The Art of Talking To Yourself

Running a scene, or even part of a scene, in which the only ones talking are one or more NPCs is a vexed issue among tabletoppers. On the one hand, the PCs are expected to be the focus on the action; if they weren’t, why else would we be playing? The game’s about the PCs. On the other hand, you-as-GM are, functionally, the majority and probably in excess of 99% of the portion of the world’s population that appears onstage—in some cases, even when you take into account the decrease in world’s population by the depredations of the PCs and their opponents—and thus it is statistically improbable that there will never, ever be a situation in which two or more named NPCs talk to each other in the presence of the PCs. While it’s certainly possible to have that kind of situation in such a way that it doesn’t bore the players (who, by its existence, are relegated to standing there listening), it’s not easy to do right. Most of the time, we don’t plan for these things; they just happen. But if you’ve got a very good reason to plan for a talking to yourself situation, or you’re getting the feeling that one is inevitable, here are a few tricks for keeping it satisfying.

First off, make sure that if the PCs are not participating in the conversation, it is by choice, or for a very good narrative reason, rather than being frozen out. Having a conversation which logically would not include them but leaves plenty of room for them to swoop in on a participant’s behalf, for instance. Or sitting back and providing telepathic suggestions to their favorite participant (the problem with my groups is getting them not to set these sorts of situations up). Or—and this is the best, really—these two characters happened to be talking, and the players specifically asked for a chance to eavesdrop. Ordinarily I’d say avoid NPCs giving speeches to other NPCs, but every now and then this comes in handy—if they’ve planned for and are anxiously awaiting doing damage control for a not-so-socially-impressive NPC buddy, for instance, or if the main antagonist is making speeches to the general public and the group is getting ready to counter the speeches point by point. If there isn’t a reason for the group to want to address particulars, though, you really should consider delivering the Cliffs’ Notes version.

Make sure at least one of the NPCs is one in whom the players are emotionally invested. As with almost any situation in which an NPC takes the spotlight, making it in some way about the PCs brings it back to the focus of the game—this is their NPC, or this is in some way setting up their worst enemy for the ultimately satisfying and cathartic eventual takedown, or it’s a result of one of their decisions, or… any combination of the above, really. One of my most successful ‘talking to myself’ conversations involved one of the group’s NPCs talking to one of her superiors justifying a deal that they had made involving a risk on her part.

If you’re not just summarizing the conversation and moving on, try to make sure that a. the conversation is important and b. the outcome is in doubt—otherwise, why not just skip through it and move back to the participatory parts of the session? Remember, though, that if it’s important enough to play out, there should probably be a good reason why it’s not a PC doing it, even if that reason is just “The rest of them wouldn’t do it if you paid them.”

Make sure the conversation is legitimately interesting. You’re going to get a lot of this through filling the earlier conditions, but it never fails to try to add some sort of ear candy. If your players like your narrative style or your one-liners, for instance, and it would be in character to drop things of that sort, do so.

Last, keep a close eye on your players’ reaction; if you’re not sure how they’re doing, don’t be afraid to ask. If they’re getting bored, no matter how many of these tricks you’re using, it’s best to cut your losses and drop back to summarizing; we’re here to collaborate, not to cling like leeches to the spotlight.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. How Not to Talk to Yourself | Exchange of Realities
  2. Impractical Applications (Talking to Myself) | Exchange of Realities

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