IntroductionIt’s been a comment lament that “RPGs are all about combat and not talking.” This is quite true, while working on this project I looked at the core rulebooks for Pathfinder, D&D 5th edition, 13th Age, and The Dresden Files (a Fate-based game). Only one of those books said anything about talking to people beyond the skill descriptions (Dresden).
The argument I hear is that, “Gamers don’t go around hitting things with swords, so we need rules to model that, but everybody knows how to talk.” To which my challenge is: when was the last time you interviewed a murder witness, riddled a dragon, or negotiated with a crime boss?
This project was born from a crime boss negotiation. I was playing my first game of Starfinder, along with one experienced player and two newer players. As the Soldier (fighter) I was not planning on getting too involved in the conversation, I did not have any talking skills after all. But I ended up jumping in because I quickly saw that my newer players didn’t really have a good grasp on the situation. This was not their fault at all, and not an issue with them being less experienced players – the problem came from the rules themselves.
I like throwing in the occasional talking-focused adventure for a change of pace from the typically combat-focused adventures. The problem I have though is that I fell like I am just making things up at random. With virtually no rules for how to talk to someone, to change their mind or get them to reveal a secret, it stops being a game and becomes “make believe.” The game provides structure, boundaries, and most important of all expectations. You know how each piece in Chess moves, because Chess is a game and the movement is clearly defined in the rules. Which is essential – because you know how the pieces move you can plan ahead and form a strategy by looking at the board. Imagine Chess if each round you had to choose a piece, but then roll to see how that piece would move. So you select your Queen, but then the dice say she has to move like a Pawn. Does that sound like fun? (okay, in a masochistic thought-experiment way it does, a little, but that’s not the point) Do you think you could use all the centuries of openings and gambits that have grown around Chess in a game like that? No, without the ability to predict what’s going to happen you’re a passenger in the experience. You can’t drive it towards a certain resolution (ie, you winning) because you can only control the things you can understand.
This is the problem with not having any clear rules or even just guidelines for talking to NPCs, it makes it impossible for the PCs to plan or feel like they are in control. In combat, with all it’s detail, a party can predict what’s going to happen. Sure, the dice are there to throw the occasional monkey in the wrench, but for the most part if you know all the stats of the party and the monsters involved you can make a good guess about how the fight’s going to play out. The players can’t do that with a conversation because they have no map, no rules, no guidelines about how the conversation might go. Which is what inspired me to start this project, the RPG Conversation Map: a system-neutral tool that GMs and Players can use for planning and running conversations. Nothing in the map is revolutionary, these are things that good GMs and players take into account – but these are also things that are easy to overlook or forget in the heat of the adventure, so it can help to put them out there explicitly.
OverviewThere are 6 major parts to the RPG Conversation Map:
#1 – The Round Tracker
Time is a vital and easily-overlooked resource. The longer the party takes doing things the more time the bad guys have to advance their own agenda. Time has to be a concern, you do not want things to drag on forever in either the game world or the real world. So the first part of the RPGCM is devoted to time. This is set up so that there are only 5 turns to change an NPCs mind. After all, if you badger someone about the same issue incessantly eventually they’re going to stop listening. So this creates the first key part for the conversation, the idea that there are only going to be so many chances to convince the NPC.
#2 – PC and NPC Motivations
With the pressure of limited time creating the playing field, next we need to define the motivations of everyone involved. First the PCs, what is it that they want from the NPC? This is another critical and easily-overlooked step. It’s easy for a conversation to drag if the party loses sight of what they were trying to learn, or if they don’t think about what they want to know/do in the first place.
Next is the NPC. What Incentives does the NPC have to give the players what they want? If the NPC has a reason to be helpful it will make the conversation a lot easier. Often though the NPC will only have Obstacles to helping the PCs.
#3 – NPC Co-operation Level
The combination of Incentives and Obstacles will determine just what the NPC is willing to do for the party. This is a simple scale, adding the Incentives and subtracting the Obstacles. The less the NPC has to do the easier it will be for the party to convince the NPC to help. Passive activities, like giving anonymous information, is easier than something active, like testifying in court. The difference between where the NPC starts on the Co-operation scale and where the PCs want to get them sets the overall difficulty for the conversation. Which can often be complicated because the PCs may not know all of the NPCs Obstacles at the beginning of the conversation.
#4 – Rapport and Authority
Having set the pressure of time, and looked at where everybody starts and wants to end, time to begin the work of making decisions and rolls. But first it’s important to look at how the NPC feels about the PCs. Some games use a single setting for this, like “friendly,” but the RPGCM tracks it in two ways:
Rapport is a personal connection between the PCs and NPC. This can be positive, like two members of the same race or occupation, or negative, from a bad reputation or a prejudiced NPC.
Authority comes from outside the PCs. If they are members of the Guard, or police officers, or even envoys of the King then they have some Authority. But, this can also be positive or negative. Some people have issues with authority after all.
Rapport and Authority are given simple positive or negative numbers, and combined to create a modifier for influence rolls. Having good Rapport and being seen as an Authority can give a big bonus and help a character who has poor skills at talking to be successful (just like in real life, right?).
#5 – The Influence Categories
Now for the real meat of a conversation: how are you going to try to change the NPCs mind? The RPGCM uses 6 broad Influence Categories.
Threat/Intimidate – the PC points out bad things
that will happen to the NPC if he/she doesn’t co-operate.
Prey Upon/Manipulate – the PC tried to use a
character weakness of the NPC to convince them to co-operate.
Offer/Entice – the PC offers something for
co-operation, like a bribe or a future favor.
Inquire/Observe – the PC assesses the situation
and NPC trying to find any hidden elements to the conversation.
Reason/Convince – the PC uses logic or a personal
appeal for support.
Flatter/Promote – the PC points out how
co-operation will be good for the NPC.
#6 – Fallout
Speaking of dungeons and killing, another easy to overlook aspect of conversations is what happens afterwards. Just because the PCs “won” by getting the NPC to do what they wanted doesn’t necessarily mean the story of this conversation is over. If the party relied on threats and intimidation then they may get co-operation but they are also making an enemy; nobody likes to be bullied. And if pushed hard enough the NPC may retaliate, from filing a complaint with the PC’s superiors to hiring an assassin. Each Influence Category and what the PCs want from the NPC can be given Antagonism or Goodwill points that measure what actions the NPC may take after the conversation is over.
And that’s it. Once the conversation ends, either with the PCs getting what they want or not, then it’s time to move on with the adventure.
Having talked about the RPGCM, here it is...