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To begin I've read How do you handle verbal exchanges between NPCs without taking the PCs out of the spotlight? but I don't believe that it answer my question, because it focuses more on dialog simply between npcs that the PC's are not part of, or only modestly part of.

What I want to know is how do I handle large conversations that involve multiple PC's and multiple NPCs. For example at my game last week we had 3 PCs and 3 NPCs are at a bar talking, this got very difficult very quickly for me as a GM, and some content got lost, e.g. a PC made a pass at an NPC and I wasn't really able to deal with it, it was non critical and so got lost in the other requests for critical information.

All of the NPCs were what i'd call important NPCs with critical long term roles. An example if I were playing "Vampire" might be the 2 or more power players (perhaps the leader of a covenant) and expect the players to do something, but think different approaches are better. In other story telling mediums these 2 might argue with each other a bit over the course of the conversation. Where one might give one answer the other might counter it. Losing this seems like losing a bit of the plot, and richness.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One thought I've had is to handle it like combat and have everyone roll initiative (basically a random die roll + a character specific modifier (wits+presence maybe) ) so that the order of people isn't set, and then hold responses by NPCs off until it becomes there turn. This should mimic a realtime conversation in that multiple people can talk before someone has time to answer. \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Nov 16 '14 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ What specific problems are you having? Losing track of who said what? People interrupting too much? Talking happening out of order as someone tries to interject before someone else finishes speaking? What part of the PC making a pass at an NPC were you unable to deal with? A little more detail on exactly what's going wrong can help us put it right. \$\endgroup\$ – PotatoEngineer Nov 16 '14 at 22:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ everything from losing track of who said what to things getting forgotten as I deal with or attempt to deal with other things. Basically too many people doing too many things at once (or in a short period) and it gets hard to keep track of. \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Nov 16 '14 at 23:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this a problem exclusive to your trying to keep track of multiple NPCs, or do the players have similar challenges between themselves without multiple NPCs in the mix? \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Nov 16 '14 at 23:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BESW this mostly seems to be a problem with me keeping track of multiple NPCs, though it is occasionally a problem, to less of an extent, with one NPC, mostly with things proceeding faster than I am able to keep up with. I'm trying to find a good way to ensure that NPCs get a reasonable amount of "Screen time" as to be interesting, instead of having them get lost to, say 2 PCs talking to 2 NPCs at once, and me forgetting to come back to one of those statements (making a pass) because compared to major plot it was less important. \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Nov 16 '14 at 23:18
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Setting Expectations
Whenever I as GM am dealing with multi-PC/NPC conversations, I first remind my players that I am a single-thread processor and can therefore only handle one conversation at a time, then proceed to deal with them one at a time as appropriate for the configuration of speakers.

1. One-to-Many Conversations
The easiest way to handle this situation is to enforce multiple one-to-many conversations (as opposed to a single many-to-many conversation). This allows multiple PCs who all want to talk to the same NPC to do so as a group; then the PCs who want to talk to another NPC to do so. For example, if John, Jade, and Rose all want to talk to the NPC Jack, I will hold that conversation all at once. Dave, Jane, and Roxy, who want to talk to the NPC Mayor, wait their turn and have their conversation separately after I've finished with the first one.

I also do the reverse: John wants to talk privately to both the Mayor and Jack, so I handle that conversation all in one go, while the other PCs wait their turn for their own conversations.

This is probably the ideal way to handle a bar scene like the one you describe, since bar chatter is typically several one-on-one or one-to-many conversations. While it feels a little artificial, since in-game the conversations would all be taking place at once, it allows you as the GM to focus on each conversation and give the involved PCs your full attention.

2. Many-to-Many Conversations
The best way to handle many-to-many conversations as a GM is to cheat and turn them into one-to-many conversations. When multiple PCs are talking to a group of NPCs, pick one NPC to be the group's "spokesperson", who does most or all of the talking. Occasionally, where plot-relevant, another NPC might interject a few times, but for the most part, this allows a many-to-many scene to actually be a one-to-many conversation.

For example, if the whole party wants to talk to a rival party, I will pick the most talkative of the rivals, and have them do almost all the talking. The rest of the rivals are present, but silent in the background. If I want to illustrate that there's an ideological rift in the rival party, then I might have a second NPC jump in while the spokesperson is talking, but that dialogue is handled as an NPC-to-NPC dialogue. If the party wishes to speak to the second NPC (perhaps because they think she'll be more sympathetic to their arguments), then the first NPC falls silent and the second NPC becomes the spokesperson. Again, this enforces the rule of one-to-many conversations and prevents the GM from being overwhelmed.

3. Multiple Important NPCs
Having multiple important NPCs in a scene means the GM needs to make a choice between making the scene a "cutscene" wherein the NPCs converse with each other, or making the scene a conversation between the NPCs and the PCs. In other words, is the point of the scene to convey a discussion between the NPCs, or is it to allow the PCs to talk to the NPCs?

If it's the former, then the scene can be a brief "cutscene" where the NPCs talk to each other and the players listen. Then, after the NPCs' different viewpoints have been showcased by the cutscene, the PCs can pick one of the NPCs to have a one-to-many conversation with, as described in #1 above.

If it's the latter, then the scene can make use of the spokesperson technique. Even groups with multiple powerful players tend to have a single "speaker", even if that person isn't the leader in any sense of the word. Not everyone is equally talkative, and the most talkative NPC will dominate the conversation with the PCs, leading to (again) a one-to-many conversation with a few interjections by the other NPCs, as described in #2.

As an added bonus, you can use subtle cues in this sort of scenario to showcase group politics. For example, if the spokesperson is respected, the rest of the group falling silent and allowing her to speak for them will indicate this. Alternately, you can note that although one person is doing all the talking, other NPCs are rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or exchanging meaningful glances behind his back. This indicates that the spokesperson might be the most talkative, but not the most respected, member of the group - and may give the PCs a clue that they need to draw out a different person as the speaker.

Again, the key is to remember that you the GM are a single-threaded processor. No matter what, you cannot effectively have three or four or five conversations as different NPCs with different PCs at once. The best you can do is to cheat in ways that allow you to only ever have one effective conversation going at once.

TL;DR
Remind your players that you are one person and can only have one conversation at a time. Enforce one-to-many conversations by handling one conversation group at a time, and/or by using a spokesman for multiple NPCs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ how do you handle situations where there are multiple important npc's in a room that have differing viewpoints? (updated the question slightly for this) \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Nov 16 '14 at 23:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @xenoterracide: I updated my answer; hopefully that covers it! \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm Nov 17 '14 at 0:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ For #1, Multiple Many-to-One Conversions, it can help to think of your scene like a movie. If three characters enter a bar and start three separate, simultaneous conversations, the movie will cut between each one. Depending on the story flow, we may see one complete conversion, then another, then the last one. Or, we may see actions cut between different conversions more than once. As a GM, you should "cut" between sub-scenes when feel it makes sense in the conversation. You can also use this as a pacing tool, stopping a conversation once the story-important parts have been covered. \$\endgroup\$ – Jessa Nov 17 '14 at 20:11
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Release the Wombat of Discourse!

This is my default strategy for the first time a group starts talking over each other so much it hinders play: I bring a stuffed animal to the session, and name it The [Animal] of Discourse. The GM may speak at any time, but only the player with the Animal can talk. They pass the Animal amongst themselves however it suits them.

I never have to use the Animal of Discourse for more than two consecutive sessions before my players begin self-regulating their conversations so everyone gets heard. If they start to slip later in the campaign, usually just sitting the Animal on the table next to me helps remind them that they don't actually need the Animal to make it work.

(Be sure the stuffed animal you choose is totally soft (no hard glass eyes or plastic bits) and not particularly interesting. It'll get thrown around and messed with.)

Here are some other NPC-conversation tools I also employ: some are just style choices, and some are special-occasion tools.

Guest NPCs

I've had great success inviting a friend from outside the game to play an important NPC during the sessions where this kind of conversation is likely to arise.

Players can pull double duty

You could also ask a player to double up and play an NPC as well as her PC. This is basically "Guest NPC" without adding a new person to the table. It'll depend heavily on your players' willingness and how close to the chest you keep your plots, of course.

Abstract the narrative

"Arguing with yourself" is something a lot of GMs have trouble with--myself included--and so we can narrate instead of enact these bits. "They argue for a minute: Carrie wants to help you, but John thinks you're too dumb to be trusted and Jeanine thinks you're double agents. Carrie ends the debate by saying it's her map, and she'll do what she wants with it."

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Wombat of Discourse"++ \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Nov 17 '14 at 4:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 to adding a guest NPC; I've done this too. (To the point where my current group only refers to my friend as "that goddamn dragon".) \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm Nov 17 '14 at 6:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "Banana of Discourse". (Technically not an animal, but it's the plush I have available.) \$\endgroup\$ – Szandor Nov 26 '14 at 12:56
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Use Marvelous Initiative

This strategy is a formal rules-based implementation of basic "turn-taking" etiquette. It is probably only necessary if your group really likes rules, or as training wheels toward the group figuring out its own conversational rhythms.

I haven't tried this with freeform conversational RP, but it's worked well in Fate where tense conversation is a legitimate form of conflict. I think it'd translate quite easily to give structure to more freeform scenarios.

Marvelous initiative (also found in games like ) is super simple: Whoever just did something gets to choose who does something next. You can't choose someone who's already acted until everyone else has acted too.

For a conversation, this means that when a PC says something they get to decide who speaks next--and that person chooses who speaks after them--and so on. When they choose an NPC, the GM chooses who goes after the NPC. If PCs try to talk over the NPCs, the NPCs get to go all in a chunk at the end of the round when there's no one else left to choose.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm making this a separate answer because it's a mechanical form very different from the table-environment strategies I suggested in my other answer, and I think they should be able to get voted on independently. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Nov 17 '14 at 0:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is also sometimes called "popcorn initiative". \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 17 '14 at 4:16

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