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I'm a newish DM, and I'm having a hard time coming up with a strategy to roleplay conversations between NPCs.

For example, in the game I'm currently running, there is a "town council" consisting of 5 members, each of whom has their own agendas and motivations. The part I'm having a hard time with is the actual roleplaying.

I really do enjoy speaking as my NPCs in first person but when I'm doing a group scene trying to convey information to the players I have a hard time improvising a scene between them, constantly going back and forth and speaking in their voices. I often get tongue tied and overwhelmed.

I just kinda feel like I'm attempting to put on a 1-man improvisational play and not doing the best job at it. Other than writing a script for these scenes (which can take quite a bit of prep time), my other other solution is to not speak in first person and just broadly explain what the council is discussing, but since I do character voices for the rest of my NPC interractions (which the players and myself already enjoy), I'd like to find a way to manage these NPC group chats.

I'm just wondering, what do you (as a DM or player) prefer for scenes where NPCs talk to each other in a group? Do you have any strategies to make this easier?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Reopening (once only, fine if I am overruled). The OP here is asking for strategies to run a dialogue between NPCs well. The suggested duplicate wants to make sure the PC's aren't taken out of the spotlight in such an exchange; this is not a stated concern for OP at this time. While some answers here suggest that PC's should not be taken out of the spotlight, that is a frame challenge and opinion, not something the OP is asking about. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Aug 22, 2022 at 0:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you've watched actual-play shows, especially Critical Role, you'll know that with practice and talent, some people can pull off this sort of thing in a way that's fun for players (and an audience) to watch, switching voices as characters talk with each other. I suspect some DMs think that's an example they should should be living up to. Note that even Matt Mercer keeps things relatively short; long NPC interactions are usually with one NPC at a time talking to the party, while others listen and maybe chime in (maybe talking to the NPC the party's interacting with). \$\endgroup\$ Aug 22, 2022 at 11:47

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Don't have NPCs talk to each other

A game of D&D is about the player characters doing things. It's not meant to be about the player characters watching NPCs do things. The player characters are meant to be the stars of the show.

An easy way to implement this would be to have the council members be in different places. So the player characters can talk to one of them at a time, but they can't talk to a bunch of them in the same room.

(My experience: I once ran a game with a twelve-NPC council, each with their own viewpoint. The player characters mingled with them at a party and tried to persuade them, but I didn't narrate them talking to each other.)

If you must have them talk to each other, just summarize it

Narrating an argument between multiple NPCs is quite difficult, as you've found. It'll be a better experience for the players if you give a clear and succinct summary, rather than a badly done argument.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps a slight variation on this - don't have the NPCs talk to each other too much while the players are there. If the NPCs need to have a back-and-forth discussion, that can be offscreen. If you feel the NPCs should argue with each other, have one suggest to the other that they continue the discussion later. While the players are involved, the discussion should be almost entirely with the players - an NPC says something and prompts the player/s for a response, which one of the NPCs reacts to. A short interjection over each other is fine, but try and keep up a tempo of player involvement. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kayndarr
    Aug 22, 2022 at 3:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is pretty much how I handle it. Guy A says something, Guy B responds, now it's the players turn. Guy C says something, Guy B replies to that, now it's back to the players. Any interactions between NPCs are kept as brief as possible, and I summarize any extended discussions. Nobody wants to listen to me talk to myself, least of all me. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 22, 2022 at 4:17
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Have them have strong opposing views.

It's much easier to roleplay an argument than small talk. When I set up a debate, I try to make sure I have a very strong personality for each member. For example, one council member might want to kill all magic users, another might want to enslave all magic users, and a third might want to pay them to work for the council. These are all strong views it's easy to represent. This also means you shouldn't have everyone be talking. Holding five viewpoints in your head is pretty hard. NPCs who aren't in the conversation can just nod and agree at whatever.

From experience, this makes it much easier to roleplay.

Add in some action to each dialogue tree.

It's often pretty boring for players to just hear you monologue for a while. Having NPCs slap each other, or throw bottles, or gesture madly. This works well to emphasize points, and is a good point for you to think on what to say next or to switch characters.

Have one or two unique mannerisms you want to get across

Some relationship between two council members, an old hate or love or some corruptive magical influence are common ones. When you have the debate you can try and show this off by having them show some emotional vibe of the sort you value. I've done this a lot with background NPCs, to flesh out the world and amuse players with fun dynamics.

Wrap it up, and summarize for the players.

Once you have done some sort of dramatic argument or debate, then you can summarize it for the players.

"Lord Orthank seems to be shouting at everyone, their hate of magic clear. Lady Penelope and Archmage Dimmitry are staying silent, while Lady Orthank shouts back at her husband, and archbishop Timothy tries to mediate. What do you do?"

Then the players can ask questions, or try to sway the factions one way or another.

This keeps the players engaged, and lets them focus the conversation on aspects they find interesting. This helps when players get a bit bored at the direction of conversation.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would add side-to-side chair shuffling. NPC A is you sitting on the left side of your chair, facing the right. NPC B is you sitting on the right side of your chair, facing the left. When shifting between them, shuffle yourself from side to side on your chair. Give each one a different posture - the old wizened mage is hunched forward, the posh noblewoman has her chest pushed outward and nose pointed up, and you have enough differentiation already to make it very clear for your players who-is-who. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Aug 22, 2022 at 12:28
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Keep Multi-NPC Conversations To A Minimum

Obviously you can't always do this-- sometimes you need a town council, or talking down an angry mob, or a trial, or some other crucial scene where you have to let the PCs try to influence multiple NPCs with multiple viewpoints at the same time.

But for all the reasons you point out, keep them to a minimum. They are stressful, and they can end up being puppet shows where the PCs just watch something happen, instead of participating in it.

Keep Active NPC Participants To A Minimum

Even if you have a village council meeting with 5 or 7 or 39 or however many members, there is rarely a reason for all of them to be speaking to one another. That doesn't happen at well run public meetings anyway, because it turns into chaos. Most formal meetings will have formal or informal rules that limit that chaos. You can emulate that by having only one major stakeholder for each position in the meeting, which will probably be limited to two or three.

Even a wild mob will have probably have a leader or someone (or a small number of someones) who take it upon themselves to shout on behalf of the crowd. If not, it's not a dialogue scene, it's a fight or a chase scene.

Involve The PCs In The Turn-Taking

This is not real life, this is as artificial as a court room drama in a movie-- you don't want every NPC to talk in between each instances of the PCs. You want, at best, one or two NPCs talking, and then the PCs get a turn whenever it is appropriate. Is this realistic? No. But the PCs are the heroes of the story; they need to be heard; this is how they get heard.

These last two points might feel a bit artificial but you don't have to dwell on them or point them out... just act on them. No player has ever come to me after a session and said, "You know, that was a great session, except for when we talked that mob into not killing the sheriff's son. I really feel like we all should have had less input into that. And next session when we report to the town council, they should totally run right over us and not let us speak."

Never.

Summarize

Not every line of dialogue needs to be spoken. Once you've established the parameters and the personalities, it's okay to summarize several minutes of dialogue as something like, "The Mayor and the Senior Alderman bicker back and forth for a few more minutes. It looks like a little over half the council sides with the Alderman, when one of the Mayor's cronies asks you all a pointed question...." (This is probably a little too generic, but you can summarize the details of what they're arguing about, too.)

The point is not to ration out spotlight in actual lines of dialogue, but in amount of time focusing on PCs vs NPCs. You are will within your rights to summarize your NPCs but to ask for more specificity and direct dialogue (if that's what you want) from your players and PCs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I know it's nitpicking, but I have already (once) seen a player "complain" about his character being too much listened to by NPCs. (maybe he thought he had too much of an easy time and wanted to suffer, idk) \$\endgroup\$ Aug 24, 2022 at 22:28
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Group conversations usually reduce to a simple power dynamic...

...especially in quests!

Many group conversations reduce down to the following:
  • A single speaker dominates the conversation, and the others take turns speaking 1-on-1 with this lead figure, or
  • A pair of speakers are vying to be the dominant speaker, and others are mostly spectators, occasionally weighing in on one side or the other

So I recommend (in addition to doing everything that Nepene Nep advised in another answer here) to pick one of the above models, and run with it.

For example, for a town council of five, I imagine there is a resolution the adventurers want passed. I would have the dominant (big-mouth) council member be against it, and one other be a drone who will go along with whatever that member wants, with another council member as an antagonist who will oppose the dominant member automatically. So the adventures start as underdogs (1 vote to 2), with two undecided members as "swing votes," such that if the adventurers sway both of these swing votes, then they shall prevail. I would then have the dominant council member do 70% of the talking, and mix in a few sparse words from the others.

Set up this way, it is only a little more mental overhead than running a single NPC interaction.

And like other answers have advised -- you can summarize most of it.

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Artificially shorten the conversation, usually by use of situation or other contrivance.

The party is hiding in the rafters having sneaked in to hear what their enemies are up to. However, after that business with the guards, they only catch the tail end of the discussion. Just enough information to give them some clues but not ruin the next scene, as well as a bit of intrigue (and maybe a forbidden love?) between two of the npcs who linger behind after the meeting.

The meeting could be cut short by someone storming out, the party could only sneak in or listen to part of it, the party might be called away and hear only the start and the end - by skipping most of the wrangling and getting just enough info, you skip 3 hour long meeting scene without having to jump into narrative time and giving an excuse to roleplay the characters at least a bit.

If you want to run longer scenes of this type, you generally have to give the players an active stake (so reason to argue with or scheme with npcs) or have some kind of high drama occurring, usually linked to plot threads you've brought up before, so the players have a passive stake in what is occurring - what is occurring is on the knife's edge and they care about the outcome, so the twists and turns of the argument/trial/conversation/request etc as things change about it and people say different things is interesting to them.

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Give the Players Control of the Council

Have the players temporarily take on the roles of the council (with you filling in any gaps). Write up a short description of each council member's mannerisms, their agenda, and maybe even some bit of useful info they could let slip "accidentally" if the right moment arises. Hand these out to the players or let them pick. If the party has different ideas of what they want from the council or whether or not to help you can either give players "matching" council members to play (this will be easier for newer role players) or if you think they're up for a challenge and can handle keeping IC and OOC info separate give them the councilor with opposing views (it can be entertaining to argue against your own best interests in a fictional situation).

Note, depending on the needs of the fiction this certainly doesn't have to be permanent, but could be either just a single time (possibly to "set the scene" before the party meets the council) or maybe more than one scene (if say they meet in private after talking to the PCs do decide what to do).

Addendum: Dave brings up a good point, if your players aren't interested in something like this it won't work. I'm guessing you have an already existing campaign going, in which case it's probably too late to bring up in Session 0, but there's no reason you can't have a mid-campaign check in. I personally like to do this before each jump in tier (ie every 5 levels), but you can also easily have a mini-check in session at the start or end of a session. Assuming you do have an existing campaign, I'd suggest ending a session a little early and see if your players would be interested in something like this. You don't even have to go into much detail. This could even be done out of game via email or discord. I'd probably say something like:

It's likely you'll be talking to the {town name} council soon, and I think it might be cumbersome, confusing and a little boring if I just talk to myself as 5 NPCs for half an hour. Instead I'd like to give each of you temporary control of one of them, and have you roleplay them, would you all be willing to do this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This might work, but I think it would require buy-in from the players prior to tossing it at them. I'd see "we're going to have mini-games where you take on the roles of (what would otherwise be) NPCs for portions of this campaign" as an important session 0 idea. So my suggestion is that you incorporate this into the answer (assuming you see some value in this comment). \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Aug 22, 2022 at 14:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Valid point, player buy in is always important! \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Aug 22, 2022 at 15:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was going to recommend this. For a good example of how this could play out check out Darths & Droids webcomic: darthsanddroids.net/episodes/0001.html \$\endgroup\$
    – RIanGillis
    Aug 22, 2022 at 16:51
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The other answers are great, but if you really want to have these conversations anyway...

Visual Representation

Find an image that represents each NPC (or group of NPCs). Maybe even put their name on it. When you speak as that NPC, just hold the image up in front of the players so they know who it is that is speaking. You could even have notes for yourself on the back of the paper/card/silhouette that help you run the NPC. I've done this when I don't have the skill (or willpower) to handle multiple accents.

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One NPC at a time

The easiest solution for me is to split up the group. Yes they can be in the same room, but the PCs can talk to each one individually.

Maybe you can have 2 of them in a conversation, but in this case one should do most of the talking while the other is just there, or they should have very different opinions that create conflict. But even if you do that, try not to have both of them talk constantly. They talk, the PCs reply, then they talk again.

Use 3rd person to skip over inter-NPC discussion

Make sure to use 3rd person narration to cut out the bicker; if the two are arguing just say "the two of them trail off into an argument about whether tax should be spent on the roads or the city walls".

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A multi-way NPC interaction is not a RP encounter, it is set/scene setting leading into the actions that the PC are going to take. Just describe the interactions between the NPCs. Make sure you focus on describing the situation with an emphasis on the factors/aspects that will impact "what do you do next" for the party. For this, I'd ditch first person narration and go strictly third person. I wouldn't even articulate their words verbatim (unless something in their exact wording is salient to the party, but even then you can just flag "they said X..." if saying "X" is important information). Describe how the council members express their points of view, what sympathies/conflicts there are between members etc. All in an effort to get to the point where the part has an opportunity to take action informed by your description of the situation.

TL;DR A debate/discussion among a group of NPCs is not a role-play encounter that warrants 1st person narration; it is scene-setting that is better achieve by just describing what is going as set up for the players' next action.

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Characters should only speak to get a result.

They shouldn't speak to give or request information. They want something from another person.

Gossip between NPCs usually makes for poor dialogue. Briefings are poor dialogue. If you want to do these, you might as well have a NPC speak directly to a PC.

Make sure to keep that agenda and motivation clear for you, the DM, then play tug of war with it.

A wants revenge on someone in the thieves guild. B wants to use the thieves guild to prevent C from getting too much power. C realises this and tries to sway A and PCs over to his side to eliminate the thieves guild. Well, A only wants a few individuals from the thieves guild to face justice and not eliminated like rats, as they form a vital part of the ecosystem.

Now surely the PCs have their own opinions and agendas with regards to the thieves guild. The tug of war is now interesting, because the PCs can participate.

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