How to Roleplay Engaging Conversations

How to Roleplay Engaging Conversations

Yawn... Can I press the "skip" button on this quest giver's spiel? Too often in tabletop RPGs, conversations between NPCs and the the players are like computer RPGs, here's how to fix that.

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I like the idea, but it only works if the players are interested in playing along in the first place. It just seems like a lot of roleplayers except A to B to C. And maybe even want it.

Now I'm nostalgic for high school, where I played with people who would play ball. And now I'm sad.

Neat article, and good advice.

One potential problem is when you have your example DM say, "We can always go over the details later." I agree that front-loading the conversation often turns into the DM just delivering exposition, but if you and the players have different ideas of what those details are, it can be hard to backtrack.

For example, the players may decide to go and assault the demon in the Nine Hells, rather than summoning it to the mortal realm and risk it getting loose. However, if the location of the demon's lair in unknown to the sage (or the sage managed to keep that information hidden, despite the intimidate roll), your players may get halfway through preparing to storm the demon's realm, ask you for some clarification, and put you in an awkward position: Do you,
a) Tell them anyways, opening the door to fridge logic ("Hey, if the demon's secret lair is so easily found, why has the order of demon-killing paladins not gone there and destroyed it?")?
b) Tell them they didn't get that information, leaving them possibly feeling cheated (especially if the sage did the sensible thing and skipped town, making him unavailable to answer more questions)?

The only solution that I've come up with to this problem is just an understanding between the DM and players, reached through time and established as a rule of the table. For example, I'll tell the players the kind of information and level of detail, making sure that we're all on the same page.

"The sage tells you a bit about Barunor -apparently it's vain and a master of deceit- and that the demon can be summoned by speaking it's name while staring into a mirror and standing in calf's blood. He's shaking in his fancy boots, but doesn't offer anything else. Anything you'd like to ask about?"

The players know that this is their chance to ask for anything they might want; if not, there's no retconning. If they ask about something that would grind the session to a halt (for instance, details on the demon's lair), I'll tell them the general level of detail they can get ("the sage doesn't know much, but he can tell you where a portal to the Nine Hells is, and that the demon lives in a sprawling castle with vast evil gardens") with the understanding that we'll go over it as soon as the current scene is finished.

That is always the trick when it comes to delivering exposition and keeping the players engaged. As others said, it's a matter of how much the players want to roleplay. Personally, I do a "below the surface" approach. The NPC might have a mannerism, an accent, or something that paints the picture of an established history. If the character just wants information and wants to leave, it is delivered in their manner, unless it's something they are against.

My favorite example of this is a bartender I created for the Dragon Age RPG. I gave her a baritone voice, vaguely english accent (don't all characters in DA have those?) and had her smoking while reading a book. Upon addressing them, "'ello love, what's your poison?" is her general response. From there, the players can choose to dip in their big toe so to speak and test the waters. Do they ask about the book? Do they ask for a light? Do they ask why she didn't seem prepared for customers? The greater context is that she lives in an otherwise out of the way village in the Bannorn where their only export is bread. Not exactly a bustling hive of activity.

On the other hand, the characters can go off the deep end, engaging her in a full blown conversation. At which point other elements are introduced. She's a gossip, she is a hopeless romantic who enjoys the fantasy of leaving the village, but she's perceptive and surprisingly progressive when it comes to the presence of magi (i.e. she tolerates them as long as they order a drink) and she also has a dagger in her sleeve just in case someone mistakes her lethargy for boredom.

In both scenarios, information is delivered but both depend on what the players want out of the situation. There is the physical element with the book and her pipe, and the casual comparison to poison and booze may make certain rogues weary of her, which can lead to a casual laugh and misdirection.

It's difficult to get it right. Sometimes improvisation is needed since certain players may find certain characters more interesting than you. Alternatively a lot of creativity may have gone into a character no one cares about in the least. Still, that's my approach to help split the difference. Great read!


Great read, but I have a couple of notes. I'll start with the personal experience:

Its very hard to get players to roleplay in general. Many of my groups were hack-n-slash with lite roleplaying despite similar attempts at making roleplaying interesting. Granted these people were younger and quite immature in their gameplaying and no amount of spicing up conversations could sate their ever present lust for treasure and magic items, to the point of attacking important NPC's because they stood out and might have magic treasures on them, PC's alignment be damned. As I found older crowds of players in my 20's the roleplaying ramped up. But I still ran into groups that just weren't into it. Best group I ever had consisted of players who were older than me, some of whom had been playing RPG's since the original D&D days.
Maturity level is directly related to the amount of roleplaying that happens (or is ignored).
The other great success I had was recruiting new players from an acting class I took. I sold it as improv mixed with character development, and to my surprise I found a good group who as far as I'm aware still play though not together as we've all moved to different cities or states.

On the article itself: The lack of a reaction from the Paladin toward the Sorcerer's brutal tactics seems way out of place when talking about roleplaying. A paladin should have a decent charisma (or comparable stat) and would be better at getting information out of the NPC without resorting to violence, and likewise should have been at the very least shocked or appalled at the sorcerer's lack of civility, or at least played the "good cop" role if that was all an act on the sorcerer's part. If it wasn't then it could be deemed an evil action (note you didn't distinguish him/her as an anti-paladin or blackguard) by the paladin for not intervening on behalf of the NPC who's life was threatened, even over vital information. It just doesn't sit well with me as a roleplayer. Paladins are paragons of virtue and wouldn't resort to such tactics, nor would they stand idly by while another of their group committed a morally questionable action (at the least). Sorry for nitpicking but I've always had an issue with people playing fast and loose with the unbending morals of a paladin, simply because a paladin only gets that status from unwavering faith and strict adherence to a moral code. Letting evil happen just smacks of a crisis of faith waiting to happen.

As a DM I try to make all NPC interactions memorable and every NPC having the capacity to reveal something, be it a hint to the player's main quest, a nod to a possible side quest or even just a random rumour to add flavour to the area.

This backfired on me a bit in the last game I ran; the party split up to investigate a small town and one of the players announced she wanted to go to the chocolate shop (there was a few noddings to the dairy of the area so I was prepped to drop a few hints if the right questions were posed.

Well, I set the scene, described the overly cheery lady behind the counter bustling around etc, and the player bought some chocolate. We literally roleplayed the sale of the chocolate, as the player asked me to describe the types available and what not. I was a bit bemused that she didnt once raise the topic of why they were there or anything, but when she announced she wanted to check out the tourist shop next door (where more leads awaited) I went with it.
Next door turned out to be the same story - the player was literally roleplaying her character chilling out for the afternoon, buying random crap. I stopped her after the sale in the tourist shop and asked her if she had any intention of investigating anything to which I got a no, so her experience was cut short with "You spend the rest of the afternoon buying random tat" so I could focus on the other players.


Players never figure out the "split the party" thing is bad for them. Even in town, it always seems to put the brakes on a story. DM's of the world, remember to improvise... and there's always the Tomb of Horrors lurking in the background of a DM's repertoire just in case the players push the DM a bit too far with their antics.
XD "Split the party" your way out of this one... (it only works once on a group, but damn is it effective... of course there's also the rest of the old school Gygax era dungeons to toss at them as well). I may just be a slight bit evil when it comes to uncooperative players. Mind you I don't punish them for not roleplaying or anything like that... just when they end up going stupid on me for too long. Remember, there's always a reroll awaiting.

Imperioratorex Caprae:

Hah, I'm not that evil though the idea of shoehorning Tomb of Horrors into the Firefly universe (the game we played) would be amusing.


Imperioratorex Caprae:

Hah, I'm not that evil though the idea of shoehorning Tomb of Horrors into the Firefly universe (the game we played) would be amusing.

Adaptation! The other most essential DM tool in existence. When done right, players won't ever know what smacked them across the forehead. Almost everything can be resized, reshaped and revised to fit any universe. Just remember when you were a kid, how many things you probably put together that your adult self would never have dreamed.
But yes, Firefly's version of Tomb of Horrors would definitely be something I'd like to see. Probably something cobbled together or inhabited by reavers.

I'm a table top noob and am playing a (Firefly) game with seasoned vets. They love to role play. In fact character stuff beats out plot movement most nights. I am still finding my voice (both my character's, and mine personally as I learn to Table Top).

On the flip side they know the world of gaming well and a few seem impatient when I don't "just do what is expected". Our ST wanted a bar fight to happen to create the conflict for the story that night. It took much longer to get to the fisticuffs then anyone anticipated. (Of course no one backed me up in the fight once it started, and I got razzed for getting beat up-since I was then out manned-I assumed I would have more help from my teammates.)

I enjoy the game and the people involved, but would love any advice as to how I can make this game/experience more enjoyable.

Imperioratorex Caprae:

Mind you I don't punish them for not roleplaying or anything like that... just when they end up going stupid on me for too long. Remember, there's always a reroll awaiting.

I have one player, not sure when or even if he will be joining us again, kinda got himself in real hot water, but that's aside the point, who seems to always play Chaotic Stupid. ugh. one time he tossed a fireball right in the middle of the group, only one enemy mind you, and fried one of the other character's horse. poor horse. then in another game, just could not get him to take things seriously. He used magic missile on a door that didn't exist, (he didn't have magic missile, was playing an artificier/summoner), then he cast magic missile into the darkness. I almost was so fed up I was about to say "the darkness doesn't like your magic missile and eats you." well he tried a stunt for which he had no ability in whatsoever and went tumbling down the stairs and is a wrecked pile of machinery in an arraccat nest.

back to get back on subject of the article, I was recently running my forgotten realms game, and it was the boss fight of the mission. I was having the villain deliver her evil introduction. My one player afterward said, "I should have just shot her in the face while she was delivering her spiel."


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