It’s bound to happen at some point. The local baron is about to send the PCs on a quest when his advisor suggests otherwise. The police chief asks the PCs about their progress on an investigation when a federal agent steps in to announce that she is taking over the investigation, leading to a heated exchange. The daughter of the mad scientist begs her father to turn off the Neuro-Electrostatic-Destructo Ray before it destroys the city and the hero she loves. In all cases, a single thought will undoubtedly enter your mind:
“Crap, now I have to talk to myself!”
There are a few ways to handle this situation, and some work better than others depending upon the circumstances. Here are a few methods I’ve used over the years to combat the awkward stumbling with a lot of “The baron says….And then the advisor responds with….and then the baron replies….” while the players are staring back at you.
Sometimes its best to skip the dialogue and just give the PCs the high points. This works best when multiple NPCs are involved or when the conversation itself isn’t really important. It’s enough to know that the baron is sending the PCs on the quest and the advisor questions their loyalty. It’s enough to know that the federal agent took over the investigation. It’s enough to know that the mad scientist feels betrayed and now his daughter will share the city’s fate.
Do it off-camera
A good variant of summarizing is to have the NPCs converse out of earshot of the PCs. The advisor could whisper in the baron’s ear. The chief throws the PCs out of his office before drawing the blinds to argue with the agent. The daughter could plead with her father as the buzz of the superweapon drowns out her pleas.
In some cases, the PCs may attempt to hear the conversation anyway (through skill checks or other means). Using “you hear the chief say….and then you hear the agent say…” feels more natural in such cases.
Use different props or voices
While this may seem weird, it can actually work in more theatrical games with a lot of roleplaying going on. If you can’t do voices, having a hat or other easy prop on hand can help show who’s speaking now. Turning one’s head from side to side is also an effective tool.
Written or recorded prose
When I ran 7th Sea, I often started the adventure with a short piece of fiction that included dialogue amongst NPCs. This technique works well for “hard points” (things that you’ve decided will happen) since it requires pre-planning. A subtechnique is the recorded conversation, where you might recruit non-players to record dialogue.
Again, if you know that the conversation will take place, you can assign an NPC to each player and let them read the script. Maybe Al can play the chief and Becca can play the agent. An obvious subset of this is the co-GM, if you’re fortunate enough to have one on hand.
If you must dialogue with yourself, keep it short. One or two exchanges should be enough to convey the necessary information to the players.
Don’t do it
The easiest way to avoid talking to yourself is, well, avoid it. Whenever you find yourself approaching this circumstance, try to find an alternate way to resolve it. Perhaps the advisor grills the PCs first before allowing them to see the baron. When the baron asks his advice, the advisor can spit “you know what I think, milord,” and the PCs know it as well. Perhaps the federal agent lets slip her intentions before she sees the chief. Perhaps the daughter tearfully explains what she plans to do before speaking with her father, and her tears afterward will tell the PCs how it went.
Those are some of my techniques. Do you prefer one of these over the others? Is there a good technique I’ve missed? Does one of the above techniques not work for your particular group?