On Reader Mail, The Eloquent NPC

Ryan asks:

"2) A PC playing an eloquent speaker enters a debate with an NPC eloquent speaker. How do you allow player skill without holding them to being an eloquent speaker themselves?"

Ryan's second question is a good one!

How do we allow the encounter to be decided by skill of the player, rather than skill at oratory?

First, I would like to say that personally in my own games, I try to have as little as possible be a completely subjective judgement. Any judgements that have to be subjective, I prefer to decide by consensus or random die roll.

That said, I think it is important to remember what player skill isIt's your ability to gather information by asking questions and make decisions to survive and succeed at encounters.

This is no different when encountering an NPC. They don't have to use oratory to convince you. They don't have to impress you or be charismatic or smooth.

They have to gather information and make choices.

So how do we do this?

Constructing the NPC


Encounters with NPC's need to be designed. Inside that design there need to be mechanical systems and hooks for resolving conflicts. Then the encounter then becomes again about gathering information and making choices.

For encounters, I generally set a timer based on the reaction roll. Every action during the parley reduces the timer by one step. This means they have to weigh what interactions are most important. Will they spend the whole time asking questions? Will they Threaten (Check Result & Morale modified by situational factors. Apply result to the current reaction roll) or Offer aid and possibly get a quest? Will they joke or drink in order to gain time for more actions? Offer to hire the NPC (only accepts if his reaction is 9 or higher)? (The complete list is forthcoming.)

This means the NPC's are designed with various reactions to these choices. This means the players get a chance to explore an NPC. They gather information by asking questions about what the NPC looks like and how he responds, then they make choices. Their ability to orate or speak eloquently has absolutely no bearing on the encounter.

This works in city adventures too. Information about other NPC's can be asked. Players can be given quests, end feuds, get swords left at home, and kill rats!

For longer term PC's, they provide literal hooks, like menus, to allow the players to accomplish tasks. Sages will turn gold into answers. Mages will turn gold into identified items and magic goods. Alchemists will turn gold into potions. All will give quests.

For those that travel with the party, long term loyalty and bond relations can be tracked for romance options and in-game benefits.

In all cases it requires a little bit of forethought and design, and then the NPC becomes like any other part of the game. One that becomes a test of player skill, and not something subject to pixel bitching, DM Fiat, or attempts at mind reading.

7 comments:

  1. More concrete examples of NPC design would be really interesting...

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  2. Is the reaction roll something based off the NPC's attitude towards the PC, the situation, and a D20 roll?

    Also, I find my players always seem to approach NPCs with a marvelous amount of courtesy and elegance, which I usually game a very positive reaction to. However most of my NPC encounters always feel very flat. I know that I am probably at fault for this, and maybe it's because many NPC interactions seem to be really on the spot and I have a hard time making an NPC seem different and original when I'm scrambling to figure out what this NPC should know and what they will be willing to divulge. I have to figure out a way to fix this...

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    1. Reaction is usually for me a 2d6 roll modified by charisma.

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    2. The best advice I ever got about making NPCs seem 'different and original' was to make a list of characters from TV shows and movies that you can do an impression of. It's fine if you do bad impressions - if you can't do a Homer Simpson voice but can imagine what he'd say in a conversation, everybody wins. (In fact, if your impression is bad enough it will seem more like an original character.) Once you've got this list you can either roll or just go down the list crossing 'em off as you use 'em.

      There's a decent silly voice chart at http://saturdaynightsandbox.blogspot.ca/2011/09/ladies-gentlemen-and-gelatinous-cubes.html but if your campaign has a more serious tone you'll really want to make your own.

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    3. Damn... that really is awesome advice Odrook. Briliant! These answers directly solve some problems I've been mulling over for the last week or so, and I am absolutely using this advice in my campaign. Much thanks to both of you :)

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    4. My most memorable NPCs were based on Cheech (a scheming, money hungry halfling) and Chong (a spacey elf).

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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