Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Much of a dungeon master’s skill amounts to choosing the technique that suits a moment in the game. I have two examples:

Use the right tool for the job.

For years, because I used the wrong tool, a type of roleplaying scene sometimes left my players confused. Adopting a better technique would have forced me to accept a limitation that just about every DM shares. Few of us can stage a good one-performer show. Lucky for my players, a giant of roleplaying game design set me straight.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM plays every non-player character. Speaking in character makes these NPCs more vivid, makes scenes feel more immediate, and encourages roleplaying. (See Most Advice for Encouraging Roleplaying Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.)

As a DM, when I portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. I figured if I performed better, then the confusion would lessen. So I worked on character voices and doing a better job attributing each speaker. Sometimes I even held up a picture of the current speaker. Despite any improvement, players still often became confused. Perhaps worse, players sat idle. Roleplaying games should encourage interaction and my one-man show discouraged it.

Permission to change my approach came from Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu—probably the most critically acclaimed roleplaying game ever. In a convention presentation, he says, “Never let two NPCs have a discussion, because then it’s just the gamemaster talking to himself.” Thank you, Sandy.

Instead of acting two parts in character, just tell the players what the two characters say. “The elders disagree about the best way to stop the raids. Some want to strike back the chief. Others suspect the attacks seek a stolen totem held by cultists in the village.”

Such a narrative approach falls short of ideal, but it works better than talking to yourself.

Still, the best roleplaying scenes feature a small number of players speaking to one NPC at a time.

In your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones.

Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need two characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view. Now you can act as each NPC in character without fostering confusion.

But suppose you have the acting chops to fill a crowd scene with distinctive voices chatting among themselves. Awesome! Can I play at your table? Still, avoid putting more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

Dungeon masters should work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. Splitting the party makes everyone contribute. Less-vocal party members gain time in the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them on their separate ways. (See Never Split the Party—Except When it Adds Fun.)

7 thoughts on “Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

  1. theplanardm

    I believe even in this case, it’s about what you said first, about picking the right tool for the job.

    Often you’ll have the PCs talking to one NPC, but then they want to bring another NPC into the conversation. If the conversation relates to both NPCs, it might not make sense to have one leave, or describing one leave may take more time than simply having her remain and interject when appropriate. To avoid confusion, the DM can narrate who’s talking by themselves verbalizing phrases such as “NPC1 says XYZ,” or “NPC 2, hearing NPC 1’s proposal, snorts loudly and says, “Well that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

    I read a lot of books to my 3 year old daughter, and many don’t specify who is talking, making the reader rely instead on context. As I do for my 3 year old daughter, I do for my players, and always specify the speaker, thus avoiding confusion.

    But any extended dialogue between two NPCs, or anything that does not also involve the PCs, I will narrate what was said. It’s faster and gets the game back to player choices.

  2. HDA

    Yep. I used to do this, and the best case is your players have a laugh at the odd situation! They had to make fun of me a few times before I got the message.

  3. Eric Bohm

    Where possible I recommend enlisting the players who are not in the scene to play the NPCs. Just give them a handout that outlines the personality, what they know, and the NPCs objective for the scene. Give them XP or inspiration as rewards for playing to the NPC’s agenda. That way you get more people engaged in the scene in a way that is moving the plot forward, rather than tuning out, or doing stupid shit out of boredom

  4. simontmn

    If I have multiple NPCs talking I tend to use minis, and put my finger on the mini of the NPC actually talking.

    “Don’t have NPCs talk to each other” is good advice, but it’s occasionally necessary to deliver an NPC to NPC one liner. Keep it short and sweet.

    1. majorgs15

      Tapping the speaking mini is brilliant. But so was Red Skelton when playing two seagulls talking to one another. Sometimes it’s as easy as sitting on the left side and looking and speaking to the right for NPC1 and sitting on the right, looking/speaking to the left.

      This can avoid the “now that we spoke to NPC2, we need to talk to NPC1 again… ad infinitum.” but still allow the PC’s to tell who is talking.

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