Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

And In Conclusion… (Finally)

The key takeaway from all of this is that InterACTION! is no different from any other form of action adjudication once you learn how to look at it. Of course, looking at it in terms of objectives and incentives and learning how to pace the conversation and learning how to deliver responses, reasons, and openings make it seem different. But remember: objections and incentives are just a stand-in for “is this action possible” and pacing and narration are just like pacing and narration in any other scene. When other DMs try to load you down with social baggage, now you know better. Unless you played the drinking game. If you played the drinking game, you are probably unconscious. And, if you’re not unconscious, I’m really impressed. GREAT JOB!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Bonus Section: The Four P’s! A Simple Way to Bring NPCs to Life (Metaphorically, Not Like Dr. Frankenstein)

It would be really sucky of me to end this right now before I give one last little piece of advice. Actually, that’s not true. Everything I gave you above is solid f$&%ing gold and I’m nine kinds of awesome for writing it all up. But I’ve got one more thing to give. Consider it a bonus for reading the previous 8,000 words. Your prize: a couple hundred more words to read! Yay.

Here it is: The Four P Method for bringing NPCs to life!

I’ve already talked about the importance of knowing the NPC’s objection(s). But, apart from that, I like to have four things handy to help bring an NPC to life. I call them: the Four Ps. These won’t help you run a good InterACTION!, but they will help you get better at bringing NPCs to life and making them seem like real people.

Personality (or Phrasing): This is a SINGLE WORD that describes the general personality trait that the NPC displays most strongly. Remember when I talked about how to practice saying things in different tones? You don’t! It was right in this f$&%ing article! Well, go back and read it. And then come back here, because this is the word that tells you how to talk as the NPC. This is also the word that I cross out and replace when the PCs trigger short-term consequences. Every time the NPC speaks, look down at the word, fix it in your mind, and let that shape your response.

Posture: Body language is important for two reasons. First, it helps convey information to your players. Second, if you adopt a specific posture that isn’t natural to you, maintaining it reminds you that you ARE the NPC and helps remind you how to speak and act. So, pick a posture to adopt when you are playing the NPC and adopt it. A few words is all it takes. It really does help. While you are “being” that NPC, keep that posture.

Pause: I’m afraid to ask whether you remember what I said about pause indicators. If you need a reminder, go find it. I ain’t helping you. You should have paid attention the first time. Pick a pause indicator: a short word, phrase, sound, or sound+gesture to use whenever you need to buy time.

Pfidget: Everyone has some sort of tic or habit or fidget that displays some sort of quirk. Real people fidget occasionally. Fictional characters fidget a lot. I won’t go into the reasons why because I’ve wasted enough words on this acting bulls$&% already, but pick a pantomine gesture or a repeated verbal phrase or habit. Puffing an imaginary pipe, shuffling papers, looking around suspiciously, drumming fingers, steepling fingers, whatever. Stick this in, say, every time you respond to an InterACTION! and people will be amazed at how life-like your NPCs are.

Some DMs overload their NPCs with personality traits and backstories and goals and motives. And most of it never ends up seeing play or it actually ends up confusing the issue. Me, I stick with Objections, the Four Ps, and sometimes Alignment. That is all it takes. And best of all, you can get the entire damned thing on an Index Card. Hell, you can also improvise a living, breathing NPC pretty easily. You can come up with the four Ps in the bathroom.

Players: “We’ll go ask that aristocratic knight for help!”
Me: “Good idea. Let me just run to the bathroom first! Don’t ask why I need an index card in the bathroom! I just do!”

Incentive: Wants to earn respect and glory
Objection: Is afraid that helping the PCs will damage his reputation
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Personality: Knightly
Posture: Ramrod straight, hands in lap
Pause: Break eye contact, look straight up, murmurs “hmmmmm”
Pfidget: Glances around to see who might be watching

Tags: , , ,






16 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?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *