Monday, March 24, 2014

Player Tip: PCs and ... Tact?

So I was taking a look at one of Shimmin Beg's brilliant comments on another page and realised he'd brought up a point which I'm sure we're all familiar with when playing our characters and that's the question of tact, diplomacy and, well, sheer bloodymindedness.  I will exchange asterisks for numbers so that I can discuss alternatives afterwards but for now, take a look at the quoted comment:

"In particular, there can be an awkward clash of realisms when PCs and NPCs are working at cross-purposes. Players expect quite a lot of leeway in their actions and interactions, according to relevant genre tropes, doing things like:

* talking about NPCs in front of them (openly or by blatantly forming a whispering huddle)
* attempted bribery
* deliberate or semi-random threats, sometimes just to test the waters
* assuming their interests and goals are the most important to everyone
* generally giving excellent grounds for suspicion
* intruding on privacy without appointments
* asking large amounts of nosy and personal questions of strangers
* being highly reluctant to give away anything about themselves
* omitting small talk and niceties
* chopping and changing approach between flattery, formality, threat, wheedle, deceit and frankness

All of which would be disastrous as regular strategies in real life. At the same time, they tend to expect NPCs to be fairly simplistic, having one attitude to the party (from Hostile to BFFs), a small set of motivations and very little sense of personal pride, honour, politeness or ethics."

There are reasons behind this actions (which he describes in that Comments) and most of it, in my experience, boils down to expedience, keeping it In Character, and genre conventions.  It is more expedient to behave in this way because, regardless of time limits on the action, most players want to keep the story moving forward.  Many of these actions allow the players to decide among themselves what to do without discussing the whole thing out of character constantly.  Finally, in most games it is *just fine* to behave in these ways and to expect a more realistic mode of behaviour would be just silly, not to mention impractical.

But let's suppose that you're aiming for a more realistic / immersive game.  You don't want to do those things, or you know your Game Master's NPCs won't deal with you if you do, but you're trying to figure out ways around it.

Talking about NPCs in front of them (openly or by blatantly forming a whispering huddle)

There's a good reason for doing this.  How else can you, as a group, democratically decide on a way forward without either deliberating out of character (and killing the immersion for numerous reasons) or by going aside to discuss things?  The other problem can occur when the conversation begins logically enough with the kind of group querying the excluded (yet nearby) NPC won't mind but then the conversation veers straight into forbidden territory because you forgot the NPC was present.  It might be that you could work out a 'reminder code' with your GM and the other players - perhaps to rap their knuckles on the table to remind you all that the NPC is present and that this isn't appropriate behaviour.  Then, if it truly were a memory error, you could be allowed to take back what you said.

Of course, this won't stop the group huddle from happening but at least it might cause you all to be more circumspect about the situation.  The other trick is to consider it just another obstacle in the game.  You might want to deliberate about someone in the real world and, if so, what would you do to get that space to do so?  If you don't get that option, well, sometimes you have to fight in enclosed spaces and that's restricting as well.  Take the restriction as part of the in-game consideration and live with it.

Attempted bribery

If the game has some form of Empathy or Sense Motive skill, use it.  Alternatively a Knowledge Local or Politics skill could be used to let you know the appropriate methods of bribery.  Also bear in mind that the more lawful a society and the lesser the need for that extra money, the less likely bribery will work at all.  In other words, you'll have a better shot with a bribe in Riddleport or the World of Darkness than in Delta Green or Andoran.  When in doubt, try some subtle clues.  Ask "if there's anything I can do to speed things along or change your mind?"  If their ears perk up, perhaps inch your way along with it.  Even those who like being bribed don't like you to arrogantly wave money in their face like you're training a dog with a treatie.  If the person instead points out all the errors in your application or logic, leave it.  They're not interested.

Deliberate or semi-random threats, sometimes just to test the waters

There's a thick line between dominance and intimidation, but in a roleplaying game where you're often dealing with a semi-distracted GM and players, that line can appear pretty thin indeed.  Your best bet is to keep the threats in your pocket until you know you need them as generally most threats will cause the NPCs to "push back" in some way.  This may mean closing down the conversation, getting in your way, or otherwise trying to protect their honour.  If you're doing it to test the waters, accept that you won't get a positive response from them again (at least, not unless you save their life or do something epic to show your character complexity).  At the very least, people don't like those who threaten them.  If you don't mind those consequences, and you're not irritating the other players, then go ahead.  Being a threatening figure is a valid character concept, after all, just don't expect to gain many alliances out of it.

Assuming their interests and goals are the most important to everyone

This is a pretty fair assumption, generally.  Your playing protagonists.  Sometimes your goals really *are* the most important thing going on.  Just be aware that even if your needs do trump everything, you may still need to explain why to people.  Not everyone will know that your actions will stave off an apocalypse.  If what you're doing isn't so lofty, bear in mind this simple creed: "If you make other people believe that fulfilling your needs also help them fulfil their own, they'll be far more amenable."  So maybe quickly explain why your actions are relevant to them, if there's any trouble.  This needn't be longwinded.  Generally a quick summary will do.

Generally giving excellent grounds for suspicion

This might involve dramatic pauses that make the truth sound like lies, speaking mysteriously, or breaking off from the rest of the group to start playing with the merchandise.  It could involve anything, really, that might be seen as suspicious.  Often this is because what you're doing is so big and important in your mind that you fail to see things from the other person's point-of-view.  Sometimes it's because you come to game so that you can forget such a constant drain on the human mind through the constant use of empathy.  It's pretty realistic that those involved in suspicious actions would generally appear suspiciously (because they, too, may forget how they appear to others) but if it's important to you to appear trustworthy or easygoing, nominate another player (not the GM) to tap you on the shoulder if you start being too dodgy.

Intruding on privacy without appointments 

A hard one to avoid.  You often need to ask questions and reach those people pretty quickly.  If time isn't of the essence, it may be worth just saying: "We make an appointment" and getting your GM to time skip to that point.  Otherwise, come up with a reason ahead of time for the person to want to speak with you.  At the very least, don't barge into their office unless you think they'll shred the evidence.  It takes little time to speak with the receptionist first.  Just have your questions ready and in priority order, in case they don't want to speak to you too long.

Asking large amounts of nosy and personal questions of strangers

 Anyway you can get some official clout here?  Become a private investigator or get a writ from the city guard?  This is pretty much impossible to avoid though sometimes apologising for the need to ask such questions, showing confidence without being arrogant, and being persistent can pay dividends when you can't appeal to your own authority.

Being highly reluctant to give away anything about themselves

If you have no reason to fear them, you might as well use the opportunity to shine by revealing tidbits about your character as often these hints can generate rapport and build trust, especially if your revelations connect to the NPC's own desires and history.  It also lets the other players get to know your PC a bit better.  If you haven't thought of enough background detail, make something up and decide later on if you were lying or not.  If you fear the results of such personal information in the wrong hands, lie and lie well.

Omitting small talk and niceties

While you may not want to spend half a session discussing the weather, you could always say that your characters does it and skip along if your GM is willing.  Alternatively, you could always make it *feel* like you used small talk and niceties.  Think about a television show.  They have less time to get more done than you do yet they can still reflect small talk and niceties.  Try using "please" and "thank you", where appropriate, even if you don't believe in it.  A quick "Hello, how do you do?" can provide a sense of thoughtful nicetie without having to go into things for ages.  When barging into a person's office, however, avoid small talk.  They probably want you gone so you're best off cutting to the chase.

Chopping and changing approach between flattery, formality, threat, wheedle, deceit and frankness

The hardest thing to change, really.  On an individual level you can keep it together a lot more than during the chaos of a multi-person conversation where each PC has their own style and perspective on what should work.  Even if each PC is taking the right path, the resulting muddle of all of their attempts will likely confuse and close up the NPC, but you hardly want to shut them up, right?  If the GM keeps NPC conversations like in a television show, revealing yet quick, then it shouldn't be a problem for two PCs to take charge of any particular conversation, swapping out as new NPCs are met.  In games where an NPC conversation can easily take thirty minutes, it becomes far more awkward.  Where possible, decide on your tactic in advance but don't let yourselves be swayed by the need to find the "perfect approach".  You don't want a half hour argument between players for a five minute conversation.  Most attempts, plied with consistency, will get you reasonable results.

So yeah, what do you guys reckon?  Any further advice on this stuff?  I could certainly use some pointers as I've noticed it in some of the parties I've been in.  I find it gets harder the larger the group as well.


  1. My take on some of this, on what it's worth:

    Re: Talking about NPCs right in front of them.
    When this happens I generally directly say to the players "Are you saying this right in front of this person?", and typically they realise how daft it is. I can see why players would want to discuss something about an NPC, but the middle of a conversation isn't the right time to do it. Going into a conversation with an NPC when you haven't actually worked out with each other what sort of tack you're going to take with them is straight-up a strategic error, unless it's a conversation which you weren't expecting to have - and if you weren't expecting it you shouldn't expect to have time to strategise full stop.

    Re: attempted bribery
    Rare in games I've run. If players attempt it I'll consider the position of the NPC in question. If it's the sort of person who might accept a bribe then I'll genuinely consider whether it's a bribe worth their while taking. If it's going to be an insult or a blatant illegality (trying to bribe a police officer when his colleagues are stood right there next to him, trying to bribe someone of a superior social class to the PCs), I'll point out how silly it is if the PCs would be expected to know how silly it is.

    * deliberate or semi-random threats, sometimes just to test the waters
    Immediately and irrevocably complicates interactions with NPCs, as one player has found out in my AD&D game (his chances of infiltrating the baron's castle are now much worse since the baron essentially makes sure his guards watch the PC in question like hawks if they know he is in the area).

    * assuming their interests and goals are the most important to everyone
    * generally giving excellent grounds for suspicion
    * intruding on privacy without appointments
    * asking large amounts of nosy and personal questions of strangers
    * being highly reluctant to give away anything about themselves

    These I would say all come under the category of "problems that solve themselves" - the players do this, the NPCs are offended, I make sure it's clear that what has caused the offence (NPCs splutters and says "I'm not normally accustomed to being interrogated by strangers in my own throne room! Who in the Hells do you think you are addressing?"), characters have to deal with the consequences.

    * omitting small talk and niceties
    This I'm less concerned about because I do appreciate that there's only so much time in the session to deal with stuff, and I'm as keen to get to the meat of the conversation (where I find the best roleplaying is) as everyone else. In LARPs it's a different matter, of course, because the small talk serves immersion, but tabletop is a format where abstracting out the dull bits is an accepted technique everywhere else so you can apply that just as well to conversation.

    * chopping and changing approach between flattery, formality, threat, wheedle, deceit and frankness
    NPCs will notice this and react accordingly. If the approach seems to be shifting at random they will take the characters less and less seriously.

    1. General conclusion: to the extent I've observed them, sloppy conversational habits thrive in games to the exact extent that the game tolerates them. The best way to get your players to approach conversations seriously is to have NPCs react to them realistically. Sometimes this entails giving them a chance for a take back. ("Wait, so you are directly threatening the baron in his throne room whilst alluding to you doing dubious stuff on behalf of a political rival of his? Are you aware of how impolitic that is"), but ultimately once you double down on this sort of thing and start enforcing the idea that this is a conversation with a human being, not clicking through dialogue boxes in a videogame, the better. In my experience people adapt reasonably quickly.

    2. Last does of espirit d'escalier, I promise: one technique I find quite useful is to have an NPC repeat the basic points of a conversation back to the player characters, from the NPC's point of view, so the PCs can see exactly how they've manage to confuse/annoy the NPC in question. This is particularly useful when players shift weirdly between different conversational stances.

      "So, you come into my throne room, you're all smiles and flattery, you start telling me you need access to my dungeons, you won't tell me why, you accuse me of treachery to the realm when I demand your credentials from the Commonwealth Council, you hold whispered conversations in the middle of the audience despite me reminding you that I'm right here and not happy for my time to be wasted numerous times, and then you sum up by offering me thus admittedly rather large but still rather insulting bag of coins in return for 'access to the dungeons, no questions asked'. Am I being unfair here? Have I summed up the conversation more or less accurately? Good. Now, I'm afraid I have to say once again I can't help you because I still don't know who you are, you still won't explain what the 'problem' is you need access to sensitive parts of my castle in order to address, you still won't say who on the Council put you up to this nonsense and you still haven't apologised for being brutes and boors. The most I could possibly offer you is a job as a court jester, but I already have one. Do you have anything else to say, or shall I have the guards remove you now? Make it good or I'll have you escorted to the edge of my realm and declared persona non grata."

    3. This technique is really awesome. I adore it.

  2. Few things are more cheering on turning up at work than finding the first fifteen words of this post in my inbox.

    Arthur is very convincing at this technique. I think the beard adds a regal touch.

    I think as with a lot of things, the most important thing here is to be aware of the issue so you can consciously decide what relation it has to the playstyle you're aiming for. Like you say, there's a load of times when you're looking for NPC interaction to be a structure for driving plot and getting information without looking to build relationships or take fallout. It's fair to assume that just like combat and travel gets abstracted, a lot of social niceties do too; same for "stage whisper" huddling and so on. And in very light-hearted games it can just be part of the implausible style rather than taken at face value.

    But being aware of the ideas you've discussed here offers another set of tools for steering mood and approach, while staying fairly light on the rudder. Having those options makes it easier to make games feel different.

    For example, Arthur runs both our D&D and our Deathwatch games. In D&D, we're moderately-official adventurers with a little bit of clout, often working under cover, and have to be a bit wary and tactful in our dealings. In Deathwatch we're the blessed warrior-angels of the Most Holy Emperor of Mankind, with divine and secular authority over just about every human we encounter, permission to kick off a war if it seems appropriate, and incidentally are superhumans in near-impregnable armour; our interactions with NPCs are very different and that really reinforces the sense of being a Space Marine. In many ways it's more important than the mechanics, because you succeed at stuff as a Space Marine about as much as you do as a 3rd-level fighter.

    1. Yup, a range of play can really hit all the spots.