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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15 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.

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