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I am a rather new DM, still learning stuff.

So I have noticed that my characters tend to talk too much with the NPCs, trying to get a lot of information, and probably even trying to 'cheat', thinking that the NPC should have info about everything. And then the players are sad, and think that the NPC is dumb, because he does not know the answers to all of their questions.

This usually takes a lot of time, and is enjoyed only by about half of my players, so the others tend to be pretty bored during this dialogs.

How do I indicate to my players that an NPC is no longer useful and that they should move on, after exhausting the dialog? At the same time I still want to be polite with the players, if the NPC is good aligned. Just saying 'I need to go' is probably OK sometimes, but what are the other options here?

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    \$\begingroup\$ As currently phrased, this seems like a discussion prompt (e.g. "how do you tend to do this") rather than a question with some clearly "correct" answers. I think it could probably be rephrased to be answerable here, though. RPG.SE is a Q&A site, but it does allow questions with subjective answers, as long as the answers can be supported with experience. See here: Good Subjective, Bad Subjective \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 29 '18 at 15:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast I would be glad to rephrase that, but, unfortunately I am not native to English, so it's kinda hard for me to do. I am open to suggestions, though. \$\endgroup\$ – DoomCross May 29 '18 at 15:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do your players prefer combat and are hoping to get the social encounters done quickly? Or perhaps you could rephrase as "How do I indicate to my players that an NPC is no longer useful and that they should move on?" \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o May 29 '18 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just roll to see if the NPC leaves. \$\endgroup\$ – Willtech Jun 3 '18 at 21:24

12 Answers 12

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Remember that NPCs are people, not info dumps.

Your players are following what I'd call the video game model of NPC interaction. In a lot of RPG video games, the NPCs are infinitely patient and let you talk to them over and over, exploring all of their dialogue trees. Thus, the incentive for the player is to talk to them forever to get all of the possible information that the NPC knows.

However, in D&D, there's an actual person behind each NPC, and not just a dialogue tree. Therefore, you can respond as a person in a real conversation, instead of an infodump.

In my games, I accomplish this by giving each NPC a starting disposition toward the party and at least a skeleton of a personality. These things determine how an NPC is going to react and how much information they're willing to give. For example, a bartender might start off friendly, but if the PCs keep probing and pushing, he might become increasingly annoyed and hostile to the PCs. On the other hand, a kindly quest-giving wizard might be patient enough to tolerate any amount of questioning from the PCs.

Because you're playing a game, I find that I have the best success when these personality traits are exaggerated. For example, while a real-life bartender might only be subtly exasperated, your in-game one might become openly rude. In this way, you can give your players obvious social cues for when conversations are over.

It takes some time for your players to learn that social interaction in D&D is not the same as in video games, but they will figure it out over time. However, if you yourself are getting exasperated, you can always go for the brute-force strategy, and simply say something like "This NPC is not willing to tell you more," or "He doesn't know any more".

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This partly depends on how your PCs are extracting this information, which in turn depends on how you decided to DM it. i.e. pure role-playing or a skill check such as Intimidate. Either way is fine and could depend on the particular situation.

In the former case of pure role-playing you can just break character for a moment to say "it's clear that NPC has told you everything he knows. What are you going to do now?".

In the latter case, it a good roll should immediately tell the PCs that they have everything they can get. Whether you allow re-rolls for this kind of thing is another question, but the result can also be the same. E.g. For an Intimidate check: "The NPC is clearly terrified and is begging for his life; clearly he has nothing else to give".

Its also worth nothing that this kind of behaviour does not have to be 'real-time'. If your PCs insist on continuing to question, simply say "you keep asking as the sun moves towards the horizon. NPC is becoming more and more pleading/terrified/bored, and yet you learn nothing more. Meanwhile the army is approaching/villain is escaping/something else!"

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    \$\begingroup\$ That last suggestion is really cool! The only thing, that it involves time-skipping, which I guess, is not always convenient to do. \$\endgroup\$ – DoomCross May 29 '18 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Its a case of trying to keep things moving if its obvious some of your players are getting bored. Also remember that each of your players is his own man - if one player really insists on continuing something that you've tried to make clear is pointless, feel free to directly ask the other players "what do you want to do while 'other player' is repeating his questions?". (Splitting the party is also inconvenient but it might also help to get things moving again!) \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ May 29 '18 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wouldn't breaking character be the opposite of pure roleplaying? \$\endgroup\$ – can-ned_food Jun 4 '18 at 6:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @can-ned_food. By "pure role-playing" I just meant that the social interaction was being played out/resolved just using role-playing rather than by rolling dice. \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jun 4 '18 at 6:41
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I use all of the following, depending on the circumstances:

Option 1 - Keep repeating yourself. "Well, all I know is what I already told you. That is...." Let them waste their time until a party member decides to move on.

Option 2 - The NPC loves the attention, and starts talking about unimportant things. "So, you want more information. I got a secret, but you can't share it with anyone... My strawberry Jam recipe, but it'll cost you 2 silver. ..." (turns out the super secret ingredient is vinegar)

Option 3 - The NPC is done talking, you're wasting their time. "Look, I've got a field plow. I've answered your questions, now let me get on with it." OR "Now that I've answered all your questions, would you like to buy something or do you just like taking up valuable floor space in my shop?"

Option 4 - DM Intervention. "The guy clearly has told you everything they know. What do want to do next?"

Option 5 - Make something happen that requires their attention. "As the shopkeeper gets an exasperated look and says, "I've told you every--" you hear a loud boom outside, and see a trail of smoke."

Option 6 - Remind them that time doesn't stop when they are searching for answers and that they may be on a timeline.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer! I think #3 is the best way to handle it in-character. #5 works if there is something in-story that would demand their attention and force the plot to move; #6 similarly makes sense if there is a preexisting time constraint that is forcing them to act quickly. #1 seems, well, repetitive - though I think it'd work if they're interrogating an enemy or something similar, since the enemy only has so much useful information to give them. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 29 '18 at 20:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ in #3 the NPC could also propose the PC to continue the discussion plowing the field ;) letting him get some 'revenue' from his information. \$\endgroup\$ – Alkano May 30 '18 at 11:18
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"Where would you like to go now?"

I typically use the phrase "Where would you like to go now?" as an indicator that there is nothing important left here (my players typically get the hint).

If needed, I might follow it with: "This person doesn't seem to know much more, but you are welcome to continue talking to them"

The NPC is still a normal person, able to converse about many things, but their information might be wildly incorrect. I allow my players to surprise me with useful discussions that I had not anticipated, but I try to sum it up (paraphrase with a sentence or two) so others are not bored. Example: "You talk to him awhile about about a wide range of gossip, which he is happy to supply, but which seems of dubious value and accuracy."

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If your campaign doesn't take itself too seriously, one thing I commonly do is add a "sense motif" skill. Using it results in one sentence that is more or less cryptic based on what they roll. It helps to make up for the fact that there's a lot of potential for context loss as you try to transfer the scene and plot that's in the DM's head into language, and then back into a visualization of the scene and plot inside the players' heads.

Players can ask to make a check on their own, or you can suggest that maybe they should if they seem to be stuck. It basically makes "genera savvy" into an acknowledged skill.

In this specific case the statement earned by a reasonable roll would be something like "Random villagers never know much."

Note that it's ok to discourage overuse by making the answers extremely cryptic, useless, and/or misleading, but you should never say anything that's actually false.

Note also that the players don't get to ask a specific question, they just get a single statement about the motif of the current scene that may be more or less relevant to their specific difficulties.

A few examples that I've actually used:

  • "The best assassins are always nondescript."
  • "Sometimes random things happen."
  • "Ancient fortresses always have a secret entrance."
  • "A horde without a dragon is a rare occurrence."
  • "Never trust a skinny innkeeper."
  • "An ordinance technician at a dead run outranks everyone."
  • "Just because you can't do something, doesn't mean you shouldn't."
  • "It's quiet... Too quiet..."
  • "The Evil Vizier cannot hide behind fancy titles."
  • "This is on the Evil Overlord list..."
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  • \$\begingroup\$ If you do something like this in the form of an NPC accompanying the party, e.g. the head of a wisecracking sorcerer stuck in a hexed case or a gem inhabited by a jaded, ancient dragon, then you don't need to add any extra skills. \$\endgroup\$ – can-ned_food Jun 4 '18 at 6:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @can-ned_food Oh, there's lots of ways to solve the communication gap. You don't even need the skill without the extra NPC, you can just tell them that they're misinterpreting the theme. My groups tend to like having the actual character realise that there's a pattern to what's going on because that aids in maintaining the frame of mind for keeping player and character knowledge separate, hence a skill. \$\endgroup\$ – Perkins Jun 4 '18 at 19:53
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In playing any NPC, keep in mind a rule for writers: "Everybody in the room wants something, even if it's just a glass of water."

So always have in mind what the NPC desires at that moment. This can intuitively give you all kinds of inspiration for why or how to end the conversation. What was he doing (or about to do) when they started talking to him?

"If you'll excuse me, I have to get to the butcher's before they close."

"I'm a busy man., If you want to keep annoying me, you'll have to pay for the privilege."

"Look, it's getting dark and I have to get home."

"You're adventurers? Cool! Can I come with you? Please?" <-- (aka "too much of a good thing")

It can even be as simply as saying the person is starting to look annoyed. Use your imagination -- this is an opportunity!

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You have plenty of good options already, but I don't think anyone has pointed out the obvious.

You can just tell them.

People have this aversion to just telling their players things. I get it, in a lot of situations it is more fun to have the players figure things out themselves. But at the end of the day, as a DM you are a facilitator and sometimes you just have to move the game along. Say: "He has no more information for you, what do you want to do now?"

Similarly, a very useful sentence is: "For now I am going to rule that it works like this, and I will figure out the exact rules for next time."

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There are already some really good answers to your question!

Alternately you can ostentatiously throw a hint at the extreme players: Simply make an annoying NPC, that approaches these players and continues to ask annoying questions - e.g. A daft villager.

"Have you seen my dog? It ran away towards the direction you came from, and I have been looking and looking, yet without any luck!"

...

"Are you ABSOLUTELY sure that you didn't see it? You look like a ranger, maybe you could have seen some tracks?"

...

"What's it like out there in the wilderness?"

...

"Have you ever encountered a troll? I hear that they eat people... Do you think they eat dogs too?"...

As long as these players doesn't catch the hint, every village seems to have one or more of these annoying villagers... All the while it allows you to have a little fun! - Of course if players can't handle this, they might just kill the villager and turn your party into a group of evil aligned murderous Hobos..

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Describe the conversation ending

There are lots of other good answers covering how to establish that an NPC has no other useful information in character, but you could also do it as part of describing the scene.

You continue to talk with the innkeeper and ask a few more questions but he didn't get a clear look at the shadowy figure and can't tell you any more about it. You pay for your drinks and find a quiet table. What do you want to do now?

This does two things. Firstly, it makes it clear that the NPC doesn't have anything else to tell you about this shadowy figure. Secondly, it moves the scene out of the conversation. If any of the players want to go and ask the bartender about something else, they'll need to go back up and start a new conversation. This stops the often strange scenes in RPGs where the party has a 10 minute discussion about the information they just uncovered while the conversation with the NPC never ended and is still standing right there.

Sometimes players will cut in when you do this and ask something they just haven't had a chance to ask about yet, and that's fine if it's related to something new (I tend not to answer in character at this point and summarise the response to keep the game moving).

(Player): Hang on, can I ask him about the abandoned house we saw in the forest outside of town?

(GM): Sure, he knows of it, and says that it used to belong to an old man who moved there a few decades back, but he hasn't been seen in ages. He gestures towards a group of friends drinking at a table near the hearth. "Raold often hunts in that forest, he probably knows more about it than most". Do you want to join the others as they're sitting down at the table, or head over and talk to Raold?

Again, this gives the player the answer to their question (and implies that there isn't any more to learn from the bartender on this topic either). By giving the two choices as to what to do next, rather than leaving it open, it re-establishes that the party has moved away from the bar, and suggests the two most obvious next steps (talk about the new findings as a group or interact with the NPC to find out more).

If a player cuts in to ask more on the same topic, close it down more bluntly.

(Player): Ah, but did you remember anything else that was odd? Did the shadowy figure smell of anything?

(GM): He's told you everything he knows, and as you continue to question him he's growing visibly more frustrated until he cuts you off, saying he's got an inn to run.

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Silliness!

It only works for campaigns that aren't all that serious to begin with, but if your campaign isn't that serious, and your players really are that clueless, you can include some sort of amusing cultural norm... like the idea that picking pockets is an appropriate response to being trapped in meaningless conversation. Include a cultural hero or two to explain why. Of course, the trick here is that you don't actually give any (or at least many) of those NPCs any skill points in Pick Pockets that they wouldn't have had already... which means that after the conversations go on too long, the people they're talking with start trying to pick their pockets really badly. The players can keep asking questions, if they like, but that just means they're going to be interrupted frequently by failed Pick Pockets attempts, and it's always possible that the NPC will roll a 20 or something.

This becomes even more entertaining if you have the NPCs willing to simply accept whatever situational penalties there are and gamely make the attempt anyway. So you've chained this guy to a table and are interrogating him. His wrists are bound. His ankles are bound. He's still doing his level best to pick your pocket with his teeth.

Make sure you give them a few commoners to make the effect obvious before you set them up with a conversation with the local King of Thieves.

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Depending on the type of DM you are and the world you're playing within, you could also opt for the Mission Impossible exit and simply have the NPC drop dead (or self-destruct?!) at the end of their message.

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When the NPC has given them all the information he can (or is willing to), if the PCs are still formulating questions, say "You spend 5 minutes asking him more questions and its obvious he doesn't know anything else useful." If they don't get the hint, the NPCs can react like any real person would when dealing with annoying losers: leave, ignore them, start throwing objects, tell the police or their big brothers that these adventurers are harrassing them, etc.

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