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When NPCs Speak….Amongst Themselves

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On July 15, 2009 @ 12:01 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

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.

Summarize

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.

Recruiting players

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.

Brevity

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?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "When NPCs Speak….Amongst Themselves"

#1 Comment By Bercilac On July 15, 2009 @ 1:30 am

I’m a big fan of the summary, often conducted slightly off-camera (just out of earshot, but the players still see them). I go into a bit of detail more about how the NPCs are acting. At first they’re chatting, then suddenly one gets angry, someone smashes their fist against the table, and the player’s ally (or not) storms out to fill them in on the result.

It’s funnier, anyway.

#2 Comment By Danforthe Yellington On July 15, 2009 @ 3:59 am

These methods work as long as the scene is scripted. But if it’s something the players spark off it can be harder to have something ready. I’d suggest that your players might be able to play one of the roles if they know the NPCs in question well enough. Especially if you have a player whose character isn’t present or hasn’t got a direct stake in the outcome.

The viability of this depends on your players, game style and the situation of course. But it might work to send the scene off in an interesting direction.

#3 Comment By Noumenon On July 15, 2009 @ 4:58 am

Really good topic selection. This situation happens, but I’ve never seen an article on it before. And your solutions are many, varied, and good. This almost could have been a Dragon article back in the day.

#4 Comment By Clawfoot On July 15, 2009 @ 6:23 am

I don’t see why GMs can’t have conversations with themselves in the guise of NPCs if they take a few things into consideration:

1) Relevance. It’s easy for some people to get swept up in their own drama. So long as the GM is aware that the NPCs are there to forward the story and not showcase his or her talent/imagination/accent-mimiking abilities, then it should be okay.

2) Brevity. Watching someone have an argument with themselves can be entertaining, but only for a very short while. The GM should keep aware of how much time he or she devotes to NPC dialogue and not overdo it.

3) Audience. The best kind of GMs are those who understand their audience, can read them, and can react to them. If the GM senses the players are getting bored or not responding well to the scene, he /she can have one of the NPCs suddenly directly address a PC.

I say this because one of my very first GMs had me play three characters — basically, a human and the angel and demon on her shoulders (it was more complex than that, but the details are moot). He encouraged me to have them talk to each other, and after a while of getting used to the idea, I eventually got to the point where I would argue with myself for ten or fifteen minutes at a time (it was a one-on-one campaign; I’d never do that in a group).

It is directly because of that experience that I feel much more confident having NPCs talk to each other when I GM. It takes surprisingly little to distinguish one voice from the next; tone alone will often do it. No need for accents or silly falsetto voices.

I try hard to keep relevance, brevity and my audience in mind, though. My players seem to enjoy it when I do it (which is rare, but it does happen), so I see no harm in it.

#5 Comment By deadlytoque On July 15, 2009 @ 7:44 am

I rarely have conversations between my NPCs, and when I do, it goes something like this: “The one cop tells his partner to cover you, and then nods his approval to your plan; ‘let’s go,’ he says”.

I guess that’s the “high points” option.

I am also a big fan of letting the players do it. I even let them say things that aren’t part of my initial plan or notes, because it makes the job more challenging (and fun) for me that way, as I scramble to incorporate their “suggestions”.

#6 Comment By Toldain On July 15, 2009 @ 8:47 am

The kind of stories you tell and plots you use can often reduce the times this happens. If mostly the PC’s are off by themselves, interacting with NPC’s one at a time, this usually doesn’t come up. Plots that are highly political or social will bring this up more. Of course, if that’s what your players like, go for it, but you’ll have to work out how to deal with the “talk to yourself” scenario.

Many GMs I know will seed the party with their own character, a PNPC. I think its best if this character(s) isn’t the one the party shoves up to the front when there’s a difficult negotiation. Which is why you should beware of having a smooth talking NPC hanging out with the party a lot.

#7 Comment By Zig On July 15, 2009 @ 10:06 am

@Bercilac – I like the summary idea as well. I tend to have NPC on NPC interaction occur “off camera”. If the PCs try to listen in I’ll give them some bits of what is being said, or just a summary of how the conversation went. If the conversation is within sight of the PCs I will describe the easily readable emotions of each of the NPCs by expressions and body language.

With my players, when I do the NPC on NPC interaction in front of them there is always at least one player who will interject himself/herself into the conversation regardless of whether or not they are invited into the conversation by the NPCs. My players just happen to be that way…and it usually works. Though it can sometimes get interesting if they start interjecting in the conversation of say a King or Queen and their adviser or some other personage of greater status than the PC in question.

I’ve used the different voices or props when switching between NPCs if the conversation must occur in front of the PCs. I had a few NPCs in my Shadowrun campaign with distinctive voices (I’m not voiceover actor)…and the oddest was a mage who did a children’s show where he was dressed as a clown (Binky the Clown if memory serves). I punctuated what he said with a bicycle horn. The players liked it, and it helped make my clown phobia a little better though they still creep me out. =)

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2009 @ 10:19 am

Good topic. My preference is to have the NPCs pull the PCs into the conversation. Whenever it looks like the NPCs are about to address each other that is my cue to have the NPC turn to a PC and get them involved.

Example: NPC1 and NPC2 are arguing. NPC1 wants to hire the PCs, NPC2 does not. When NPC1 wishes to make a point he or she asks the PCs a question where the answer supports his case, such as “How long have you been adventuring for?” NPC2 will then ask the PCs a question that strengthens his or her case, such as “You may have years of experience, but how many dragons have you slain? Our city is being attacked by an elder dragon!”

This way the NPCs are not talking to each other, but are arguing through the PCs instead. It also gives the players lots of input into the situation.

#9 Comment By Zig On July 15, 2009 @ 10:37 am

@Patrick Benson – That’s an excellent idea. I’m going to keep that practice in mind the next time I run my D&D game. You get to further plot without boring the PCs by getting them involved in the whole discussion. Plus, I would imagine the PCs might drop some hints about how they are going to go about some mission or quest which helps the DM plan accordingly. Very helpful when the PCs throw that monkey wrench into your game prep; you can modify things on the fly much more easily. Beats being caught flat footed by the PC’s wild idea during the encounter.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2009 @ 11:23 am

@Zig – Yep, it pretty much does exactly what you described. You aren’t entertaining/boring the players with the NPC’s conversation. You get the PCs involved and turn that conversation between NPCs into a PC driven event. I hope that the tactic works for you and your group, because I have had a lot of fun with it myself. And if I can pull it off anyone can! :)

#11 Comment By BryanB On July 15, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

This is truly a challenging situation for GMs, and one that I don’t always get right myself. I think trying to get PCs involved in the conversation is key. It also helps when pro-active players leap into the NPC conversation at the earliest opportunity.

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 15, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

This is one of those topics that I didn’t think needed covering, until you covered it. Well done.

I have done this a couple of times, so my basic rule is now “don’t even frakking think about it”. If it came up again, I’d recruit players and give them cue cards (with cues, not lines), or do what Patrick suggested.

#13 Comment By Lunatyk On July 15, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

I am not good with voices… so I either use expressions or hand gestures…

one NPC may have his hands down or in his pockets as he talks, while the other scratches his cheek from time to time…

I’d rather avoid NPC-NPC interaction but some times the players just want to do that, listen in on the conversation… like the ninja spies they are…

#14 Comment By Noumenon On July 16, 2009 @ 7:11 am

Cue cards is a grand idea!

#15 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

I summarize. Pre-recording seems like a bad idea. Things may have changed from your assumptions and the recording might make absolutely no sense. In order to make sure your recording works, you have to plan dozens of variant conversations and record them all, or reduce the impact the players have on the conversation – i.e. their influence on the game. Choo choo.

#16 Comment By Storyteller On July 28, 2009 @ 10:50 am

Great article!

The first time I encountered this problem was with the “Red Hand Of Doom” campaign released by Wizards a few years ago. When the PC’s arrive to defend the final town, they’re brought before the town’s council – 4 NPCs – who have all this underlying drama and rivalries amongst each other and all what different things.

Rather then play four parts I actually recruited three players from another one of my games to stop by the session that day. I gave them each a briefing on what they should say at certain points and how they should react to the other council members when they say certain things. Since they were all talented roleplayers they picked right up on it and the four of us were bickering like it was our jobs as the PC’s sat back and enjoyed the show. Finally they realized it was up to them to sort out this nonsense and started interfacing with us both as a council and as individual members. One player even took one of the council members out into the hall to take privately on what he thought was best. It was fantastic and, when all was said and done, one of the high points of the whole campaign.

#17 Comment By jaynova On December 6, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

I had NPCs speaking to each other in my game last night. I just had one NPC, who I was acting out, respond to another NPC that was basically in my head. Think Han Solo talking to Chewie. I had to restate enough of what the imaginary NPC was saying so that the players knew what was happening.


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