Talking at Yourself
by Robin D. Laws
Experienced GMs know to avoid situations in which multiple NPCs carry on a conversation. These conversations with yourself are hard for GMs to sustain and for players to follow.
Most of the time you can engineer events so that this doesn’t happen. If one or more PCs are present in the scene, you can have one of the NPCs draw them into the discussion. This slices up a group scene into mini-scenes, mostly between an NPC and at least one PC.
Let’s say the king and his chancellor, both NPCs, are conferring to decide what to do about the bandits up north. The party stands by as they hash the issue out. The king prefers caution; the chancellor, decisive action. Express this not with long snippets of dialogue from each, but with leading questions that draw the PCs into the scene.
The chancellor might throw the question to a hotheaded player character: “Sir Eobald, I see you champ at the bit to put down that impudent rabble!”
The king might address the most cautious of the player characters: “Cedric, I see the rashness of Eobald’s proposal disturbs you.”
This allows you to establish the king’s reluctance and the chancellor’s hard line, without having them speak much at all to one another.
If you find yourself having to avoid these scenes often, take it as a sign of a larger problem. It suggests that you’re letting your own supporting characters upgrade themselves to protagonist status and drive the plot. It implies that the PCs have become spectators. The process of putting them back into dialogue is just part of the broader objective: to return them to a central place in the storyline. Give them the power to move events. Have powerful NPCs work through them, giving them the leeway to make the key decisions that propel the narrative. Think of the NPCs as supporting characters who bring out aspects of the main cast, whether as foils or antagonists.
Still, sometimes you’ll find events pushing you toward inter-NPC dialogue.
In many cases you can simply keep the conversation brief, boiling it down to a couple of sentences per NPC. Dialogue sequences in roleplaying games go on for much longer than their equivalents in fiction. As we improvise them, we repeat ourselves, include placeholder pleasantries as we buy ourselves time to think, and fumble around in pursuit of the main point. In other words, we speak like we do in real life. Screenwriters in particular compress dialogue to the essential core, leaving in only as much of this extemporization as needed to make the words feel real. Do the same when forced to stage a self-conversation. Unlike a scene between you and a PC, or two PCs, you know what both characters want and what the upshot of the conversation will be. You’re improvising the words but know the outcome already. So compress like a screenwriter and get to it in as few words as possible.
But let’s say the premise of the scene calls for an extended conversation. A PC might be eavesdropping on two NPCs without their knowledge, preventing you from having the supporting characters acknowledge them and draw them into the dialogue. Player characters might listen to an already recorded conversation. Or the story might take you to a situation where it strains credibility for the NPCs to care about what the PCs have to say—for example, when a conversation occurs between two jailer NPCs keeping them prisoner.
A simple trick allows you to turn even these seemingly closed conversations into exchanges—not between characters, but between you as the GM and the players.
Elide these conversations the same way you would the details of a long journey, with summary narration instead of dialogue:
- “The king and chancellor argue for a long time about your usefulness to the court, and whether he should risk your lives sending you up against the bandits.”
- “On the tape, Chu and Big Head discuss a laundry list of triad business, most notably the pressure from the mainland cops to replace the rotating leadership with a single gang leader handpicked by them.”
- “Your captors, clearly not suspecting that any of you speak their tongue, mostly make bored small talk about this crappy assignment and the pleasurebots back on Araatis Station. But they do let slip some guesses about the coming succession war.”
- “Each of the cultists rises to toast Ephraim on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday. Bloch speaks wittily, Howard with inebriated gusto, while Derleth gives a fussy genealogical discourse. Smith finishes with a poem of cosmic insanity that sends you reeling, blood dripping from your left ear.”
These recaps invite the players to then ask for more details, which you can answer on a Q&A basis, in GM-to-player mode:
Ken (a player): Did they mention the name of the mainland cop?
You: It didn’t seem like they knew.
Ken: Any idea from the tape who might know?
You: Big Head was passing on gossip from his boss.
Ken: (consulting his notes) That’s Uncle Bell, right?
Ken: Any idea where this mainland cop operates from?
You: Big Head says that Uncle Bell just got back from Guangzhou.
Carrie (another player): Do they say anything about who hit Uncle Gong?
You: Both agree that it was an inside job, but Chu thinks it was a spontaneous mutiny, while Big Head says they must have been paid off by Wai.
Daniela (another player): Do they say anything else interesting?
You: They mostly talk about the leadership situation and the pressure from the mainland. Anything else you’re looking for?
Sometimes conversations between NPCs just provide flavor, as in the above case of the toasting cultists. But if a player does come up with an interesting question, the answer to which would move the scenario onward, you can improvise an answer to it.
When you have preplanned information to impart, make sure to imply a clear line of questioning the players can pursue to get it out of you. Otherwise your solution to the talking to yourself problem mutates into another classic dilemma, the pixel-hunt.
This month’s topic comes courtesy of “Professor” Ken Thronberry, as a perk of his Badlands Overlord reward tier from the Hillfolk Kickstarter. Thanks for the great question, Ken!