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Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Returning the Serve: How to Respond to Social InterACTIONS!

Back to tennis. One of the trickiest things a DM has to do (and one that I have never seen covered in any published DM Guide) is respond to social InterACTIONS! That is, after the dice are rolled, the outcome determined, and consequences thought about, the DM has to communicate with the players. The DM has to tell the players how it came out, end the scene, or help keep the scene going. And there is an art to it.

Ending the scene is easy enough. Either the NPC says that they will help and helps or else they say they won’t help and say, firmly, that the conversation is over. Once the scene is ended, the DM can step out of playing the character and narrate, in no uncertain terms, that the NPC is not listening.

DM: “Enough! I can’t listen to any more of these lies! Get out of my shop!”
Players: “No, look, we’re not lying! Please, just listen.”
DM: “The NPC turns back to his work. He is not even listening to you.”
Players: “I’ll go put my hand on his shoulder and turn him around…”
DM: “The NPC leaps backward, looking horrified. He threatens to scream for the guards and raises his work hammer desperately to fend you off. He isn’t going to listen. Are you willing to escalate this?”

Nothing the players do will make the NPC listen or cooperate and that is clear. They can start a new scene, attacking, kidnapping, or torturing the NPC, but that is not the same as continuing the old scene.

But, if the InterACTION! doesn’t end the scene, the DM has an obligation to provide a couple of things. Specifically, the DM’s response should:

  • Indicate whether the InterACTION! succeeded or failed.
  • Indicate why the InterACTION! is not over.
  • Provide an opening to continue the conversation.

To get started, until you’ve gotten really good at playing NPCs in character, you can simply use a very formulaic “three sentence response” and the players will probably never notice: response, reason, opening.

Responses are easy. You can just say things like “yes” or “no” or “I can’t give you my grandfather’s sword” or “I’m not telling you anything.” If all else fails, take the player’s intention and restate it.

Reasons can be a little trickier. If the InterACTION! failed, the reason why it failed is also the reason why the scene has to continue. But if the InterACTION! succeeded, you have to explain why the NPC still isn’t helping the party. In that case, the response and reason can take the form of “I want to… but…“ And the reason is usually an objection that still needs to be overcome.

Here’s an example: imagine the PCs are trying to get information about a murder from a witness. The witness wants to do the right thing but is afraid for his safety.

Player: “The victim was just an honest citizen, like you. Just trying to go about their life. Don’t you want to see the criminal brought to justice?”
DM: “Roll a Persuasion check. Oh, a success? (That’s good, but not good enough. The guy wants to help, but he is still not entirely convinced).”
DM as Witness: “I want to help, but I’m afraid I’ll be in danger if I talk.”

That sounds nice and natural coming out of just about any NPC’s mouth.

Openings are a little trickier. In real life, when we want a conversation to continue, we give the other person something to respond to. “How are you?” “I’m fine, you?” “I’m good. Did you get that problem sorted out?” Well, it is vitally important for a DM to provide those openings to keep the conversation going and to guide the players toward ways to resolve the conversation.

An opening gives the player’s something to respond to. If the action was a success and there is still something keeping the scene going, the opening should provide a way to bring the scene to a close. Sometimes, this comes as part of the reason. Other times, you need to add it on. Most openings involve the NPC outright stating either an Objection or Incentive that the party can tackle.

If the interACTION was a failure, you might withhold an opening. That is one way to make the scene more challenging. But you should usually give some sort of opening so the PCs can move toward success. Remember, if an NPC wants something, there is no advantage to the NPC in hiding what they want. It is perfectly reasonable for an NPC to draw attention to either an Incentive or an Objection. If you want to add some challenge to a scene without potentially stalling a conversation, you can use a deflection. A deflection is an opening that won’t get the party anywhere. I’ll talk more about these when building interACTION! encounters.

Consider the same example as above:

Player: “The victim was just an honest citizen, like you. Just trying to go about their life. Don’t you want to see the criminal brought to justice?”
DM: “Roll a Persuasion check. A failure, huh?”

DM as Witness (opening using objection): “I can’t help you. I’m afraid. If I talk, how can you guarantee I’ll be safe?”
DM as Witness (opening using incentive): “I can’t help you. You don’t seem capable of doing this. I want to see justice done, but why should I trust you over the City Guard?”
DM as Witness (no opening): “I can’t help you. I’m not convinced.”
DM as Witness (deflection): “I can’t help you. I’m not convinced. Why should I care about the victim? He wasn’t even from this city?”

As you get more skilled, you’ll realize how easily you can roll the response, reason, and opening into one sentence.

DM as Witness: “I want to do what’s right, but I’m afraid I’ll get hurt if I help you.”

Even though it doesn’t end in a question, it still provides the response, reason, and opening it needs to keep the conversation going.

The response, reason, opening method is a little repetitive at times, but it ensures you do everything you need to do. You’ll also start to inject more of the NPC’s tone into it. The only way to get good at responding is practice, of course. But this is a great way to learn social InterACTION! tennis and return every ball until the players manage to score or shoot themselves in the foot and end the scene.

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