Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013
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Well, here we are again with another installment of “Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System.” Now that I’ve taught you how to handle basic actions and we’ve looked at the basics of encounters and how to build good non-combat, non-interaction encounters, it’s time to shift gears. In this article (and the next one), I’m going to look at social interaction. In this first article, we’ll discuss the basics of how to handle social InterACTION! as individual actions. After that, we’ll look at some techniques for building social InterACTION! encounters. No, that InterACTION! thing is not a typo.

As before, if you prefer, you can download this article as a PDF to read on the couch or in bed or on the pooper. I won’t judge you.

What the Hell is InterACTION! and Why Does it Need All Those Capital Letters?

An InterACTION! occurs when a PC tries to get something out of an NPC by talking at them. That something could be an item, a resource, assistance, information, sex, or anything else the PC might want. The talking could include persuasion, pleading, seduction, deception, interrogation, interview, debate, coercion, negotiation, blackmail, or even torture. The key is that the PCs are trying to secure an NPC’s cooperation somehow.

Why the capital letters and the fancy exclamation point? Partly because I like shouting but mostly because I want to emphasize that an InterACTION! is an ACTION!, first and foremost. For some reason, a lot of otherwise intelligent, capable DMs develop all sorts of strange ideas and weird hang ups when it comes to social InterACTION! They think InterACTIONS! follow different rules and require a different mindset from normal actions. Well, they don’t! Exclamation point!

Actually, that’s not entirely true. There are some special things to keep in mind when adjudicating an InterACTION! But the rules of adjudicating actions still hold true. The basic exchange is the same. The player decides to do something and communicates that. The DM determines the player’s intention and approach. If the action can succeed, can fail, and carries a risk or cost that prevents the action from being repeated, the DM calls for a die roll. Then, the DM determines the outcome and any consequences and narrates the results.

The other reason for going capslock crazy is that I want to emphasize that there is a difference between social interaction and an InterACTION! An InterACTION! is an action the PCs take to accomplish a specific goal, one that is worthy of being resolved with a die roll. Interaction is simply PCs and NPCs talking to each other. It may or may not accomplish anything. We’re worried about InterACTIONS! Actualy, real, honest-to-goodness interactions that accomplish something.

Not all interactions are InterACTIONS! Got it?! Exclamation points!!!

But, before we continue, let’s look at some of the stupid baggage some DMs bring to this discussion, complicating matters and triggering all sorts of internet fights. Because, as much as I love a good internet fight, this s$&% just gets in the way of running the best damned game you can run. And you may be bringing in some of this baggage with you. So we need to jettison it.

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14 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.

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