goes. It is either going to succeed or fail. Shouldn’t be any surprises there. But then you’re back on the spot. You have to decide what happens next.

Firstly, if it is a success, the PCs probably get what they wanted. Right now, we’re sticking with single interACTIONS!, but I will be looking at interACTION! encounters soon enough. Of course, you could decide that the success is not enough. Maybe it only knocks down one objection. Or maybe the NPC is conflicted rather than outright refusing to help. Decide right now whether the PCs won or if there is more to scene.

If it is a failure, you might end the scene or you might allow it to continue. But that is going to depend heavily on the consequences. Which brings us to…

Secondly, consequences. Remember, any approach the PCs take can lead to consequences, regardless of whether they succeed or fail. Of course, how those consequences manifest will depend on whether they are short term or long term aand whether PCs succeeded or failed. The MANIFESTATION of consequences varies depending on success or failure, but their EXISTENCE should not. All actions have the potential to create consequences and that is what makes choices important.

Consequences can be short-term or long-term. Short-term consequences are useful in the scene you’re running. So, if you’ve decided the scene isn’t over, you want short-term consequences. If the scene is over, you might want long-term consequences. But you need to be careful. After all, depending on the importance of the NPC and the scene, the consequences might never come up again. And that’s fine. Every action doesn’t have to break the world. As long as enough actions change the world enough for the players to notice, the players will know their choices matter. Sometimes, offending a shopkeeper or random laborer just doesn’t have any impact. That’s fine. Look, some DMs insist on making sure that everything that might have consequences somehow comes back to haunt the PCs. They call it “making failure interesting” and it is a spiral of disaster. DON’T DO IT! What it means is that nothing ever closes. The PCs make a decision and the consequences come back and they make a decision to deal with those consequences. That decision comes back and they spawn a new set of consequences dealing with the result of the previous consequences. Taken to the logical endpoint, that means the entire campaign is a series of events spawned from one decision and nothing ever gets closed, resolved, or advanced. That is s$&% DMing, and the DMs who do it scream about how wonderfully engaging their campaigns are because the players decisions affect everything! I prefer my games to go forward rather than stay mired in an extended example of the butterfly effect.

Digression aside, if the scene is going to go on, decide what the short-term consequences are of the approach the PCs took. If they lied and got caught in the lie, the NPC is probably going to start to doubt their sincerity. If they bullied the NPC, the NPC may be afraid of them, but may also be offended or may be looking to escape the conversation. Or the NPC might have called their bluff and think that the PCs are all talk and no action. If the PCs were polite or proved their good intentions, the NPC might be more cooperative or more inclined to trust them. You need to figure it out. Use your best judgment.

Short-term consequences change the current interaction. Assuming the PCs have to keep talking to the NPC (because there is more to the scene), you will have to change the NPC’s behavior to reflect that. I like to overwrite their personality/phrasing with a new personality/phrasing reflecting the change.

Informant: (helpful) “I’d sure like to help you guys, but I’m worried about what will happen to my family if people realize I’m helping you.”
Players: “You’d better help us or we’ll make sure something happens to your family!”
Die roll, failure, conversation continues, players try a different tactic.
Players: “Please. We need your help. People are dying and you’re the only one who can help us.”
Informant: (untrusting) “Why should I believe you? You threatened my family!”

See how the NPC went from helpfully saying no to saying no because he didn’t trust the party?

Short-term consequences can actually be used to assess bonuses and penalties to future interACTIONS! This is a very smart thing to do. Some DMs balk at the idea, but those are the DMs with too much baggage about how different social interACTIONS! are. Imagine, during a combat, a cleric casts a Bane spell that penalizes the enemy. How is that any different than the cleric being really polite and friendly to an untrusting NPC and getting them to lower their social defenses to the party? It is not. Don’t be an idiot. These are useful, meaningful bonuses and penalties. Not like those bulls$&% ones I mentioned earlier based on how good a thespian you are! (drink)

Long-term consequences can be active or passive. Passive consequences just mean that the NPC’s future interACTIONS! with the party are tainted (or enhanced) by the consequences. If the party is very nice to an NPC, that NPC will open future interACTIONS! in a more friendly, helpful way. I make a note of these things so I can remember them in case the PCs talk to the same NPC again someday. Beyond that, passive consequences have no impact and they might never be seen by the party. That is perfectly fine, remember?

Active long-term consequences mean the NPC takes a specific action for or against the party later on. The NPC might send the party a gift or he might spread the word among the members of his professional guild so other shopkeepers are nicer to the party. Alternatively, the NPC might badmouth the party, report their activities to the authorities or the party’s enemies, or they might hire thugs to rough up, rob, or kill the party. Such consequences might provide an advance warning that puts the party’s enemies on alert. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Just remember: if the players can’t connect the consequences to their actions in some way, they don’t f$&%ing count! If the enemy hideout is on high alert, you have to make sure the party notices it.

DM: “The Crimson Scourge gangers look like they are already ready for a fight when you burst in and immediately defend themselves! Someone must have tipped them off to expect trouble!”

Remember: if the players don’t see it, it didn’t happen! And they only see what you tell them they see! (drink, drink)

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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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