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One of the assumptions I make as GM is that the players should always be in the spotlight. Sometimes the players find themselves in a situation where they watch NPCs speak to each other. I don't like using this kind of situation, because it forces the players to watch me talk to myself and that turns them from active participants into an audience.

Usually I handle it by avoiding the situation. I try not to write scenes that the players watch. Instead the players speak to the NPCs one at a time. When I do come across an exchange between NPCs I opt to summarize the conversation instead of acting it out.

I don't like this limitation though. It gets a little contrived when all conversations in the game feature 5 PCs and 1 NPC. Any suggestions? Either how to avoid doing it, or how to effectively role play a conversation between two (or more) NPCs that the characters may or may not be interacting with?

How do you keep clear which character is speaking? How do you make sure that the conversation feels like a real one and not like one person playing both roles?

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I can recall a room where two invisible quasits talk to the players, giving advice about the traps and objects in the room. One always tells the truth, one always lies. I think this question is more about how to handle that type of situation rather than avoid it altogether. (At least that's the type of answers I'd like to see!) –  dpatchery Oct 5 '11 at 18:08
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@SimonWithers: I do not want to avoid those situation, just how to deal with them better. Avoiding them is kinda lame. –  Sardathrion Oct 5 '11 at 18:49
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Merged in from the duplicate question, but also expanded this question to make it clear that "doing it" is as on topic as "avoiding it." –  mxyzplk Oct 18 '11 at 13:13

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Cut Scene

If it is truely a detailed narrative, I consider it a "cut scene" - as made popular by video games - I:

  • Pre-record it, sometimes using family members for other voices
  • Include background music and sound effects
  • Provide a written summary after playing the scene for the group

Interactive Fiction

If the scene is important has several NPCs and the party needs to be able to interact with them, it has to be performed live - so I recruit guest talent for 1 or more of the NPCs (this is one of the reasons I like co-DMing large campaigns). Surprising how much more interesting the extra voice is to a mostly-listening experience.

UPDATE: Here's an example from my Scion's of Punjar campaign - which included a flashback recorded by the character between sessions...

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3838990/SFX/Tobin%27s%20Flashback.mp3

When this was played at the session, a small box sat in front of the paladin's player. When the "woosh" sound played, he lifted the box off to reveal this build:

enter image description here

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I had never thought to do a cut scene, but it makes so much sense! –  Pulsehead Sep 6 '11 at 20:13

You've already given the answer I would have: summarise conversations between 2+ NPCs.

I'd add that summaries can end with or be interspersed with spoken (not summarised) exchanges where the PCs have an opportunity to interject.

If the spoken lines are obviously things the players would want to respond to, you don't have to do anything special to prompt them that this is a chance to respond to the NPCs or hijack the conversation for their own ends.

Using a hybrid presentation of NPC conversations like this will also make it feel less contrived, making multiple-NPC conversations easier to add to your game; in turn, removing the feeling of conversations being limited to all the PCs and one NPC.

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This is what I do, too. Doesn't seem to bother my players at all, plus it keeps the game moving and minimizes the time that the PCs aren't the focus of the game's spotlight. Sometimes, though, there are essential NPC conversations that must be heard; for these, I write out the script in play format, making sure to take every opportunity to cut corners and abbreviate the scene without making it too contrived, and then having that script in front of me helps to keep me focused and speed things along so we can get back to the PCs -- the real stars of the show! –  Kromey Sep 6 '11 at 18:00
    
@Kromey, I like the idea but I'm hesitant to use a script. Whenever the players see me reading something they instinctively shut up, as though what I've written is already set in stone. I'd like them to be able to interject, and (with my players) a script discourages that. –  valadil Sep 6 '11 at 18:14
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@valadil I'd say don't let them see that there's a script, then. Maybe easier said than done, of course; if you use a GM screen, just hide it behind that, or reference it as you do your other notes. Or just be blunt with them: "Yes, I wrote this script, but only as an aid for myself; you can -- and should -- interject if you feel it is appropriate." Or, if your players won't work with you like that, keep the script idea to rare -- and short! -- scenes that really need to be had, and otherwise use SevenSidedDie's hybrid approach. –  Kromey Sep 6 '11 at 18:18

How about giving the PC's a short summary of the NPC's background and/or arguments, and letting them act out the part. Highlight things that have to come out in the dialogue. For example, in the court room scene Valadil mentioned, one player gets to be the judge, another player is the defence attorney, the prosectuion, baliff, etc.

Sort of like those Murder Mystery Dinners. Give everyone their basics, then stand back and see where the players take it. It will take some practice, and trust, to make sure your story line isn't totally derailed, but that happens fairly often anyway.

Another caveat, I wouldn't let a scene last more than 5 or 10 minutes, unless the players were really getting into it and enjoying it.

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I've done that before with minor NPCs. How well does it work when major NPCs are given to the players? How about when the major NPCs have secrets in their scripts? I love the idea in theory, but I'd hate to give a player an NPC's secret but have the rest of the PCs fail to worm the secret out of the NPC. –  valadil Sep 7 '11 at 2:10
    
I love it in theory too. I guess I should have clarified, it was a technique in a game I was planning on running with my kids, but haven't had the chance to do so yet. I can't imagine letting one of them role play the King of Wherever, with access to armies and the armoury and the treasury. Or letting one of them be a Judge while the other is on trial. However, sending in one of their hired Henchman to talk to the locals about disappearances would be an all-NPC conversation. It wouldn't matter then if they sent themselves into the forest, or up into the mountains after the Bad Guys. –  Rich Sep 7 '11 at 6:37
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I've used this with major NPCs to a fine success - you just have to trust your players. Probably not the best technique in a munchkin "kill-em-all-and-take-the-loot" style game, but where the players care about the story, it's great. –  Daenyth Sep 13 '12 at 19:09
    
You don't even have to gove them the summaries or tell them beforehand -- the players usually do a fine job too, if you tell them whom to act. This, however, doesn't let you railroad the plot that much -- but still is a valid and fun approach. –  kravaros Jun 9 '13 at 12:34
    
Late to the party, I know, but, regarding the "what if the other players can't get someone to reveal their NPC's important secret?", the information you give players should clearly distinguish between background information to help them play the NPC and things which they're required to work into the conversation. –  Dave Sherohman May 3 at 10:46

If it's going to be an entire scene between NPCs with no PC interaction, I'd just fast-forward the scene, give them some cliffs notes, and let them ask questions on what happened to get details. This would be a great chance to let your characters with high insight shine by letting them do insight rolls to glean more information.

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Along with the suggestion for different voices, I'd suggest two alternatives:

  • switch the accent, even without changing the voice
  • switch the idiolect, without changing the voice.

For an extreme and contrived example, a dialogue between a butler and a butcher would be easy to interpret even without changing your voice much, just by changing the tone, words used, and demeanor:

-"Pray, I would have one of your rib steaks"

-"Sure guv, comin' right up!".

Subtly changing your position can work wonders, too. Skulk for a character, hold still for another, straighten up, pace yourself around the room or the table, gesticulate, pronounce with great detail. Use cliches and stereotypes, they're your friends.

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All said, I think your voice will change spontaneously with the characters if you start doing this. In the example, it's hard not to inflect a posh voice for the butler and a coarse, rasping voice for the butler. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Oct 5 '11 at 21:46

I use different voices, to the extent that I can manage (along with stating who is saying what), and if it's an extended conversation and I am having trouble maintaining multiple different styles from the different NPCs, I'll write it out in advance.

Once I've written something down, I then also have the option of just handing it out for the players to read if they're not going to be involved. Long scenes where the PCs are not an essential part of the interaction are usually best to avoid or minimize anyway.

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